Excerpts from Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of
Elizabeth Ashbridge,. . . Written by Herself
Reprinted in Early American Writing
Published in 1994
Edited by Giles Gunn
"Once he came up to me, took out his penknife, and said 'If you offer to go to meeting tomorrow, with this knife I'll cripple you, for you shall not be a Quaker.'"
Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713–1755) was born in England and brought up a member of the Anglican faith (Church of England, the official state church). At the age of fourteen she eloped (ran away and got married), but her husband died within five years. Soon after his death she went to America as an indentured servant. (An indentured servant was an immigrant who signed a contract to work for an employer, or master, in the colonies for four to seven years). Ashbridge had a cruel master, so she married a second time in order to escape a desperate situation. (A female indentured servant could be released from her contract if an acceptable suitor was prepared to buy out her remaining period of service.) She reported that her new husband, a school teacher named Sullivan, "fell in love with me for my dancing." Ashbridge was attracted by his worldliness. One day she set out from their home in New Jersey to visit relatives in Pennsylvania. Once she arrived, she immediately learned that they were Quakers. (Quakers were members of a Puritan group called the Society of Friends, which was outlawed in England until 1689. William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1681 so they could have religious freedom; see "The Propriety of Pennsylvania.")
At first Ashbridge was shocked because she had no idea her relatives had joined this religion, which was not accepted by Anglicans or even other Puritan groups. Like traditional Puritans, Quakers advocated a strict moral and spiritual life. Unlike Puritans, however, they believed in direct individual communication with God through an "inner light." Both the Quakers and the Puritans considered the Church of England corrupt and in need of reform. The Puritans were trying to make reforms from within the church, however, and all of their ministers were ordained (officially appointed) in the church. Quakers refused to have anything to do with an established church. They held their meetings (religious services) in private homes, and anyone who felt especially inspired could lead a meeting or become a traveling minister. Puritans were therefore highly suspicious of the Quakers, who rejected the very basis of Puritan society—officially appointed ministers and an organized church. Since the Puritans dominated New England and parts of surrounding colonies, Quakers frequently encountered persecution (punishment or ridicule for their beliefs). They were also shunned by Anglicans, who found them troublesome and a threat to the basis of English society. By the mid-1700s, when Ashbridge went to Pennsylvania, other religious groups had settled in the colony and Quakers were sometimes harassed.
During her visit, Ashbridge became interested in Quakerism and converted to the faith. She decided to stay in Pennsylvania and took a teaching position at a nearby school. She was afraid to let anyone know she was a Quaker, however, and was careful not to wear the plain clothing that would identify her as a Friend (another name for Quaker). When she found a teaching job for her husband she wrote and asked him to join her. By the time Sullivan reached Pennsylvania he had learned about her conversion. Once again Ashbridge found herself in a miserable situation. Sullivan was extremely abusive toward her because he did not approve of Quakers (he himself was an Anglican). Ashbridge's autobiography tells the story of her struggle to remain a Quaker in spite of mistreatment from an alcoholic husband.
Some Things to Remember While Reading Excerpts from Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge,. . .Written by Herself:
- Ashbridge's autobiography gives the modern reader insight into the position of women in the eighteenth cen tury. In both Europe and America women were considered morally, intellectually, and physically inferior to men—an attitude that had existed for hundreds of years. Men thought women were silly and helpless, and therefore in need of protection. Regardless of social class, a woman was totally dependent on her husband, and her first duty was to obey him. She was even required to get his approval to pursue another religion. Note that Ashbridge had to ask Sullivan's permission to go to meetings or visit Friends.
- Keep in mind that a woman had no way out of an unhappy marriage. A husband had a legal right to beat his wife if she displeased him, and mental cruelty was not recognized by the courts. Therefore, Ashbridge was forced to endure phys ical and verbal abuse from Sullivan. She could not hope to get a legal separation or divorce because marriage was a sacred bond that was never broken, except in extreme cir cumstances (such as desertion or lack of financial support on the part of the husband). Most women, like Ashbridge, could escape an abusive husband only if he happened to die.
- Sullivan was embarrassed and confused by his wife's reli gion, and he felt she brought dishonor on him by attending Quaker meetings. Although he tried to be understanding, he could not deal with a disobedient wife. Notice that in spite of their differences, Ashbridge tried to think the best of Sullivan. She maintained this attitude because Quakers taught that misfortune must be endured with patience.
- Ashbridge frequently used "thee" and "thou," which were Quaker words for "you."
- The excerpts from Ashbridge's autobiography open at thepoint when Sullivan forced her to leave Pennsylvania and return to New Jersey. She insisted on attending meetings, however, and he continued to treat her cruelly.
Excerpts from Some Account of the Early Part Life of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge,. . .Written by Herself
When meeting-time came, I longed to go, but dared not to ask my husband's leave. As the Friends were getting ready themselves, they asked him if he would accompany them, observing, that they knew whose who were to be his employers, and, if they were at meeting, would speak to them. He consented. The woman Friend then said, "And wilt thou let thy wife go too;" which request he denied; but she answered his objections so prudently that he could not be angry, and at last consented. I went with joy, and a heavenly meeting it was. . . .
By the end of the week, we got settled in our new situation. We took a room, in a friend's house, one mile from each school, and eight from the meeting-house. I now deemed it proper to let my husband see I was determined to join with friends. When first day came, I directed myself to him in this manner: "My dear, art thou [are you] willing to let me go to meeting? He flew into a rage, and replied "No you sha'n't [shall not]." Speaking firmly, I told him, "That, as a dutiful wife, I was ready to obey all his lawful commands; but, when they imposed upon my conscience, I could not obey him. I had already wronged myself, in having done it too long; and though he was near to me, and, as a wife ought, I loved him, yet God, who was nearer than all the world to me, had made me sensible that this was the way in which I ought to go. I added, that this was no small cross to my own will; but I had given up my heart, and I trusted that He who called for it would enable me, for the remainder of my life, to keep it steadily devoted to his service; and I hoped I should not, on this account, make the worse wife." I spoke, however, to no purpose;—he continued inflexible. . . .
Finding that all the means he had yet used could not alter my resolutions, he several times struck me with severe blows. I endeavoured to bear all with patience, believing that the time would come when he would see I was in the right. Once he came up to me, took out his penknife, and said, "If you offer to go to meeting to-morrow, with this knife I'll cripple you, for you shall not be a Quaker." I made him no answer. In the morning, I set out as usual; he did not attempt to harm me. Having despaired of recovering me himself, he fled, for help, tothe priest, whom he told, that I had been a very religious woman, in the way of the Church of England, of which I was a member, and had a good certificate from Long Island; that I was now bewitched, and had turned Quaker, which almost broke his heart; and, therefore, he desired that, as he was one who had the care of souls, he would come and pay me a visit, and use his endeavours to reclaim me, which he hoped, by the blessing of God, would be done. The priest consented, and fixed the time for his coming, which was that day two weeks, as
he said he could not come sooner. My husband came home extremely pleased, and told me of it. I replied, with a smile, I trusted I should be enabled to give a reason for the hope within me; yet I believed, at the same time, that the priest would never trouble himself about me, which proved to be the case. . . .
. . . . My husband still went to no place of worship. One day he said to me, "I would go to meeting, only I'm afraid I shall hear your clack, which I cannot bear." I used no persuasions. When meeting-time came, he got the horse, took me behind him, and went. For several months, if he saw me offer to rise, he went out; till, one day, I rose before he was aware and then, as he afterwards owned, he was ashamed to do it.
From this time, he left off the practice, and never hindered me from going to meeting. Though he did not take up the cross [convert to Quakerism], yet his judgement was convinced; and, sometimes, melting into tears, he would say to me, "My dear, I have seen the beauty there is in the truth, and that thou hast followed the right way, in which I pray God to preserve thee." I told him, that I hoped He who had given me strength would also favour him, "O," said he, "I cannot bear the reproach thou dost, to be called turn-coat, and become a laughing-stock to the world; but I'll no longer hinder thee." This I considered a favour, and a little hope remained that my prayers, on his account, would be heard.
We lived in a small house by ourselves, which, though mean, and though we had little to put in it, our bed being no better than chaff, I was truly content. The only desires I had were for my own preservation, and to be blessed with the reformation of my husband. He was connected with a set of men whom he feared would make game of him, which indeed they already did; asking him when he designed to commence preacher, for they saw he intended to turn Quaker, and seemed to love his wife better since she became one than before. They used to come to our house, and provoked him to sit up and drink with them, sometimes till near day, while I have been sorrowing in a stable. Once, as I sat in this condition, I heard him say to his company, "I can't bear any longer to afflict my poor wife in this manner; for, whatever you may think of her, I do believe she's a good woman." He then came to me and said, "Come in, my dear, God has given thee a deal of patience: I'll put an end to this practice." This was the last time they sat up at night.
Ashbridge's husband decided they would be happier if they went to a place where no one knew him, but she did not want to move.
All I could say would not avail. Hearing of a place at Bordentown, he went thither, but was not suited. He next removed to Mount Holly [New Jersey], where he settled. We had each of us a good school; we soon got our house pretty well furnished, and might have done very well. Nothing seemed wanting to complete my happiness, except the reformation of my husband, which I had much reason to doubt I should not see soon. It fell out according to my fears. He addicted himself much to drinking, and grew worse than before. Sorrow was again my lot, I prayed for patience to bear my afflictions, and to submit to the dispensations of Providence. I murmured not; nor do I recollect that I ever uttered any harsh expressions except on one occasion. My husband coming home a little intoxicated, (a state in which he was very fractious,) and, finding me at work by a candle, he put it out, fetching me, at the same time, a box on the ear, and saying, "You don't earn your light." At this unkind usage, which I had not been used to for the last two years, I was somewhat angry, and said, "Thou art a vile man." He struck me again; but my anger had cooled, and I received the blow without so much as a word in return. This also displeased him, and he went on in a distracted like manner, uttering such expressions of despair as, he believed he was predestined to damnation, and he did not care how soon God struck him dead. I said very little, till, at length, in the bitterness of my soul, I broke out into these expressions: "Lord, look down on my afflictions, and deliver me by some means or other." My prayer was granted, but in such a manner that I thought it would have killed me. He went to Burlington, where he got drunk, and inlisted to go as a common soldier to Cuba, in the year 1740. I had drunk many bitter cups, but this seemed the bitterest of them all. A thousand times I blamed myself for making such a request, which I was afraid had displeased God, who had, in displeasure, granted it for my punishment.
I have since had cause to believe that he was benefitted by his rash act, as, in the army, he did what he could not at home;—he suffered for the testimony of truth [converted to Quakerism]. When they came to prepare for an engagement, he refused to fight; he was whipt, and brought before the general, who asked him, why he inlisted if he would not fight. "I did it," said he, "in a drunken frolic, when the devil had the better of me; but now my judgment is convinced I ought not to fight, neither will I, whatever I suffer. I have but one life, and you may take that if you please, for I'll never take up arms." [Quakers are pacifists; that is, they do not believe in war.] He adhered to this resolution. By their cruel usage of him in consequence, he was so much disabled [he was beaten so badly] that the general sent him to Chelsea Hospital, near London. Within nine months afterwards, he died at his place, and I hope made a good end.
Having been obliged to say much of his ill usage to me, I have thought it my duty to say what I could in his favour. Although he was so bad, I never thought him the worst of men. If he had suffered [allowed] religion to have had its perfect work, I should have been happy in the lowest situation of life. I have had cause to bless God, for enabling me, in the station of a wife, to do my duty, and now that I am a widow, I submit to his will. . . .
What happened next . . .
In 1746, two years after Sullivan's death, Ashbridge married her third husband, Aaron Ashbridge. They were happy together, and he helped her prepare her autobiography. Elizabeth died in 1755, and her story was published in 1807, under the full title Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge, . . . Written by Herself.
Did you know . . .
- Ashbridge was not typical of former indentured servants. Most women continued to work as domestic servants, whereas she became a teacher. Few indentured servants, male or female, had a formal education, but Ashbridge apparently had enough schooling to qualify her to teach others to read and write.
- By the early 1700s laborers comprised the majority of new arrivals in America, and most of them were indentured servants. According to some estimates, one-half to two-thirds of all Europeans who traveled to the American colonies were committed to some form of labor contract. The majority were men because employers wanted male workers to do heavy labor. Women tended to be house servants, a luxury only the wealthiest American settlers could afford. Consequently, there were far fewer women than men in all of the colonies. This meant that women had their choice of husbands, and many married three or four times. Ashbridge, who had three husbands, was therefore typical of eighteenth-century colonial women.
- Unlike other European immigrant groups, the Dutch (former inhabitants of the Netherlands) treated women as near-equals of men in many respects. Women of the upper and merchant classes in the Netherlands were considered the most liberated in Europe. This was a result of their being educated and trained to manage household accounts in good times and to take over financial matters if they were ever widowed. Dutch women in the New Netherland colony (later New York) were also expected to hold onto family property so that their children would have an inheritance. An example was Maria van Cortlandt van Rensselaer (1645–1689). When her husband died she became the overseer (manager or supervisor) of Rensselaerswyck, his family estate. She was able to keep secure one of the largest estates in New York for her children.
For more information
Berkin, Carol. First Generations: Women in Colonial America. New York: Hill & Wang, 1996.
Elgin, Kathleen. The Quakers; The Religious Society of Friends. New York: D. McKay Company, 1968.
Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 380–86.
Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 263–82.