J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

“A Woman of Good Understanding” at Faneuil Hall

On 21 July 1769, Eunice Paine wrote to her brother, Robert Treat Paine, about a preacher she had just seen at Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

The speaker was Rachel Wilson (1722-1775) from Kendal, England. Wilson was a Quaker, evangelizing a faith that a century earlier would have exposed her to capital punishment. But times had changed. Boston now had a small permanent Quaker meeting, and people were more curious about what a traveling preacher had to say.

The merchant John Rowe estimated the audience who came out to hear Wilson as “at Least Twelve hundred people.” Paine was impressed by how the visitor maintained her composure in front of so many:
’Twas a very crouded assembly but Perfect order maintain’d. Everything was Novel to me—the approach of a woman into a Desk Dash’d me I cou’d hardly look up but I soon found She felt none of those perturbations from the Gaze of a Gaping multitude which I pity’d.

Shes a Gracefull woman & has attain’d a very modest assurance. She spoke clear & Loud Eno’ to be heard distinctly into the Entry. Her Language is very Polite & no doubt her mind is Zealously bent on doing good, her Exhortations to seek the Truth & Court that Light which Evidenith the truth were Lenthy & towards the close workt up to Poesy & produced a tune Not unlike an anthem—her fluency gains the applause She receives for these, nothing like method, & many are her repetitions to my Ear tiresome.

I learnt but one thing new which was an Exposition on the Parable of the woman who hid her Leaven in 3 measures of meal till the whole was Leavened this she says represent the Compound of man Soul, Body, and mind in which the spirit of God is hid & shou’d be kept Close, the man being inactive as meal till animated by the spirit as the meal with Leaven.

After the Exhortation she rested, rose to Conclude with Prayer which was short & pertinent. She then thanked the Audience for their Decent attendance & reprove’d the Levity she observed in some few faces in a very Polite & kind manner & in the Apostles words Blessed the assembly & dismissd us.

A great Number of the Gentlemen of the town with their Ladys shook hands with her. Mr. [James] Otis Desire’d the men to go out to Leave room for the women to retire Comfortably & that they woud be orderly for the Honour of the town, twas done to his mind and Saving the Excessive heat of so crouded a place there was no inconvenience.
Rowe was also favorably impressed: “She seems to be a Woman of Good Understanding.” On 27 July, Robert Treat Paine followed his sister’s example and went to hear Wilson preach.

Rachel Wilson had been speaking to crowds about the Quaker faith since she was a teenager. She and her husband back in England had also raised nine children. In 1768 and 1769 she traveled through the North American colonies; her diary of that experience is now at Haverford College. Wilson died near London on 18 Mar 1775.

Wilson appears in many books about Quaker missionaries in the eighteenth century, and there’s also a book just about her.

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