Ford, Sallie Rochester

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FORD, Sallie Rochester

Born 1 October 1828, Rochester Springs, Kentucky; died 1910

Daughter of James H. and Demoretta Pitts Rochester; married Samuel H. Ford, 1855; children: five (two died in early childhood)

The Baptist faith and theology that inform Sallie Rochester Ford's novels were an integral part of her life from early childhood. After her mother's death, Ford, then four, was brought up by her maternal grandmother, a strong farm woman who, Ford recalled, cherished "those principles which, in orphan childhood, I learned from her lips." Continuing her early interest in reading and theology, Ford graduated at the head of her class from the Female Seminary in Georgetown, Kentucky; two years later she publicly professed her faith in Christ and was baptized.

At twenty-six Ford married a Baptist minister and editor of the monthly Christian Repository, which she began to coedit and in which she serialized her first novel, Grace Truman (1857). Living in St. Louis, Missouri, Mobile, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, where he held pastorates and she was president of two missionary societies, they had five children, the second and third of whom died in early childhood. Ford produced several more religious novels, a fictionalization of the "raids and romances" of a Confederate Army band, and in her old age, a memorial volume on Rochester, her firstborn son.

Grace Truman dramatizes Grace's conflict between her love for her Presbyterian husband and her belief in Baptist theology, a conflict echoed in two romantic subplots. Her husband's family, who believe in "sprinkling," try to "make a Presbyterian" of Grace, who believes in "dipping," and her troubles increase when her husband begins to backslide. All ends well when the husband, his sister Fannie, the fiancé of Grace's best friend, and even the Presbyterian minister become Baptists and are dipped in the river.

Although Ford partially compensates for the limitations of the plot by creating suspense over each stage of Grace's dilemma, her style is sentimental, her dialogue stilted, and the long-suffering Grace is merely a cardboard figure in both her romantic and her theological trials. Ford's theological arguments show an analytical mind; a knowledge of scripture, doctrine, and historical and contemporary scholarship; and in the homely analogies made by Aunt Peggy, the black servant, a knack for the concrete illustrations that characterize Puritan sermons.

What makes the novel more than a theological discourse tacked onto a romance is the baptism of Fannie, who incurs her father's "sore displeasure" when she becomes a Baptist. Although the occasion is one of spiritual rejoicing, Fannie is "severing herself from all of her early associations" and she is "racked beneath the conflict of contending emotions." The conflict between love and principle so unconvincingly treated in Grace's trials is here movingly portrayed, largely because the scene is psychologically realistic in its suggestion of the emotional consequences of parent-child conflict. The theme of happiness mixed with pain is underlined by Ford's device of ending the novel, as it began, with a wedding, for the second bride wonders if her life will be "full of alternating joy and sorrow."

Mary Bunyan, the Blind Dreamer's Daughter (1860, reissued 1990) also combines romance and religion, this time in a historical novel focusing on Mary's devotion to her imprisoned father and her romance with a dissenter, whose execution causes her to die of grief. Religion and romance alike come off as sentimental and insipid; the only readable passages are the brief ones giving biographical information about Bunyan and quotations from his works.

Ernest Quest (1878) chronicles Ernest's dual quest for salvation and a wife. He avoids the snares of Spiritualists and Masons to become a Baptist, and he marries Alice, whom he has rescued from a divorced man. Ernest finds both "the truth" and "all of earthly happiness" in an ending ushered in by the flurry of weddings climaxing the subplots. In spite of occasional moments of suspense (the villainous divorced man plots with the cunning of a Lovelace to trap Alice into marriage), Ernest Quest, like Mary Bunyan, has all of the faults and none of the virtues of Grace Truman.

Ford's religious romances are flawed by her sentimental style, wooden characterization, and weak plots. But the suspense, the analysis of theology, and the emotional power of Fannie's baptism scene make Ford's first novel, Grace Truman, worth reading.

Other Works:

The Battle of Freedom, Including Seven Letters on Religious Liberty, Addressed to Bishop Spaulding (with S. H. Ford, 1855). Raids and Romances of Morgan and His Men (1863, reissued 1980). Evangel Wiseman; or, The Mother's Question (1874). The Inebriates: A Story of Love, Suffering and Triumph (1884). Rochester Ford: The Story of a Successful Christian Lawyer (with S. H. Ford, 1904).


Reference works:

Lamb's Biographical Dictionary of the U.S. (1900). Living Female Writers of the South (1872). NCAB. Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans (1904). Women of the South Distinguished in Literature (1865).