Nonconformist and Dissenting Women's Studies, 1650-1850

Mary Steele (1753-1813), the "Sylvia" of the Steele Circle of Broughton, Hampshire, c. 1780; she was a close friend of the poet Mary Scott and niece of the hymn writer Anne Steele ("Theodosia'").

Mary Scott (1751-93) [later Taylor], mother of Mary Ann and John Edward Taylor, from a miniature in Isabella Scott's Family Biography (1908), p. 206.

This is an on-going site that builds upon my work as general editor of the eight volumes of Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011), of which I was volume editor for volumes 3-8 (Julia B. Griffin was the volume editor for volumes 1 and 2 on Anne Steele). A host of clever, dedicated, and devout Nonconformist women left their mark on literary and religious history in England (and to a degree, America) between the mid-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. These women put a premium on personal faith, biblical doctrine, and a wide range of spiritual experience and religious affections (the “sacred”) that sometimes easily assimilated into and at other times sharply conflicted with secular culture, human reason, and mundane life (the “profane”). Also called Dissenters, these women belonged to various denominations/sects that had separated from the Church of England into three major denominations – Baptists (Particular and General), Independents, and Presbyterians – although by the end of the eighteenth century many of the Presbyterians were worshiping in congregations that had become predominantly Unitarian. Quakers were an important sect as well, and by the early nineteenth century the Methodists had officially separated from the Anglican church. Included in the writings of the women found in this website are prime examples of various forms of spiritual autobiography, both informal (never published) and formal (printed, usually posthumously). In some of these narratives, the writer is forced to choose between conscience and her husband, at times defying the traditional gender roles established in a patriarchal society. The primary aim of the writer, however, is to describe her spiritual progress, whether in a straightforward narrative or a daily or weekly diary (and sometimes more compact conversion narratives designed for presentation before the local congregation prior to church membership). These spiritual narratives range from unbelief, waywardness, and ignorance to belief, enlightenment, and a personal calling to write, speak, and evangelize (even as a woman).

Not all the writers represent the same doctrinal position concerning revelation, faith, or ‘experiential’ religion and its conflict with culture and faith, the secular and the sacred; nor do they exhibit similar patterns of worship. Some emphasize visions and prophecy, some the importance of reason and culture, and others the role of piety and the primacy of religious affections as emblems of the rise of evangelical Christianity, especially among the Calvinist sects. Other genres popular with Nonconformist women writers is poetry, religious prose (formal meditations and discourses), and fiction, mostly highly moral and didactic designed for young readers or the growing market for reading material among the working classes in the last decade of the eighteenth and early decades of the nineteenth century. Nonconformist women writers throughout the two centuries between 1650 and 1850 consistently demonstrated a strong attraction to hymns and language derived from the Bible, commonly termed the “language of Canaan.” Dissenting culture also demonstrated a strong allegiance to “the household of faith.” Nonconformist women writers used their poetry for self-construction and identity formation, and were consistently pushing the boundaries concerning voice and audience. They demonstrate evidence of extensive learning, poetic skill, and awareness of their role as poets, their position in relation to contemporary culture, and their adaptive use of several poetic genres (friendship, retirement, and occasional poems) popularized in the eighteenth century primarily by women poets, some very private, some overtly feminist, and other devoutly pious and near Romantic in its emphasis upon sensibility and the emotional power inspired by nature.

It is the editor's desire that the materials on this site can serve as a starting point for reading, research, and further inquiries into the lives and writings of Nonconformist and Dissenting women of the long 18th century and the first half of the 19th. It is the editor's wish that they be freely accessed by students, scholars, and the general public and be widely disseminated, both in private and public spaces, especially university classrooms.