Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Quakerism, Ministry, Marriage, and Divorce: The Ordeal of Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Quakerism, Ministry, Marriage, and Divorce: The Ordeal of Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader

Article excerpt

Court sessions were major events in Indiana in the 1830s. Local residents came to the county seat to hear the oratory of the lawyers who traveled the circuit with the judge, see friends and neighbors, and perhaps earn a little cash by getting themselves placed on a jury. Those attending the sessions of the Washington County Circuit Court in Salem, Indiana, in June 1837 witnessed something virtually unprecedented. The case was an action for divorce, which in Indiana at that time was uncommon, but not unheard of. But the plaintiff, Salem storekeeper Joseph Cadwalader, was a former Quaker minister. And his wife was also a Quaker minister, one of the best known in the United States, Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader.1

The importance of the Cadwalader divorce, however, lies not in its novelty. Certainly Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader deserves more attention than she has received from historians. She was regarded as a Quaker preacher of unusual gifts and power, probably the most important woman minister of the time to espouse the cause of Elias Hicks and "Reformation" when the Hicksite Separation of 1827-1828 took place. She traveled over most of the United States, and influenced Friends from New England to Illinois. She also became, if such a thing is possible for a Quaker minister, notorious, because of the unhappy marriage that ended in divorce and became the center of public debate.

To consider the life of Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader is to do more than reconstruct ancient scandals. She deserves more attention than she has had, and she deserves it for four reasons. First, Priscilla was at the center of the Hicksite Separation in Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends, which by the 1820s was the fastest growing yearly meeting in the world, but in which, after the division, the Hicksite Friends were weak. Understanding that period of her life reveals the course of the separation better, particularly why Hicksites were so weak there. Had the circumstances of her personal life been different, the course of the split in the Ohio Valley might have been different as well. Second, Priscilla's life shows something about the lives and experiences of Quaker women. Priding themselves on treatment of women that gave greater latitude to their gifts than any other denomination, Friends were almost helpless in dealing with a marriage of two prominent Friends that failed publicly, but quite willing to make use of it in their internal strife, to the woman's disadvantage. Third, that failed marriage may have had lasting consequences, as one of the incidents of injustice on the minds of at least some of the Hicksite Quaker women who met at Seneca Falls, New York, for the first women's rights convention in 1848. Priscilla's story offers perspective on glib interpretations of history that so often portray "the Quakers" as united in support of women's rights. Finally, Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader's experiences disclose the complexity of Protestant women's lives in the era of the Second Great Awakening. The religious history of the first half of the nineteenth century was not just one story. Rather, it was a constellation of individual stories, some more obscure and harder to pin down than others, but no less significant for their elusiveness. Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader's story is one of them.2

Reconstructing the life of this remarkable woman, however, involves peculiar challenges. No contemporary Quaker of her stature left so few traces behind her. Over a decade of searching has unearthed only two letters by her, both published as part of a pamphlet. Even the memoir published after her death includes only one item from her pen. Most of her writings were destroyed during her lifetime by her husband. Tran- scripts of a few of her sermons are extant, however, as are the diaries of some of her traveling companions, and the news and gossip about her that Friends shared with one another in correspondence that has been preserved. Thus, for the most part, Priscilla's voice can be heard only as others recorded it. …

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