Quaker author and preacher Bathsheba Bowers was born in 1672, in Massachusettes, and died at age 46 in 1718, in South Carolina. She was one of 12 children born to Benanuel Bowers and his wife Elizabeth Dunster.
Her mother Elizabeth was a young orphan sent from England to live with her uncle Henry Dunster, who was the president of Harvard College between 1640 and 1654, and spent the last few years of his life as a pastor in Scituate, Massachusettes.
Her father, Benanuel Bowers, was a determined Quaker who fled England to settle in Charlestown, near Boston, Massachusettes, only to find a flurry of Puritan persecution. Seven of their children grew to adulthood amid the threats and violence which surrounded their family.
Benanuel Bowers was a militant Quaker defender and suffered much for his religion by fine, whip, and prison. Like his daughter Bathsheba, he enjoyed writing. Some of his letters are preserved in the Middlesex County Courthouse. One addressed to Thomas Danforth the magistrate, is dated March 3, 1677, when little Bathsheba was only five.
Bathsheba's father owned 20 acres in Charlestown. He suffered fines repeatedly and imprisonment for various offences, such as absenting himself from meeting, and giving a cup of milk to a poor Quaker woman who had been whipped and imprisoned two days and nights without food or water.
As personal animosities and community hatred of Quakers began to increase, the Bowers decided to send 4 of their daughters to Philadelphia, which had a large and welcoming Quaker community.
Much of what we know about Bathsheba Bowers comes from the letter journal of her niece, Ann Curtis Clay Bolton, the daughter of Bathsheba's sister Elizabeth Anna who married Wenlock Curtis of Philadelphia. This diary is in the form of letters addressed to her physician, Dr. Anderson, of Maryland, the first of which was written in 1739.
Ann Bolton, wrote of her aunt's description of her immigrant grandfather, "My Grandfather, Benanuel Bowers was born in England of honest Parents, but his father, being a man of stern temper, and a rigid Oliverian, obliged my Grandfather (who out of a pious zeal, turned to the religion of the Quakers) to flee for succour into New England...
"He purchased a farm near Boston and then married. Both were Quakers. The Zealots of the Presbyterian party ousted them. They escaped with their lives, though not without whippings, and imprisonments, and the loss of a great part of their worldly substance...
"When my Grandfather was grown old, he sent, with his wife's consent, four of his eldest daughters to Philadelphia, hearing a great character of Friends in this city. Their eldest daughter married Timothy Hanson and settled on a plantation near Frankford. Their youngest daughter was married to George Lownes of Springfield, Chester Co."
But Bathsheba Bowers remained single. Anna wrote that she was of "middle stature" and "beautiful when young," but singularly stern and morose. "She was crossed in love when she was about eighteen...
"She seemed to have little regard for riches, but her thirst for knowledge being boundless after she had finished her house and Garden, and they were as beautiful as her hands cou'd make them, or heart could wish, she retired herself in them free from Society as if she had lived in a Cave under Ground or on the top of a high mountain, but as nothing ever satisfied her so about half a mile distant under Society Hill She built a Small (country) house close by the best Spring of Water perhaps as was in our City.
"This house she furnished with books a Table a Cup in which she or any that visited her (but they were few, and seldom drank of that Spring). What name she gave her new house I know not but some People gave it the name of Bathsheba's Bower (for you must know her Name was Bathsheba Bowers) but some a little ill Natured called it Bathsheba's folly.
"As for the place it has ever since bore the name of Bathsheba's Spring or Well—for like Absalom I suppose she was willing to have something to bear up her Name, and being too Strict a virtuoso could not expect fame and favour here by any methods than such of her own raising and spreading.
"Those motives I suppose led her about the same time to write the History of her Life (in which she freely declared her failings) with her own hand which was no sooner finished than Printed and distributed about the world Gratis."
Ann described her aunt as a hard taskmaster, with whom she lived as a young girl until she was 13. Aunt Bathsheba was a gardener and a vegetarian for the last 20 years of her life. She was also a fine seamstress and made her living in Philadelphia making mantuas. A mantua (from the French Manteuil ) is an article of women's clothing worn in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century. Originally it was a loose gown, the later mantua was an overgown or robe typically worn over an underdress or stomacher and petticoat.
Although Bathsheba Bowers was a Quaker by profession, Ann reported that she was, "so Wild in her Notions it was hard to find out of what religion she really was of. She read her Bible much but I think sometimes to no better purpose than to afford matter for dispute in w[hich] she was always positive."
In New York in 1709, Philadelphia Quaker William Bradford published a 23 page booklet by Bathsheba Bowers entitled "An Alarm Sounded to Prepare the Inhabitants of the World to Meet the Lord in the Way of His Judgment" along with a history of her life and other writings. In the same year, Bathsheba Bowers became a Quaker preacher, taking her ministry to South Carolina, where she would live for nearly 10 years. Because she made her living as a mantua maker, she could pick up that trade in her new homeplace.
Ann wrote of one of her aunt's experiences in South Carolina. "She had a belief she could never die. She removed to South Carolina where the Indians Early one morning surprised the place—killed and took Prisoners several in the house adjoining to her. Yet she moved not out of her Bed, but when two Men offered their assistance to carry her away, she said Providence would protect her, and indeed so it proved at that time, for those two men no doubt by the Direction of providence took her in her Bed for she could not rise, conveyed her into their Boat and carried her away in Safety tho' the Indians pursued and shot after them."
Bathsheba Bowers lives on through her autobiography. She used the conventions of the established New England spiritual autobiography to trace her journey through life as a series of fears to be overcome and to set an example that others might follow. She compared herself to Job outlining a progression of divinely predestined tests which eventually placed her in a personal relationship with God. Bathsheba Bowers overcame fears of nudity, death, hell, pride, and even preaching, writing, and publishing to attain her spiritual self-control.
She claimed that her most difficult struggle was with her own ambition. While she saw publication of her spiritual autobiography as a triumph over her personal fears, she worried about the potential scorn it might bring on her, "...tis best known to my self how long I labored under a reluctancy, and how very unwilling I was to appear in print at all; for it was, indeed, a secret terror to...hear my Reputation called in question, without being stung to the heart." Perhaps this is why she moved from Philadelphia to South Carolina just as her autobiography was published.
Although Bathsheba Bowers's work joined the spiritual autobiographies written by women in New England as a means of joining a congregation, Bathsheba's booklet added a Quaker perspective to the intensely personal genre. Her writings also included poetry just as American Anne Bradstreet had published before her. English Quakers, men and women, published their spiritual struggles in journals, but early 18th century American Quaker women rarely published their writings.
Bethsheba's diary is in the form of letters addressed to her physician, Dr. Anderson, of Maryland, the first of which was written in 1739. It begins:
"For some reason perhaps Dr. not unknown to you I step out of the common Road and first Mention my family on my Mother's side.
"My Grandffather Benanuel Bowers was Born in England of honest Parents but his father being a Man of a Stern temper, and a rigid Oliverian Obliged my Grandfather (who out of a Pious zeal turned to the religion of the Quakers) to flee for succor into New England.
"My Grandmother's name was Elizabeth Dunster; She was Born in Lancashire in Old England, but her Parents dying when she was young her Unkle Dunster, who was himself at that time President of the College in New England, sent for her thither and discharged his Duty to her not only in that of a kind Unkle but a good Christian and tender father. By all reports he was a man of great Wisdom, exemplary Piety, and peculiar sweetness of temper.
"My Grandfather not long after his coming to New England purchased a farm near Boston, and then married my Grandmother, tho they had but a small beginning yet God So blest them that they increased in substance, were both Devout Quakers and famous for their Christian Charity and Liberality to people of all perswasions on religion who to Escape the Stormy Wind and tempest that raged horribly in England flocked thither."
The writer also speaking of her grandparents..."the outrage and violence of fiery zealots of the Presbyterian Party who then had the ruling power in their own hands, however they slept with their lives tho' not without Cruel whippings and imprisonment and the loss of part of their worldly substance."
See: The Life of Mrs. Robert Clay, afterwards Mrs. Robert Bolton Author: Ann Bolton and the Rev. Jehu Curtis Bolton Publication: Philadelphia, 1928. Copy at the Universtiy of Maryland.