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  • The Sufferings of a "Captive Maid":Jane Fenn Hoskens and the Quaker Reformation

From the tumultuous founding of the Society of Friends in mid-seventeenth-century England to colonial troubles in Pennsylvania a century later, Quakers consistently recognized the power of the printed word to document, preach, and inspire the community to continue their unorthodox worship in the face of adversity. In revolutionary England, personal narratives that recounted violence, humiliation, and imprisonment spurred on fellow Friends to endure similar persecution. A century later, English Friends reprinted these narratives for their American brothers and sisters "to animate Succeeding Generations to come up in the like faithfulness to their Christian Testimony" (qtd. in Carrol 73).1 More specifically, they reprinted the founding Quaker narratives to inspire pacifism as the French and Indian War threatened both the Pennsylvania frontier and the Holy Experiment.

But the early narratives of English Friends, so useful in their day, did not resonate with later colonists. Whereas seventeenth-century narratives recounted the progressive social and political activism of early Quakers and a spirituality that featured the body as the site of prophecy and suffering, eighteenth-century Quakers enjoyed a privileged social and political position in Pennsylvania and their beliefs now bore the stamp of the more passive, quietist spirituality (Tarter 148). At the same time, Quaker suffering had changed drastically since the early founding of the sect. The retreat from public life caused Pennsylvania Quakers to "suffer" the loss of political power (for reasons to be discussed below), rather than the raw violence endured by their persecuted ancestors. To evoke the sufferings of their ancestors in a discourse more familiar and palatable to eighteenth-century quietism, Pennsylvania Quakers needed a new kind of narrative. [End Page 517]

Among the narratives that arose to address the specific political and socioeconomic transition of the late-eighteenth-century Quaker communities was Jane Fenn Hoskens's 1771 spiritual autobiography, The Life and Spiritual Sufferings of That Faithful Servant of Christ, Jane Hoskens, a Public Preacher among the People Called Quakers. In thirty-one pages she recounts the story of a poor English girl, who leaves her family and friends in England in search of a spiritual home among the Quakers in Pennsylvania. Imprisoned shortly after her arrival, she becomes indentured to a Quaker family for four years and continues to work as a domestic servant at the time she answers God's call to preach among them. The exemplary spirituality and lowly social station of Jane Fenn Hoskens (1694–176?) in the era of Quaker Reformation provided reformers with a paradigm for the kind of social and spiritual change they wished to enact among the affluent, so-called "wet Quakers," who were often indistinguishable from other members of Philadelphia society (Tolles 139–43). At the same time, the struggles of a female indentured servant also served as a humble symbol of the Society of Friends, especially for prominent Friends who maintained social and economic control over the community during a period of unparalleled socioeconomic prominence and political unrest.

Hoskens's narrative was published posthumously by Quaker printer William Evitt in 1771. Without the help of distribution numbers or contemporary reactions to the text, it is impossible to measure the actual effectiveness of Hoskens's narrative in the Quaker community. However, the editorial committee's decision to print a working-class woman's narrative, marking the first time in colonial Quaker history that a text by a woman or any text of working-class origin was published, speaks to assumptions made by the committee on the projected use and effects of that text within the community. That is, the editorial committee needed a compelling reason to publish such an unusual text, which they hoped "may be of real Use, and give general Satisfaction" to a transitional community (2).

Whereas contemporary and later Friends put the account of Hoskens's sufferings to many uses, her narrative has captured the attention of few modern scholars.2 Current interests in early American autobiography and a continued dedication to the issues of gender and class have led surprisingly few scholars to reference Jane Fenn Hoskens's narrative, probably the first working-class woman's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-147X
Print ISSN
0012-8163
Pages
pp. 517-539
Launched on MUSE
2009-10-30
Open Access
No
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