Ministry or Family? A woman’s conundrum in the 19C

In the nineteenth century, ministry took many forms…and whether women could or could not participate often depended upon the context and, indeed, the denomination in which they worshipped. The question of women in ministry is not the point of this post. Women certainly did exercise various forms of leadership… even in denominations in which it was traditionally not permitted (e.g., Congregationalists and Baptists) and exceptional examples can be found of just this… Instead, in this post, I am interested in the women who did enter ministry, and the tension they faced between family life and ministerial life.

Quakers are an interesting subject of study for me in this period, if for no other reason, because unlike other members of Old Dissent (Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists) they were emphatically and overtly accepting towards women in ministry. Interestingly, their view of ‘women in ministry’ did not quite look like the type of leadership you might find in churches in this period. It wasn’t like walking into a Baptist Church – wherein you’d find the minister as a central authority preaching a sermon. Indeed, by virtue of Quaker meeting practice, a ‘woman preacher’ was quite different. She wasn’t a teacher, as noted by John Gurney in his systematic theology, but instead she was one who ‘prophesied’. (I’m happy to cover this more in another blog post…since the question of ‘women in ministry’ is such an interesting topic – especially where the Quakers were concerned).

However, despite the general welcome which women received into the ‘ministerial work’ in the Quaker denomination, there was still a palpable tension between home and family life. Yes, I am going to mention separate spheres… and I am fully aware that ‘separate spheres’ may or may not have actually excited, depending on your historiographical background.

What was ‘separate spheres’?

Some historians believe that separate spheres is a sufficient way to explain the divisions between roles held by men and women in this period: middle-class men went to work while women, their wives, just stayed at home and oversaw the house, cooked, cleaned, etc. Critics believe that this is far too simplistic a dichotomy (agreed) since both men and women often traversed these boundaries. Finally, another (moderate) group of historians suggests there might be something in this dualism, even if it’s not quite as stark as originally argued – this is, so it would seem, my current camp of residence.

Back to our tension…

So, while many women did participate in Quaker ministry…they likewise felt this palpable tension between their desire to ‘serve God in ministry’ and the general expectation that women could, perhaps, maybe, serve God best in the home…

So how did they reconcile this tension?

One of my favourite Quaker women in this period is Anna Braithwaite. The best known female Quaker is probably Elizabeth Fry (Newgate Prison Reformer) though both are eminently worthy of further research. As little has been previously dedicated to Anna, she will be the focus of my post here, and the example of this tension.

Anna Braithwaite

Anna Braithwaite (nee Lloyd) was the daughter of Charles and Mary Lloyd from Birmingham – born in December 1788 in a devoutly Quaker family. At just 18 years of age, Anna married Isaac Braithwaite, a Quaker businessman involved in drysaltery and dyeing business which had been in his family since the early 18th century. Isaac and his family lived in Kendal – which Anna was to remove herself after their wedding. Anna’s mother expressed consternation to Isaac about the impending marriage, possibly because of Anne’s youth. 

“Be assured these feelings arise from no want of confidence in thee, for I have no doubt but thy affections will perhaps entirely make up to Anna the loss she will sustain by the distance that will separate her from her other friends. Indeed, I trust she will find a father, brother, and friend all united in one of the tenderest and kindest of husbands.”

Despite Anna’s youth, she was an emblem of domestic success, noted by her biographer, her son Joseph Bevan Braithwaite (possibly biased? but nonetheless…), who suggested that Anna was mature for her age and appreciated the duties of her new role.

“It is instructive to watch the youthful bride and mother applying her mind, so capable of enlarged and comprehensive views, to the minute details of her daily duties in her family and the household’ striving to maintain a simplicity and moderation becoming her Christian profession…”

Anna becomes a ‘minister’…

Along with Anna’s domestic duties, she was also heavily involved in the Quaker ministry. In December 1815, Anna was recognised as a ‘Quaker minister’  in her local meetinghouse. This ‘recognition’ meant that the church had acknowledged her spiritual gift which God had granted her to ‘break the silence’ in a religious meting by offering words of edification, comfort, and consolation to the congregation. Recognised Quaker ministers also often travelled  beyond their own local meetinghouse. Indeed, this was the case for Anna who travelled throughout the UK and, intermittently, from 1823 to 1829 travelled to the USA to participate in meetings there. It was in the USA that Anna met the infamous Elias Hicks, and engaged in significant debate with him about his liberalising views. (About which, I can certainly say SO much more)

Anna Braithwaite felt significant tension between her domestic and ministerial duties. In 1816, not long after she had been declared a minister, she responded to concerns her parents had in a letter to her mother.

“I have remembered my dear father’s kind advice, respecting the important duties of a mother and mistress of a family; and could he be a witness to the care extended to our dear children I trust that he would not be otherwise than satisfied.” 

Indeed, just before she decided to travel to the USA, she received news that her dear sister Mary had died (Mary had married her husband’s brother, and was partly the reason why Anna became acquainted with her husband). Mary had left behind seven young children, and Anna yearned to step in as a surrogate mother for this young family. However, she likewise felt a calling to her ministerial duties. In her diary she wrote the following on the subject:

“I have clearly seen that a guard should be set upon undue anxiety, and that to the believing, waiting soul, there is a path of faith opened wherein the daily discharge of our duties is made subservient to our spiritual advancement.”

As noted by her son in the memoirs, Anna felt a heavy weight of responsibility due to her sister’s death… but this was ‘overweighed by the paramount sense of religious duty’…and thus, she decided to continue with her plans to travel to the USA.

Anna believed that her religious ministry was to take primacy – her ‘higher calling’ was greater than her domestic duties.

“I have been fearful lest I should not feel in a sufficiently powerful manner the obvious duties of my situation at home…but should we stamp our frail efforts so high as to neglect higher calls in order to continue them; where would be our spiritual strength or where would be our lively hope of Divine preservation…”

Anna’s story was reflective of many women in this period – many women did participate in the Quaker ministry, though whether theirs was considered an equivalent ministry to the men… is left for another blog post.

Nonetheless, she had the opportunity to ‘transcend’ the general expectations allotted by ‘separate spheres’ (whether you take a strict or dubious view of their implementation). However, even in transcending these expectations, she noted the tension caused by their presence.

So, considering Anna’s example: were separate spheres, in the very least, a palpable expectation in this era? Yes, I think so.

But did all women prioritise these expectations? Anna certainly did not.

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