Bowers, Bathsheba

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BOWERS, Bathsheba

Born circa 1672, Massachusetts; died 1718, South Carolina Daughter of Benanuel and Elizabeth Dunster Bowers

Noted for its eccentricity, Bathsheba Bowers's life has attracted more attention than her writing. She was born to English Quakers who settled in Charlestown. Though they endured the Puritan persecution of Quakers themselves, the Bowers sent their daughters to Philadelphia to escape it.

Bowers remained single all her life, building a small house, which became known as "Bathsheba's Bower," at the corner of Little Dock and Second Streets. Furnishing her home with books, a table, and little else, she became a gardener, a vegetarian, and, according to her niece Ann Bolton, as much of a recluse "as if she had lived in a Cave under Ground or on the top of a high mountain." Although Bowers was a Quaker by profession, Bolton's diary reports that she was "so Wild in her Notions it was hard to find out of what religion she really was of. She read her Bible much but I think sometimes to no better purpose than to afford matter for dispute in w[hich] she was always positive." Bowers eventually became a Quaker preacher, taking her ministry to South Carolina.

Though records exist today for only a single volume, Bowers is said to have written a number of books: Bowers, in fact, spoke of her "Works" in the plural. Bowers' extant volume, An Alarm Sounded to Prepare the Inhabitants of the World to Meet the Lord in the Way of His Judgments (1709), used the conventions of spiritual autobiography to trace her life as a seemingly endless series of fears to be overcome. Making an analogy between herself and Job, Bowers outlined a progression of divinely ordained tests which served to place her in a special relationship with God. One by one, Bowers conquered her terrors of death, of hell, of her own strong pride, of writing and publishing, of preaching, even of nudity. Her spiritual progress toward a kind of self-control dictated by God is presented in An Alarm as an example others may follow.

Interestingly, Bowers perceived her most difficult task to be the struggle against her own ambition, her "chief evil" and "very potent Enemy." Paradoxically, she viewed the publication of An Alarm as a triumph over this personal ambition. Though presenting her life to the public as an example for emulation may seem an act of pride, Bowers emphasized the "Scorn and Ridicule" her audacity would bring: "'tis best known to my self how long I labored under a reluctancy, and how very unwilling I was to appear in print at all; for it was, indeed, a secret terror to me to think of making a contemptible appearance in the world…. [But] now I can hear my Reputation called in question, without being stung to the heart." Public response to An Alarm went unrecorded, but perhaps Bowers's fears were close to the mark. She mentioned in her preface that she had met with "Repulses in [her] proceeding to Print," which "made a very profound and ungrateful Impression upon [her]… ." Such "Repulses" may explain why An Alarm was finally printed in New York rather than in Bowers's hometown, Philadelphia. Whatever the reaction of her contemporaries, readers today may be interested in Bowers's use of a conventional spiritual autobiography for her own unconventional activities in writing, publishing, and preaching.

Bibliography:

Cowell, P., Women Poets in Pre-Revolutionary America, 1650-1775 (1979). Paige, L. R., History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877 (1877). Potts, W. J., "Bathsheba Bowers," in PMHB 3 (1879). Watson, J. F., Annals of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Times… (1905).

—PATTIE COWELL