Nancy Towle, "Faithful Child of God", 1796-1876

By Judith Bledsoe Bailey, April 2000

A Thesis Presented to The Faculty of the Department of American Studies
The College of William and Mary in Virginia

(Made available here with the permission of the author.)

Table of Contents

  1. CHAPTER I. Memoirs
  2. CHAPTER II. The Female Evangelist
  3. CHAPTER III. Publishing Campaign
    • Bibliography
    • Biography of Author

List of Photographs

1. Photograph of Nancy Towle
2. The Towle House, 1912
495 Lafayette Road, Hampton, NH
3. The Towle House, 1996
495 Lafayette Road, Hampton, NH
4. Philip Towle's Tombstone
Ring Swamp Cemetery, Park Avenue, Hampton, NH


The writer wishes to express deep appreciation to Professor Robert Gross, whose knowledge, insight and encouragement have been invaluable in my research and writing. The author is also indebted to historian Catherine Brekus, who generously shared her research on female preachers, and to Virginia Taylor of Hampton, New Hampshire, who gave me the family history about Nancy Towle. The writer expresses appreciation to Professors Christopher Grasso and Maureen Fitzgerald for their interest and their careful reading and criticism of the manuscript.

The author expresses gratitude for the unfailing, loving support of my husband and children throughout the long process of study and writing.


This thesis is an attempt to understand the shifting attitudes toward ordained female leadership through the study of one of the over one hundred women who were preaching in America between 1740-1845. Nancy Towle (1796-1876) found her identity and vocation in the revivals of evangelical Christianity. Between 1821-1832 she was an itinerant evangelist, traveling more than twenty thousand miles in twelve states, Canada, England and Ireland, preaching among many different Christian communities in a variety of settings.

An educated woman from an elite Hampton, New Hampshire revolutionary family, Nancy Towle began preaching when dissenting sects welcomed the participation of female preachers. As the sects became established denominations and excluded female preachers, Nancy Towle entered a publishing campaign to protest and defend the role of women in the evangelical enterprise. She published three books and a newspaper.

This thesis examines Towle's memoirs in comparison with those of other evangelicals, traces her biography in historical context and analyzes each of her publications to see how they are a defense of female piety and preaching. Her publications provide valuable information not only about herself, but also about the community of female preachers who were active in the revivals of the early nineteenth century. As if aware that female preachers would be forgotten, Towle was determined to preserve their lives in print.

Nancy Towle was not only a theologically conservative evangelical preacher, but also an advocate for female equality. Just as her itineracy spanned the fluid historical period of welcome then exclusion for female preachers, Towle bridged the ideological gap between the evangelicals and the woman's rights activists.


This thesis grows out of a personal interest in the role of ordained women in the contemporary church. As a seminary student in the 1960s, I benefitted from the social, political and religious liberalism of that era. Protestant churches then welcomed initiatives in all aspects of their life, from encouraging social activism, innovating in worship and opening up clerical leadership to women. In recent decades, however, I have seen a retreat. A resurgence of religious fundamentalism, particularly in the Southern Baptist convention, seeks to restore women to a subordinate place in a patriarchal order, and that means excluding them from the pastorate of churches. Issues of biblical authority and interpretation are focal points for debate.

On August 9, 1964 Addie Davis became the first woman to be ordained by a Southern Baptist church, Watts Street Baptist church in Durham, North Carolina. By 1982 the Reverend Davis had at least 175 female colleagues in the ministry. I was one of them. In 1982 I became the first woman to be ordained by Four Mile Creek Baptist Church, Richmond, and the first in the Dover Baptist Association, both over two hundred years old. My ordination was a harbinger of change, one sign among many of a new era at hand, where the church would recognize the spiritual gifts of everyone, regardless of race, sex or status.

Unfortunately, a backlash was growing. In 1984 at a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, Texas, the delegates from local congregations, known as "messengers," adopted a resolution opposing the ordination of women. The justification was an interpretation of the Bible which holds that Adam, first in creation, must be first in society; Eve, the first to fall away from God's will, must endure second place on this earth. Fortunately, that resolution was merely advisory; Southern Baptist churches are autonomous bodies, free to adopt policies on their own.

Many thus continued to ordain women. By 1996, notwithstanding the convention vote, the ranks of ordained women among Southern Baptists had expanded ten-fold, to some 1,160. Sixty-five of them were pastors. Nevertheless, such changes had made no dent in Southern Baptist thinking on the national level. SBC publications insist on hierarchy in family and church. Policies for Southern Baptist Convention agencies, boards and seminaries maintain fundamentalist theology, putting women in a supposedly traditional and subordinate place.

In my attempt to understand and deal with shifting attitudes toward ordained female leadership, especially in the Baptist church, I have asked many questions. What historical, religious and social realities create a climate of openness and then reversal? Why a resurgence of religious fundamentalism following the liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s? Why does the history of female leadership in the church follow a pattern of progress and decline? I delved into the past and sought out instances of female preaching and leadership in Protestant churches.

As I began research in 1995 I was amazed to learn from Catherine Brekus, who had just completed a Ph.D dissertation at Yale University on this subject, that there was a significant group of women preaching in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Her book, Strangers and Pilgrims, Female Preaching in America,1740-1845. has recently been published. In both dissertation and book, Brekus documents the involvement of females in the revivals of the First Great Awakening and has discovered at least one hundred women who were preaching in revivals of dissenting denominations in America between 1790 and 1845. These white and African American women provide a rich heritage of courageous women whose strength of motivation and personal authority challenged religious and societal barriers of their day.

In spite of this record, evident in numerous publications, and notwithstanding their tireless efforts to create a tradition of female religious leadership in America, female preachers have disappeared from the historical record. The explanation lies in their distinctive world view, which separates them sharply from women in our own time. These female preachers, Brekus argues, were "biblical" rather than secular feminists. Like the Southern Baptists who oppose the ordination of women in the church, the female preachers in the past based their claims to female equality in the Bible. Their arguments were grounded in scriptural revelation, not natural rights. Such justification set strict limits on their leadership. Though the women brought hundreds of new converts into evangelical churches, they did not baptize them, never presided over a Lord's Supper, and did not seek to be ordained. For all their preaching, they were resigned to serving as men's helpmates or assistants.

Why then, were such "biblical" feminists forgotten? Brekus concludes that they were left out of history because no one wanted to preserve their memory. They were revolutionary in their defense of female preaching, but orthodox in their theology. They were too conservative to be remembered by women's rights activists, but too radical to be remembered by the evangelicals. Yet, because these women's lives were not entirely radical or entirely traditional, they offer a revealing glimpse of early American culture. Like many other women of their time, they participated in the public sphere, but they "did not challenge the political structures that enforced their inequality in the family, church and state."1

1[Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims, Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 7.]
Even so, as Brekus points out, the spiritual activism of these women demands attention. They give us a new view of the religious landscape of early America, and they challenge common notions of cultural, political, economic and religious change. First, when seen through the eyes of women as well as men the revivals of the Great Awakening were "surprisingly ephemeral."2
2 [Ibid., 11.]
Though for the first time in history large numbers of evangelical women spoke publicly in their churches, within a decade most evangelical churches in New England and the South were intent on putting the genie of change back in the bottle. During the American Revolution, the era of the "common man," fewer women were allowed to preach, testify or witness in public. Sharper lines were drawn between masculine and feminine, public and private.

Second, according to Brekus, in addition to illuminating the short- lived radicalism of the Great Awakening, the stories of female preachers reveal the populist conservatism of nineteenth century revivalism (the Second Great Awakening 1790-1845). The rhetoric of equality espoused by dynamic preachers was accompanied by distrust of the changes in American life accompanying- the market revolution. Even when they allowed women to preach, denominational leaders set firm limits on female religious authority

Third, information about the female preachers further challenges the concept of "separate spheres," the dominant paradigm in scholarship on women and gender in the nineteenth century. The emergence of female preaching in the early nineteenth century was connected to the expansion of the vast middle ground between public and private, the arena of "civil society" shared both by men and women. After disestablishment, churches became voluntary associations competing for members and encouraging female participation.

Finally, Brekus argues that the nineteenth century notion of a "two-sex" model of gender helped to expand women's opportunities for religious leadership. Under the previous "one-sex model," female preachers had to transcend their feminine nature in order to assume a public role. In a major reversal, evangelicals affirmed that women had the right to preach as women. They described women not only as instruments of God who had transcended their gender, but as "Mothers in Israel" and "Sisters in Christ" who could claim divine inspiration for preaching the gospel. The "two-sex" model stereotyping women had its disadvantages, yet many women used the language of female difference to justify their participation in civil society.

In light of -these historical arguments, Nancy Towle (1796-1876) of Hampton, New Hampshire deserves further study. Towle was one of the female evangelists who found her identity and vocation in the nineteenth century revivals of evangelical Christianity. During the years 1821-1832, she was an itinerant evangelist, traveling more than twenty thousand miles, preaching among many different Christian communities, in a variety of settings. An educated woman from an elite family, Nancy Towle published her memoirs in 1832. Vicissitudes Illustrated in the Experience of Nancy Towle in Europe and America drawn from the journals she kept during her itineracy, is the account of her conversion and call to preach and the record of her itinerant ministry.

My research on Nancy Towle's life supports some of Brekus' historical arguments and expands others. For example, Nancy Towle's extensive travel and public speaking strengthen the argument that female preachers were quite active in civil society, thus challenging the concept of "separate spheres." Second, Nancy Towle's two-fold argument for female preaching based upon spiritual equality (Galatians 3:28) and biblical female role models, reflects the "two-sex" model that Brekus described. But it should be emphasized that Towle did not argue for the inherent spirituality of women. She avoided gender stereotyping both through her arguments for preaching and by evaluating the women and men of her acquaintance as individuals.

Third, Nancy Towle's experience of being first welcomed then excluded from preaching bears out Brekus' description of the populist conservatism of the Second Great Awakening. However, Nancy Towle did not accept the limits upon female authority, the patriarchal domination of the evangelical community and the eventual exclusion of females from preaching. Her response was a publishing campaign to defend the role of female preachers in the evangelical enterprise. In 1831 Towle published The Life and Ministry of Ann Freeman. a radical English evangelist. In 1832, after eleven years of preaching she completed Vicissitudes with a second printing in 1833. She published Some of the Writings and Last Sentences of Adolphus Dewey. Executed at Montreal in 1833, and in 1834 she began publishing a religious journal, The Female Religious Advocate in New York City.

In my evaluation, Nancy Towle's publications are her most important contribution to current scholarship and to the history of female preaching. As if aware that female preachers would be forgotten, Towle was determined to preserve their lives in print. More than other evangelists who published, Towle included the stories of other women as well as her own. She resolved to leave a printed record "for the encouragement of my own sex, that may succeed me in the Lord's Vineyard...." Significantly, about one hundred and sixty years later, it was her book, Vicissitudes that stimulated Catherine Brekus' extensive research and discovery of preaching women who had been left out of history.3

3[Ibid., 5.]

Finally, Catherine Brekus describes Nancy Towle as "one of the most radical female preachers"4

4[Ibid., 224.]
because of her stand for woman's rights in Vicissitudes. From my study, I expand Brekus' assessment to argue that Nancy Towle was so radical that she bridged the gap between the theological orthodox female preachers and the woman's rights activists. Forced by her experience to recognize the importance of gender in her life, Towle changed the focus of her life from preaching for spiritual salvation to preaching and writing to save women from social and religious subjugation.

In the following pages I describe Nancy Towle's publication of Vicissitudes in 1832, placing her work in the context of other evangelical publications. My second chapter will detail her biography in historical context, asking the question, "what brought her to the point of publication of Vicissitudes?" I will demonstrate how both the influence and importance of family, her sense of being called by God, and her experience of preaching in the evangelical revivals brought her to publish her memoirs. In the third chapter I will analyze Towle's publications to determine how each is a defense of female preaching and a protest against exclusion. In conclusion I will discuss Nancy Towle as a "bridge person" between periods of history, as well as between theological conservatism and woman's rights. I will also discuss her life after 1834.

Forward to Chapter I

This thesis is submitted in partial fulfillment of
the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts

/s/Judith B. Bailey
Judith B. Bailey

Approved, April 2000

/s/Robert Gross
Robert Gross

/s/Maureen Fitzgerald
Maureen Fitzgerald

/s/Christopher Grasso
Christopher Grasso

To my mother,
Gladys McKnight Bledsoe