Introduction: Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713-1755)
Born in Cheshire County, England, most of what we know about Elizabeth Ashbridge’s life comes from her autobiography. Raised in the Church of England, she eloped with a poor neighbor at the age of fourteen. When he died months later, her parents would not let her return home, so she traveled to Dublin, Ireland to live with relatives. At 19, she arrived in New York City and became an indentured servant. She bought out her contract after three years of service and began working as a seamstress. She married her second husband, who she only identifies as Sullivan. Ashbridge became more familiar with the Society of Friends while visiting family members in Pennsylvania and soon converted, despite the protests, threats, beatings, and general abuse of her husband. Eventually deserted by Sullivan, who died as a soldier two years later, she became a Quaker minister in 1738. She supported herself through teaching and itinerant preaching, and became well regarded as a preacher by the Quakers in the American colonies. Marrying fellow Quaker Aaron Ashbridge in 1746, she continued ministering throughout the Atlantic, dying on a Quaker mission trip to Ireland in 1755.
Unlike the previous authors in this section, Ashbridge is not writing from a Puritan New England perspective. The Puritan influence dominates early American literature, but it is important to remember that this faith was not the only one operating in the New World. Quakers began migrating to the American colonies as early as 1655, becoming a driving force in the settlement and growth of early colonies such as Rhode Island, New Jersey, and the Quaker-chartered Pennsylvania. The Quaker influence in her text is strong, both in religious content and critique of other faiths, and reveals much about an important protestant sect which flourished in the American colonies during this time. However, the dominance of affliction and faith in this spiritual autobiography echoes the earlier works of New England authors such as Bradford, Winthrop, and Mather. Much like the works of Morton and Bradstreet, Ashbridge’s text offers us a rare, and often silenced, perspective in the new American colonies. It is a unique work within the early American literary tradition in terms of alternate perspectives, highlighting the social and religious position of the Quakers in eighteenth century America.
Her life story also underscores the dangers present and opportunities available to women at this time. Living a truly transatlantic life, she migrated between England, Ireland, and the American colonies a number of times, both on her own to create a new life for herself and with others in order to spread her religious beliefs. While Puritans, and many other protestant denominations, adhered to the established gender hierarchy, there were avenues in which women could assert their freedom within religious communities. Ashbridge’s example shows the ways in which some denominations, like the Society of Friends, offered women space and means to become religious and social leaders. At the same time, her experiences with her master and her second husband underscore a reality of violence and abuse many women faced in this era.
Excerpts from her autobiography, Some Account of the Forepart of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge, are presented here. Based on the literary tradition of the spiritual autobiography popularized by male preachers, the writing of the text itself was a challenge to male religious authority and ideas of proper female behavior while presenting a tale of conversion and conviction highly valued by a deeply religious public audience. As a piece of life writing, it shows the place women held within print culture specifically and society as a whole. Her autobiography also highlights the transatlantic nature of migration in this period, detailing her travels from England to Ireland, from Ireland to the American colonies, across the American colonies, and back to Ireland again. Like many in the eighteenth century, Ashbridge traveled far and often to provide a better life for herself economically, socially, and spiritually. The recounting of her life with her master in New York exposes the harsh treatment that sometimes accompanied indentured service to the colonies, which is a subject not often discussed in early American literature. Likewise, Sullivan’s abuse of his wife after her religious conversion is physical, emotional, and spiritual, so that Ashbridge’s autobiography offers a first-hand account of domestic violence within the eighteenth century. While the autobiography follows the established rhetorical conventions of spiritual tracts that were fairly standard in this time, her subject matter provides a glimpse into the rigid gender roles of the era and the ways that some women were able to subvert such roles.