Early Women’s Rights Advocate Nancy Towle of Hampton NH

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“She is an instrument of much evil in the world,” wrote Nancy Towle, an itinerant evangelical preacher from Hampton, New Hampshire. Towle was referring to women in general, and laid the blame for their condition squarely at the doorstep of an educational system that taught women to see themselves as “subordinate beings.”

Towle was born in 1796 and came of age during the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival in which millennialism played a dominant role. She attended Hampton Academy and taught school in North Hampton. In 1818 she was religiously “saved” at a woman-led revival meeting, was baptized, and three years later, having “felt the word of the Lord as a fire shut up in my bones,” she set out to become a traveling preacher.

The Awakening changed the lives of millions of Americans, but women preachers like Towle were not always welcomed by those whose souls they sought to save. By her own reckoning, she had traveled more than 15,000 miles delivering the word of God’s salvation to the masses, but in many places was turned away on account of her sex. From these encounters with bigotry she formed a body of opinion about the right of women to enter the pulpit. Her 1832 self-published book, Vicissitudes illustrated, in the experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America, is as much about women’s rights as about religion.

 Towle’s first opportunity to speak before a congregation came in 1821 in Stratham, New Hampshire. Over the next eleven years she expanded her horizons in ever-widening circles, traveling first to nearby towns in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, then north to Canada, west to New York and Ohio, south as far as South Carolina, and as far away as England and Ireland. At the conclusion of her preaching tours she declared herself a “citizen of the world,” not so much for her travels as for her refusal to commit to any established sect.

Towle possessed a serious, gloomy disposition, which she may have inherited from her father, who had suffered from night terrors and once planned to kill himself. She was also highly sensitive to what she termed “impressions,” and was frequently visited by premonitions of death. She foresaw her father’s death, and on the day he died experienced an auditory hallucination, which she ascribed to a gathering of angels come to take him to heaven. On the day of her brother Philip’s death, hundreds of miles away, “a darkness and strange disorder seemed to pervade [her] heart” and her spirit left her body. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Towle experienced a vision of a “death-like shadow” standing beside her bed, and informed her hosts that someone in the house was about to die. When she returned to Portsmouth some months later, she learned that the man of the house had disappeared and was presumed dead.

Towle was intolerant of views that differed from her own. She heaped opprobrium on sects she believed were in error—Jews were “pharisaical and blind;” otherwise good Mormons had been “duped” by a charlatan; Irish Catholics, Episcopalians, Friends, and Bible Christians were “enveloped in the grossest darkness, ignorance, and superstition.” She once attacked a group of congregants, saying they were so “stupefied by sin” that she doubted they could be saved at all. She issued dire notices to male preachers who refused to allow her to speak to their assemblies, warning that if souls were not saved as a result, the “blood be upon” them, not her. At each point of denial, she detailed her unreimbursed expenses and complained that male itinerants, unlike their female counterparts, were never expected to wash or mend their own clothes or to help with the housework at the homes of their hosts.

To read Vicissitudes is exhausting. With a sledge hammer as a favorite tool of persuasion, Towle met bigotry with bigotry and self-righteousness with self-righteousness. Every page is a holy war against the forces of conformity. Yet the book is an important early marker along the path to greater freedoms for women. Besides documenting her own experiences, she wrote about the experiences of fellow female travelers, and addressed objections against women speaking in church by citing Biblical passages that assumed equality between both male and female speakers. She exhorted her God to “raise up a host of female warriors that shall provoke the opposite party from their indolence.” The book’s final line echoes the sentiments of early English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft: “I wish to deliver up my life as a sacrifice, for one, towards remedying these evils; and seal my testimony, as with my blood, in vindication of the rights of women!”

Little is known of Towle’s life after the publication of Vicissitudes. In 1834 she published a short-lived journal titled The Female Religious Advocate. It’s believed she returned to Hampton in 1840 after the death of her brother Simon. She lived on the family homestead (495 Lafayette Road) with her mother Betty, Simon’s widow and children, and her unmarried brother David. Family letters suggest that she may have taught at Hampton Academy, as a niece wrote that when she went to school there in the 1850s, she was “always terribly afraid I should come across Aunt Nancy.” Before her death on January 1, 1876, Towle suffered “delusions” and “sought death as a joyful release.” She was buried in the High Street Cemetery, where her tombstone can still be visited today.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, March 17, 2017.

Image courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter’s latest book is “The Queens of Hampton Beach: A History of the Carnival Queens and the Miss Hampton Beach Beauty Pageant, 1915-2015.” Her website is lassitergang.com.

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