Women and the formation of transatlantic Quakerism


Dr Naomi Pullin, University of Warwick


In Female Friends and the Making of Transatlantic Quakerism, 1650-1750 I provide the first in-depth exploration of British and colonial Quaker women over the movement’s first century. The central question informing my research is how Quakerism’s transition from a radical sect to a settled church altered the identities and experiences of its female members.

As an undergraduate student, I developed a fascination with women within the early Quaker movement. Early Quakers, in contrast to many other Protestant denominations permitted women to publicly speak and preach, since Quaker theology emphasised the relationship between the individual believer and the ‘indwelling Christ’. Long before other Christian denominations provided official roles for women as ministers, Quaker women were establishing themselves as evangelists, preachers and writers, some leaving their children in the care of their husbands and travelling as far as Rome, the West Indies, the Ottoman Empire, and the American colonies to spread the faith abroad. In my research, I’ve uncovered over 2,000 Quaker women preaching on both sides of the Atlantic, some leaving their husbands and children, others their domestic service, to spread their faith abroad.

In the autumn of 1658, for instance, two Quaker women, Katharine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, set sail for Alexandria on a missionary voyage, which they believed was inspired by God. Their plans, however, were foiled after their ship reached Catholic Malta and they were detained by the Maltese Inquisition for nearly four years on the charge of blasphemy. Their experiences of captivity were published after their release in 1662 in the account: This is a short relation of some of the cruel sufferings (for the truths sake) of Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers In the Inquisition In the Isle of Malta (London, 1662).

Female cell in the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu (Vittoriosa), Malta where Evans and Cheevers held captive

As we might expect, the actions of women like Evans and Cheevers have attracted much attention from feminist and gender historians, as a lifestyle of travel and missionary work was not necessarily compatible with traditional female roles. But one thing that struck me about early Quakerism, is that members of the movement were also exhorted to serve God in ordinary ways, as wholly ordinary people. No history of the movement has explored how adherence to Quakerism altered the ‘everyday’ activities and expectations attached to women’s roles within the family and their local communities. Preaching was just a small part of their identities, a fact I think is shown nicely in 1662, when Quakers arrived in Malta to release Evans and Cheevers and found them doing their knitting in their cell.

The innovation of my project is therefore its focus on the more ‘ordinary’ aspects of Quaker women’s lives and identities, with a primary focus on women’s relationships. I question how British and colonial Quaker women’s everyday lives were affected by their conversion to Quakerism, and how their relationships and roles were shaped by their religious testimonies. The lens of focus in the four chapters of my book shifts out from the household; to life as church members through the Quaker Meeting system; then to the connections and friendships that they formed with other members of the Society; and finally, to their relationship with the wider non-Quaker world.

This focus on women’s relationships has enabled me to further the scholarship on Quakerism and women’s place in early modern religious culture in a number of important ways. In the first place, it has enabled me to investigate Quaker women’s experiences over both a broad geographical distance and long chronological period: I comparatively examine the experiences of these female Friends in England, Ireland, and the British colonies in North America over a century of Quaker history. And in contrast to previous studies of Quaker women, I adopt a dual focus and examine the experiences of both those women who travelled, like Evans and Cheevers, and also those who stayed at home, who I term non-itinerant women. And it is my view that these women who didn’t travel had a central role in ensuring the survival and evolution of transatlantic Quakerism through their work within their families and within the wider body of believers.

The scholarship on women and sectarian religious movements almost always views institutionalization as leading to a decline in women’s significance within their communities. In Quakerism, there is near consensus that women were publicly active in the early days of the Society, but that their roles were diminished with the introduction of a Meeting system from the 1670s, which created separate Men’s and Women’s Meetings for business. This shift has been viewed as restricting the opportunities available to women by placing them in more conventional roles. But through focusing on lesser-known members of the Quaker community and women’s everyday experiences, I have challenged the view that these reforms led to a decline in women’s significance. I have been able to prove that we actually see the reverse happening – that the increasing domestication of early Quakerism enhanced rather than diminished women’s authority and influence within the Society as it evolved.

And one reason why I am able to come to these conclusions, is because I am focusing on Quakerism in its British Atlantic context. No study has considered how settlement in the colonies impacted on women’s lives and exchanges, which has led me to believe that we need to reinterpret the traditional thesis of eighteenth-century Quaker decline and to see cross-cultural transatlantic exchange as an important part of early Quaker women’s history.

It is nearly twenty years since Natalie Zemon Davis published Women on the Margins, which argued that early modern women were particularly adept at managing multiple identities outside of official power structures and were thus able to transform the ‘margins of society’ into important social and cultural sites. I show that Quaker women were no exception. Expanding Davis’s thesis on the expectations and experiences of women in different faiths and recognising the complex identity of Quaker women as prophets, elders, worshippers, friends, wives, and mothers, I seek to understand their changing experiences as the movement adapted to different social, economic, and political environments. Female Friends thus foregrounds how being participants in a culture of international exchange deepened the public roles open to women at all levels of the movement and enriched their identities in unusual and important ways.


Female Friends and the Making of Transatlantic Quakerism, 1650–1750
is published by Cambridge University Press

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About the Author: Dr Naomi Pullin is Assistant Professor in Early Modern British History at the University of Warwick. She is the author of Female Friends and the Making of Transatlantic Quakerism, 1650-1750 (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and has published a number of articles and book chapters on different aspects of early Quaker culture and women’s involvement in international religious communities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She is currently co-authoring an edited collection with Dr Kathryn Woods Negotiating Exclusion in Early Modern England, 1550-1800 (Routledge, 2020) and developing a research project on women’s negative sociability in the early modern British Atlantic, which is supported by a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship.

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