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“Whom I Must Join”: Elizabeth Ashbridge, an 18th-Century Englishwoman, Becomes a Quaker

Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713–1755) began life as a vivacious girl with a “wild and airy” temperament and ended it as a sober Quaker. Born in England, Ashbridge eloped at fourteen and was widowed five months later. After rejection by her family and a three-year sojourn with relatives in Ireland, she sailed for America as an indentured servant, arriving in New York in July, 1732. This selection from her autobiography begins as Ashbridge sets out from her home in Long Island to visit relatives in Philadelphia. By then she had undergone an intensely felt spiritual search and had married her second husband, a teacher with a penchant for violence and drink. Ashbridge’s dispute with her second husband over her Quakerism ended only with his enlistment in the army and subsequent death. She married a third time, to a Quaker named Aaron Ashbridge, and died while visiting Quakers in England and Ireland.

Elizabeth Ashbridge:

When I came to Trent-town Ferry, I felt no small mortification on hearing that my relations were all Quakers, and, what was worst of all, that my aunt was a preacher. I was exceedingly prejudiced against this people, and often wondered how they could call themselves Christians. I repented my coming, and was almost inclined to turn back; yet, as I was so far on my journey, I proceeded, though I expected but little comfort from my visit, How little was I aware it would bring me to the knowledge of the truth!

I went from Trent-town to Philadelphia by water, and from thence to my uncle’s on horseback. My uncle was dead, and my aunt married again; yet, both she and her husband received me in the kindest manner. I had scarcely been three hours in the house, before my opinion of these people began to alter. I perceived a book lying upon the table, and, being fond of reading, took it up; my aunt observed me, and said, “Cousin, that is a Quaker’s book.” She saw I was not a Quaker, and supposed I would not like it. I made her no answer, but queried with myself, what can these people write about ? I have heard that they deny the scriptures, and have no other bible than George Fox’s Journal,— denying, also, all the holy ordinances. But, before I had read two pages, my heart burned within me, and, for fear I should be seen, I went into the garden. 1 sat down, and, as the piece was short, read it before I returned, though I was often obliged to stop to give vent to my tears. The fulness of my heart produced the involuntary exclamation of, “My God, must I, if ever I come to the knowledge of thy truth, be of this man’s opinion, who has sought thee as I have done; and must I join this people, to whom, a few hours ago, I preferred the papists. O, thou God of my salvation, and of my life; who hath abundantly manifested thy long suffering and tender mercy, in redeeming me as from the lowest hell, I beseech thee to direct use in the right way, and keep me from error; so will I perform my covenant, and think nothing too near to part with for thy name’s sake. O, happy peoples thus beloved of God!” Alter having collected myself, I washed my face, that it might not be perceived I had been weeping. In the night I got but little sleep; the enemy of mankind haunted me with his insinuations, by suggesting that I was one of those that wavered, and not steadfast in faith; and advancing several texts of scripture against me, as that, in the latter days, there should be those who would deceive the very elect; that of such were the people I was among, and that I was in danger of being deluded. Warned in this manner, (from the right source as I thought,) I resolved to be aware of those deceivers, and for some weeks did not touch one of their books. The next day, being the first of the week, I was desirous of going to church, which was distant about four miles; but being a stranger, and having no one to go with me, I gave up all thoughts of that and, as most of the family were going to meeting, I went there with them. As we sat in silence, I looked over the meeting, and said to myself, “How like fools these people sit; how much better would it be to stay at home, and read the Bible, or some good book, than come here and go to sleep.” As for me I was very drowsy; and, while asleep, had nearly fallen down. This was the last time I ever fell asleep in a meeting. I now began to be lifted up with spiritual pride, and to think myself better than they; but this disposition of mind did not last long. It may seem strange that, after living so long with one of this society at Dublin, I should yet be so much a stranger to them. In answer, let it be considered that, while I was there, I never read any of their books nor went to one meeting; besides, I had heard such accounts of them, as made me think that, of all societies, they were the worst. But he who knows the sincerity of the heart, looked on my weakness with pity; I was permitted to see my error, and shown that these were the people I ought to join.

A few weeks afterwards, there was an afternoon meeting at my uncle’s, at which a minister named William Hammans was present. I was highly prejudiced against him when he stood up, but I was soon humbled; for he preached the gospel with such power that I was obliged to confess it was the truth. But, though he was the instrument of assisting me out of many doubts, my mind was not wholly freed from them. The morning before this meeting I had been disputing with my uncle about baptisms which was the subject handled by this minister, who removed all my scruples beyond objection, and yet I seemed loath to believe that the sermon I had heard proceeded from divine revelation. I accused my aunt and uncle of having spoken of me to the friend; but they cleared themselves, by telling me, that they had not seen him, since my coming, until he came into the meeting. I then viewed him as the messenger of God to me, and, laying aside my prejudices, opened; the beauty of which was shown to me, with the glory of those who continued faithful to it. I had also revealed to me the emptiness of all shadows and types, which, though proper in their day, were now, by the coming of the Son of God, at an end, and everlasting righteousness, which is a work in the heart, was to be established in the room thereof, I was permitted to see that all I had gone through was to prepare me for this day; and that the time was near, when it would be required of me, to go and declare to others what the God of mercy had done for my soul; at which I was surprised, and desired to be excused lest I should bring dishonour, to the truth, and cause his holy name to be evil spoken of.

Of these things I let no one know. I feared discovery and did not even appear like a friend.

I now hired to keep school, and, hearing of a place for my husband, I wrote, and desired him to come, though I did not let him know how it was with me.

I loved to go to meetings, but did not love to be seen going on weekdays, and therefore went to them. from my school, through the woods. Notwithstanding all my care, the neighbours, (who were not friends,) soon began to revile me with the name of Quaker; adding, that they supposed I intended to be a fool, and turn preacher. Thus did I receive the same censure, which, about a year before, I had passed on one of the handmaids of the Lord in Boston. I was so weak, that I could not bear the reproach. In order to change their opinion, I went into greater excess of apparel than I had freedom to do, even before I became acquainted with friends. In this condition I continued till my husband came, and then began the trial of my faith.

Before he reached me, he heard I was turned Quaker; at which he stamped, and said, “I had rather have heard she was dead, Well as I love her; for, if it be so, all my comfort is gone.” He then came to me; it was after an absence of four months; I got up and said to him, “My dear, I am glad to see thee.” At this, he flew into a great rage, exclaiming, “The devil thee, thee, thee, don’t thee me.” I endeavoured, by every mild means, to pacify him; and, at length, got him fit to speak to my relations. As soon after this as we were alone, he said to me, “And so I see your Quaker relations have made you one” I replied, that they had not, (which was true,) I never told them how it was with me. He said he would not stay amongst them; and, having found a place to his mind, hired, and came directly back to fetch me, walking in one afternoon, thirty miles to keep me from meeting the next day, which was first day. He took me, after resting this day, to the place where he had hired, and to lodgings he had engaged: at the house of a churchwarden. This man was a bitter enemy of Friends, and did all he could to irritate my husband against them.

Though I did not appear like a Friend, they all believed me to be one. When my husband and he used to be making their diversions and reviling, I sat in silence, though now and then an involuntary sigh broke from me; at which he would say, “There, did not I tell you your wife was a Quaker, and she will become a preacher.” On such an occasion as this, my husband once came up to me, in a great rage, and shaking his hand over me, said, “You had better be hanged in that day.” I was seized with horror, and again plunged into despair, which continued nearly three months. I was afraid that, by denying the Lord, the heavens would be shut against me. I walked much alone in the woods, and there, where no eye saw, or ear heard me, lamented my miserable condition. Often have I wandered, from morning till night, without food, I was brought so low that my life became a burden to me; and the devil seemed to vaunt that, though the sins of my youth were forgiven me, yet now I had committed an unpardonable sin, and hell would inevitably be my portion, and my torments would be greater than if I had hanged myself at first.

In the night, when, under this painful distress of mind, I could not sleep, if my husband perceived me weeping, he would revile me for it. At length, when he and his friend thought themselves too weak to overset me, he went to the priest at Chester, to inquire what he could do with me. This man knew I was a member of the Church, for I had shown him my certificate. His advice was, to take me out of Pennsylvania, and settle in some place where there were no Quakers. My husband replied, he did not care where we went, if he could but restore me to my natural liveliness of temper. As for me, I had no resolution to oppose their proposals nor much cared where I went. I seemed to have nothing to hope for. I daily expected to be made a victim of divine wrath, and was possessed with the idea that this would be by thunder.

When the time of removal came, I was not permitted to bid my relations farewell; and, as my husband was poor, and kept no horse, I was obliged to travel on foot. We came to Wilmington, fifteen miles, and from thence to Philadelphia by water. Here we stopt at a tavern, where I became the spectacle and discourse of the company. My husband told them his wife had become a Quaker; and he designed, if possible, to find out a place where there was none: (thought I,) I was once in a condition to deserve that name, but now it is over with me. O that I might, from a true hope, once more have an opportunity to confess the truth; though I was sure of all manner of cruelties, I would not regard them. Such were my concerns, while he was entertaining the company with my story, in which he told them that I had been a good dancer, but now he could get me neither to dance or sing. One of the company then started up and said, “I’ll fetch a fiddle, and we’ll have a good dance;” a proposal with which my husband was pleased. When the fiddle was brought, my husband came and said to me, “My dear, shake off that gloom, and let us have a civil dance; you would, now and then, when you were a good churchwoman, and that’s better than a stiff Quaker,” I had taken up the resolution not to comply with his request, whatever might be the consequence; this I let him know, though I durst say little, for fear of his choleric temper. He pulled me round the room, till the tears fell from my eyes, at the sight of which the musician stopt, and said “I’ll play no more; let your wife alone.”

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 hint 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, to the 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 cure 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. Before the day he appointed came, it was required of me, in a more public manner, to confess to the world what I was. I felt myself called to give up to prayer in meeting. I trembled, and would freely have given up my life to be excused. What rendered the required service harder on me was, that I was not yet taken under the care of friends; and was kept from requesting to be so, for fear I should bring a scandal on the society. I begged to be excused till I had joined, and then I would give up freely. The answer was, “I am a covenant-keeping God, and the word that I spake to thee, when I found thee in distress, even that I would never forsake thee, if thou wouldst be obedient to what I should make known unto thee, I will assuredly make good. If thou refusest, my spirit shall not always strive. Fear not, I will make way for thee through all thy difficulties, which shall be many, for my name’s sake; but, be faithful, and I will give thee a crown of life.” To this language I answered “Thy will, O God, be done; I am in thy hand, do with me according to thy word;” and I then prayed.

This day, as usual, I had gone to meeting on foot. While my husband (as he afterwards told me) was lying on the bed, these words crossed his mind “Lord, where shall I fly to shun thee,” &c. upon which he arose, and, seeing it rain, got the horse and set off to fetch me, arriving just as the meeting broke up. I got on horseback as quickly as possible, lest he should hear I had been speaking; he did hear of it nevertheless, and, as soon as we were in the woods, began with saying, “Why do you mean thus to make my life unhappy? What, could you not be a Quaker, without turning fool in this manner?” I answered in tears, “My dear, look on me with pity, if thou hast any; canst thou think that I, in the bloom of my days, would bear all that thou knowest of, and much that thou knowest not of, if I did not feel it my duty.” These words touched him, and he said, “Well, I’ll e’en give you up; I see it wont avail to strive; if it be of God I cannot overthrow it; and, if of yourself, it will soon fall.” I saw the tears stand in his eyes, at which I was overcome with joy, and began already to reap the fruits of my obedience. But my trials were not yet over.

Source: Elizabeth Ashbridge, , Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge (Philadelphia: H. and T. Kite, 1807), 26–36, 44–47.