- The Letters of Mary Penry: A Single Moravian Woman in Early America by Scott Paul Gordon
In the present archival turn, historians often discuss not just the content of archival resources but also their accessibility. Works such as The Letters of Mary Penry: A Single Moravian Woman in Early America, edited by Scott Paul Gordon, simultaneously address gaps in the historiography of women and early American Moravianism while increasing scholarly access to Penry’s letters themselves. The author of these letters was Mary Penry (1735–1804), a Welsh-born Moravian convert who joined the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, single sisters in 1756 to live out her days in religious devotion and celibacy. According to Gordon, all of Penry’s known, available letters are reproduced in full. Notable correspondents from Elizabeth Drinker to Benjamin Rush formed Penry’s circle of acquaintance, and her writings offered intriguing insights into both her personal life and the broader religious network of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania.
Mary Penry made for an interesting and formidable subject, and Gordon does justice to the complexity of her personality. The introduction paints a complete picture of a multifaceted woman: a shrewd political observer, pious Moravian, and keen social commentator on the major national events of the late eighteenth century, from the Whiskey Rebellion to George Washington’s presidential farewell address. Gordon does an excellent job of contextualizing Penry’s decision to move to Bethlehem and later Lititz. Though he never supplies a single motivating factor for such a dramatic life shift, Gordon offers insights into Penry’s reasoning by examining her religious convictions alongside her difficult [End Page 235] childhood—the early loss of her father, a financially fraught move from Great Britain to Philadelphia, and a harsh stepfather. The editor insists on characterizing Penry as an “ordinary” woman and fairly conveys her plights and religious aspirations to charitable living alongside the reality of her frequent dissatisfaction with her loss of fortune and self-conscious attempts to connect with her father’s family and childhood friends, most notably Elizabeth Drinker.
The letters themselves offer a detailed look into the religion, politics, and everyday social drama of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. Arranged chronologically, these letters follow Penry’s religious journey, beginning with her 1755 petition to join the single sisters in Bethlehem and ending with her final 1804 letter to cousin Margaret Stocker, outlining the various physical ailments that would result shortly in Penry’s passing. There is an overall sensation of yearning in each letter: for religious peace, for friendship, for financial security, and for a sense of certainty amid the rapid political changes of the late eighteenth century. Gordon’s footnotes are as engaging as the letters themselves, and they illuminate both Penry’s personal religious context as well as the intertwined genealogies of Pennsylvania’s religious communities, especially the relationship between Moravians and Quakers. The attendant original German translations of Penry’s letters remind readers additionally of the transatlantic character of early American Moravianism. Reading the letters, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with Gordon’s assessment of Mary Penry as an intelligent and searching woman who used religion to take control of a life marked early by upheaval. In an era when women’s stories are being brought to the forefront of early American history, Gordon’s collection is a welcome historical addition.