Protofeminist Quakers

Mary Cole and Priscilla Cotton respond to the silencing of women in church. #

Early Quaker women’s writings contain some of the most creative and powerful scriptural arguments in the Friends tradition. Quakerism started in the 1650’s by a group of seekers including George Fox, Elizabeth Hooten and many others. Among the early Quakers, women and men were moved by the Spirit to speak in the meetings. The church establishment of the day found this to be outrageous and women were regularly abused and imprisoned for standing up and speaking in church.

One of my favorite arguments for women’s speech comes from Priscilla Cotton and Mary Cole in *To the priests and people of England we discharge our consciences…"

The first section is somewhat standard Quaker fare as a polemic against the religious abusers of the day being of ‘Cain’s generation’. (Cain murdered his brother Abel). Cain’s generation is brutal towards the true people of God and gives into the temptation of envy over Abel’s success. This is somewhat standard early Quaker fare, if you read enough early Quaker writing, you’ll get the gist of the Cain and Abel stuff.

The second part of the tract is where the article gets really interesting as Cotton and Cole confront the text of 1 Corinthians 13:34-35.

1 Corinthians 14:34 (KJV) #

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

Cotton and Cole respond:

Thou tellest the people, Women must not speak in Church, whereas it is spoke only of a Female, for we are all both male and female in Christ Jesus, but it’s weakness that is the woman by Scriptures forbidden, for else thou purest the Scriptures at a difference in themselves. As still is they practice out of ignorance? For the scriptures do say the church my prophesy “one by one, and that women were in the church, as well as men, do thou judge and the Scripture faith, that a woman may not prophesy with her head uncovered, lest it dishonor her head: now thou wouldst know the meaning of that Head, let the Scripture answer…

Cotton and Cole strike back at their opponents with scripture of their own:

1 Corinthians 11:3 #

For I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man…

Now that verse has the husband as the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church; however, they have already addressed this concern earlier in the text through their interpretation of Paul’s male/female argument in Galatians 3:28.

Man in his best estate is altogether vanity, weakness, a lie. If therefore any speak in the Church, whether man or woman, nothing appear in it but the wisdom of man, and Christ who is the true head, be not uncovered, do not fuly appear, Christ the head is then dishonored. Now the woman or weakness, that is man, which in his best estate and greatest wisdom is altogether vanity, that must be covered with the covering of the Spirit, a garment of righteousness. …

The argument here is unique. Cotton and Cole say that the text does not mean literal women. Rather the term woman in I Corinthians is a pejorative relating to weakness. The women Paul was speaking about were ‘spiritual women’ who shouldn’t speak in church. Likewise, only Christ should speak in church. Christ is the head of every ‘man’. They then describe the vileness of humanity and manhood in general. "Man in his best estate is altogether vanity, weakness, a lie”.

The closing:

Now thou doest respect persons I know, and art partial in all things so judgest wickedly, but there is no respect of persons with God. Indeed you yourselves are the women that are forbidden to speak in the church for two of your Priests came to speak with us, and when they could not bear sound reproof and wholesome Doctrine, that did concern them, they railed on us with filthy speech as no other they can give to us, So leaving you to the light to judge what we have writ, we remain Prisoners in Exeter, jail for the word of God.

Cotton and Cole establish Christ as the one who speaks and both men and women below Christ. They also argue that Christ is the head of men. These men (priests) do not have Christ as a head and do not speak or act like Christ. They say “filthy speeches” and could not “bear reproof and wholesome doctrine”. Therefore they may still be priests, but certainly not men. These priest are indeed the women that Paul is telling not to speak in church. Cotton and Cole are the men with Christ as their head preaching the true gospel.

In true Quaker fashion these women ‘spiritualized’ the text by interpreting it through their experience. They completely reverse their opponents arguments flipping common definitions of what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female’ within Christ.

Prayer #


Give us the strength to make your kingdom inclusive. Let us not reject others based upon their politics, sex, poverty, or power. You speak through your people regardless of gender. You call the least of these and the worst of us as you have the best and brightest. You draw all to you. Your ways are not our ways. You elevate the outcast and chastise the religious. In your kingdom the last will be first and the first will be last. In our weakness we find your strength. You bring life to all of your children. Guide us with your holy light.


::note - I modified some of the English in the texts to make this more readable, this is a blog not a thesis. Thanks :D also if you want the source, I’m not sure if its against EEBO’s rules for me to send you a pdf. Just contact me via twitter or facebook::


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