"I Consoled My Heart": Conversion Rhetoric and Female Subjectivity in the Personal Narratives of Elizabeth Ashbridge and Abigail Bailey

By Harde, Roxanne | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2004 | Go to article overview

"I Consoled My Heart": Conversion Rhetoric and Female Subjectivity in the Personal Narratives of Elizabeth Ashbridge and Abigail Bailey


Harde, Roxanne, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


When they touched their hearts, they touched their deepest faith. If
they could deceive others with their tongues, they could never deceive
themselves in their hearts.... Only there could self examination be
effective. Only there could God's will be known.
Norman Pettit, The Heart Prepared

Sometime before her marriage to Aaron Ashbridge in 1746, Elizabeth Ashbridge wrote the first-person account of her religious conversion to Quakerism. The narrative follows the general pattern of colonial New England conversion narratives, the particular conventions of the Quaker conversion account, and is inscribed by patriarchal ideologies; yet Ashbridge works within these circumscriptions to structure a conversion rhetoric that defines herself as the empowered speaking subject. Several decades later, after her divorce from Asa Bailey in 1793, Abigail Abbott Bailey wrote an autobiography that is a narrative of established faith but also placed within the pattern of conversion. The trials she suffers at the hands of her husband form an extended test of faith that is written, like that of Ashbridge, wholly within contemporary cultural convention and circumscription. While Ashbridge centers the "Self," of which she remains constantly aware, in the midst of seeking and being tested by God, Bailey enters into an earnest "I-Thou" discourse with God, through which she structures her own sense of self. Ultimately, my concerns lie in the projects these women undertake, Ashbridge on her way to conversion and Bailey after her conversion, to articulate their subjectivity and to understand the workings of their lives in the rhetoric of conversion and faith, and I see the essence of these projects as prefiguring today's feminist theology. (1) I argue that Ashbridge and Bailey rely on conventional religious rhetorical structures to define God as their key external referent and to define their hearts as the internalization of that referent. As these women embrace and claim patriarchal rhetorical strategies, they also claim an empowerment made evident by their resistance to adversity, subvert the circumscription of expected female behavior, and appropriate and integrate power into the feminine voice.

My reading of Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge (1774) and the Memoirs of Mrs. Abigail Bailey (1815) begins with both women's reliance on the rhetoric of the "heart prepared," a rhetoric that Norman Pettit finds essential to the Calvinist conversion narrative. Specifically, I argue that Ashbridge and Bailey both position their hearts as logogic sites in a rhetoric of self-definition in relation to their husbands and in relation to God. (2) In their struggles with their husbands and their faith, the heart becomes, for Ashbridge and Bailey, the logical site for the confluence of sensual and spiritual meaning in the instance of Logos, the Word made Flesh. As Calvinist women in covenantal marriage, and with the heart culturally designated as the site of all sentiment, these women were meant to dedicate their hearts to their husbands. At the same time, the heart was also seen as the seat of faith--in keeping with its etymological bases since all ancient forms of the word "faith" define it as the resting of one's heart--and they were meant to rest it on God. I suggest that these women write the heart, instead of the mind or the soul, as logogic site, because their conflicts were rooted in both man-woman relationships and God-human relationships.

In terms of the heart as a secular site, Ashbridge's and Bailey's inheritance goes back to the Bible's positioning of the heart as the seat of all emotions, as it does in the Song of Songs, and to early Renaissance and American colonial literature that sets the heart as the particular site of romantic love, as does the poetry of Edmund Spenser or Anne Bradstreet. In terms of the heart as the site of faith and religious understanding, the meaning that Ashbridge and Bailey inherited from early Puritanism is best articulated by Pettit: "[B]eyond the voice, behind the conscience, the heart told them the truth about themselves and their relation to God" (1). …

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