If eighteenth-century New England had had reality shows, Elizabeth Ashbridge probably wouldn’t have been a great candidate. Don’t let her claims of naughtiness fool you–there was no stripper pole in her bedroom. She seems incredibly conflicted, however, about a favorite pastime which she left off after becoming a Quaker, the scandalous practice of singing and dancing.
In her autobiographical journal Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge, Ashbridge confesses–in a self-exposing comment that seems quite random to the twenty-first century reader–“I had been brought up in the way of the Church of England, and though…I had a religious education, yet I was allowed to sing and dance” (6). The placement of this strange confession comes directly after Ashbridge describes her first visit to see a “relation” who “was one of the people called Quakers” (6). The connection is not automatically obvious, and the reader is unsure of what to make of the Ashbridge’s confession about singing and dancing.
Several pages later in her memoir, when describing the understandably traumatic experience of entering into indentured servitude to pay for trans-Atlantic passage to New England, Ashbridge recounts the disgust she felt for her new master, who “seemed to be a very religious man,” but whose inclination to “divert[ing] [himself], in the evening, with cards and songs, and, a few moments after, introduc[ing] prayers and singing psalms to Almighty God” was exceedingly troublesome to her and apparently exposed him (in her mind) as a spiritual impostor (13-14). As her journal continues, she continues to juxtapose dancing and singing with spiritual rectitude, and it becomes clear that her refusal to sing and dance for her husband, as she did during their courtship and early marriage, begins to cause major marital issues. In one disturbing scene of marital violence, Asbridge’s husband requests she dance for him and his friends and he physically abuses her when she refuses. Fortunately, the friends step in and put a stop to the dispute, and Ashbridge says, “the answer of peace was afforded me, for refusing to dance” (36).
As Elizabeth Ashbridge becomes increasingly involved with the community of Friends, she realizes she must hang up her dancing shoes–but why? Why must her joining this new faith sect mean the end of her dancing days? Kenneth Carroll and Michael Graves help to answer these questions.
Carroll and Graves give two major reasons, in their respective works, explaining the Quakers’ aversion to singing and dancing. In Carroll’s “Singing in the Spirit in Early Quakerism,” the author states, “one of the more intriguing aspects of early Quakerism is to be seen in its somewhat mixed attitude toward singing” (1). Carroll explains the first reason that Quakers disliked singing: it originated in their aversion to the use of “forms” in worship. (This is likely the reason Ashbridge retrospectively criticizes her former master’s practice of “praying every night in his family; unless his prayer-book could not be found, for he never prayed without it to my knowledge” (13) and her disdain for “the recital of…ridiculous contents” required by Catholicism (8).) They believed that spiritual expression should originate in “immediate movings of the Holy Spirit” (Carroll 2), and only in this context could an individual “sing with the spirit and sing with understanding also” (1 Corinthians 14:15), otherwise it was considered a “lie” and “rather a selfish act” (Sternhold and Hopkins).
This self-denial did not limit itself to singing, as Michael Graves demonstrates in “The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice of the Quakers.” Graves comments that Quakers “are not noted for their contributions to the arts” (239) because their religious and intellectual founders (George Fox and Robert Barclay, for example) believed popular entertainment like ” games, sports, plays, dancing, comedies &c. do naturally tend to draw men from God’s fear, to make them forget heaven, death and judgement, to foster lust, vanity, and wantonness…” (343). Therefore, the second reason Quakers disliked enjoyable pastimes like singing and dancing was that they believed it distracted them from their true purpose: serving God.
Finally Elizabeth Ashbridge’s anxieties toward singing and dancing begin to make sense. She was raised in the Church of England, which had no qualms about such activities. When she was introduced to Quaker beliefs, however, she began to feel convicted about her former forms of entertainment. Consequently, these convictions colored the way she spoke described her earlier life in her journal. Something as seemingly insignificant as a person’s choice whether or not to sing or dance might tell us quite a bit about them, as is the case with Elizabeth Ashbridge.
Ashbridge, Elizabeth. Some Account of the Early Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge.
Carroll, Kenneth L. “Singing in the Spirit in Early Quakerism.” Quaker History. 73.1 (Spring 1984): 1-13. JSTOR. Web. 28 Sep 2014.
Graves, Michael P. “The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice and the Quakers.” Truth’s Bright Embrace: Essays and Poems in Honor of Arthur O. Roberts. Paper 27. George Fox University Digital Commons. Web. 28 Sep 2014.