Born 25 October 1726, Newport, Rhode Island; died 23 June 1791, Newport, Rhode Island
Daughter of Isaac and Mercy Chamberlin Anthony
Susanna Anthony was the sixth of seven daughters in a goldsmith's family. Her life was devoted to God. She left Newport only during the revolutionary war, when she taught school in the countryside, and for brief periods of time to regain her health.
Anthony's only writings are published excerpts from her diaries and her personal correspondence, both published posthumously by prominent figures in the Congregationalist church in the hope that her thorough commitment to Christ would inspire piety in others. The noted Samuel Hopkins, D.D., found "a remarkable example of devotion" in Anthony's writings, which consist mainly of self-examination of her "sinful" nature and pleas to God to forgive her for her sins.
Although Anthony's writing is not sophisticated, her philosophical arguments are—if not formidable—precocious, especially in view of her lack of schooling. Permeated with religious fervor, her work tends toward the monotonous and didactic, appealing to emotion rather than intellect. Before Anthony had committed herself to religion, however, she tried to arrive at the truth in a rational manner. It is in these questioning passages of her diary that her writing is most interesting and most intellectual. In attempting to discern the benefits of a religious life, Anthony postulated a dialogue between her soul and an objector. The soul argued for a religious life; the objector warned that if she were to choose a strictly holy life, she would be disdained by society. The soul concluded the discussion, stating, "I value the approbation of the most high God before the esteem of poor mortals."
Anthony's choice of a devoutly religious life involved more than simply embracing the Christian faith with renewed ardor; it required a break with her parents' religion, for they were Quakers and she was about to be baptized in the Congregationalist church. In her diaries, Anthony has recorded her agitation over telling her parents of her choice and employed logical arguments in support of the Congregationalist faith to assuage her feelings of guilt. Her parents, however, were quite content to let Anthony make up her own mind and she broke with the Quakers at the age of fifteen.
Her intellectual dialogue was written when she was seventeen, a time at which her arguments for religion were rational and appeal to the intellect, while her arguments for abandoning religion and embracing society appeal to the emotions. Once Anthony had accepted religion as a way of life, her writing became less intellectual, consisting mainly of exhortations to God to keep her from sinning and castigations of herself for not being truly faithful to God, despite her devout behavior and reputation for piety.
In publishing her memoirs, Reverend Hopkins stated that Anthony's writings were proof of the truth of the Christian religion. Anthony's letters, however, give a better insight into her life than do the diaries, for they contain comments on daily living, and explore her relationships with her friends. They are less self-concerned than the diaries, and clearly less self-conscious.
Anthony's writing is neither elegant nor profound, but it serves a greater purpose than merely exemplifying Christianity in its most devout aspect; it illustrates graphically the role of religion in the life of a single woman in 18th-century New England.
The Life and Character of Miss Susanna Anthony, who died in Newport (R.I.) June 23, MDCCXCI, in the sixty-fifth year of her age consisting chiefly in Extracts from Her Writings, with some Brief Observations on them (ed. S. Hopkins, 1769). Familiar Letters, written by Mrs. Sarah Osborn, and Miss Susanna Anthony, late of Newport, Rhode-Island (1807). Memoirs of Miss Susanna Anthony consisting chiefly in extracts from her writings and observations respecting them (ed. E. Pond, 1844).
A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors (1858-1871). American Biographical Dictionary (1857).