‘Naked and Barefoot’—Colonial Quaker Women Finding Courage: A Guest Post by Jae Hodges

In his journals, George Fox wrote of an occasion when he joined a gathering of men and women of all faiths in a steeple house near his home in Leicester. The discussion of the Book of Peter inspired a woman to speak out and ask a question, what was birth. The priest bade her sit down for he would not permit her . . . or perhaps any woman . . . to speak in his church, though before Fox understood that the priest had given liberty to all who wished to speak. A debate of what constituted a church followed.[1]

George Fox, image: Wikipedia

George Fox founded what came to be known as Quakerism around 1640. Whether or not he intended it, his teachings served to liberate seventeenth-century women followers from the burden of withholding their expression of spiritual learning and experience, and from their fear of men in authority who could, and would, punish such expression.

The title page of a 1666 edition of Fell’s Women’s Speaking Justified, Wikipedia

Some women, such as Elizabeth Hooten, travelled as missionaries to the Colonies and the West Indies, carrying Fox’s message. Margaret Fell and others found their outlet in writing. Still others actively and openly preached, and were sent to their deaths for it; Mary Dyer among them.

There were, however, some who would express themselves in equally incautious ways, some we might speculate, who felt they had no other voice. These women chose to strip themselves of their garments, and walk in a state of purity and innocence before the people of their communities. Deborah Wilson of Salem and Lidia Wardell of Hampton, both in the Massachusetts Colony, were not the first to express their testimony in this way. In fact, this was not even a uniquely Colonist form of expression. Quakers began their return to Eden, so to speak, in England in about 1652.

Mary Dyer being led to her execution, by an unknown 19th-century artist, Wikipedia
 

Deborah was an active participant in the Quaker movement by the autumn of 1658, but it was not until November of 1662 that she along with her mother and sister were compelled by the repeated actions against the people closest to them to take action. William Hathorne sat upon the court bench and called her barbarous and unhuman. [3] Lidia did not experience her convincement until after her marriage in October of 1659. Brooks Adams, a Harvard scholar and American historian, referred to her as a “miserable creature, brooding over her blighted life and the torments of her friends [who] became possessed with the delusion that it was her duty to testify against the barbarity of flogging naked women’ [4]

Throughout his journals, George Fox used the word “naked” primarily to mean unarmed, as in bearing a naked sword or rapier without armor for protection. But, he also used the term in the context of a loving, pure and naked heart turned to Jesus Christ. He recounted one story of a Friend who “declared naked through the town and they had much beat him”, [5] and another in which he asked Parliament soldiers who came to fetch him at the home of a gentry fellow were they intent on drawing their sword against a naked man. [6] These events took place in 1660-1661.

His final reference came later in 1661 when he came to hear of William Simpson who “was moved of the Lord to go, at several times, for three years, naked and barefoot before them, as a sign unto them, in markets, courts, towns, and cities, priests’ houses, and great houses, and tell them so should they be all stripped naked as he was stripped naked.” [7]

I have found no evidence that Deborah Wilson was acquainted with the likes of Elizabeth Hooton or Mary Dyer, or any of the others of George Fox’s disciples who travelled the roads of the Massachusetts Colony, and have found only one reference that she was associated with anyone who possessed any of the written testimonies circulating at that time. But, given the people around her it is likely that she was at least familiar with them. There is evidence that Elizabeth Hooton passed through Hampton and perhaps was entertained by the Wardells. They, also, entertained Wenlock Christison on at least two occasions and were likely aware that he was the natural brother to Alice Ambrose, one of three vagabond women who were stripped, tied to the cart’s tail, and whipped by order of the Dover constable, through three villages before being rescued by a kindly soul.

Three Vagabond Women from “Lydia Wardwell Perkins Quaker Newbury, Ma” at ancestoryarchives.com

So, it seems no wonder or coincidence that Deborah and Lidia would decide to take this particular action to express themselves within a year of Fox’s own experiences. It also seems the telling of his experiences reflects a progression (or escalation) from a purely spiritual response to a more physiological one.

Hathorne and Adams turned their scorn for women’s expressive behavior against the women themselves, thus vindicating the power of men and Puritan thought. But, over the distance of time and the process of enlightenment, the expressions of these barbarous and delusional women, instead, are found to have exposed and condemned the Puritan’s sinfulness, by their malicious stripping and whipping of innocent women, as they put forth their own bodies with modesty and impenitence.[1] If I go back to Fox, and the journal’s of his travels through England, I’m struck by how these women in the Colonies could so thoroughly express Fox’s multi-layered references to nakedness: as unarmed in a metaphorical sense; open and loving and pure in a spiritual sense; and, finally, ungarmented in a Biblical sense . . . all representative of a time before the fall in the Garden of Eden, and embodying both a protest and an act of contrition in one fell swoop.

Jae Hodges

Jae Hodges’ debut novel, The Rose and the Whip (WordCrafts Press, January 2020), presents Lidia Wardell’s fictionalized account of her historic presentment and conviction for going naked through the Newbury (Massachusetts Colony) meeting house, and her public whipping during which she critically examines each of the events constituting systematic persecution of dissenters by dissenters, and reflects on how these actions served to transform her and her perspectives on truth and faith. Jae combines her talents for writing and photography with her love of genealogy and travel to create timeless tales of everyday people making history. She and her husband make their home on the Tennessee River in Alabama (U.S.). Visit her website https://www.somethingtosay.me/


Sources:

[1] John L. Nickalls, Editor, The Journal of George Fox  (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1952), 24; digital copy, Internet Archives (https://archive.org/details/journalofgeorgef00foxg : accessed 20 December 2019). Caroline Baker, “An Exploration of Quaker Women’s Writing Between 1650 and 1700” Journal of International Women’s Studies (Volume 5, Issue 2), Article 2; digital copy, Bridgewater State University, New Writings in Women’s Studies: Selected Essays from the First Women’s Studies Network (U.K.) Association Essay Contest (pdfs.semanticsscholar.org: accessed 20 December 2019].

[2] John L. Nickalls, Editor, The Journal of George Fox  (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1952), 24; digital copy, Internet Archives (https://archive.org/details/journalofgeorgef00foxg : accessed 20 December 2019).

[3] Massachusetts, “Records and Files of the Quarterly Court for Essex County,” Volume III, 1662-1667, entry for Robert Wilson, November 25, 1662, p. 17; digital copy, Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project (http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/17docs.html : accessed 20 December 2019).

[4] Brooks Adams, The Emancipation of Massachusetts (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1887), p. 160; digital copy, Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001873673 : accessed 20 December 2019).

[5] Nickells, The Journal of George Fox, p. 372.

[6] Ibid, p. 396.

[7] Ibid, p. 407. Isaiah 20: 1-3 tells of Isaiah walking naked and barefoot as a prophesy warning to the Egyptians and Ethiopians to be aware for they would be enslaved to the Assyrians.

[8] Zachary McLeod Hutchins, Inventing Eden: Primitivism, Millennialism, and the Making of New England (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 96; digital copy, Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=422gAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA96&lpg=PA96&dq=%22walk+naked%22+quaker&source=bl&ots=tgRdJQa9y_&sig=ACfU3U3X-5bIQJoItqrfa_rnwBmz5qOHCA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjm1q-h_sTmAhUuTd8KHf_BDr4Q6AEwAHoECAQQAQ#v=onepage&q=wardell&f=false : accessed 21 December 2019.

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