- Ann Branson and the Eclipse of Oracular Ministry in Nineteenth Century Quakerism
This paper examines the life and religious labors of Ann Branson (1808–1891), a traditionalist Quaker from southeastern Ohio, whose life spanned most of the 19th century.1 Ann was recognized as a minister at the age of 29. After her death, her diary and other materials were collected, edited and published as the Journal of Ann Branson.2 This and related documents will serve as sources for my essay.3 The paper focuses on the prophetic character of Ann’s ministry, and its significance in light of the radical changes that occurred in 19th Century Quakerism.
II. Background and Early Life
Ann was the sixth of eleven children of Jacob and Rebecca Holloway Branson of Flushing, Ohio.4 She was born three years after her parents migrated from Virginia to Ohio. All four of Ann’s sisters died before the “meridian age.” Ann too was sickly. A sister’s death as a child provoked serious reflections for her. At 11, she dreamed of seeing a mysterious light and hearing a voice, which assured her of her father’s favorable spiritual condition. Later, at 16, she went to keep house for a brother and to clerk for him at his store in a nearby community. She saw “the World” at close range and concluded “that I should be a speckled bird amongst them.”5 She then chose unqualified and uncompromising commitment to traditional Quaker spirituality and ethics, and suffered some harassment for her witness.
III. Call to the Ministry
The traditional Quaker church was served by a “free ministry,” qualified for this role by an inwardly perceived Divine call rather than by professional education and credentialing, unpaid, and recognized by the church through public utterance in preaching and prayer as having a special gift for this service. “Appearing” in public testimony or supplication typically came after a long struggle to recognize, hear and obey the [End Page 44] voice of God. There was an immense psychological barrier to overcome, and no assurance of the church’s concurrence with one’s sense of being chosen for this service. Ministers’ journals repeatedly depict this as a stressful process.6
When Ann was 18 years old, she heard Elizabeth Robson preach at a specially appointed meeting:
This language of the Apostle was impressively brought to my remembrance—‘We are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.’ These words were accompanied with such feelings as made me exclaim in the secret of my heart—‘Make me anything else in the Church, but a minister I can never be.’7
This marked the beginning of her struggle over public ministry. Worshiping at Flushing Meeting not long after:
A solemn feeling came over my mind, attended with an impression that it was required of me to appear in vocal supplication. I could scarcely resist the gentle, powerful and persuasive influence of that holy life-giving power and spirit. . . . I seemed a wonder to myself, thinking it scarcely possible that . . . I should be called upon to address the Throne of Grace publicly.8
Ann resisted, but bargained inwardly that, if minister Mary Jones spoke to her spiritual condition, she would accept the validity of the call. Almost immediately, Mary Jones arose and expressed her belief that some youths in the meeting had been or would be called to the work of the ministry. Despite this confirmation of Ann’s circumstances, she “. . . put it away from [herself ] as a dream, or vision of the night.”9 She soon received another command to appear in the ministry and was disobedient yet again: “I presently heard this language . . . addressed to the ear of my soul, viz: ‘Ye shall not see me henceforth until ye say blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.’”10 Ann believed that she had resisted the Lord’s will, and that the invitation to speak for Him in “the assemblies of His people” had been withdrawn.
Approximately six years later, Ann contracted a severe respiratory illness; “my cough was very oppressive and my breathing...