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QUAKER WOMEN PASSING: DEATHBED AS MINISTRY IN THE MEMOIRS OF SUSANNA LIGHTFOOT AND MARTHA THOMAS


Introduction
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It is well known that the Quakers supported women in preaching ministry from the outset. Those who were so moved by the Spirit did not need special educational qualifications to engage in public teaching. The chronicles of Quaker ministers include many biographies and autobiographies of women. Unfortunately, a large number of these have been out of print for a long time. Rhwymbooks has chosen to bring back into print some of the shorter accounts which might otherwise be lost forever to religious history and women's scholarship. Their publication of The Conversion of Margaret Lucas (Rhwymbooks 1997) supplied an autobiography of a Quaker's early religious life and choices. The two accounts in the present volume are third-person biographical accounts which relate the ministry of two Quaker women at their death.

For women in the 18th and 19th centuries, death was often a slow process, suffered over days or weeks, while the dying woman remained bedridden at home, cared for by her family, friends and neighbors. In the absence of modern medicine, this was often an opportunity for the person living with this chronic and progressively fatal pain to have extended conversations about pain and death itself. This is indeed what we find in the account of these two, very different, women.

Susanna Lightfoot was a dynamic, 61-year old Irish immigrant, twice married, who began preaching when she was a seventeen-year old farm servant. She spent her childhood and first marriage in severe poverty as a farmer and weaver and raised two sets of twins. After her husband's death she traveled widely, remarried, and entered into a more active preaching ministry in England, Ireland and America. Her husband's account of her deathbed narrative names many other Quakers, both family and friends, listed in an index on page 32.

Martha Thomas, in contrast, was a timid, self-effacing woman who died at age 31. A doctor's wife in Baltimore, she remained in her parents' house even after her marriage and traveled only on stern doctor's orders, against her will, for the sake of her health. Her husband's account of her deathbed narrative contains very few names, referring to people by their relationship to the family or the Quakers.

Yet both women used the weeks of their deathbed sickness as a pulpit. From this pulpit they admonish, encourage, dream, sing hymns, and teach scripture. In these accounts the reader catches a glimpse of how early Quaker women viewed mortality, using their own fatal weakness to manifest the religious strength which they found in scripture and community.

Anne Rutherford

this material is copyright© 1999 by Rhwymbooks ; page number citations refer to the print version.