What did female Quaker ministry look like? – tales of the Inner Light.

In 1814 Anna Braithwaite was ‘called to the ministry’ as a Quaker female.

But what did that mean?

Being ‘called to the ministry’ in many denominations in this period entailed a rigorous process by which candidates were evaluated by members at the ordaining church, or a panel of churchmen such as a presbytery.

For Baptists and Congregationalists a new minister was often subjected to a trial period, during which the he preached lengthy sermons from the pulpit, exhorted members and attendees individually, and demonstrated leadership in other areas of the church. Members would subsequently decide whether or not to invite this man to the pulpit on a permanent basis.

For some groups, a minister could be ejected as quickly as he was accepted as a minister. Church minutes of Baptist churches, for instance, indicate that pastors who did not attract a sufficient number of members or cultivate feelings of being ‘spiritually fed’ were quickly dismissed from their post.

But this was not the case for Anna Braithwaite.

Firstly, as a female minister, she (and other Quaker females) were permitted something which was largely disallowed in other denominations.

Secondly, being called to the ministry amongst the Quakers was distinctly different from being invited to the pulpit as a Baptist or a Congregationalist. Indeed, in her memoirs, collated by her son (Joseph Bevan Braithwaite), clarifications are issued regarding her call to the ministry.

“It was not an ordination or appointment to that office.” notes Joseph.

Unlike other denominations, a Quaker minister did not become ‘a pastor’. So what did it entail? Joseph goes on:

“It was simply the recognition or “acknowledgement” by the Church of which she was a member of the spiritual gift, which in their apprehension, had been conferred upon her by the Great Head of the Church; at those immediate call and under whose authority alone, according to the views of the Society, any can be justified in breaking the silence of a religious meeting, or be qualified to speak in such meeting “to edification and comfort and consolation.”

Quaker meetings did not include a pre-planned sermon delivered from the pulpit by an ordained minister. Instead, Quaker meetings were marked with a time of ‘silence’ during which members would pray and listen whilst other members shared brief words of comfort, edification and consolation. All were welcome to ‘break the silence’ if so moved – including women.

To be acknowledged as a minister was a ‘recognition’, as Joseph notes, that this particular individual had clearly been gifted to speak regularly for these purposes. The key to this ministry was not the oratory ability of the speaker, perceived pastoral effectiveness, nor the ability to attract members. The key to Quaker ministry was: The Inner Light.

The Inner Light

In Joseph John Gurney’s ‘Systematic Theology’ for Quakers (Observations on the Religious Peculiarities of the Society of Friends) he dedicated an entire chapter to the ministry of women.

Although the epistles of Paul indicate that women were to ‘remain silent’ and to refrain from ‘teaching’, Joseph offered a divergent interpretation from those often heeded in other denominations. For Joseph, this edict regarded teaching with authority, which was to be distinguished from ‘prophesy or preaching’. And the reason why he believed this distinction was important was due to his understanding of ‘The Inner Light’ – or – the Holy Spirit.

Joseph John Gurney, as with many Quakers, believed that the preaching which took place within meetings was to solely consist of that which was prompted by the Spirit. Indeed, if you peruse Quaker diaries and letters from the 18th and 19th centuries you will discover that some Quakers experienced profound anxiety about acting before, or failing to act subsequent to, the Spirit’s leading. Submission to the leading of the ‘Inner Light’ was paramount for many Quakers*

And thus, it was believed, women must not be excluded.

‘We dare not say to the modest and pious female, “Thou shalt not declare the word of the Lord,’ when we believe that, from an infinitely higher authority, there is issued a directly opposite injunction, ‘Thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee, thou shalt speak’.

To suggest that women could not preach, argued Joseph, was to try to silence the Spirit.

So, when Anna Braithwaite accepted the ‘calling to the ministry’ in 1814 as a Quaker minister, hers was not a vocation which would have born any resemblance to that practised by the Dissenters in Congregationalist, Baptist, or even Unitarian congregations.

As noted in her memoirs, Anna Braithwaite simply ‘yielded to the impression’ [of the Inner Light] which called her into the ministry and encouraged her continuance therein.


*Note: The emphasis on the Inner Light, as it contrasted with other ‘outer knowledge’ (such as the Bible) was a subject of much controversy within the Quaker groups. Quietists and Wilburites (who placed greater emphasis on the Inner Light) were at tension with the evangelicals (Gurneyites) and Beaconites who conceived differently of this balance between Scripture and Inner Light.

One thought on “What did female Quaker ministry look like? – tales of the Inner Light.

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: