Nancy Towle, 1796-1876

“Faithful Child of God”

By Judith Bledsoe Bailey, April 2000

Chapter III

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Publishing Campaign

In the closing pages of Vicissitudes, Nancy Towle vowed to protest the exclusion of women from preaching. But that campaign required a new venue: print. Itineracy would take second place to writing. In fact, she had already begun her campaign in print. In 1831 she had felt it her “duty”to reprint and make available The Life and Ministry of Ann Freeman an evangelist with the Bible Christians in England. After publishing Vicissitudes in Charleston in 1832, she published a second edition in Portsmouth, New Hampshire the next year. Later in 1833 she traveled to Canada and published Some of the Writings and Last Sentences of Adolphus Dewey, Executed at Montreal. Then in 1834, in New York city, Towle began publishing a religious journal, The Female Religious Advocate which “did not survive very long.”1

1 [Dow, History of the Town of Hampton 1012. There is no specific record of how long The Female Religions Advocate was published.]

All of Towle’s publications served to protest the treatment of female evangelists by presenting in one way or another justification for women in spiritual leadership.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of dissenting sects in the first two decades of the nineteenth century was the “spiritual democracy” that insisted upon the Holy Spirit’s authorization of preachers regardless of sex, class, race, education or theological training.2

2 [Deborah M. Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 92.]

It was divine inspiration that led individuals outside the confines of institutional religion to freedom of expression and spiritual rebirth. By publishing The Life and Ministry of Ann Freeman Nancy Towle celebrated one of the most radical believers in the idea of divine inspiration, ministerial freedom and liberty of conscience.3

3[Ibid., 140.]

Ann Mason Freeman (1791-1826), whose diary was first published in London 1828 by her husband Henry Freeman,4

4[Henry Freeman, A Memoir of the Life and Ministry of Ann Freeman A Faithful Servant of Jesus Christ, compiled from her Diary and Letters (London: Bagster and Thoms, Printers, 1828).]

was a preacher with the Bible Christians, the “Bryanites.” In October, 1815, the first Bible Christian Society was organized in Shebbear, Devon in England by William 0′ Bryan and James Thorne. The group split from Wesleyan Methodists over the issue of ministerial freedom and developed a distinctly anti-establishment tone. The name “Bible Christians” pointed to the contrast between believers who gathered for worship in consecrated churches and used both the Bible and the Prayer Book for worship and those who used only the Bible during worship outdoors, in farm sheds and in private homes. The Bible Christians not only encouraged women but supported their call by appointing them to preach in specific geographic districts. By 1823 there were as many as 100 women preaching among the Bible Christians in England.5

5[Valenze, 140.]

Ann Mason and her sister joined the Bible Christians when they began meeting in a barn near their new home in Northcutt, Sutcombe parish. Drawn by their powerful preaching and attempts to revitalize religious belief and practice, Mason was converted under the influence of James Thorne in 1817.6

6[Ibid., 145.]

When her friends opposed her decision, Ann’s response was that the Bible Christians represented the true church. “I found my safety was in obeying the truth; for I must obey God rather than man … and therefore the only safe way was to follow Christ. I was convinced it was my duty to join the Bryanites.”7

7[Ibid., 9.]

This determination to follow only divine leadership would grow stronger in a preaching career that began less than a month after joining the group in 1817.8

8[Ibid., 146.]

Ann Mason was a popular preacher, always with a free, instinctual style that never failed to see results.9

9[Ibid., 147.]

She became increasingly radical, even antinomian in her view of individual authority. She advised other female preachers to “be faithful. To attend the inward whisper, and follow the Lord fully we must be often, as it were, deaf to the voice of many professors. … “10

10[Freeman, 148.]

In a letter to her parents who were worried about her health Ann wrote, “I have but one guide; that is the unerring one the spirit of truth, that guides into all the will of God concerning me, and gives me power to perform it; so it matters not when, where, or how I die, for heaven is my inheritance.”11

11[Ibid., 149.]

A confrontation in an East London home further exemplifies Ann Mason’s style and belief. She visited a woman who was apparently near death, “without a knowledge of God.” The Anglican minister arrived while Ann was there. He asked the woman “what place of worship she attended” and if she had “attended the Sacraments.” At this point an indignant Mason interrupted the conversation, “What she wants is the Holy Spirit, to bear witness with her spirit, that she is a child of God.”12

12[Ibid., 62.]

The clergyman turned to her in apology. He then “read over many prayers.” When he finished she offered an extemporaneous prayer, calling “upon the Lord 13

13[Ibid., 63.]

In this encounter “salvation through faith challenged salvation through sacraments; cottage candor challenged urban church protocol; and female preachers challenged male clergymen.”14

14[Valenze, 155.]

Not only was Ann Mason willing to challenge individuals, she took on all the ministers in her Connexion. Mason sensed a departure from their original purpose when the Bible Christians, who were organized in networks of societies and preachers, held their first Conference in August 1819 to discuss administrative and doctrinal issues.15

15 [Freeman, 26. The meeting took place in Baddish, near Launceton, Cornwall.]

At the Conference, Bible Christians adopted a more typical Methodist organization of districts, circuits, and societies, presided over by superintendents, pastors and elders (or leaders). But, unlike other Methodist groups, the Bible Christians used the term “pastors” instead of “preachers.” And the term “elder” was typical of Presbyterian nomenclature. In addition, William O’Bryan assumed the title of General Superintendent of the Conference in 1819, presiding over twelve itinerant preachers in a position that accrued more power than in other Methodist sects.16

16[Valenze, 155.]

Mason, unable to attend because of illness, sent a circular letter of concern to the Conference urging her “brethren” and “fathers” to “use every effort in their power to pull down Satan’s kingdom; leave no opportunity unimproved.”17

17[Freeman, 28.]

In other words, she reminded them of their original purpose and evangelistic efforts among the poor of northern England. Her letter did not directly confront the new Bible Christian church polity. However, Ann Mason, a female, assumed a great deal of authority in directing her concerns to the seat of power occupied by men.18

18[Valenze, 151.]

Ann Mason’s confident challenges to her ministerial colleagues also included her supervisor. William 0′ Bryan visited shortly after her letter to question her theology. He asked, “Ann, do you believe there is a greater blessing to be attained to here than sanctification? (meaning the being cleansed from all sin.)” In a stunning statement Ann Mason declared “I do…. I know I have a blessing far superior to the being only cleansed from all sin; this I call being sealed to the day of redemption, or wholly restored to the image of God, which all that enter heaven must receive here; and if it is our privilege to enjoy it one moment, why not all our remaining days?”19

19[Freeman, 30.]

William O’ Bryan responded, “Well, Ann, it if be attainable, pray that I may receive it.”According to her diary, William 0′ Bryan turned to her during a meeting later that year with the words, “Now I have the blessing you speak of.”20

20 [Ibid., 32. When describing his experience O’Bryan said he was “not ashamed to acknowledge that a feeble female had been the means of bringing his soul into this liberty.”]

Following her “inner guide” Ann Mason moved away from the Bible Christians and closer to the Quakers. She did not believe in or practice water baptism or the Lord’s Supper.21

21 [Ibid., 44, 78. Part of the controversy over water baptism was the belief of some that it was essential for salvation. For Mason, the only essential baptism was of the Holy Spirit.]

Her belief in a second anointing by the Holy Spirit grew stronger as her health failed and she spent increasing amount of time alone in prayer.

After a long struggle with the question of whether marriage would threaten her independence, Ann Mason married Henry Freeman in 1824. The two agreed on the issues of the sacraments and complete ministerial freedom. They both resigned from the Bible Christian ministerial network in 1824 to pursue their “calling” to be missionaries to Ireland.22

22 [Ibid., 90. Leaving the connection and the “people I love” was not easy for Mason. However, she concluded that “If I cannot be permitted to live in full gospel liberty with them, I must leave; for the will of God is dearer to me than all things beside, and if men now turn away from hearing the voice of God, they will know it hereafter.”]

They remained unaffiliated with any particular group. The couple continued their evangelical efforts in Ireland, often traveling apart, before Ann was forced by illness to return to England where she died of consumption in 1826.23

23[Ibid., 136.]

Ann Freeman, with her personal piety, charismatic style, rejection of hierarchical controls and assurance of authority from God was the epitome of strong female leadership. By publishing the story of her life at the very moment when American denominations were excluding women, Nancy Towle offered a dramatic role model for beleaguered female evangelists.

The most personal and extensive defense of female preaching is Nancy Towle’s own life story, Vicissitudes Illustrated in the Experiences of Nancy Towle in Europe and America. Written from her journal, the book was intended to be a pamphlet of about twenty pages, with another more complete book to follow. However, Towle found it impossible to limit herself. The words poured forth, especially when she came to her fight to continue preaching.24

24[Towle, Vicissitudes, 6.]

The division of the book is telling. Towle dispensed with the first twenty-six years of her life in a mere thirty-eight pages. The early years of itineracy, from 1822 until her return from England in 1830, occupy only forty-one pages. The last one hundred and fifty-eight pages of the book cover but two years, 1830-1832, the years of greatest opposition to female preaching.

In several other ways, Vicissitudes is both a testimony to her faithfulness in ministry and a protest against exclusion from preaching. Her accounts of conversion, call to preach and ministry convey the fundamental belief that spiritual authority came to her directly from the God who intervened in her life. In describing the events of that life, she identified with biblical figures. The diary account of travel, preaching schedules and numbers of people encountered documents her itinerancy. She carefully named female itinerants and told their stories. Towle wrote arguments for female preaching based on scriptural references. By including texts for her sermons, she further established her credentials. Finally, her faith endured to the end, through all the personal pain, loneliness, rejection, arduous travel and even doubt in the aftermath of Philip’s death.

Nancy Towle believed that she was entrusted by God with a message of salvation to the “lost sinners” of the world, that her purpose was to “edify, exhort and comfort.” Like other evangelical preachers, she established her authority by describing her experience of conversion in terms of joy, thanksgiving and victory over “sin and Hell” through faith in Jesus. Similar to other preaching women and men, she described feelings of uncertainty, reluctance and unworthiness when called to preach.25

25 [Brekus, 186. Men also struggled with the call to preach. Lorenzo Dow spent almost three years resisting the urge to preach because of his youth and lack of training. See Lorenzo Dow, History of Cosmopolite: or the Writings of Rev. Lorenzo Dow: Containing His Experience and Travels, in Europe and America Up to Near His Fiftieth Year (Philadelphia: James B. Smith & co., 1859) 19.]

But the description of her traumatic struggle to accept the call to “bear a public testimony” was also a defense of her decision. She emphasized the length of time she had held back, two years, and enumerated many of the arguments against female preaching. She was theologically uneducated, a single woman who had no desire to leave her family for travel in the “waste- howling desert of a sinful world.” She was inexperienced in public speaking and would probably fail, bringing shame and disgrace upon her family.26

26[Towle, 12-13.]

On the other hand, as a new convert she was concerned about the salvation of other people, she loved “the Lord Jesus,” and the message burned like “fire” within her. She became ill and depressed to the point that her friends accused her of doing more harm than good to the cause of religion. She was tormented and could find no peace. She had time, talents and responsibility to God to use them in helping other people:

By rejecting the impression of preaching the gospel to a ruined world, I always found my hell of soul to increase: consequently, I looked no longer from that source to reap the least consolation. Yet it seemed at times, that even the regions of darkness contained no fiercer pain for me, than the sense that I had of the abuse of my time, talents and privileges, while precious souls were daily hurled into destruction.27

27[Ibid., 14. Nancy Towle referenced British Methodist scholar Adam Clarke’s commentary in her defense of female preaching in the introduction to Vicissitudes. Here, the phrase “times, talents and privileges” is similar to his exposition of Galatians 3:28: “Under the blessed spirit of Christianity, (women) have equal rights, equal privileges and equal blessings, and let me add, they are equally useful.” quoted in Nancy Hardesty, Lucille Sider Dayton and Donald W. Dayton “Women in the Holiness Movement: Feminism in the Evangelical Tradition,” in Women of Spirit. eds. Rosemary Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 245.]

In her ultimate acceptance of the call to preach, Towle quoted the Apostle Paul: “Necessity is laid upon me, and woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.”28

28[Ibid., 18. I Corinthians 9:16.]

Towle’s description of the call to preach made clear to would-be detractors that it was not her idea, but God’s initiative. No amount of education, biblical study or sincere piety could qualify a person for ministry. Divine inspiration was all.29

29[Brekus, 163.]

From her initial identification with Paul, the preeminent New Testament missionary, evangelist and author, Nancy Towle interpreted the events of her life in biblical terms. Not only was she so versed in scripture that she thought in biblical language, Towle understood her struggles to be characteristic of faithful disciples. She connected her life with the lives of inspired biblical leaders known and revered by the Christian community.

Towle identified with figures in the Bible who had suffered for their faith (Elijah, Job, Paul, Jesus) and she likened herself to Christ at the moment of his crucifixion. For example, during one of the most painful times of Towle’s life, the fall of 1830, Towle felt like the Hebrew prophet Elijah, “I am left alone, and they seek my life.”30

30[Towle, 93.]

Elizabeth Venner, her traveling companion of two years had departed to be with her family. Elizabeth was “a tender and sympathizing friend” as well as a gifted speaker who had exhorted after Towle’s sermons. Their relationship was so strong that Towle feared “setting her up as an idol in my affections” and consequently losing her.31

31[Towle, 50.]

In Geneva, New York, a place of “great and various trials,” Towle compared herself with others who had suffered for their faith. ‘They wandered in sheep-skins…. In deserts, in mountains…. Destitute, afflicted and tormented: of whom the world was not worthy.”32

32[Ibid., 94. Hebrews 11:37-38.]

Compounding her misery of 1830, a minister opposed to female preaching walked out during her sermon at the Methodist Quarterly Meeting. Her only consolation was the thought that this embarrassing interruption and painful rejection could be used by God for good. This example of her suffering would serve as an “encouragement to all others, of my own sex, that might come after me.”33

33[Ibid., 95.]

Sick and lonely in Charleston in 1832, Nancy Towle identified the with the long-suffering Job: “I will trust in the Lord, although He slay me.”34

34[Ibid., 226. Job 13:15.]

Reflecting upon the dangers she had confronted in her travel, especially in England, she recalled Psalm 23: ‘Though I pass through the dark valley, of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for even there also thy rod, and thy staff, they shall comfort me.”35

35[Ibid., 107.]

She compared herself with the Apostle Paul in describing the hardship of travel,36

36 [Ibid., 106. “I have been in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren: in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness – and unto this present hour, I have no certain dwelling- place.]

when leaving her mother after her father’s death (“What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart?”)37

37[Ibid., 135.]

and in her aloneness: “I wish to know nothing, but Christ and Him crucified; and trust in Him alone, for every needed good.”38

38[Ibid., 193.]

Towle identified with Jesus when threatened by a mob in St. Johns.39

39[Ibid., 40.]

In the winter of 1831 Methodists of Easton, Pennsylvania refused their chapel to her, others failed give financial support for preaching at the Court House, and members of the Christian Connection demanded proof she was not a Unitarian. Feeling like a person that is “every where spoken against”40

40[Ibid., 160.]

Towle invoked the words of a dying Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they know what they do;”41

41[Ibid., 158. Luke 23:34.]

and his words of judgment upon those who did not recognize him in each other:”I was an hungered and ye gave me not meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger and ye took me not in; I was naked, and ye clothed me not; I was sick and in prison, and ye came not unto me. Inasmuch as ye have not done it unto one of the least of mine – ye have not done it unto me.”42

42[Ibid., 161. Matthew 25:42-45.]

In a more subtle way, Nancy Towle identified with the female prophet Anna. For the duration of her stay abroad letters of recommendation referred to her as “Ann” or “Anna” Towle. Since she was going in a prophetic role to another country, she assumed the name not only of her paternal grandmother, but also the name of an important female prophet.

In a departure from identifying with prophetic leaders, Towle compared herself to the prodigal son when returning home after a three and half year absence.43

43[Ibid., 105. Luke 15:11-21.]

The prodigal had exhausted all his resources before he “came to himself” and realized he could at least go home. Did Nancy Towle feel like a failure, returning to the only place of security she knew? She quoted the father’s words in scripture about the prodigal, changing the pronoun from “he once was dead etc.” to “I once was dead; but I am alive again! I was lost; but am I found!”44


At home she could retreat and prepare her journal for publication.

Towle compared herself with Hebrew prophets, with Jesus, and with Paul, the early Christian church’s most travelled and persecuted missionary. She too, was one of God’s chosen messengers, rejected for being faithful. Even her suffering validated her role: “It is with much tribulation that we shall enter the kingdom.”45

45[Ibid., 82. Acts 14-22.]

Nancy Towle’s account of conversion, call to preach and ministry convey her belief that spiritual authority came to her directly from God. Second, she understood her struggles to be characteristic of faithful disciples, and in describing the events of her life she identified with biblical figures revered by the Christian community. The third way that Vicissitudes is a testimony to Towle’s faithfulness and a defense of female evangelists is the documentation of her ministry. Using her journal entries, Towle documented her travel schedule, her preaching engagements (including three funerals), her successes and failures. Dates, places, means of travel, names of companions and ministers, twelve letters of recommendation, testimonies, letters to and from family and friends, poems and a sermon, along with commentary interlaced with scripture, established her identity. Lest anyone doubt her commitment, she counted the miles, over twenty thousand, and the thousands of people “made the sharers of redeeming grace.”46

46[Ibid., 11.]

Nancy Towle was “a relentless preacher on the move.”47

47[Hatch, 78.]

With the record of her ministry, she attempted to prove her worth in an increasingly hostile environment.

Perhaps Nancy Towle’s greatest defense of female evangelists and most enduring contribution (apart from the converts she led to “redeeming grace”), is that she named the women in her preaching network, securing their place in history. Not only did she identify twenty-three women who were exhorting and preaching during her eleven-year career, she noted the female preacher in Hillsford, England who had her own chapel as well as “a number of female preachers” in London. Towle named the Irish woman who offered hospitality in Dublin. In contrast to the unnamed woman in the Bible who had anointed Jesus’ head, Towle made sure that Sarah Templeton would be known by name. 48

48[Towle, 57. Jesus’ disciples protested when a woman in Bethany anointed his head with costly oil. Jesus replied that “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Her name is never given. Matthew 26:6-13.]

She included the “mothers in Israel” as well as the women in her family who had encouraged her. Her older sister Sally Bartlett Towle Odell was especially prominent in Vicissitudes. Sally affirmed Nancy Towle’s itineracy and promised to join in her work when her children were grown. Sally’s interpretation of Philip’s death, that in the end he was saved, was adopted by Towle.49

49[Towle, 229, 176, 205.]

Nancy Towle gave tidbits of information about other itinerants, praising their labors, at times telling their stories. These women, like Towle, worked hard, leading hurried, fragmented lives. Susan Humes, a young evangelist from Connecticut, literally worked herself to death. She travelled more than three thousand miles in four years, often preaching outdoors to expectant crowds. Unwilling to moderate her demanding preaching schedule even though she was often ill, Humes died of a throat ailment in 1826 at age 23. Towle wrote that her “ardent solicitude… And her melting addresses… Exceeded what I had ever witnessed before, in either male or female.”50

50[Ibid., 26. Towle cautioned Humes to take better care of herself. Later, in February of 1832, Nancy Towle received similar advice in a letter from a friend. “God does not require the destruction of life for sacrifice! Do not destroy your usefulness by overmuch labor; and thus break down your constitution, and so shorten your days.” Vicissitudes. 272.]

Another woman whose story Towle included was Judith Mathers. Evangelist Mathers had chosen to disobey her family rather “than to disobey her Heavenly Father”51

51[Ibid., 37.]

and had suffered greatly for her decision. After several years of “exhorting,” Mathers asked to preach at the conference of ministers, presumably Methodists. This being granted, she left her “last, and dying testimony” with us all, “to be faithful to the Lord Jesus; and in the discharge of our duty, to precious souls.” Not long after, in 1827, Mathers went to her rest.52


In addition to naming the women who preached or supported female preachers, Nancy Towle wrote defenses of female preaching. She presented an argument for inclusion that both transcended gender and recognized the importance of women, though she did not appeal to the inherent spirituality of women. First in the Preface, after her account of the call to preach, and in other instances, Towle set forth a justification of female preaching based upon biblical passages and her underlying though unstated belief in equal rights for all persons.53

53 [In his obituary, Towle’s father is described as a “republican” who ever evinced unshaken confidence and unhesitating perseverance in the cause of liberty and equal rights.” Towle, 131.]

Towle boldly stated that it had never been with her “any controverted point, (although it is such with many others of the present day,) whether the preaching of the Gospel by females was justifiable or not, but rather to the reverse.”54

54[Ibid., 14.]

Towle did not directly address the biblical passages (I Corinthians 14:34-35 and I Timothy 2:11-12) that dictate the silence of women in churches, but chose passages that support her argument for female preaching.

The cornerstone of her argument was that in Christ Jesus all believers were one, “both male and female” and that the scriptures give evidence that “holy women,” as well as “holy men of God” spoke, prophesied or preached.55

55 [Ibid., 15. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28.]

She linked her premillennialist view with the Apostle Peter and the prophet Joel when she argued that “in these last days” before Christ’s return there is a need for men and women to “prophesy.”56

56[Ibid. Towle quotes from the Old Testament book of Joel, one of the primary passages that supports female preaching. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” Joel 2:28.]

The passage from Joel is included in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the day the New Testament church was formed by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. In response to the argument that women were not among the twelve disciples nor the seventy sent out to preach the gospel, Towle identified Mary Magdalene as the first New Testament preacher. Mary was given the “most important Gospel message ever,” the first news of the resurrection of Christ.57

57[Ibid., 8. Mary Magdalene was one of the closest and most faithful disciples of Jesus. She was the first to visit his tomb after his death, and the first to see the resurrected Christ.]

Towle listed other scriptural references and the names of strong, outspoken Old Testament leaders who were prophets and judges, Miriam, Huldah, Deborah and Noadiah.58

58[Ibid., 16.]

Towle argued that if “women thus prophesied, then women preached.”59

59[Ibid., 9.]

Towle did not argue that women were necessarily more spiritual than men, yet she was quick to defend female preachers. Towle’s most impassioned argument was refutation of the charge that women are “false prophets.” She observed that in the New Testament six women engaged in public testimony, “Anna, the four daughters of Philip, and Jezebel: the latter of whom was vile.”60


One of the six women was false, but Towle reasoned that these were better odds than in the days of the Prophet Elijah. At that time four hundred and fifty male prophets proved to be false and only one found true. Towle wrote a vehement conclusion:

And what of all this, I ask, if we are to make a similar estimate of the two distinct genders, for the present day? The Scriptures forewarn us: it cannot be denied, that in the last days “perilous times shall come:” and hat many false prophets and false teachers shall arise, etc. But is it once suggested, pray that from those of the finer mould, (women) there shall be any such occasion of alarm? No. Why then the hue and cry of false teachers! Fy! Fy! If a single female, constrained by love to precious souls, should forsake her own advantage, to win them to the Lord? Oh, it is because the world abounds with priestcraft and superstition! Pope! Bishop! Priest! Hirelings, who of filthy lucre can never have enough! These shall receive the greater damnation.61


It simply did not make sense to Towle that the clergy would exclude capable female preachers who were willing to give their lives in evangelistic efforts. These women had a specific purpose to fulfill. After preaching in a revival in New York with Ann Rexford, Ruth Watkins and Ann Warren, she wrote: “I believe that females are sent into the harvest of the Lord Jesus, more especially to provoke the idle shepherds to more earnest endeavours for the good of souls, and the promotion of the ‘word and kingdom of the Redeemer’ over the world.”62

62[Ibid., 81.]

Nancy Towle argued for female preachers, named them and told their stories. She interpreted the events of her life in biblical terms. She wrote Vicissitudes documenting travel and preaching, with an understanding that her authority came from the God who called her and “providentially directed” 63

63[Ibid., 225.]

her life. The genuine preacher was born out of personal experience with God and submission to God’s will. As in the conversion experience, the self had to be submitted to God, but in self-submission women (and men) could lay claim to a greater authority, letting God guide and give the words to speak.64

64[Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, “Miller Stewart as Black ‘True Woman’ and Public Advocate,” Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1825 (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1993), 346.]

The issue of authority was crucial in the effort to be recognized and accepted as a “preacher,” not just as a woman who exhorted or prayed in public. Clergymen who supported female praying and exhorting would draw the line at female preaching. To preach meant using a biblical text, thus speaking at the highest level of authority.

Extemporaneous preaching was the style of revivalist preachers, not reading from prepared sermons. By freeing themselves from a manuscript, it was thought that preachers would be more in tune with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Nancy Towle did not write her sermons, though she intended to publish a book of her sermons after Vicissitudes “for the encouragement of my own sex that may succeed me in the Lord’s Vineyard.”65

65[Towle, 7.]

However, throughout her book Towle included biblical texts for several of her sermons, thus establishing her status as a preacher. There are only two texts from her earliest and happiest years of preaching, 1821-1830. Other texts were for sermons preached between 1830-1832, her most difficult years.66

66 Most of the texts, taken from the Old Testament, are prophetic in either a negative or positive sense. There are but two New Testament texts, and no sermons on the love of God, though presumably she included a [Her sermon texts: In 1821, her first sermon, at Stratham, John 5:25, “The hour is coming and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” In 1822, at the Baptist Church in Hampton, she preached from Esther 8:6, “For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? Or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” In 1830 she preached, July 4, in Boundbrook, New Jersey on Isaiah 11:10, a prophetic passage in which she identified the “root of Jesse,” with Jesus. In Alexandria, February, 1832, she chose a passage from Ezekiel 48:35, a vision of God’s city. For a sermon in Baltimore, February, 1832, she preached from Revelation 12:7 – “And there was war in heaven.” When she visited Alexandria (Feb. 1832) a different interpretation of Ezekiel 48:35 – “the name of the city “The Lord is there.” In Georgetown (Feb. 1832) ‘Their foot shall slide in due time,” Deuteronomy 32:35. For the annual conference of the Winebrenners’ Church of God she preached on I Chronicles 21:1-2 “And Satan stood up against Israel and provoked David to number Israel.” In Richmond, Virginia, July 1832, convinced that the cholera which had reached New York and Baltimore would affect Richmond, Towle preached on Ezekiel 9:5-6: “Go ye after him through the city, and smite; let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity….”]

message of salvation in each.67

67 [Towle, 68. She preached on “God so loved the world” in England, but she was annoyed that the male preacher chose and announced the topic without consulting her.]

Her sermon in Richmond, Virginia during the summer of 1832 was perhaps the most frightening, since she reported that “loud cries were heard through the house.” It was so powerful that after the fourth service people were afraid to come.68

68[Ibid., 157.]

Like other revivalist preachers Towle preached a message of sin, repentance and salvation, convinced that world events signaled the last days before destruction, Christ’s return, judgment and the millennium.69

69 [Millennialism had two important components: destruction of the world which would precede Christ’s return – apocalypse: and Christ’s return and one thousand year reign – the millennium. John Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 217.]

Male and female preachers of the Freewill Baptist, Methodist and Christian sects were premillennialists, in contrast to postmillennialists. After the American Revolution the postmillennialists celebrated what they believed to be America’s glorious destiny, the beginning of the millennium, and an era of continual progress. The premillennialists believed the opposite. They predicted that there would be a violent apocalypse before Christ’s return and the thousand year reign of peace, though unlike William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return in 1843, they did not believe humans could know the exact time the end would come.70

70 [Brekus, 312. Miller’s calculations, based on the Old Testament book of Daniel, attracted at least 50,000 followers, “Millerites,” in 1842-43.]

Premillennialists interpreted the unprecedented changes in American life as a signal of the last days before judgment. Whenever there was a comet, an earthquake, a violent storm or any other natural disaster, these preachers interpreted the event as a sign of worse things to come.71

71[Ibid., 159.]

Nancy Towle was convinced that the outbreak of cholera in 1832 was a sign of God’s judgment and a vindication of her warning.

The United States underwent a long economic boom from the mid- 1820s down to the panic of 1837. This was the period now thought of as the beginning of sustained economic growth in the U.S., spurring the development of industrial capitalism and the creation of a national market. It saw a great increase in prosperity as well as heightening divisions between social classes. At the same time, by the early 1830s, the social changes stirred by the economic growth were starting to trouble many people and cause a conservative reaction, as evident in the narrowing opportunities for Towle to preach and in the increasing intolerance for dissent of all sorts. To Nancy Towle, the disturbing changes were reminiscent of the poverty and misery brought on by industrialization that she had witnessed in England. Towle feared that similar conditions would follow in America because of “slothfulness, wickedness, stupidity” and a “swelling tide of avarice and ambition.72

72[Towle, 236.]

While other nations were under the chastening rod of Divine indignation; I saw my own people comparatively at ease; and swimming as in luxury. Said I, Things at this rate, cannot long remain! If mercies have not a tendency to draw; judgments here must drive the thoughtless from their lethargy!73

73[Ibid., 235.]

From Towle’s point of view, the changes must have appeared connected: “luxury” (new wealth) and “infidelity” (lack of true commitment to Christ).74

74[Anne C. Rose, Transcendentalism as a Social Movement 1830-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 17.]

Her task as an evangelist was to sound the warning, to use sermons, conversations, letters, exhortation and fervent, prolonged prayers to evoke repentance and consequently salvation from eternal death. For example, her concluding exhortation in Vicissitudes followed the familiar pattern of judgment, invitation to change, offer of salvation and challenge to a life of faithfulness. First Towle described the impending judgment to those who had not repented of several sins – love of money, fame, entertainment and “spirituous liquor.” “Fellow-Sinner, of whatever rank or condition, I echo to you in friendship, the voice of conscience, ‘You are travelling down to Hell.”‘ Then, having threatened the audience with the justice and wrath of God, Towle offered the way out: in Christ Jesus there is “pardon for the guilty, life for the dead and salvation for all that are lost.” All the reader has to do is to “believe and thou shall be saved.” From the point of belief the convert is to trust in God and to tell everyone “How great things the Lord your God hath done for you. Thus do you set forward to heaven.”75

75[Towle, 286-289.]

Nancy Towle was determined to be recognized as a preacher, one who spoke authoritatively with a biblical text from the pulpit. On one occasion during a revival in Ithaca, New York, 1831-1832, Towle insisted that she had a special message to the congregation. After some discussion it was agreed that she would speak after the minister’s sermon, but not from the pulpit. However, when the time came Nancy Towle “arose very deliberately, took off her bonnet, marched up into the vacated pulpit, and without apology or further preliminaries, announced as her text Revelations (sic) 12:1 . . . and preached fully one hour and a half.”76

76[Charles D. Burritt, Methodism in Ithaca (Ithaca: Andrus, Gauntlett, and Co., 1852), 104. Rev. 12:1: “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars,” a prophetic vision pertaining to the birth of Christ and the last conflict between good and evil. See Brekus, 201.]

In form and content Vicissitudes is a defense of female preaching as well as a story of faith, courage and perseverance. In November, 1832, at a turning point in her life Towle published testimony of all she had experienced as an expression of her commitment and for the benefit of women who would come after her. And she fully expected that others would follow. Towle did not doubt her conversion, her calling and the conviction that women were essential in the purposes of God.

The last publication of Nancy Towle that survives is a short book that promotes her evangelical theology and inspired leadership. Some of the Writings and Last Sentences of Adolphus Dewey tells of the dramatic conversion of a twenty-four year old man convicted of murdering his wife.77

77 [Nancy Towle believed that she had been sent by God to Montreal “just in time to comfort him.” Nancy Towle, Some of the Writings and Last Sentences of Adolphus Dewey Executed at Montreal, August 30th, 1833. (Montreal: J. A. Hoisington, 1833), 12.]

The book is reminiscent of the criminal conversion narratives of colonial New England. Clergy would publish accounts of condemned prisoners’ last words and dying speeches along with sermons preached at their execution.78

78 [Daniel A. Cohen, Pillars of Salt. Monuments of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 14.]

Towle recorded the conversion and last speech of Dewey in an era of extensive newspaper reports of sensational crimes and trials, especially those of sexual deviance or violence.79


No doubt Nancy Towle hoped for wide readership of her book.

In Montreal, August 1833, Towle and a “female friend” visited the inmate in prison During their visit the women prayed and wept with the penitent Dewey until he experienced forgiveness: “I am happy! I believe God has blotted out my sins and I am prepared to die! I have nothing to fear! I long to be gone!”😯

😯[Towle, 13.]

When she visited a second time Towle gave him a copy of her book, presumably Vicissitudes, for his instruction. Towle urged him to throw aside his Roman Catholic prayer book and let his requests be in “earnest; not to any disembodied spirit or created angel, but to the Lord Jesus Christ.” Adolphus Dewey’s reply was evidence to her that God was with him, “It makes no difference what our language is – it is the heart which God looks at.”81


Towle believed that Adolphus Dewey’s experience of forgiveness was proof that anyone, even a confessed murderer, could find salvation and peace with God. The fervent prayers of two evangelical women invoked the presence of the Holy Spirit, she believed, and not the written prayers of the Catholic priest who had visited Dewey. Like Ann Mason, Towle confronted a different religious tradition and brought salvation to one near death. For Towle, it was such a high moment that she described it as “the most joyful of my life! Such a sense had I, of the presence of the Omnipotence: His unparalleled love and pity to poor outcast, miserable sinners; that my whole soul exulted.”82

82[Ibid., 8.]

Interestingly, Nancy Towle published Adolphus Dewey’s speech delivered on the scaffold even though he did not mention her. He attributed his misfortune to his failure to follow the precepts of the Roman Catholic religion. Though he experienced the concern and prayers of Towle and her companion, he remained faithful to the church of his youth. Towle did not comment upon his speech, but she printed a poem entitled “On Prayer” in the appendix of the book. The message of the poem is to renounce formal prayers from printed books.83

83[Ibid., 26.]

Nancy Towle, who urged Dewey and others to seek the presence of God directly, not through printed liturgies, nevertheless was forced to use print as a means of communication. Her first calling was to the spoken word; now, with preaching opportunities limited, she had to rely on print.

According to Joseph Dow’s History of the Town of Hampton New Hampshire first published in 1892, Nancy Towle began publishing The Female Religious Advocate in 1834 in New York City. Copies of the journal are not available, but the title has a familiar ring. The use of the word “advocate” was widespread in nineteenth century publications. An 1801 publication entitled The Female Advocate “assaulted sexual inequality, mocked male superiority and demanded female empowerment.”84

84[Nancy Woloch, Early American Women, A Documentary History: 1600-1900 (New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997, 142.]

A newspaper entitled “The Female Advocate” was published in New York, 1832- 1833. “The Advocate of Moral Reform” the weekly newspaper of the Moral Reform Society grew into one of the nation’s most widely read evangelical papers, boasting 16,500 subscribers.85

85[Smith-Rosenberg, 115.]

Advocacy took may forms in New York during the early 1830s, from the optimistic middle class reformers following evangelist Charles Finney to the followers of Matthias who wanted to restore an “ethos of fixed social relations and paternal power.”86


The Female Moral Reform Society was founded in 1834 to abolish prostitution, 87

87 [Christine Stansell, City of Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 69.]

and working women demanded representation of the National Trades’ Union convention the same year. New York City was a “city of women” in which new conceptions of womanhood were taking shape.88

88[Ibid., 11.]

It was just the place for Nancy Towle to advocate not only for women, but religious women, even preachers.

By publishing A Memoir of The Life and Ministry of Ann Freeman. Towle presented a dramatic role model for American evangelical female preachers and a defense of female spiritual leadership. With the publication of Vicissitudes Nancy Towle, who had been in the center of evangelistic revivalism and shared its theology, substantiated her identity as a preacher whose life story was worthy of telling. She secured a place in history for other female preachers. She also recognized that she was being marginalized because of gender. She acknowledged her anger and her determination to fight against the exclusion of females from preaching. Vicissitudes with its diary format and almost stream of consciousness commentary, reflects her journey in establishing her identity through the changes of her life.

Some of the Writings and Last Sentences of Adolphus Dewey is an U argument for the universality of God’s forgiveness and an example of inspired female leadership. The Female Religious Advocate provided a journalistic pulpit for the defense of preaching women.

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