Nancy Towle, 1796-1876

“Faithful Child of God”

By Judith Bledsoe Bailey, April 2000

Chapter II

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The Female Evangelist

In contrast with the vicissitudes of her life, Towle’s home and family, journal and faith were elements of permanence and stability. Facing an uncertain future in 1832, she created two memorials to herself: she published her book and she had her name engraved on Philip’s tombstone. What brought Nancy Towle to write and publish her book at this time? Why did she dedicate her book to Philip? Why was it so important to be remembered? Why was it necessary to identify a new direction for her life in the closing pages of Vicissitudes? Originally called to preach spiritual salvation, she would now preach and write to save women from social and religious subjugation.

Nancy Towle, born February 13, 1796, was the daughter of Colonel Philip Towle and Betsey Nudd Towle of Hampton, New Hampshire. The third of nine children, six girls and three boys, Towle was born in the house built by her grandfather, Ensign Philip Towle, in 1763. To this house she returned between her travels and in retirement from itineracy. She died in the front bedroom on January 1, 1876. Still occupied in Hampton, [495 Lafayette Road, Hampton, NH] the Towle house remained in the family until 1937. It is an imposing structure, a symbol of stability and of the power of family in the life of Nancy Towle. The size of the house, 38′ x 28,’ two stories, two chimneys, with center stairs, plus kitchen and cellar, is indicative of the Towle family wealth. In 1798 only one in a hundred lived in a similar house, it was valued at an exceptional $3,000.1

1[Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1740-1840, (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 113. The layout and dimensions of the Towle house are from the family records of Virginia Taylor, Hampton, New Hampshire.]

The Towles and the Nudds, two of the oldest families of Hampton, had been landowners since 1644 and 1643 respectively. The original Philip Towle came to Hampton in 1637 from northern England. Thomas Nudd, also of England, came to Hampton in 1643.2

2[George Thomas Little, ed., Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine 4 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Col, 1909),4.]

Land was passed down from father to son for generations.

Originally named “Winnacunnet,” Hampton was organized by the Rev. Steven Bachiler and followers in 1638.3

3[Joseph Dow, History of the Town of Hampton vol. 1 (Portsmouth: Peter E. Randall, Publisher, 1988), 343.]

Bachiler, a Dissenter who came to Boston from England in 1632, was pastor of churches at Lynn and Ipswich, Massachusetts before coming to Hampton. The original settlers were bound together by a church covenant, and the town history is inextricably linked to the history of the Congregational Church of Hampton, the oldest church in continuous existence in New Hampshire.4

4[Charles A. Hazlett, History of Rockingham County New Hampshire and Representative Citizens (Chicago: Richmond-Arnold Publishing Co., 1915), 450.]

Ministers of the church, whose salaries were paid by the town, were chosen in a town meeting as well as by vote of the congregation. Some ministers were more orthodox than others, and there was always a diversity of theological opinions within the congregation. Consequently, the selection of ministers was challenging and at times divisive. One incident in particular involved Nancy Towle’s great grandfather, Philip Towle and her grandfather Ensign Philip Towle.

Following the dismissal of the Reverend Ward Cotton in 1765, there were three ministers considered by the town for employment: John Marsh, Ebenezer Thayer, and Jeremy Belknap, author of the History of New Hampshire. In a process of voting after hearing these candidates preach, Belknap received the largest number of votes. Supporters of Marsh, fearful that Belknap would be chosen, joined with the supporters of Thayer. In the final vote, Thayer, a theological “moderate” won. A letter of protest signed by twenty-two persons, among whom were Philip Towle and Ensign Philip Towle, noted that the meetings to choose a minister had been carried on without “love and unity” and that many of those who voted for Thayer only did so to prevent Jeremy Belknap from being chosen. The protesters also found the proposed salary to be exorbitant.5


In supporting Belknap, the Towles seemed to back the more orthodox candidate. Though Jeremy Belknap’s theology shifted toward the Arminianism of liberal theologians later in life, when he preached for the Hampton Church in 1766 Belknap embraced the traditional Calvinist view on original sin and predestination. Furthermore, he rejected the custom of the Half-Way Covenant. According to the half-way covenant persons even though uncertain of their conversion, were allowed to declare their faith in God and their support for the church’s covenant. By “owning the covenant” these persons became half-way members. They were allowed the important privilege of baptism for their children but were barred from Holy Communion. Belknap felt that this custom turned people away from the most important ordinance and the whole question of salvation. He thought the visible church should include only those who gave “credible evidence of faith and repentance.”6

6 [George B. Kirsch, Jeremy Belknap (New York: Arno Press, 1982), 26-28.]

Limiting baptism to those whose parents were full communicants would reinforce the distinction between the pure and visible church and the world.

The Hampton Church had endorsed the practice of the half-way covenant in 1662 when Seaborn Cotton was minister. Perhaps the majority voted against Belknap because a reversal of the practice would not only prevent them from baptizing their children, but would also limit the ability of the church to add members.7

7 [Robert G. Pope, The Half-Way Covenant: Church Membership in Puritan New England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 37-38.]

Thayer evidently won over the Towles and others, because he became greatly beloved by the people of Hampton.8

8[Dow, 444-45. In the winter of 1792 when Philip Towle, Nancy’s father, became depressed, the family sent for Mr. Thayer to come and talk with him. Towle, Vicissitudes. 127.]

It was difficult to find a minister to replace him. Following his death in September, 1792, the church at Hampton experienced a schism, resulting in the formation of a Presbyterian congregation and a Congregational Society. Nancy Towle’s grandfathers, Simon Nudd and Philip Towle, both selectmen, sided with the Presbyterians. Both the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists ordained ministers, in 1795 and 1797 respectively. Fortunately for the small town struggling to support two ministers, the division did not last long. In 1808 the Presbyterians and Congregationalists reunited into one church and called Josiah Webster to be minister of the town.9

9[Dow, 419-439.]

Webster was minister during Nancy Towle’s most formative years and throughout her itineracy.

Josiah Webster is described by historian Joseph Dow as a sincere pastor who labored “assiduously for the spiritual welfare of the people of his charge.”10

10[Dow, 444-445.]

Since Webster’s ordination sermon was preached by the “decidedly Calvinist11

11[William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1859), 399.]

Samuel Worcester, Webster was probably orthodox in his theology. The church did not grow greatly in numbers under Webster’s ministry. However, the 170 persons who were brought into the full communion of the church during his tenure of twenty-nine years (1808-1837) is significant in consideration of what “full communion” implies.

Partly because of his popularity and stature in the community, it was not until 1835 that the town voted to cease tax support of the Congregational minister, sixteen years after the New Hampshire Legislature had passed the 1819 Toleration Act.12

12[John A. Ross, History and Manual of the Congregational Church in Hampton, N. H. (Hampton: Printed for the Parish, 1902), 20.]

No doubt the religious controversy and the slow change in the town/church structure were factors in Nancy Towle’s parents,’ challenge to the church’s authority in spiritual and cultural matters. Standing in the “fault line” of the American Revolution, their generation experienced first-hand the turmoil over the meaning of freedom as it affected not only authority but organization and leadership as well.13


In years of economic uncertainty, massive migration and concern that the Republic would not survive, the Towles asserted their freedom and independence through the decisions they made. In several ways, Betsey and Philip broke with the older pre-revolutionary world “premised on standards of deference, patronage, and ordered succession.”14


First, they challenged the sexual norms of the past. When they were married in the parlor of the Towle home on August 16, 1792, Betsey was six months pregnant. In the 1780s and 1790s there was an “epidemic” of premarital pregnancies in which nearly one third of rural New England’s brides were already with child.15

15[Larkin, 193. Premarital pregnancies were common partially because they represented an act of self-determination on the part of women. See Robert Gross, The Minutemen and Their World (New York; Hill and Wang, 1976), 184.]

Maybe Philip and Betsy simply made a mistake in a fit of passion. Or, Betsey Nudd Towle was perhaps asserting her independence and Philip defying his father. According to family legend, though Ensign Philip Towle and Simon Nudd, Betsey’s father, were friends and fellow selectmen, Ensign Philip did not want his son to marry Betsey. She was considered a “tomboy,” helping her brothers get in the salt hay from the beach in Hampton, riding horses astraddle. She was not “ladylike” enough for his son Philip.16

16[Virginia Taylor, “A History of the Ensign Philip Towle House on Lafayette Road in Hampton, N.H.,” 2.]

In addition, age 22 was young for men to marry.

Not only did Philip and Betsey challenge the sexual norms, they challenged the religious establishment by not being involved in the town church. Though they were both baptized into the Congregational Church (Philip on April 8, 1770 and Betsey on February 28, 1770), and their marriage is recorded, there is no evidence in the church records that their children were baptized.17

17[The Records of the Church at Hampton Vol. 2, 252. Since Philip and Betsey were married in 1792, and the church split in 1794, there is a possibility that they may have worshipped with the Presbyterians. However, their children were born in 1792, 1794, 1796, 1798, 1800, 1803, 1805, 1807, and 1811, ample opportunities for baptism if they so desired.]

Furthermore, when Philip’s concern about his salvation (perhaps related to Betsey’s pregnancy) reached a state of depression in 1792, he rejected the counsel of the Congregational minister, Ebenezer Thayer, to “join the church; and go into lively company; and ward off your dejection.” Instead, he went outside to the barn, outside the “sacred space” of the organized church, to pray for forgiveness. Twenty years later in the revivals of itinerant evangelists he “found some, for the first time, that understood what I had felt.” After that he “took great delight” in going to meeting.18

18[Towle, 128.]

Finally, when Betsey and Philip entered religious life in Hampton, they chose the Freewill Baptists, not the established Congregational church. Philip began attending services with the Freewill Baptists in 1812, but he was not baptized until 1829, three years before his death in 1831.19

19[Ibid., 130.]

Betsey was one of the founding members of the (Freewill) Baptist Church in Hampton, in 1817.

Philip Towle began attending the meetings of the Freewill Baptists during the War of 1812, when he commanded the local militia in preparation for an anticipated British attack on Portsmouth. For a person who had grown up during the Revolution, in a town whose culture was dominated by the Congregationalists, the Freewill Baptists provided a personal challenge to Calvinism. The “freewill” message championed the ability of each individual, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to have an undeniable, immediate experience with God.20

20[Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 142.]

Salvation was attainable by everyone who would respond. With the Freewill Baptists Towle could express his spiritual autonomy as he fought for political and economic independence. In contrast, though there was diversity among Congregational ministers and congregations, in Calvinism the experience of conversion was removed from individual agency. Even though the unregenerate would participate in the usual means of grace, such as prayer, self-examination, attending public worship and participating in revivals, they would ultimately discover that after all their efforts they were utterly helpless before God. The wide distance between humans and God was spanned only by the grace of God, and conversion experiences had to be evaluated in light of doctrinal qualifications by the church community. Calvinist theology posed an untenable dilemma: each person was born a sinner, depraved by human nature, yet the atonement of Jesus Christ was limited to the those predestined by a sovereign God who ordained everything that happened.21

21[Ibid., 137]

The Freewill Baptists, Universalists and Shakers were the first to challenge Calvinist orthodoxy directly.22

22[Ibid., 7.]

These groups appeared in the hill country of New Hampshire, Vermont and northern Massachusetts during years of massive migration (1770s and 1780s) in the era of the American Revolution. It was a time of social, economic and political crisis as diverse populations were thrown together in new configurations of settlement unlike the old New England town and church model. In contrast with southern New England, the northern economy was underdeveloped and dependent upon raw materials rather than shipping and commercial farming. The social structure was egalitarian and the family the basic economic, social and cultural unit. Consequently, the new institutions these settlers established over a period of time reflected their “localist, egalitarian and tribal world view.”23


In this context, the new gospels addressed religious problems confronting people of all ranks: free grace, freedom from sin, and the coming end of the world.24

24[Ibid., 100.]

Previously, there were other agents of religious dissent in New England, The Great Awakening of 1736-1745, the Separate movement of the 1740s and 1750s, and the Baptists. The 1767 Warren Association of Baptists in Rhode Island was the first “stable institutional structure of Calvinist dissenters.”25


However, in the colonial era, dissenters concentrated their fire on the institutional means of religion, on arrangements for church governance, on the links between church and state, and on the experience of faith, that is, bringing souls to Christ. For the most part, they sidestepped questions of theology. Then the Freewill Baptists stepped on the scene.

Emerging a few years later than the Freewill Baptists,26

26[Ibid., 117. Benjamin Randal, a convert of George Whitfield, began meetings in 1773, withdrew from the Congregational Church in 1775 and established the Freewill Baptists in 1780. In 1792, Randal initiated the organizational structure, a model of community based on moral action and spiritual growth. Churches met weekly for worship and monthly for discipline and conference.]

the Christian sect, founded by Elias Smith in 1802, also offered an alternative to Calvinist theology. Smith advocated a simple evangelical Christianity with democratic church government, based upon a “hermeneutic premised on the inalienable right of every person to understand the New Testament for him or herself.”27

27[Hatch, 73. See also Robert T. Handy, A History of the Church in the United States and Canada (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 169.]

This message of individual authority appealed to Betsey Towle who was thirty-eight when she was converted. Betsey (along with her brother Samuel Nudd and daughter Sally Bartlett Towle) was converted in one of Smith revivals in 1808.28

28[Elias Smith published the first religious newspaper in the United States, The Herald of Gospel Liberty which he edited from 1808-1818. Hatch, 70.]

Smith’s revival in Hampton prompted direct confrontation with members of the Congregational Church. The Hampton men broke up the meeting in defense of their new minister Josiah Webster, whose previous pastorate had been plagued by followers of Smith. No one was hurt, but the men turned the preachers out of the ox cart in which they were standing, and threw clods of dirt at them.29

29[Dow, 289.]

Some of the followers of Smith took refuge in the Towle house.30

30[Virginia Taylor, “The Ensign Philip Towle House,” 4. In 1831, Nancy Towle visited “Dr. Elias Smith” in Boston. He showed her “much kindness.” Towle, 96. Apparently, Smith, who had long since left the Christian Connection, remembered the Towles and still supported female preaching.]

The Christians did not organize a congregation in Hampton. However, among their revival converts who organized the Freewill Baptist Church in Hampton in 1817 were Betsey Towle and daughter Sally Bartlett Towle. Nancy Towle was also among the twenty-seven founding members, though she dates her conversion to 1818.31

31[Hazlett, 456. Hazlett’s list, published in 1915, lists 27 founding members. Of that number 14 were women. Ironically, in his 1989 publication, Peter Randall does not include all names, but in shortening the list, he leaves out the names of all the women! See Peter Randall, Hampton, A Century of Town and Beach. 1888-1988, vol. 3 (Portsmouth: Peter E. Randall, Publisher, 1989), 781.]

With parents involved in the Freewill Baptist and Christian meetings, Nancy Towle attended revivals and knew visiting preachers who stayed in their home. She was comfortable with the dissenters. However, during her teenage years, she was more interested in school and socializing than in praying.32

32[Towle, 9.]

One of Nancy Towle’s strengths for ministry was her education. She was among the first generation of American women to enjoy the benefits of an advanced education, not in a female academy, but in a co-educational setting.33

33[Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters. The Revolutionary Experience of American Women. 1750-1800 (Boston: Little, Brown and company, 1980), 247.]

Her schooling, however, was interrupted and somewhat erratic. She studied for two years when she was sixteen and seventeen (1812, 1813). Four years later, when she was twenty-one (1817) she again attended the “Proprietary School in Hampton,” organized in 1810 and one of the oldest coeducational secondary institutions in New Hampshire. Her brother Philip and sister Sally also attended the school. There was no differentiation along gender lines in enrollment or curriculum in the Proprietary School. The number of females was substantial: during the first year of operation there were 36 females and 55 males in attendance.34 Later, in 1821, the school was

34[Dow, 489-491. According to the Constitution of the Academy, students were to be taught “English, Latin and Greek Languages, Writing, Arithmetic, Music and Arts of Speaking; also practical Geometry, Logic, Geography and any of the liberal Arts and Sciences or Languages as opportunity and ability may hereafter admit, and as the corporation shall direct.” Students were also to be given religious instruction which included the doctrines of the Trinity, depravity of human nature, necessity of atonement, repentance and faith, sanctification and justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.]

reorganized as the Hampton Academy.35

35[Randall, 739.]

Nancy Towle enjoyed learning, public speaking and the dramatic performances of “exhibition days” at the Academy.36

36[Towle, 6.]

In other words, she enjoyed being on stage! In 1814 she began teaching school in the adjoining town, Northampton, New Hampshire, fewer than five miles from her home. Apparently she continued to live at home. Teaching school was one of the few options for work available to unmarried women of the time. Still, short sessions and low pay made teaching less a means of essential support than a way for daughters of established families to fulfill their duty to the community.37

37[Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 32.]

Still teaching school, on September 3, 1818, Nancy Towle went to a revival meeting at the Inn at Northampton. That night, when she heard the preaching of Clarissa H. Danforth, a Freewill Baptist itinerant, she experienced the “converting grace” that radically changed her life. In Danforth Nancy Towle experienced the persuasive power of an outstanding speaker, as well as a dynamic role model. Clarissa Danforth, the “preaching sensation of the decade,” was also “of good family and well educated … dignified in appearance and easy in manner.”38

38 [Louis Billington, “Female Laborers in the Church”: Women Preachers in the Northeastern United States, 1790-1840, Journal of American Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, December 1985, 373.]

Towle had been in revivals before, she had even helped organize the Baptist Church at Hampton, but it was not until she heard Danforth preach that she, like her father, heard the Christian message in ways that brought “gospel liberty.”39

39[Hatch, 172.]

Soon after her conversion and baptism, Towle dreamed that she would one day preach the gospel” and interpreted the dream as a call to preach. According to her memoirs, she struggled with the call for two years of intense emotional and spiritual conflict. She felt God was giving her something to say that would benefit people, but she was also afraid of failure and of bringing “shame and disgrace upon herself and her family.”40

40[Towle, 11.]

Nancy Towle did not have to exaggerate the fear of “shame and disgrace” in her decision to preach. In comparison to teaching school, an acceptable vocation for single women, becoming an itinerant evangelist was a marked departure from convention. To be a female preacher, traveling far from home to strange places and speaking in public before “mixed” audiences, was an unusual vocation for a woman in the early 1820s. Yet she was finally convinced that her own salvation depended upon the appropriate use of her “time, talents and privileges.”41

41[Ibid., 14.]

She accepted the call to be an evangelist.

Nancy Towle’s decision to preach implied a life of itineracy. Although there were local women who exhorted and led prayer meetings, women could not be pastors of local congregations in any Protestant denomination.42

42[Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims 255.]

Even though female members predominated in the Congregational Churches of New England, neither Nancy Towle nor any other woman was allowed to preach.43

43[Richard D. Shiels, “The Feminization of American Congregationalism, 1730-1835,” American Quarterly. vol. 33 no. I (Spring 1981), 47.]

The newly organized Baptist Church welcomed evangelist Towle in later years, but even in dissenting groups, where a woman could pray, exhort and even preach, women could not administer the sacraments, could not be ordained, and therefore could not minister to a local congregation.44

44[In Charles A. Hazlett, History of Rockingham County New Hampshire and Representative Citizens (Chicago: Richmond-Arnold Publishing co., 1915), 682, it is noted that during the early years of the Baptist Church at Hampton, “Messrs. Danforth, Prescott and Towle repeatedly occupied the pulpit as preachers.” (Clarissa Danforth, Judith Prescott and Nancy Towle)]

Towle left home to travel and preach, but she returned often during the first six years of her itineracy before going to England. The family did not disown her nor is there any evidence they tried to stop her from preaching and traveling. In contrast, other female itinerants were disowned or forbidden to preach by family members. Susan Humes, Judith Mathers and Sally Parsons were disowned.45

45[Brekus, 221.]

African American female preacher Zilpha Elaw was ridiculed and forbidden to preach by her husband.46

46[Elizabeth Elkin Grammar, “A Pen In His Hand”: A Pen In Her Hand, Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Evangelists In 19th Century America” (Ph.D dissertation, University of Virginia, 1995), 14.]

Other women postponed their careers for years before finding the courage to act.

Though challenging conventional role expectations was difficult, Nancy Towle was also eager to leave her family and local community to join the new community of itinerant evangelists. With a family history of local leadership, Towle could exercise her own ambitions in the role of itinerant preacher. Just as her parents in their early years challenged prevailing authority, Nancy Towle carried the “revolution of choices”47

47 [Robert H. Wiebe, The Opening of American Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 267.]

even further. She began preaching in 1821, the decade when the democratic potential of the Revolution was being fully realized. Educated, unmarried, and confident of her God-given authority, Nancy Towle joined the ranks of outstanding preachers through whose power of persuasion and dynamic leadership American Christianity was “democratized” during the transitional years of 1780 and 1830.48

48[Hatch, 6.]

She immersed herself in the cause, sparing no effort, always looking forward to new challenges and to new occasions to “save sinners.”

Usually accompanied by a female companion, which was safer and more acceptable than traveling alone, evangelist Nancy Towle joined the hundreds of other itinerants in the 1820s, peddlers, and tinkers, itinerant singing masters, dancing teachers, portrait painters, handwriting instructors and others who were following the migration of Americans into newer areas of the country.49

49[Larkin, 68.]

Americans were “remarkedly, even uniquely prone to moving about.”50

50[Ibid., 69.]

Their travels were facilitated by the intensive effort to build a comprehensive system of transportation to meet the needs of a commercial economy breaking out across the continent.51

51[Wiebe, 70.]

Towle traveled by stagecoach, on canal boats and ocean vessels, as well as by railroad. On one occasion she rode on an open sled in a snowstorm. And, after arriving in town, she usually walked from her lodgings to the places she preached. In one exception, the people of Baltimore always sent a carriage to convey her to preaching engagements.

Travel was difficult, dirty and unpredictable at times, but Nancy Towle was exhilarated by the challenge of new places and new audiences for her evangelistic message. Itineracy was the means for her work just as a network of people was the method for fulfilling her mission. She developed an extensive network of at least twenty-three female preachers52

52 [Nine of the women were Freewill Baptist: Clarissa Danforth, Susan Humes, Almira Bullock, Judith Prescott, Mrs. Quimby, Martha Spalding, Hannah Fogg, Sarah Thornton, Betsey Stuart. Two were with the Christian Connection: Ann Rexford and Mrs. Thompson. Elice Smith and Eliza Barns were Methodist. M. Batty and Hannah Andrews were Quaker. Mrs. O’Bryan and Thomasine 0′ Bryan were Bible Christians. Ruth Watkins was Primitive Methodist. Denominational affiliations are unknown for Ann Warren, Judith Mathers, Dorothy Ripley and Jane Perry. Harriet Livermore was not affiliated with any one group.]

as well as male itinerants and local pastors. In St. John’s, New Brunswick, Towle met Elizabeth Venner who shared her ministry for a total of four years. In England she joined female preachers of the Bible Christians53

53 [The Bible Christians, also known as Bryanites, were organized in 1815 in England, by William O’Bryan and James Thorne, dissenters from the Wesleyan Methodists. Both Mrs. O’Bryan and daughter Thomasine were preachers. See Deborah M. Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 92.]

and continued relationships with the daughters of founder William O’Bryan when they visited in the United States. Lorenzo Dow, William 0′ Bryan and John Winebrenner, leading male evangelists supported her work. Local pastors engaged her services in revivals, and she carried letters of recommendation to their friends. She maintained contacts through extensive letter writing, religious journals and sharing books. Initially, Towle’s primary contacts were with the Freewill Baptists and Christians. However, during her career she preached among Methodists (Protestant, Bible Christians, Wesleyan), Lutherans, Swedenborgians, Moravians, Universalists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Arminian Baptists, Quakers, Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. A charismatic revivalist preacher, Towle was welcomed by a multitude of diverse groups.

Nancy Towle’s network carried her, both literally and figuratively, farther from home as she developed her public and private identity. She traveled in a ever-widening circle: 1821-27, New England: 1827-29, eastern Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; 1829-30, England and Ireland; 1830- 32 mainly Middle States and upper South. In all she visited twelve states, Canada, England and Ireland.

During the first six years (1821-1827) she was part of a substantial community of female evangelists, traveling and preaching in small towns of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.54

54 [At least twenty-nine women began exhorting during love feasts and class meetings, and preaching as itinerants during the 1820s. At least five women began preaching during the 1790s, six from 1800 to 1809, ten from 1810 to 1819. Brekus, 271.]

Though aware of controversy over female preaching, Towle experienced little opposition during this time.55

55[Nancy Towle and Susan Humes preached together in a successful revival in Rhode Island in 1827. Twenty to thirty persons were converted.Freewill Baptist Magazine (Providence, RI), vol 1., no. 4 (February, 1827), 113.]

In these years of millennial expectations, recognition of spiritual gifts and desire to erect distinct religious communities or “islands of holiness” apart from society,56

56[Brekus, 155.]

female preachers with an authoritative call from God were unusual but not “aberrant.”57

57[Grammar, 57.]

Nancy Towle was so confident in 1822 when she traveled to Rhode Island that she refused letters of recommendation from local ministers in Hampton, depending upon God alone for her support: “If the God of Heaven, in whose name I venture forth, refuses me redress, I will never seek, or expect, any degree of clemency from fellow-worms.”58

58[Towle, 23.]

In 1827 during a revival in Hampton, all the remaining members of Towle’s family, with the exception of her brother Philip, made professions of faith. With the salvation of her family ensured, Nancy Towle felt freed of her sense of responsibility for their spiritual welfare.59

59[Towle, 36-37.]

She could now travel farther from home. Indeed, Nancy Towle began to use a new name. She became known as “Ann” or “Anna” in letters of reference written during the next three years. Perhaps Towle chose to honor her paternal grandmother, Anna Page. Or, did Nancy Towle identify with the prophet Anna, who was the first to proclaim that the child Jesus was the Messiah?60

60[Luke 2:36-38]

Towle set out into new territory assisted by a network of people who invited her to hold revival meetings in their towns. For the first time in her itineracy she traveled alone — to eastern Maine, then to small towns in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Her first contacts were among the Christians, but she also met and worked with various other groups. Mixed among her supporters were detractors who tried to frighten her with verbal threats and by fifing cannons upon her departure from their town. In Nova Scotia, in 1829, the opposition became so serious that in contrast to her refusal to carry letters of recommendation seven years earlier, she began to carry a letter from Richard Foster, editor of the Christian Herald in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His letter of endorsement dated January 21, 1829, along with several subsequent letters, is printed in her memoirs.61

61 [Towle, 46. The Christian Herald formerly Herald of Gospel Liberty established by Elias Smith in 1808 was the first religious newspaper published in the United States. Hatch, 70.]

Nancy Towle’s travel farthest from home was her trip to England in 1829. She dreamed of being a missionary, part of the transatlantic revival effort. She also knew about the many women who were evangelists in the dissenting Methodist sects in England. She seemed to think she would find a new home there. In fact, before she sailed from Nova Scotia in June of 1829, she wrote to her family that she might never see them again.62

62[Ibid., 50.]

Towle was accompanied on her journey by Elizabeth Vernier, a native of Portsmouth, England. Their passage was paid by friends who wanted to support their missionary endeavors.

For eight months Towle invested herself in a broad range of new experiences. Much of her schedule was guided by ministers with the Christians and Methodist dissenters who planned services in a variety of settings, including a “floating chapel,”which was a ship converted to a chapel, churches, schools and Ratcliff Square where John Wesley preached. At other times preaching was impromptu, on the street or in public squares. One street meeting was interrupted when Towle was arrested, though not detained, for public disturbance.63

63[Ibid., 63.]

Towle and Venner made brief visits to Kingston and Dublin in Ireland, then returned to England.64

64[Towle, 58. The two women stayed very briefly in Kingston before going to Dublin for several days. Identified as followers of Dow, they were not invited to preach in public. However, they were treated so well by persons who invited them into their homes for private prayer meetings that Towle remembered the Irish as being the most hospitable she encountered. See Vicissitudes 10.]

In England Towle witnessed problems of industrialization she had not previously encountered. Shocked by widespread poverty, Towle visited almshouses and manufacturing towns as well as prisons. In an unsuccessful attempt to help, Towle wrote a letter to affluent acquaintances requesting money to take the willing poor back to America.65

65[Ibid., 77.]

Towle was convinced that the wrath of God would befall the “tyrants” of industry and politics who exploited the poor. Money spent, discouraged and repelled by the massive social ills, the women returned to their “loved country America,” arriving in Philadelphia on March 30, 1830.66

66[Ibid., 78.]

Having traveled far, maturing in competence and experience, Nancy Towle returned to a world different from the one she left in 1827. The year 1830 became a turning point in Towle’s life. Both professionally and personally, the years between 1830 and 1832 when she published Vicissitudes were a time of challenge, grief and change. At first, all seemed to be going well. Flush with the excitement and experience of foreign travel, she joined with three famous preachers, Dorothy Ripley, Ann Rexford and Ruth Watkins in a revival in New York. She traveled to Philadelphia and preached with Hannah Andrews. But in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Venner, her beloved companion and professional partner, left to visit her parents and to keep house for her brother. Elizabeth’s departure was the most “bitter trial,” she had ever experienced.67

67[Ibid., 83.]

Towle was left alone to face the changing religious and cultural landscape.

During the 1830s and 1840s the sects that had encouraged and promoted women as evangelists, particularly the Methodist, Freewill Baptist and Christian, began to withdraw their support. The change did not happen suddenly, nor did every congregation bar female preachers. For some preachers, however, the change was dramatic. Rachel Thompson, a capable Methodist preacher for nine years, was excommunicated from her church in August of 1830 on the grounds of insubordination – she had refused to stop preaching.68

68[Brekus, 270.]

During the 1830s and 1840s the other dissenting groups “traded their tradition of female evangelism for greater power and respectability.”69


As these new denominations became increasingly successful they distanced themselves from the revival “enthusiasm” that marked their early histories. The Freewill Baptists founded their first church in 1780 with only seven members, but by 1830 they had more than 21,000 members. The Methodists grew into the largest religious denomination in America by 1830, numbering 500,000. The Christians estimated their membership at 50,000.70

70[Ibid., 132.]

Instead of championing direct inspiration from God for preaching, the growing denominations insisted upon an educated clergy. They protested “disorderly” meetings and abandoned their earlier support for female preaching.71

71[Hatch, 201-206.]

The very women they depended upon in earlier years when there was a shortage of preachers were no longer welcomed. In those early years, the dissenting sects were eager to set themselves apart from an increasingly individualistic, materialistic and secular society. But with U success came greater interest in “respectability.” These sects moved into a second stage in institutional life, from the “charismatic” first stage into the second stage of consolidation and organization.72

72[Jackson W. Carroll, Barbara Hargrove and Adair T. Lummis, Women of the Cloth (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 20.]

The groups who initially promoted egalitarian communities were now returning to old patterns of order and ritual with males in charge. Within a short period of time, approximately twenty years. women were not able to “permanently restructure female-male power relations” to insure their place.73

73[Carroll Smith Rosenberg. “Women and Religious Revivals: Anti- Ritualism, Liminality, and the Emergence of the American Bourgeoisie.” The Evangelical Tradition in America ed. Leonard I. Sweet (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1984), 216.]

Nancy Towle responded to denominational changes and personal disappointments in her characteristic way. She kept moving. She continued to travel, using her network, determined to preach. Unfortunately, the task became more difficult. For example, with Thomasine 0′ Bryan (from England) she travelled to Hartford, Connecticut in the fall of 1830, where she called on an old acquaintance. “H. G.” was a former itinerant preacher who had been a frequent guest in her family home. Expecting reciprocal hospitality and an invitation to preach, she was surprised by his greeting: “I do not believe in the preaching of females, neither can I, conscientiously, m afford you any aid.” -Refusing to give up, Towle turned to the Methodist and Baptist ministers but to no avail. Finally, a Universalist pastor was prevailed upon to let her in his church.74

74[Towle, 88, 100.]

On another occasion, in Salem, Massachusetts, Towle’s offer to preach in a Christian church was turned down by a minister who had in former years baptized scores of people “brought to the Lord” by her words. 75

75[Ibid., 119.]

Undaunted, she gave notice in the paper that she would preach in the Methodist chapel where she was welcomed by the minster. Two weeks of passionate preaching followed.

There were successes as well as disappointments during the next two years. In Baltimore, February 1832, she preached to her largest congregation, 1,600 worshippers on Sunday morning during a “Protestant Methodist” revival. These were “some of the happiest days” of her life. There were other positive experiences. With the United Brethren in Carlisle, Pennsylvania she felt she could “live and die.” And with the Christians in Norfolk, Virginia, her soul was so “cemented with theirs” she could have “staid and there with them, been buried.”76

76[Ibid., 172, 166, 189.]

Nancy Towle’s frenetic schedule of travel and preaching took its toll on her health. In the spring of 1831 at age 35, she became seriously ill for the first time and returned home to Hampton, to a tearful welcome. While at home she published The Life and Ministry of Ann Freeman. a radical evangelist with the Bible Christians in England.77

77[Towle, 110.]

Acknowledging the changing religious scene, uncertain of her future as an evangelist and feeling that her life was ending, she focused upon getting her journals ready for publication.

When she began to feel better, Towle was eager to resume her itinerant life, though still somewhat unclear about the future. After finding the “doors closed” to her preaching in Boston and in Salem, she was called home, where her father was dying of cancer. During his last days she prayed and talked with him, learning of his spiritual journey and struggles, his final assurance of salvation. She received his words of blessing upon the unconventional life she lived.78

78[Ibid., 123. Her father’s reply to her question of whether she should “settle” or continue in her work: “I have no choice about that. I don’t know, but that I am as willing, you should live as you do, as in any other way. I have never doubted that it was your duty so to do; and it is evident, the Lord has been with you; or you never would have prospered – as it is plain that you have done.”]

After her father’s death in September, 1831, Nancy Towle declared that her work in New England “was done,” and looked for other venues for her preaching.79

79[Towle, 134.]

During the next year, before her trip to Charleston and the publication of Vicissitudes she traveled at an intense pace, going west into New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, south into Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia. However, her life had changed considerably. Though she still had a network of friends, she was often forced to go into a town where “all were strange” to preach. Indeed, dissent was moving in unfamiliar directions. The new groups like the Mormons and the pentecostals who were organizing the Church of God, differed widely from Towle in theology and worship.

Towle visited the Mormons in Ohio after reading the Book of Mormon in order to see for herself what they were about. Usually, it was with the dissenting groups that female evangelists were welcome. But Towle found herself in opposition to one of the newest “prophets,” Joseph Smith. Because they did not depend exclusively upon the Bible for their beliefs, and possibly because of their “egregious patriarchalism,”80

80[Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution. Jacksonian America 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 224.]

Towle deemed Mormonism “one of the most deep-concerted plots of Hell to deceive the hearts of the simple that had ever come with the limits of my acquaintance.”81

81[Towle, 143.]

Towle’s identity as a preacher was challenged by some of Smith’s followers, and she was disturbed by the dissolution of families in which either husbands, wives or children wanted to join the group while the others did not.82

82[Ibid., 141-144.]

An educated woman from a substantial New England family, Towle called Smith, who had grown up in poverty, an “ignorant plough-boy.” Smith replied, “The gift has returned back again, as in former times, to illiterate fishermen.” Towle dismissed him as “a good-natured, low- bred, sort of chap; and that seemed to have force enough, to do no one any harm.”83

83[Ibid., 145.]

With the United Brethren, Moravians and other groups in Pennsylvania, Nancy Towle found a great deal more in common. Along with William O’Bryan, who was visiting from England, and John Winebrenner, one of the founders of the emerging Church of God, she spent several weeks preaching and exhorting in revivals.84

84[Ibid., 163. Nancy Towle had the highest praise for John Winebrenner, who had left the Dutch Reformed Church. He was truly a “servant of Jesus Christ.” He welcomed all who had faith, including female preachers. Bigotry and party zeal had no place in his meetings.]

However, the emotionalism and physical expressions of spiritual ecstasy were too exuberant for New Englander Towle, who could also be very emotional and dramatic in her preaching.85

85[Ibid., 165.]

Still drawn to other places, Nancy Towle left Pennsylvania and journeyed to Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Norfolk.86

86[Ibid., 214. Though Towle visited Washington and held meetings she did not preach before Congress, as Jon Butler states in Awash in a Sea of Faith. 281. She did preach at the Capital in Richmond on a Sunday night in the summer of 1832.]

In most of the cities she visited, Towle found a place to preach or lead a prayer meeting, in private homes, churches or town halls. But in others, Frederick City, Maryland, for instance, her offer to preach was refused by clergy she considered jealous of her superior ability.87

87[Ibid., 170.]

Revival enthusiasm had waned, and she was more than ever a stranger and a pilgrim.

Nancy Towle was struggling to continue as an itinerant evangelist in a time when a theologically uneducated woman, defying the emerging “cult of true womanhood,” was becoming an anachronism. Her impassioned style of preaching and her emotional prayers were unacceptable to those with a more restrained style. Towle was mortified when a group of religion professors ran out during her fervent prayer in Alexandria, Virginia.88

88[Ibid., 181.]

Having grown up during a fluid time in history, when openness and experimentation were the norm, she found herself in a new, difficult era. Towle was experiencing cultural displacement at a depth previously unknown to her but common among those who began preaching after 1830.89

89[Grammar, 57.]

Thirty-six years old, a veteran in the pulpit, she felt more capable than ever before, and itinerant evangelism was her life.90

90[Towle, 239.]

It was a time of professional and personal crisis.

When in May of 1832 on a preaching tour in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Towle learned of the death of her younger brother Philip, only eight months after the death of her father, the professional and personal converged. Nancy Towle, the female evangelist, had failed to convince her favorite brother of his need for conversion. Furthermore, Philip’s death, among strangers and far from home, dramatized her own loneliness and vulnerability. She was extremely lonely after Elizabeth Venner decided to leave itineracy in 1830. Towle had managed to keep going, but became very ill in the winter of 1831. Then her father died in September of 1831. Added to her personal struggles were the sometimes harsh treatment by local ministers and the uncertainty of her future as an evangelist.

Philip Towle’s death so far from home hardly seemed possible. Philip was an established, affluent physician in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Just sixteen months younger than Nancy, he was the first in the family to affirm her decision to preach. Yet he did not share her spiritual intensity. Though he was a Presbyterian and led an exemplary life, in her opinion he was not saved” and was therefore eternally separated from God. Many times she had talked with him and written to him, but to no avail.91

91[Ibid., 274-275]

Upon learning of Philip’s death, Nancy Towle took a midnight stage to Baltimore, where she was comforted by her friends, Lorenzo Dow among them. Philip’s death caused Nancy Towle to question her faith in God and her vocation as an evangelist. She agonized over the state of Philip’s soul, questioning God, who had not interceded on Philip’s behalf in spite of all her prayers and the prayers of the family. She felt that if Philip were condemned to hell, then all of her work had been fruitless.

At the same time, she believed that the power of God was available to everyone, including Philip. Over a period of time, with the encouragement of her sister Sally B. Towle and others, she convinced herself that on his solitary ocean voyage Philip had renounced all for Christ and that “the Saviour doubtless took him to himself in Paradise.”92

92[Ibid., 207.]

Rather than believe her brother was lost, she made his actions fit into her understanding of salvation, imposing upon him an interpretation for which she had no real evidence.

For six weeks after learning of Philip’s death Towle could not preach. The only thing she could do was try to make sense of it all and regain her “vivacity” by writing.93

93[Ibid., 206.]

It was time to publish her book.

Her family asked her to go to Charleston and investigate Philip’s death. She wanted her sister Mary Towle to accompany her, but that did not work out. Nancy Towle had to go to Charleston alone, and she made her plans to do so. Hearing enroute that cholera had broken out in Canada, she felt an urgent call to warn the people of Baltimore, Norfolk and Richmond of impending doom. However, preoccupied with Philip’s death and her own exhaustion, she accepted with a new passivity the disinclination of the people in these cities to heed her warnings. She argued only briefly with the conservative Southern clergymen who refused her preaching offers in Charleston.

During her time in the South Carolina port, obliged to wait for the tombstone, Towle faced the conflicting realities of her life. After eleven years of extensive travel and experience, feeling more at one with God than ever before, she now had to fight for recognition as an evangelist. Though she had become a “citizen of the world”94

94[Ibid., 232.]

moving from place to place, she now felt terribly alone. She disdained sectarian rivalry, believing that the genuine Christian community would be free from “party spirit.”95

95[Ibid., 231.]

She had been a founding member of the Freewill Baptist Church in Hampton before her conversion, but did not regard that as binding. The pain of persecution had driven her to approach the Christians to become one of them, but her “terms,” probably to be formally recognized as a preacher, were never met. She remained unattached to any group, proudly so.96

96[Ibid., 232/]

Yet, how could she continue to preach without a supportive network?

Towle had been an integral part of an fairly egalitarian evangelical effort in her years of itineracy. Now she recognized that her male contemporaries were becoming more interested in preserving their own power and building new denominations than in renewing the New Testament church. She found some of the chief leaders of the Christian Connexion, the group she prized the most, to be “like many others, aspiring too much for human applause and popularity… .97 As a female preacher, she was no longer a part of their vision of community and was being excluded. She recognized and identified gender as the “the essential determinant in her life.98

98[Cott, 123.]

In the concluding pages of Vicissitudes Towle articulated the inequities of being a female evangelist. She had traveled thousands of miles, often without money, preaching “from six to eight times a week, for months in succession; and seldom, less than one hour upon the stretch.”99

99[Towle, 227.]

She had kept a diary, written hundreds of letters, provided for her own clothing, and then helped with the household chores in the homes she stayed. Unsalaried, dependent upon friends and limited publishing for support, after all these years she did not have “one single farthing laid up in store.”100

100[Ibid., 320.]

In contrast, male evangelists always had their clothing, transportation and financial needs provided.101

101[Butler, 237. Methodist itinerants, like Lorenzo Dow, rested at “Methodist taverns” where they could their clothes washed and mended and get “refitted.”]

Towle decried the iniquity: “Of the other sex, though three-fold the natural vigor, whereof to boast, it is seldom expected that they will go without some suitable mode of conveyance or without purse and script at hand. Nor is it expected that after their strength is quite exhausted, for the good of souls that they then, to appear decent must make, clean or repair some article of apparel for themselves before renewing again the heavy struggle.”102

102[Towle, 228.]

Male itinerants did not have to contend daily with clergy who objected to their preaching. They were not asked to help with chores; they were not “left alone, destitute, no house, no home, no friend, that dares to advocate their cause… .”103

103Ibid., 229.]

Why would a woman endure such hardship – unless moved by a powerful faith in God? “My conversion has been to me as much a reality as my existence: and my call to public testimony, equally as sure.”104

104Ibid., 239.]

How could one so faithful and capable be denied a future career in the Christian community?

Regaining physical and spiritual strength, Towle realized the only way out of her personal cul de sac was the same as the way in. Originally called to preach spiritual salvation, she would now preach and write to save women from social and religious subjugation. She would exercise her gifts and abilities to fight the “evil” that excluded her and other women. She would stand up against injustice like her Revolutionary forebears. Like her brother Philip, she would exercise an independent conscience. She would ally herself with controversial women like Mary Wollstonecraft, who championed woman’s rights. Towle vowed to protest the exclusion of women from preaching and to “deliver up my life, a sacrifice, for one, towards remedying these evils: and seal my testimony, as with my blood, in vindication of the rights of woman.”105

105[Ibid., 241.]

Having identified a new direction for her life and published Vicissitudes, Nancy Towle dedicated the work to Philip, who was proud of her to the end. During his last day of life Philip asked the person attending him if she had ever heard of his sister Nancy Towle, “the preacher.”106

106[Ibid., 276.]

With one more gesture Towle affirmed her connection with Philip. Aware that she might die alone in a strange place, Nancy Towle included her name on Philip’s tombstone. It became a memorial to her as well. Just as Philip’s son might visit the grave in the future, someone who had heard her preach might see her name and remember her.107

107[Ibid., 284.]

She claimed her kinship with Philip as both human and spiritual brother. Whatever her ministry was worth, however effective her prayers, she would invest all in the salvation of Philip Towle.

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