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American Women: Resources from the Rare Book and Special Collections

Religion and Spirituality

Religion in Early U.S. Literature

Imaginary obstructions to true spiritual progress: preached during the service at the Day Street Congregational Church, August 14, 1898. Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Religious topics dominate in titles published before 1801 in what is now the United States, nearly half of which are organized chronologically in the American Imprint Collection. There are numerous sermons and most of the works about individual women are funeral sermons. Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and other leading ministers eulogized relatives and members of their congregations, extolling their piety and virtue. Pastor Benjamin Colman's The Honour and Happiness of the Vertuous Woman (Boston: B.Green, 1716; HQ1221.C73 Am Imp) , memorializing Elizabeth Sewall Hirst (1681-1716), is representative.

A handful of execution sermons may be of particular interest to those studying early American women. Cotton Mather and Benjamin Colman both preached about the life and death sentence of Margaret Gaulacher, who murdered her illegitimate child in 1715. Colman's sermon is entitled The Divine Compassions Declar'd and Magnified . . . a Sermon Preach'd . . . upon the Sorrowful Occasion of a Miserable Woman Present, under Sentence of Death for the Murder of her Spurious Infant (Boston: T. Fleet, 1715; BV4627.M8 M38 1715 Am Imp) . Mather's work, A Sorrowful Spectacle in Two Sermons Occasioned by a Just Sentence of Death on a Miserable Woman for the Murder of a Spurious Offspring . . . with Some Remarkable Things Relating to the Criminal, Proper for all to be Informed of (Boston: T. Fleet, 1715; BV4627.M8 M38 1715 Am Imp) , goes beyond a sermon and includes some titillating facts about this fallen (and soon to be deceased) woman.

Henry Channing preached at a 1786 execution, publishing the sermon under the title God Admonishing His People of their Duty . . . a Sermon . . . Occasioned by the Execution of Hannah Ocuish, a Mulatto Girl, Aged 12 Years and 9 Months, for the Murder of Eunice Bolles, Aged 6 Years and 6 Months (New-London: T. Green, 1786; E90.O2 C5 Am Imp) .

An effective way to retrieve religious materials is by browsing in the Library of Congress Online Catalog by subject heading:

The doctrinal writing of English Quaker Mary Brook (ca. 1726-1782), Reason of the Necessity of Silent Waiting, was reprinted in several editions in colonial America, as were the devotional exercises of her countrywoman Elizabeth Singer Rowe (1674-1737) and the religious tracts of Hannah More (1745-1833). Religious poems of Martha Brewster, Jane Dunlap, and Phillis Wheatley are also represented, as well as Hannah Adams's (1755-1832) dictionary of religion, An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects which have appeared in the World from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day (Boston: B. Edes & Sons, 1784; BL31.A3 1784 Am Imp) .


Shakers near Lebanon state of N. York, their mode of worship. Several rows of Shakers, separated by gender, performing a step dance in the meeting hall at New Lebanon, New York; a woman spectator is seated in left foreground. [ca.1830.] Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The division has an important collection of Shaker literature, significant here because of the nineteenth-century Christian sect's commitment to the equality of women. Members were dedicated to a life of perfection, seeking “the kingdom of heaven upon earth.” Their efforts toward perfection included hard work, pacifism, communal living, and celibacy. They believed in God as a spirit being, both a spiritual father and mother, and in the equality of the sexes. Martha Anderson wrote, in her Social Life and Vegetarianism, “As there is perfect equality of the sexes in our home, guaranteed by the law of absolute purity, which frees women from masculine dominance, the sisterhood are insured the right to manage their own affairs.”

It was the Shakers' pacifism during the Revolutionary War that first called outside attention to the group and its activities. Mother Ann, as the leader Ann Lee was called by followers, and five others were jailed for several months in 1780 because of their opposition to the war. The sect's opposition to war continued and is spelled out in A Declaration of the Society of People . . . Shewing their Reasons for Refusing to Aid or Abet the Cause of War and Bloodshed by Bearing Arms, Paying Fines, Hiring Substitutes, or Rendering any Equivalent for Military Services (Albany, N.Y.: E. & E. Hosford, 1815; BX9789.W2 A5 1815) .

Almost all the Shaker items can be found in the Library of Congress Online Catalog using a Call No. Browse:

Much of the literature is an explanation of Shaker beliefs, but it also includes works on the Shakers' famous woodworking, seed supply businesses, and inventions. Many Shaker works are by and about women, including biographies of their women leaders. Additional Shaker materials, including correspondence, diaries, hymns, and other papers may be found in the Library's Manuscript Division and Shaker maps in the Geography and Map Division.

Christian Science

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) is another pioneering religious reformer whose writings are well represented in the division. Her first major work, Science and Health (Boston: Christian Scientist Publishing Company, 1875; BX6941.S4 1875) , explores the relationship between spirituality and healing and has been reprinted often in various editions and translations. In addition to Eddy's other books, sermons, speeches, and magazine writings, the division has scrapbooks compiled by Stella Hadden Alexander (New York, 1935; BX6931.Z8 A6) , and Alice Morgan Harrison, which document the activities of Eddy and her disciple Augusta E. Stetson (1842-1928), as well as the Christian Science movement.

Sabbath School Founders

The central role played by African American women in organizing sabbath schools and benevolent societies is acknowledged in the National Baptist Magazine (Nashville, Tenn., 1899; E449.D16 C:9 Murray Pam), where the Reverend J. Francis Robinson celebrates the “pious, consecrated, self-sacrificing women” who bring “stability and support” to such endeavors. This echoes Bishop Benjamin Arnett's praise of black women's efforts in establishing the New Asylum for Orphan and Friendless Colored Children and other benevolent societies in Cincinnati in Proceedings of the Semi-Centenary Celebration of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Cincinnati, 1874; E449.D16 D:2 Murray Pam) and James Holloway's recognition of the influence of female Sabbath School teachers in Why I Am a Methodist ([Charleston, S.C., 1909]; E185.A254 H:134 Afr Am Pam).

Indian Captivity Narratives

Women played a central role in many of the Indian captivity narratives as participants and in some cases as narrators. Mary Rowlandson's narrative was the earliest account published separately. The division has a photostat of one of the rare 1682 editions and several eighteenth-century printings of this classic narrative, including the 1720 edition entitled The Soveraignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (Boston: T. Fleet, 1720; E87.R862 1720 Am Imp). Rowlandson describes her captivity as a spiritual experience and attributes her return to God's providence. Similar religious messages are found in many of the narratives that followed hers, whether written by Puritans, Catholics, or Quakers.

[Frontispiece and title page from "An affecting narrative of the captivity and sufferings of Mrs. Mary Smith" showing three Native men, one with bow and arrow, facing three Euro-American men, two with rifles]. [1815]. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Some of the female captives offer a positive view of Indian culture. Notably, Mary Jemison, captured at twelve in 1755, recounts the kindness and generosity of her adopted Seneca family in A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (Canandaigua, N.Y.: J.D. Bemis, 1824; E87.J46) .

Generally, captivity narratives published after the American Revolution became a popular source of anti-Indian propaganda. Many describe the brutal torture of young girls and women. Presented as fact, such narratives were frequently exaggerated and sometimes, like Mary Smith's sensational account (pictures above), completely fabricated.

Ann Eliza Bleecker (1752-1783), drawing on her perilous experiences on the New York frontier, first adapted the Indian captivity theme to a popular literary genre. Her sentimental novel The History of Maria Kittle (Hartford: E. Babcock, 1797; PZ3.B6156 1797 Am Imp) , set during the French and Indian War, was published first in 1790.

Missionary Literature

In contrast to the negative image of Native Americans depicted in the majority of captivity narratives, some of the missionary literature attempts to describe native cultures and traditions, but also stresses the importance of education.

Beginning in 1830, Sarah Tuttle produced a series of missionary tracts, Letters and Conversations on the Indian Missions, for the Massachusetts Sabbath School Union that describes mission life among the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seneca, and Sioux and appeals to Sunday school youth to collect money to support mission schools.

While sympathetic to the zeal and courage of most missionaries, Mary Henderson Eastman (1818-1890) also recognizes their failure to understand the native culture. In her works, Dahcotah, or, Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling (New York: J. Wiley, 1849; E99.D1 E19) and American Aboriginal Portfolio (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1853; E77.E125) , Eastman attempts to celebrate the moral character of the Dakota and to preserve their legends and character traits both through prose descriptions from her observations and the drawings of her husband, Capt. Seth Eastman. Julia Moss Seton's Indian Costume Book (Santa Fe, N.M.: Seton Village Press, 1938; E98.C8 S5) includes descriptions and photographs of women's ritual and everyday clothing, hair designs, and beadwork.