The Writings of Elizabeth Webb
A Quaker Missionary in America, 1697-1726
- ISBN: 9780271082233
- Published By: Pennsylvania State University Press
- Published: January 2019
If Quaker women appear in surveys of 17th-century British America, it is most apt to be as victims of Puritan intolerance, from Anne Austin and Mary Fisher who arrived in Boston in 1656 and were promptly banished, to Mary Dyer, who was hanged for heresy in Boston in 1660. The religious landscape and the position of Quakers changed dramatically in subsequent decades, first with the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, then the grant to Quaker William Penn in 1681 establishing Pennsylvania, and the Toleration Act of 1689. Increasing religious tolerance, an influx of Quaker settlers, and the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light combined to fuel a rise in female Quaker preachers by the early 18th century. Rebecca Larson’s Daughters of the Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700–1775 (Knopf, 1999), offered a comprehensive accounting of Quaker women preachers active in the British Atlantic in the first half of the 18th century. And now, Rachel Cope and Zachary McLeod Hutchins provide readers with the opportunity to delve more deeply into the life and writings of one of those female Quaker preachers, in The Writings of Elizabeth Webb: A Quaker Missionary in America, 1697–1726.
Elizabeth Webb was born in 1663 in England and raised in the Church of England. She became convinced (the Quaker term for conversion) and joined the Society of Friends as a young woman, welcoming the spiritual community, the theology of the Inner Light, and emphasis on spiritual equality. A vision in 1697 led Webb to depart for America on a preaching tour with a companion, Mary Rogers, despite her husband’s initial objections. Webb’s travel diary is remarkable: decades before the famed itinerant ministers associated with the revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, Webb and Rogers logged thousands of miles, with several Atlantic crossings and many miles on horseback along the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to New Hampshire. Webb returned briefly to England in 1699, then returned to America soon after, this time with her husband and children, settling in Pennsylvania. She made one more return trip to England, where she befriended German Pietist Anthony Boehm. Her spiritual accounting of her life, penned for Boehm, was widely circulated in manuscript but was never brought to print copies during her lifetime.
This collection, portions of it printed for the first time, is remarkable in its breadth and depth. Webb’s writings come to nearly two hundred pages, making it a substantial contribution the history of early American religion, Quaker studies, and women’s history. The collected writings represent a variety of genres: spiritual autobiography, scriptural commentary, travel diary, and personal letters to her children.
Cope and Hutchins’s introduction is particularly helpful in highlighting several important aspects of Webb’s writing. First, they call attention to Webb’s sense of corporate identity, both in her use of the first-person plural to encompass her travel companion, Rogers, and also in her preaching, which often called her listeners to a strengthen ties to each other. Second, they contextualize Webb’s work within Quaker theology and practice, focusing on women’s authorization to preach, the importance of visions, and Webb’s millennialist interpretation of her life and current events. Cope and Hutchins are careful to point out the limitations of women’s power within the Society of Friends: Quaker leadership found Webb’s commentary on Revelation worthy, but not worthy enough to foot the bill for publication, and so it continued to circulate in manuscript only.
Nonetheless, as the editors write, “Webb and other female preachers persisted” (10). Considered together, Webb’s writings add up to a powerful meditation on spiritual authority, and by implication, why women’s experiences of direct, divine revelation have often been seen as dangerous and destabilizing in the context of patriarchal religions. Webb’s visions authorize her preaching, independent travel, interpretation of scripture, and breach of racial lines while in Virginia.
Reading this book as I reimagine courses for remote learning during the pandemic, I couldn’t help but think about how well suited this book is to project based learning in American religion, early American history, or Digital Humanities courses. There is plenty of fodder for group student projects, all in one readily accessible book. Mapping Webb’s travels with an ArcGIS StoryMap would render visible in a tangible way the remarkable mobility of people and ideas in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Webb’s scriptural commentary on Revelation could be put in conversation with her contemporaries from other denominations, as could her account of her spiritual development. Her writings could also be used as a prompt for student research into numerous other denominations active in British North America.
In sum, Cope and Hutchins have produced a timely and valuable compilation of one woman’s writings, sure to be of interest to specialists but also readily accessible and useful to those in the larger fields of American religion and early American history.
Rachel Wheeler is associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.Rachel M. WheelerDate Of Review:March 26, 2021