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  • I Had a Religious Mother":Maternal Ancestry, Female Spaces, and Spiritual Synthesis in Elizabeth Ashbridge's Account
  • D. Britton Gildersleeve (bio)

"The opposite of paternity is not maternity; it is fraternity."

—Sinead O'Connor

A quote from the contemporary Irish singer Sinead O'Connor may seem an unlikely epigraph for a discussion of an eighteenth-century Quaker and her journal. And yet, despite their separation by 250 years and very different traditions of belief, Quaker Elizabeth Ashbridge and rock star O'Connor are linked by a common refusal to accept the simple—the reductive—answer. In her quest for spiritual self-realization, Ashbridge begins with a rejection of patriarchy and patristy, turning for spiritual comfort and structure to female spaces that replicate her close relationship with her mother. Ultimately, however, her search leads Ashbridge beyond this maternal legacy—so necessary in the initial stages of her pilgrimage—to a state of belief echoed centuries later by O'Connor's observation. For Ashbridge, the early need to replace the constraints of paternity with relationships evocative of the mother-daughter dyad is further superseded by the community of brotherly love she finds in the community of Friends.

From the earliest moments of her spiritual autobiography, Quaker Elizabeth Ashbridge contrasts the presence of her mother—both literal and figurative—with the absence of her father. Ashbridge introduces her mother, whom she calls "a pattern of Virtue to me" (147), in the second paragraph of Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge, foregrounding the importance of her mother's influence over both her childhood—"my Education lay mostly on my Mother"—and her adulthood—" I have since had Cause to be thankful to the Lord,&that he blessed me with such a parent" (147). As Ashbridge pays homage to her mother's "Virtue" and "good Advice," she also outlines a female presence that will [End Page 371] continue to shape and influence her—in the figures of other women—throughout her quest for a spiritual home. It is in the warmth of this maternal legacy that Ashbridge moves to forge her Quaker identity, establishing herself in a connected life that re-creates the early intimate relationship between mother and daughter.

For the first 12 years of Ashbridge's life, it is her mother who raises and educates her, while her surgeon father "followed his Profession on board a ship, in many long voyages" (147). Ashbridge follows this memory with one describing her "awful regard for religion," and her "earnest desires to be loved by [the Lord]" (148). The juxtaposition is provocative: even this early in her narrative, Ashbridge seems to be linking literal patriarchy—in the person of her father—and patriarchal religion, "the Lord." There is an implicit connection brought to mind by the sequencing of the discussion of her father's physical absence during her childhood and the statement that "[i]n [her] very Infancy" she conceived "earnest desires" to be loved by the paternal figure of "the Lord." (148). We hear the unspoken plea of the child to her own father—to be loved by him.

Ashbridge's attempt to reconcile the patriarchal nature of Christianity with her deeply ambivalent feelings toward her father results, at least initially, in an interesting feminization of faith. The Account chronicles a quest in search of "the right," a term Ashbridge uses to describe a religious order that does not repulse her by its hypocrisy or abuse of patristic power (148). Early in her pilgrimage she forms "an intimate Acquaintance" with a widow and her daughter, both of whom are Catholics (149). This is the only anecdote Ashbridge relates in which her interaction with a sect other than the Quakers is rewarding. In their first encounters Ashbridge feels drawn to Catholicism, finding in her discussions with the widow much to consider: the older woman regales Ashbridge with tales of miracles, and is "in a rapture" at the prospect that Ashbridge may be brought to Catholicism (149). But the intrusion of the patriarchy—in the form of a priest—shatters Ashbridge's fragile belief, and she is unable to convert. It is not doctrinal issues, however, that are the sticking point...


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pp. 371-394
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