Nancy Towle, 1796-1876
"Faithful Child of God"
By Judith Bledsoe Bailey, April 2000
ConclusionBack to Chapter III -- Forward to Nancy Towle photo -- Return to Table of Contents
After studying the life and times of Nancy Towle, it is tempting to conclude "the more things change, the more they stay the same." It is discouraging to realize that twenty-first century women still contend with gender-based inequity. Christian women still use the same biblical arguments for female equality that Nancy Towle used, and their opponents still use the same biblical arguments that Towle's used. The battle continues to rage among biblical literalists over the proper role for women in the church. Women whose gifts and sense of calling lead them into ministry must first decide whether they have the strength to run the gauntlet of suspicion or outright rejection. Thus many Christian women who are feminists decide they cannot live honestly within the church. But the question remains, what do they do with their faith, with their conviction that "Jesus is Lord"? Can they be Christian and feminist?
The most theologically conservative Christians today and the most radical secular feminists would view "Christian feminist" an impossible contradiction in terms. Fundamentalist Christians believe the Bible excludes women from authoritative positions of leadership. Secular feminists contend that women who claim to be Christian compromise their personhood by adhering to what they consider an oppressive religion. Yet there are women who embrace both Christianity and feminism, who claim the third option between two opposing forces. These women bridge the gap, allowing the insights of both camps to enrich and inform their lives and acknowledging the reality of complexity and paradox.
Many things have changed since Nancy Towle wrestled with those who excluded women from preaching. Women serve as pastors of churches and in other positions of ecclesiastical authority. Women who are both Christian and feminist today have the advantage of theological education; knowledge of Hebrew and Greek allows fresh interpretations of biblical texts. Feminist theologians who recognize the influence of a patriarchal society, as well as an androcentric world view upon the Bible, are developing new theologies that imagine God as female as well as male. In addition, today's women enjoy political and social benefits achieved through the efforts of radical feminists.
Contemporary women have made progress since Nancy Towle struggled with literalistic interpretations of the Bible in a society where she was not even allowed to vote. Yet Nancy Towle, with her sense of divine leadership and her belief in equal rights also negotiated an identity that bridged evangelical theology and woman's rights. Who would have thought that one person could embrace the ideas of both Lorenzo Dow and Mary Wollstonecraft?
Nancy Towle's publications are valuable evidence for a tradition of preaching women as well as for a woman who believed in the basic worth and natural rights of women. In several ways Towle was a "bridge person." She was born into a strong revolutionary family of independent thinkers who expressed their freedom socially, politically and spiritually. She experienced conversion under the preaching of a woman and then participated in early nineteenth century revivals along with the most famous and influential female and male preachers of the era.1
1[Towle is listed as a minister from Hampton in David H. P. Carter, The Native Ministry of New Hampshire (Concord: Rumford Printing Co., 1906), 903.]When dissenting sects were becoming respectable denominations that excluded female preaching, Towle recognized gender inequality and protested with a publishing campaign. Towle dismissed passages of scripture that prohibit the public teaching of women in favor of scriptures that assume equality for both males and females. Towle lived in a "bridge" period of history in which there was a strong community of female preachers. After 1830 the numbers declined and those who followed did not enjoy the same level of support. As if aware they would be forgotten, Towle preserved their lives in print.
Little is known of Nancy Towle's life after she published The Female Religious Advocate in 1834. And the ending is not a happy one. One can sense the frustration of a woman who no longer fit in anywhere.
According to family history,2
2 [Virginia Taylor, Nancy Towle's great, great, great niece. Interview by author, Hampton, New Hampshire, August 1996.]she returned home to Hampton in 1840 after the sudden death of her brother Major Simon Nudd Towle.3
3 [Major Simon N. Towle, age 36 at his death, was described as a well- known and respected public servant. "He was an indulgent husband and kind father, an approved christian and sincere friend. His life, though short, was filled with works to answer life's great end." Portsmouth Journal, 17 January 1840.]She reportedly felt that it was inappropriate for her unmarried brother David and Simon's widow, Sarah Berry Towle, to live in the house together, even though three of Sarah's children were still in residence. Did she retire from itineracy at that time? Was Simon's death a reason or an excuse to leave the "howling wilderness"?
In view of the Panic of 1837 and years of depression that followed, perhaps Towle returned to claim her inheritance. As the only unmarried daughter, her father's will provided for her one third of the house, enough wood to keep the fires going, and one eighth acre of land, presumably for a garden.4
4 [Philip Towle, "Last Will and Testament," 1831 October 12 (Brentwood, N.H.: Rockingham County Probate Court), Old Series No. 12257.]The land belonged to her older brother David Towle, who had remained on the farm.
Many questions are unanswered. Did Nancy Towle give up preaching? Was she forced to depend upon David for support? It is unlikely that Nancy Towle was content to do the household chores and renounce her professional identity completely. There may have been occasional preaching engagements among old friends. She apparently never gave up her love of travel, and in her old age dreamed of going again. "Impressions of her foreign travels remained longest in memory and glorified the phantasms of her later years, when her over-taxed system shattered, her useful labors closed, the still restless soul kept up the hopeful refrain: 'The good ship is coming - we're going tomorrow."5
Letters from nieces Mary Elizabeth and Georgie indicate strained family relationships, as Nancy Towle, the revivalist preacher returned home. Towle had expressed concern in Vicissitudes that her mother and sisters, with the exception of Sally Odell, were not sufficiently zealous in their faith.6
6[Towle, 110, 117.]Always an authoritative person, she apparently was increasingly judgmental and contentious in her old age.
Mary Elizabeth Towle (born in 1835) wrote to mother Sarah: "The years I spent at the Academy I was always afraid of Aunt Nancy. She was so ugly to you. And the way she yelled at you and Simon was downright hateful. Such hellfire and damnation!"7
7[Virginia Taylor, Personal Collection of Family Letters.]
Elizabeth's sister Georgie (born in 1837) agreed. In a letter to her mother after Nancy Towle's death she wrote to her mother: "When I went to school in the academy, I was always terribly afraid I should come across Aunt Nancy..." (February 22, 1877)8
Upon Nancy's death, January 1, 1876, Sarah Berry Towle wrote to her daughter Mary Elizabeth: "Today your Aunt Nancy died in the front chamber where, first her father, then her mother also passed away. Of late she suffered such delusions and voiced so much lamentation, that she sought death as a joyful release. At long last may her weary soul rest in peace."
Nancy Towle's tombstone in High Street Cemetery, Hampton, bears the following inscription: "She was a faithful child of God."
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VITAJudith Bledsoe Bailey
Born in Dyersburg, Tennessee, January 8, 1942. Graduated from Dyersburg High School, June 1960, and received her B.A. in English / Religion and Philosophy from Lambuth College in 1964. Masters degree in Religious Education from Union Theological Seminary, New York, in 1966. Other study at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., Union Theological Seminary in Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.
The author served as Baptist Campus Minister at the University of Richmond from 1977-1998. Currently, she and her husband, David, are Co-Pastors of Taylorsville Baptist Church, Doswell, Virginia.