Nancy Towle, 1796-1876
"Faithful Child of God"
By Judith Bledsoe Bailey, April 2000
Hanging there still as the full moon
against the dark sky of memory.
Sister, brother, parent, child,
Singing in the blood, singing in the bone,
Remember me, remember me. 1
1[Michael E. Williams, "Voices from Unseen Rooms: Storytelling and Community," Weavings 5, no. 4 (July / August 1990), 18.]
In July of 1832, Nancy Towle traveled to Charleston, South Carolina where her brother Philip, while on a cruise to improve his health, had died of consumption seven months before. In this election year she traveled alone, the only woman aboard the schooner President Jackson. Her accommodations were miserable, hardly worth the "extravagant" sum of fifteen dollars charged for the passage from Richmond, Virginia. Her shipboard quarters teemed with insects. If she reached the "port of destination with my life, it would be as much as I could expect to do."2
2[Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated in the Life and Experience of Nancy Towle in Europe and America (Charleston, S. C.: James L. Burges, 1832). 217]
Unable to sleep in the filthy quarters, she spent the six nights of the voyage on deck under a makeshift tent.
By the time she arrived in Charleston, Towle was sick and exhausted. Grief, overwhelming heat, ubiquitous mosquitoes, loss of appetite and acute loneliness made her feel that she would soon join her brother in the grave. She longed for the cool breezes of her Hampton, New Hampshire home, and for the family who had chosen her to investigate Philip's death and erect a tombstone in his memory.
Towle was creating other memorials as well. Stuck in Charleston waiting for the tombstone, the thirty-six year old Nancy Towle took a pause in her life. Unable to preach, barred from the pulpit by southern clergymen, she anticipated her own imminent death. A cholera epidemic seemed to accompany her journey south, first in Norfolk, then in Richmond, Virginia.3
3[Ibid., 235. See also Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), 46. Deaths from Cholera were reported in the Christian Sentinel (September, 1832). A man died of cholera in Richmond, Virginia on September 7, 1832. Four deaths in Suffolk, Va., 206 deaths in New York, 127 deaths in Philadelphia were reported in the August 10, 1832 issue.]
It was time to complete and publish writing she had begun in diaries and letters years before. Put in print, after all, her words would reach a much larger audience than her preaching had ever claimed.4
4[Nathan 0. Hatch. The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 141. American presses were publishing books and periodicals on an unprecedented scale. The religious press alone was printing millions of tracts, pamphlets, hymnbooks, and devotional books, as well as journals, magazines and newspapers of every description. In 1830 the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society were producing over one million Bibles and six million tracts, respectively. See David Paul Nord, "The Evangelical Origins of Mass Media in America, 1815-1834," Journalism Monographs 88 (1984): 1-30.]
Nancy Towle oversaw the production of her memoirs from composition to publication following a pattern common in the early republic. For her the work was critical. She had to find an outlet of her own since she was not part of a denomination that would print for her. Her duty to God and obligation to others, particularly women, compelled her to tell her story.5 [Towle,7.]
Though most memoirs, especially of pious women, were published posthumously,6
6[Joanna Bowen Gillespie, "'The Clear Leadings of Providence': Pious Memoirs and The Problems of Self-Realization for Women in the Early Nineteenth Century," Journal of the Early Republic 5 (Summer 1985), 197.]Nancy Towle was among twenty female preachers of the early nineteenth century who published memoirs during their lifetimes.7
7[Brekus, 167. Among the most familiar are: Deborah Peirce A Spiritual Vindication of Female Preaching (Carmel, N.Y.: E. Burrough, 1820); Harriet Livermore A Narration of Religious Experience (Concord: N.H., Jacob B. Moore, 1826); Eleanor Knight, A Narrative of the Christian Experience, Life and Adventures. Trials and Labours of Eleanor Knight. Written by Herself (1839); Ellen Stewart, Life of Mrs. Ellen Stewart, Together with Biographical Sketches of Other Individuals (Akron, Ohio: Beebe and Elkins, 1858); Laura Smith Haviland, A Woman's Life Work: Labours and Experiences of Laura S. Haviland, 4th ed. (Chicago: Publishing Association of Friends, 1889);Lydia Sexton, Autobiography of Lydia Sexton (Dayton, Ohio: United Brethren Publishing House, 1882); Jarena Lee, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee. A Coloured Lady. Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel. Written by Herself. (1836); Zilpha Elaw, An American Female of Colour, 1846; Julia A. J. Foote, A Brand Plucked From the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch (Cleveland: W. F. Schneider, 1879). The writings of Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw and Julia Foote were reprinted in Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women's Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. ed. William L. Andrews (Bloomington: University of Indiana, 1986). For a complete list, see Brekus, 385-386.]These memoirs described their personal struggles and conversion experiences, their call to preach and their public successes in converting sinners and instigating revivals. In scriptural language, themes of divine grace and prophetic inspiration permeate their writings.8[Ibid., 170.]
Models for spiritual autobiography, including those of pious women, and religious books like Pilgrim's Progress and the Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul were available for these women.9
9[Ibid., 168-169. Among women's spiritual autobiographies published in the eighteenth century were Mary Clarke Lloyd's Meditations on Divine Subjects Elizabeth Lawrence Bury's ; Elizabeth White's Experience of God's Gracious Dealing: and Elizabeth Singer Rowe's Devout Exercises of the Heart in Meditation and Soliloquy, Prayer and Praise. Quaker memoirs of Patience Brayton, Elizabeth Ashbridge, and Jane Hoskens were published in the early 1800s. Harriet Livermore reflected on the writing of Jeanne Marie Guyon (1648-1717).]The particular format they used, however, most closely resembles that used by male clergymen of their own sects. After all, these female preachers shared the same evangelical vision and methods as their male counterparts. In 1826, when Harriet Livermore became the first female preacher to publish her memoirs, ministers such as John Colby, Levi Hathaway, and Billy Hibbard had already told their spiritual stories in print.10
Other nineteenth-century male preachers who published their memoirs included Lorenzo Dow, Elias Smith, Ephraim Stinchfield and David Marks. Evangelicals, male and female, were the first to "exploit-the potential of mass media, recognizing the press as a valuable partner in the struggle to make new converts and gain public acceptance." 11
11[David Paul Nord, 'The Evangelical Origins of Mass Media in America, 1815-1835," Journalism Monographs 88 (1984), 1-30.]Nancy Towle published a letter of endorsement from Lorenzo Dow in the preface to her book.12
12[Towle, 4. In his letter Dow acknowledges his long acquaintance with Nancy Towle, and supports female preaching on the basis of Old Testament women who were chosen instruments of God - Miriam, Huldah, Deborah, and the daughters of Philip. He includes Phoebe from the New Testament. He encourages people to give up their prejudices, and not "obstruct, the way of those who follow not our whims: lest by folly we grieve those, whom God would not have grieved .... I feel, to bid Nancy Towle, God speed: and wish her success, - in the Name of the Lord." May 21, 1832.]
Her decision to do so indicates the dilemma of women who dared to be public figures. She felt a need for "introduction" from a famous person. Lorenzo Dow was one of the best known Methodist evangelists13
13[Jon Butler, Awash In A Sea of Faith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 241. It is said that parents named more children after Dow than any other figure except Washington.]and one of the most prolific writers of the time. Dow published over seventy editions of twenty different works between 1800 and 1835.14
14[Lorenzo Dow is described by Nathan Hatch as the Methodist itinerant who "preached to more people, traveled more miles, and consistently attracted larger audiences to camp meetings than any preacher of his day." The Democratization of American Christianity. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 36.]However, in terms of the content of her book Towle wanted to be independent. She resisted offers of her friends in Baltimore to help publish Vicissitudes in July of 183215
[Towle, 214.]because she did not want to be overly influenced by anyone. Alone in Charleston she wrote, "The work, therefore, is now my own. . . And from the truth in any one instance, I am not appraised of having swerved."16
16[Ibid., 6.]Nancy Towle enjoyed writing and regretted she had waited so long to publish her story.17
17[Ibid., 5.]The review of her life and "self-construction"18
18[Gillespie, 197.]in print helped her identify a new direction for the future in 1832. Confident in God's providential leadership, she decided to write more. She would continue to preach but travel alone. She would embody the power of religious women and the struggle for women's rights. "I will deliver up my life, a sacrifice, for one,. . . And seal my testimony, as with my blood, in vindication of the rights of woman."19
19[Towle, 241. In this final sentence of her book, Nancy Towle aligns herself with Mary Wollstonecraft, a highly controversial woman whose book,A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, was a strong argument for woman's rights.]Approximately two months after her arrival in Charleston, printer James A. Burges completed work on Vicissitudes Illustrated in the Experiences of Nancy Towle in Europe and America two hundred ninety three pages. But the volume was more than Towle's spiritual autobiography. Vicissitudes is a major statement of the case for female preaching and the power of female piety.
Why Vicissitudes? In Noah Webster's dictionary of 1828, "vicissitude" is defined as "regular change or succession of one thing to another; or change; revolution; as in human affairs."20
20[Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828)]. In popular usage, "vicissitudes" suggests hardship and trials. Indeed, life as a female evangelist was very difficult and challenging, despite the joy of following God's leading. Towle's use of the phrase "Vicissitudes Illustrated" suggests a lack of control over the events of her life. However, though she believed she was a messenger of God and even though she suffered because of it, Nancy Towle was not the passive agent of divine Providence. Just as she braved shipboard mosquitoes and slept on the deck, she took on all the forces that stood in the way.
The publication of her book was the culmination of eleven years of itinerant preaching,. years of personal change and growth. During these years the journal that she kept served as a kind of "life-buoy, ... Both upon this land and on the sea."21
21[Towle, 105.]It served as a "memory assist," providing structure as she traveled in various places, among strangers.22
22[Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning of Things (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 22.]Her journal became increasingly important to her during her last three years of itineracy, not only sustaining her, but also providing the medium to protest the exclusion of women from preaching.
With her book printed in Philip's memory, and the tombstone erected, Nancy Towle's work in Charleston was completed. She left for home, claiming her place in history, not only in her book, but also on Philip's gravestone:
Dr. Philip Towle,
A native of Hampton. N.H. - who died in Charleston, S.C. March 20th, 1832:- aged 34 years, and 6 months. Long - will his affectionate RELATIVES, and admiring FRIENDS, cherish, the remembrance of his VIRTUES; - at whose request, this MONUMENT is erected, as the last tribute of their tender LOVE, by his sister, NANCY TOWLE.
Strangers, - the body, rests with you:
But far on high, the spirit's soar'd,
To dwell, forever, with the Lord.