“The Lawfulness of Women Preaching”—Mary Peisley’s Journals & Letters

Mary Peisley also visited Quaker settlements in North Carolina in the 18thcentury. As I mentioned in my last post, she was a Quaker missionary from Ireland, and she was Catherine Phillips’ companion when she trod the colony’s remote back roads and Indian paths in 1753-54.

Together the two women explored the Carolina backcountry, followed the Cape Fear River to Wilmington and traveled north to the old Quaker meetings above the Albemarle Sound.

Mary Peisley Neale's Some Account of the Life and Religious Exercises of Mary Neale, formerly Mary Peisley (Dublin, 1795)

Mary Peisley Neale’s Some Account of the Life and Religious Exercises of Mary Neale, formerly Mary Peisley (Dublin, 1795)

We’ve already looked at Phillips’ Memoirs. But a collection of Peisley’s writings, called Some Account of the Life and Religious Exercises of Mary Neale, formerly Mary Peisley, also gives us a view of their journey.

Drawing from her journals and letters, her widowed husband, Samuel Neale, published the volume in Dublin in 1795.

 

By then Peisley had been dead nearly 40 years. Always frail and prone to illness, she had died in 1757, soon after her return from America, and only three days after her wedding.

“Unrestrained by the cross of Christ”

A little about Mary Peisley. She was born in Ballymore, a village in County Kildare, Ireland, in 1717. She was educated in the Society of Friends (the Quakers), but she turned her back on the faith in her youth.

During those years, she lived – and I must say, I love this turn of phrase—“unrestrained by the cross of Christ.”

She had a religious awakening after a near death accident, when she fell from a horse, and she embraced the Quaker faith in 1744.

She did so with fervor. In early Quakerism, women often served as ministers, lay leaders and evangelists. Peisley became a well-known itinerant minister in Ireland in the 1740s. Her teachings proved influential and evidently brought many people into the faith, including her future husband.

Judging from her writings, she was not the kind of clergywoman that was devoted to comforting broken and afflicted souls. She was fighting demons, and her journals and letters gave me the impression that she did not think handholding and soft words were the weapons of choice.

In the pulpit she scolded, admonished and reprimanded. She relentlessly warned against the unredeemed life, and she vividly invoked eternal sufferings in the next life if one did not get right with God in this life.

She was hard on Quakers and non-Quakers alike. Few Friends meetings lived up to her expectations, few did not disappoint her, few, in her eyes, seemed adequate in their efforts to live up to God’s will.

Which is ironic, because Peisley’s journals and letters reveal a woman herself wracked by doubt, shamed by secret sins, troubled by low spirits and haunted by feelings of estrangement from God.

“The source or cause of my sorrow”

Even on the eve of sailing for America, Mary Peisley seemed tormented body and soul.

In 1752 or early 1753, she not atypically wrote a friend, I am poor, low, distressed, and afflicted, having more need to be ministered unto, than to minister to any….”

When re-published several times in the 1800s, Mary Peisley Neale's writings were often paired with her husband's memoirs, as here in Some Account of the Lives and Religious Labors of Samuel Neale and Mary Neale, Formerly Mary Peisley (London, 1845)

When re-published several times in the 1800s, Mary Peisley Neale’s writings were often paired with her husband’s memoirs, as here in Some Account of the Lives and Religious Labors of Samuel Neale and Mary Neale, Formerly Mary Peisley (London, 1845)

She did not always reveal the causes of her inner turmoil and misgivings in Some Account of the Life.

Not long before coming to America, for instance, she let a friend know that she was suffering, but she would not say why.

“The source or cause of my sorrow must for ever be concealed from all mortals, and penned within the narrow confines of this troubled breast, save when admitted to pour out its complaints in the bosom of my never failing friend and blessed redeemer.”

I don’t know what troubled her, but one has to suspect a misplaced affection, a love gone wrong or an illicit relationship—the crossing of some line of the heart for which either the Society of Friends or Irish law and custom, or both, would not forgive a woman in the mid-18thcentury.

“Death looked me in the face”

Around the same time, Mary Peisley seemed to hit her low point, her body failing along with her spirit.  In a letter to a friend that was published in Some Account of the Life, she confessed:

The Lord was pleased to bring me exceedingly low both in mind and body, the latter so much so, that my life was despaired of by myself and others; and such was my exercise of mind and pain of body, that life seemed a burden, yea, I was ready often to wish my body dissolved that I might be with Christ.”

She did not surrender to her yearning for final relief from her suffering. However, she seemed to hold on not out of affection for life, but out of shame and fear of death.

“Death looked me in the face,”she wrote, and “eternal rest of my immortal spirit… appeared to me a gloomy prospect.” 

A few months later, she and Catherine Phillips sailed from Portsmouth, England.

At her darkest hour, Mary Peisley left her home and crossed the ocean to do God’s will and to spread the Quaker faith, but above all to save herself, like so many others that came to America.

“My pilgrimage through the world”

Though briefer and less detailed, her description of colonial North Carolina is as interesting in its way as the scenes in Catherine Phillips’ Memoirs. Like Phillips, she wrote about the trials of traveling in the colony.

“We rode two days and an half, and lay two nights in the woods, without being under the roof of a house,” she wrote at one point.

Elsewhere she recalled that they experienced abundant hardships and sufferings of body” and often found “lodging in the woods in cold frosty weather, on damp grounds with bad firing.”

Yet, in a letter to an uncle, she also described the tranquility that she sometimes found in those hard circumstances.

“I have sat down by a brook in the woods, eat my Indian-corn bread, and drank water out of a calabash, with more content and peace of mind than many who were served in plate, &c. and at night have slept contentedly in my riding clothes, on a bed hard enough to make my bones ach[e], and the house so open on every side as to admit plenty of light and air.“

She told her uncle that she tried to look at those difficulties metaphorically.

“I have compared my passage through these woods, to my pilgrimage through the world, and indeed in some things it bears a just resemblance; the path we rode through was exceeding narrow, and sometimes so closed as not to see a footstep before me, caught by boughs on one hand and bushes on the other, obliged to stoop very low, lest my head should be hurt or eyes pulled out: this I compare to the entangling things of the present world, which are ready to catch the affections on every side and blind the eyes of the soul.”

In that letter to her uncle, Peisley also echoed her traveling companion’s astonishment (discussed in my last post) at the degree of sickness and illness in the Carolina backcountry.

“I do not remember that we have been in a house or family since we left Charleston, but one or more were ill of a fever or ague, so that it seems like an universal contagion which has overspread the inhabitants of this quarter.“

Often times the local religious meetings disappointed Peisley, but she and Phillips also preached at gatherings that lifted her spirits above the cold and illness around her.

After a meeting by the Neuse River, for instance, she wrote, we had a large and comfortable meeting, in which I thought it might be truly said the Lord’s power was over all, and that even devilish spirits were made subject to that power, by which we were assisted to speak.”

“A sign and a wonder”

As they rode from one Quaker meeting to the next, Mary Peisley remembered, they were often kindly entertained, according to their ability, at the houses of these not of our society.”

Quaker women preaching in the 17th century. This etching mocked Quakers for the relatively high status of women in the faith.

Quaker women preaching in the 17th century. This etching mocked Quakers for the relatively high status of women in the faith.

In her letters and journals, she expressed gratitude to those non-Quakers who gave them supper or took them in for a night’s lodging.

“Sometimes,” though, she wrote,  “at our first entrance they would look strangely at us, because they understood not the lawfulness of women’s preaching, having never heard any.”

They stood out as women ministers, but they also were out of the ordinary, of course, because they were unmarried women and not traveling in the company of a husband, father, brother or son.

“Thus did we pass for a sign and wonder,” Peisley wrote.

“Women who ran from our own country for some ill act”

Though unaccustomed to women ministers, the local people had grown used to seeing other kinds of women traveling in the colony on their own.

The appearance of Quaker women preachers spurred male fears in Great Britain particularly in the 17th century, when Quakers were often persecuted. Here the cartoonist imagines the devil speaking through a Quaker woman preacher.

The appearance of Quaker women preachers spurred male fears in Great Britain particularly in the 17th century, when Quakers were often persecuted. Here the cartoonist imagines the devil speaking through a Quaker woman preacher.

In Some Account of the Life, Peisley recalled: “Some would say, when invited to [a Quaker] meeting, that we were women who ran from our own country for some ill act.”

Those colonists may have suspected that the two Quakers had fled from a debtor’s prisons or a workhouse, or perhaps escaped from abusive husbands or unwanted marriages.

They may have wondered if the women had spurned their bondage and forsaken indentured servitude in some other colony, or maybe fled south from Virginia or north from South Carolina with a mixed-race child.

Some of the people who took them into their homes may have believed that they had left homes where they had been persecuted as harlots or thieves, witches or mystics—or even as Quakers.

One of the most interesting things, of course, is that the roadside inhabitants of colonial North Carolina took the women into their homes anyway.

“The supernatural power of love”

In those encounters, the Irish missionary gained a central insight into the colony: it was a place where a woman that had committed such an “ill act” had at least some chance to escape her past and start a new life, a little bit like Mary Peisley was doing herself.

Peisley forgave those that looked at her and Phillips so suspiciously. She knew that they were unfamiliar with the role of women in early Quakerism. She also understood that they were “not …  acquainted with the supernatural power of love, which had influenced our hearts, nor the rules and discipline of friends.“

According to Peisley, many of those who greeted them so warily eventually even proved willing to listen to their Quaker teachings. “Through divine favour,” she wrote, “I have not heard of any of them who went away dissatisfied…”

 

 

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