This essay presents an overview and analysis of the contents of Mary Borden Rodman’s Register of Publick Friends, 1656–1804 in order to trace the outlines of the lives of the women ministers who arrived to preach in New England and the colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.1 Examination of the Register brings women ministers into historical light and illuminates the significance of female itinerancy for the creation of a woman-centered political culture that remained a work in progress. As a valuable resource for understanding the role of itinerant ministers in the creation and maintenance of Quaker communities in the British Atlantic world, this study challenges and complements existing Quaker historiography and supports the views of scholars who have argued that there were more itinerants circulating as “Publick Friends” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than previously thought.
The special status of “Publick Friends” was not taken lightly. Quakers believed that preachers served as a direct channel for the word of God. Women were recorded as ministers from the 1670s and the organizational structure to support their work was in place by 1691.2 By the early eighteenth century, meeting elders with an interest in encouraging the growth of itinerancy began the practice of recording the names of those individuals with a recognized gift for preaching.3 While one could receive a “gift of divine leadings” at any age, most ministers preached for the first time in their local meetings when in their early twenties. Once recorded as a “Publick Friend” and granted permission for travel in an official capacity at home and abroad, the work of ministers was usually supported by funds solicited from his or her home meeting.4
Although Friends maintained accurate records of births, marriages, deaths, and business meetings, their monthly meeting records that recorded names of ministers with comment on how they were received were somewhat incomplete, often fragmentary and have not been systematically examined.5
Yearly Meetings generally kept registers or lists of ministers’ visits, and made note of the date of the visit and specified if a non-minister companion or “non-Public” (NP) accompanied the minister. Companions acted as support staff, encouraging and keeping the minister and their spiritual message on track. The accepted practice regarding companions who were not ministers allowed for any number of Friends to escort a minister for a few miles, but only one person of the same sex could be recognized as an official travel companion.6 Marnie Miller-Gutshall wrote, “They (companions) were a part of the accountability system, [End Page 20] to help the minister stay on message, and to be accountable to God and to the Meetings which gave them the certificates to travel and to the Meetings which received them.”7
As an extension of the meeting culture which functioned as the center of community life, Friends extended hospitality and accommodation to itinerants on religious travel and often provided guides for onward journeys.8 Ministers were encouraged to keep a diary of their work in progress, and on return to their home meeting they often provided an oral account of their activities, or a written or published account for benefit of family and community.9 As the most committed of Friends, those who accepted God’s inward call and were prepared to obey that call, John Punchon wrote, “It was, and is, the proudest passport a Quaker can carry.”10
Scholars have argued that a feminine ideal stressing love, compassion, gentleness and purity stripped women of traits associated with men, namely aggressiveness and force, thereby leaving women with “little support for involvement in the most assertive of all human undertakings – politics.”11 Others contend that the experience of opposition enabled women to challenge and undermine traditional norms of accepted female behavior and sex roles, and refine and sharpen their arguments in order to debate issues that concerned them as guardians of their community’s moral health.12
Itinerancy perhaps presented some women with an acceptable way out of the impasse in power relations with the authority of the conservative male leadership. Other women may have...