Saint Pelagia: From High Heels to a Hair Shirt

“She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls.”

Pelagia with her courtesans as Nonnus prays for her (source)

Pelagia with her entourage as Nonnus prays for her. (source)

One day in Antioch, sometime in 341 CE*, the beautiful courtesan Pelagia went for a stroll with her entourage. She was decked out in jewels and costly robes, surrounded by servants, and filled the air with the scent of musk and other perfumes. According to Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, she was a famous actress who wove her spell not only by her beauty, but by sorcery also, and “went beyond all in lasciviousness.”

While out and about, Pelagia happened to pass by a group of eight bishops who had been summoned to a council by the Bishop of Antioch. At the time, one of the visiting bishops, Nonnus, was expounding on the Bible, but he couldn’t hold the attention of the brothers because they were all dazzled by Pelagia’s beauty. However, as good men of God, when they saw that her head was uncovered and her body was clearly visible through her clothes, the brothers turned their heads away from the “ostentatious sinner.” All, that is, except Nonnus.

Nonnus was considered a “most holy bishop.” He had been taken out of the monastery at Tabennisi and made a bishop “because of his incomparably beautiful life.” When Pelagia passed by he stared intently until she was gone. Only then did he turn to his brother bishops and say “Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?” He then began to cry and again asked his question. Nonnus explained that he was delighted with her beauty because it made him think about all the time and effort she put into her appearance, for admirers who would come and go. He then asked why they didn’t put the same effort into pleasing God, who was eternal.

The next Sunday, Nonnus was asked to preach, and Pelagia happened to be in the congregation. She began to cry and told two of her servants to follow Nonnus when he left to find out where he lived. She then sent him a message.

“O holy servant of Christ, I am a sinful woman and servant of the devil. I have heard that your God, who upholds the arc of the heavens, came down to earth not for the sake of the righteous but to save sinners. . . . So if you really are a true disciple of Christ do not turn your face away from me, for through you I long to see the Savior, through you perhaps I may get a glimpse of his holy face.”

She also reminded him that Christ was a friend of publicans, talked with sinners, and showed mercy to the Samaritan woman at the well.

Nonnus wrote back that God knew her, who she was, and what she wanted, but he was a humble servant of God and a sinner, so he couldn’t meet with her alone. If she truly wanted to be virtuous, she would meet with him before all the other bishops. She was willing and went to the meeting and asked them to make her a Christian.

They told her that a harlot couldn’t be baptized unless there was someone to guarantee that she wouldn’t fall back into her sinful ways. Pelagia was evidently a very smart woman. She made Nonnus responsible for her by saying “You would be denying God and worshiping idols if you do not today give me new birth as a bride of Christ and offer me to God.” Nonnus, a smart man, agreed and sent a message to the bishop of the city and asked that a deaconess be sent. The deaconess, the lady Romana, dressed Pelagia in a white baptismal gown and she was baptized that day.

Several days later, Pelagia had one of her slaves inventory all of her gold, silver and costly clothes. She then sent for Nonnus and gave these all to him. He summoned a steward and told him to distribute the goods to the poor, widows, and orphans, that none of it was to go to the church. Pelagia then set all of her slaves free.

Eight days later, when Pelagia was supposed to take off her baptismal gown, she got up in the middle of the night, removed it and put on a coarse tunic which Nonnus had given her. She then left without saying anything to anyone. In fact, she was never seen in Antioch again. Romana was distraught, but Nonnus comforted her saying she had chosen the “good portion” like Mary in the gospels. Nonnus evidently knew something.

Three or four years later, Jacob the Deacon, who worked with Nonnus and had been with him in Antioch, asked his permission to go to Jerusalem. Nonnus agreed and said, “My advice to you, brother deacon, is that when you get to Jerusalem, you make enquiries there about a certain brother Pelagius, a monk and a eunuch who has been enclosed in solitude there for many years. Visit him. I am sure he will be of great benefit to you.”

Pelagius lived in a small cell on the Mount of Olives and had a great reputation as a man of God among the brothers. Jacob visited him and asked for prayers for Nonnus and himself. Several days later, he decided to visit Pelagius again and couldn’t get an answer by knocking on the small window of the cell. So, he pushed open the window and saw that Pelagius was dead; he then took the news back to the monks in Jerusalem.

The monks came and removed the body of Pelagius, treating it with great respect as that of a holy man. But when they began to annoint the body for burial, they discovered that Pelagius was a woman! Pelagius was in fact Pelagia. Jacob had not recognized her because of the changes in her face due to a severe life of deprivation and fasting.

The brothers tried to keep it a secret, but word got out and the people rejoiced. It was especially news among the women, who came from the monasteries of virgins in Jericho and Jordan. They followed her funeral procession saying, “Glory to our Lord Jesus Christ who has hidden so many riches upon earth, not only among men but also among women.”

Pelagia is the name of several saints, all probably based on legend. Chrysostom was a contemporary of the converted “harlot”, although he doesn’t actually give her name. But, there was surely a women with this basic story, who is given the name Pelagia in the accounts in the resources below. The Syrian martyrology gives October 8 as the feast day for Pelagia of Antioch.

* The Synod of Antioch was called in 341 CE.

Select Narratives of Holy Women by John the Stylite translated by Agnes Smith Lewis (as written above the Sinaitic Palimpsest)
The Life of St Pelagia the Harlot by Jacob the Deacon
St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily LXVII
Pelagia“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.

The Extraordinary Life of Alexandra David-Néel

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1933 in Tibet (source)

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1933 in Tibet (source)

Alexandra David-Néel is one of the most extraordinary women I have ever read about. She was a Buddhist scholar and teacher, a prolific writer, and from an early age an inveterate, often solitary, traveler. She became an opera singer to support herself and traveled over much of China and Tibet disguised as a beggar. However, she is probably most well-known as the first western woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa.

Alexandra David-Néel was born on October 24, 1868, to a French father, Louis Pierre David, and a Belgian mother, Alexandrine Borghmans David. Louis David was a school teacher turned revolutionary journalist who fled France after Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1851. He settled in Louvain, Belgium where he met Alexandrine. She was 20 years his junior and they were not well-matched in intellect or interests.

Although, Alexandra grew up in Belgium, her father received permission to travel to Paris shortly before her birth so that she could be born a French citizen. Alexandra’s memories of her childhood sound bleak. She remembered her father as aloof and her mother as being primarily interested in social concerns. She felt neglected and unloved.

As a child, Alexandra had a longing to travel, but not to see sites and people; she was looking for solitude. She found this to an extent in reading, but also ran away on several occasions. The first was when she was five years old and was found in a nearby forest. At fifteen, she ventured farther afield, walking from Ostend where the family was vacationing, into the Netherlands and crossing over to England. Another time, Alexandra traveled by train to Switzerland and hiked over the Saint-Gotthard Pass through the Alps. Both trips were without her parents knowledge and ended when she ran out of money.

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1886 (source)

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1886 (source)

As a young woman, she rejected Catholicism and began to study comparative religions. She attended lectures and discussions at the Theosophical Society in Paris, which is where she probably first encountered Buddhism and became fascinated by Far Eastern cultures. But the place in Paris which made the most dramatic impression on Alexandra was the Musée Guimet, a museum devoted to Asian art. The museum was founded by Émile Étienne Guimet, who was commissioned to study religions of the Far East by the minister of public instruction in France. There in a small reading room, Alexandra found her longed for solitude and as she would say later, her vocation.

In 1890, Alexandra decided to use the money from a small inheritance to travel to India. She traveled by ship to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then by train all over the Indian sub-continent. On her journey she studied the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, Sanskrit under Annie Besant, and yoga with Swami Bhaskarananda of Varanasi. She was gone for almost a year and as before, returned home when she was almost out of money.

Louis David had had a reversal of fortune, and Alexandra needed to find a way to support herself. She had always been talented musically and decided to become an opera singer. Beginning in 1896, she toured with several opera companies, including Opéra Comique and L’Opéra d’Athènes, until she took a position as director with Casino de Tunis in 1902. The next year, she changed directions and became a journalist, writing for both English and French magazines.

It was in Tunis where Alexandra met and lived with Philippe-François Néel, a Frenchman who was working in Tunis as a railroad engineer. A friend remembered their relationship as one of affection and mutual respect, but it was definitely out of the ordinary. On August 3, 1904, Alexandra and Philippe were married at the French consulate in Tunis. Five days later, they returned to France and went in different directions.

Later that year in December, Alexandra’s father died. Her trip home and the cold reception from her mother launched her into a period of deep self-analysis and a realization of what her life would be like if she pursued marriage and motherhood. She came to the conclusion that “freedom for her was the most important thing in life,” and she had to create her own life on her own terms.

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1924 at Lhassa, Tibet (source)

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1924 at Lhasa, Tibet (source)

Alexandra wrote of her struggles to Philippe. “You are the best husband one could dream of, I acknowledge it without hesitation and it is for that reason I am tormented by a situation that is extremely painful for you.” He accepted her position, at least in time, with good grace, and although they never had a conventional marriage, Philippe never asked for a divorce and continued to support her in many ways until his death 40 years later.

Between her father’s death and 1911, Alexandra began building her life on her terms. She studied, attended lectures, wrote articles, and took short trips, including the occasional visit to see Philippe. She knew she wanted to go back to India and finally felt ready in August of 1911. In her previous travels, especially to Indochina with the opera company, she felt that she belonged in the east.

Once in India, she had a wide range of experiences, from garden parties and lunch with the wives of the Governor of Madras and the British Viceroy, to visiting ashrams and staying with friends in the “native quarter.” She collected information from every source for future articles. In 1912, she decided that she wanted to interview the 13th Dalai Lama. She was the first western woman granted an audience with him and he was so impressed with her knowledge of Buddhist doctrine that he encouraged her to learn the Tibetan language.

In 1910, the Dalai Lama had been granted refuge in Darjeeling in the province of Sikkim, in the Himalayan foothills. While there Alexandra also met Sidkeong Tulka, the Crown Prince of Sikkim and at his invitation traveled to Gangtok, the capital, to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. She eventually took a small apartment in the monastery of Podang outside Gangtok, where she hired a tutor to help her with the language. She took frequent trips on foot and horseback to remote monasteries, traveling with porters for her camping gear and at first Darwasandup, her interpreter, and later Yongden, a boy who would be her traveling companion for the rest of his life.

From 1914 to 1916, Alexandra spent a winter secluded in a cave in the Himalayas and twice crossed the border illegally into Tibet. The first time to visit the Chorten Nyima monastery and the second to visit Tashilhunpo. On her return from the second visit, she was deported from India because of these crossings. By this time, she was determined to visit Lhasa, and now she knew she would have to enter through China.

Aphur Yongden c. 1933 (source)

Aphur Yongden c. 1933 (source)

Alexandra and Yongden left India and traveled through Burma, Japan, and Korea, usually staying at Buddhist monasteries, and arrived in Peking on October 31, 1917. They began their time in China by staying roughly three years at the Kumbum monastery near Lake Koko Nor. It was an unusual privilege for a woman, extended to her because of her age and her association with the Dalai Lama, but it couldn’t last indefinitely. (Yongden was a lama and could have stayed if he chose.)

When they left the monastery, they traveled to various places, even up to the Gobi desert on two occasions. Much of the area, at the time, had not been accurately mapped and knowing their ultimate destination was Lhasa, they took circuitous routes to avoid suspicion. It was dangerous. There were bandits in addition to the usual dangers women face. Alexandra carried a pistol, which she never had to use, although she did fend off an attacker with a small whip on one occasion.

Finally, they reached a small mission, north of Lichiang along the Mekong River from which they intended to approach Tibet. Saying that she was going on a short trip to collect botanicals, she dismissed her porters and took off alone with Yongden. Once away from the others, Alexandra assumed her disguise as a peasant woman. She darkened her hair and extended it with braids of yak hair, darkened her face, and put on a rough robe made of wool. They looked like a peasant woman traveling with her son, a lama journeying to Lhasa.

In the Kha Karpo mountains at Dokar Pass, Alexandra and Yongden crossed the border into Tibet. They still had hundreds of miles to go over uncharted territory. Most of the rivers and mountains they crossed didn’t appear on any map that they knew of, and in many cases had probably never been seen by westerners. The terrain was rough; the Dokar Pass itself is at an elevation over 14,000 feet and the weather at times was brutal. In order to avoid attracting attention, Alexandra only used the white tent she carried in her pack when it could blend in with the snow and help provide camouflage.

The most anticipated and tense moment came at the toll bridge at Giamdo Dzong. From here they would take the China Road to Lhasa, but first they would need a pass. Alexandra believed that the best way to learn about a people and their culture was to live among them. This trip had proven that idea true. Because Yongden was a lama, they were welcomed into the homes of many peasants and she was accepted as his mother. At the toll bridge, the same was true. Yongden went into the checkpoint to request passes, she sat on the doorstep and chanted. No one appeared to give her a second thought.

The same held true when they finally arrived at Lhasa. They arrived in February just in time for the month long celebration of the New Year. Instead of having the way cleared for her by servants as in the past, this time Alexandra was simply one of the thousands of celebrating pilgrims, and she loved it. She watched processions and tested her disguise by going to tea shops, bazaars, and having conversations with people at the inn where she stayed. Finally it was time to try for her ultimate goal, visiting the Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lama.

Yongden approached two Tibetan villagers and offered to show them the Potala. They gladly accepted the opportunity to have a lama accompany them, and Alexandra humbly walked behind the three men. As at the checkpoint, no one paid her any attention and she was able to feast her eyes on the Palace and the view of Lhasa from the roof. She was satisfied.

Potala Palace at Lhasa (source)

Potala Palace at Lhasa (source)

They had been in Lhasa for two months and Alexandra chose to return home via India. She wanted to make the point that the British government couldn’t prevent her from going to Lhasa. She took the precaution of stopping at Gyantze and having David Macdonald, the British Trade Agent, verify her journey. She had been gone for almost fourteen years.

Alexandra and Yongden returned to Tibet via the Soviet Union in 1937, where they circumambulated the holy mountain Amnye Machen and stayed at Tachienlu (now Kangding), so that Alexandra could read and translate more sacred literature. They returned from their final journey in 1946 and settled in Digne-les-Bains, in southeastern France. There, Yongden died in 1955 at the age of 56. Alexandra continued to study and write until close to her death on September 8, 1969, just one month before her 101st birthday. At her request, Yongden’s ashes were mixed with hers and they were scattered in the Ganges River at Varanasi.

Alexandra wrote over 30 books and numerous articles, including My Journey to Lhasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City (1927) and Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), her most famous work.

Lhasa in 1938, Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 135-KA-07-089 / CC-BY-SA (source)

Lhasa in 1938, Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 135-KA-07-089 / CC-BY-SA (source)

A Mystic in Tibet – Alexandra David-Néel
On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller


The Life of Thecla: When Chastity Gets You into Trouble

Saint Thecla (source)

Saint Thecla (source)

In the early days of Christianity, many people believed they were living in the last days. Life was difficult, persecution was increasing, and to many it made sense to live a life as unencumbered as possible. In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul recommends that people remain celibate, but says that it is not a requirement. However, in the extra-canonical book The Acts of Paul he takes a much stronger stance saying that it wasn’t just preferable, but necessary. This was of course quite controversial, particularly when married women wanted to stop having sex or when virgins refused to go through with weddings.

One of the most well-known adherents to the teachings of Paul was a young woman named Thecla. It was in Iconium when she first heard him teach. Sitting in her window three nights in a row, she became enamored of Paul and his message much to the horror of her mother, Theocleia, and her fiancé, Thamyris. Thamyris, fearing that he had been deprived of his wife, stirred up a mob and had Paul brought before the governor. After a brief hearing, Paul was put in prison to be held for further questioning.

During the night, Thecla bribed the guards to let her into Paul’s cell where she spent the night listening to him and “kissing his fetters.” The next morning they were both brought before the governor. As an outsider, Paul was scourged and expelled from the city, but a more dire fate awaited Thecla.

The governor asked Thecla why she was refusing to marry Thamyris. She remained silent, refusing to answer and simply gazing at Paul. This was too much for Theocleia who cried, “Burn the lawless one! Burn her that is no bride in the midst of the theater, that all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid.” (You have to wonder what Thecla’s mother was getting out of this marriage.) Although the text says that the governor wept and marveled at Thecla’s strength, he agreed and Thecla was led to the pyre. However, God had compassion and when the fire blazed, Thecla wasn’t burned. Then a cloud appeared bringing rain and hail to put out the fire saving Thecla and allowing her to escape.

Thecla fled the city and set out on the road to join Paul. Curiously, even though Paul had been praying that the fire wouldn’t touch her and after her miraculous escape, he refused to baptize her, “lest she fall prey to temptation.” In spite of this, Thecla travels with Paul to Antioch where once again a powerful man is smitten with her.

Fresco of Paul and Thecla from a cave at Bülbül Dag, above the ruins of ancient Ephesus (source)

Fresco of Paul and Thecla from a cave at Bülbül Dag, above the ruins of ancient Ephesus (source)

Thecla must have been very special because once they arrived in Antioch, a man named Alexander saw her on the street and fell in love with her. He first tried to buy her from Paul, who denied even knowing her. When that didn’t work, he tried to take her by force in the street. But Thecla wasn’t easily taken. She ripped his clothes and knocked the crown off of his head, much to the amusement of the crowd. Alexander was humiliated and once again Thecla found herself standing before city officials.

For her “assault” on Alexander, Thecla is sentenced to be thrown to the beasts. In most cases in these stories it’s pagan vs. Christian, but in this case all of the women protest the sentence calling it an “evil judgement.” Thecla asks that she be able to remain “pure” while waiting, so a wealthy woman named Tryphaena offered her protection. (I assume this is protection from sexual assault, hence remaining “pure.”) Tryphaena’s daughter had recently died and she becomes quite attached to Thecla, who prays for her, bringing her comfort.

On the following day, Thecla was taken to the arena, stripped, and cast into the stadium where bears and lions were released to attack her. As the animals came into the arena, a fierce lioness ran to her and lay down at her feet. The first animal to attack was a bear, which the lioness defeated. The second was another lion. The lioness killed the lion, but also died in the process. Thecla was now defenseless.

Statue of Saint Thecla at Ma'loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Statue of Saint Thecla at Ma’loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Realizing that her time might be short, Thecla saw a large vat of water and decided to baptize herself before she died. She threw herself into the water and cried, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I baptize myself on the last day.” Evidently, God approved because a flash of lightening killed all of the seals in the water before they could attack her.

One more attempt is made to kill Thecla. She was bound by her feet between two bulls and red-hot irons were placed under their bellies. They leapt forward, but instead of ripping Thecla apart, her bonds are burned through setting her free once again. Finally, it is all too much for Tryphaena and she faints. Tryphaena, however, is a kinswoman of Caesar and Alexander becomes afraid that any harm to her will bring Caesar’s wrath on the entire city, so he asks the governor to set Thecla free.

Of course Paul is long gone, and when she is released, Thecla once again sets out on the road to find him. This time, however, after telling him about her ordeal and her baptism, she informs him that she is returning to Iconium. Paul not only gives her his blessing, but commissions her to preach. When she returns home, she visits with her mother, finds out that Thamyris has died, and leaves for Seleucia, where she has a long life preaching the Christian gospel.

It must be said that The Acts of Paul is a forgery. Although it wasn’t unusual for documents to be attributed to a more well-known person, in this case the writer, in fact a church leader, was caught, confessed, and was excommunicated. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth in the story. It is likely that there was an oral tradition of a woman named Thecla and the author simply recorded events that had been passed down. In any case, she was extremely popular from the early 3rd century up through the middle ages, especially in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), Syria, and Egypt.

One more note, we know about the forgery because of the writings of Tertullian, a 2nd century church father who disapproved of the document. Why? Because it portrays Thecla acting like a man! She preaches and baptizes (herself and possibly others), and of course in his thinking these things are supposed to be done only by men.

Saint Thecla monastery, Ma'loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Saint Thecla monastery, Ma’loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)


Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman
The Other Bible: Ancient Alternative Scriptures ed. William Barnstone
The Acts of Paul and Thecla
(Translation probably by Jeremiah Jones, (1693-1724))
Early Christian Writings: The Acts of Paul

Susanna Wesley – Mother of Methodism

Yesterday, June 28, was the birthday of John Wesley, who was born in 1703 and is considered the father of modern Methodism. He and his brother Charles began the “Holy Club” while attending Oxford, where they emphasized purposely and methodically working to better your life. The term method-ist was initially a term of derision, but came to be associated with the movement that would become a new church in America in the late 18th century. But the roots of this movement go back before the Wesley brother’s days at Oxford. Both of their grandfathers were dissenters from the Church of England, and although their parents Samuel and Susanna Wesley, as well as both brothers, would remain in the Church of England, the roots of dissent ran deep.

Susanna was born in 1669, the youngest of 25 children of Dr Samuel Annesley and Mary White. Annesley was a Puritan. When the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1662, requiring all Church of England ministers to strictly conform to the beliefs and practices of the Church, he refused to sign it and was removed from his church and forbidden to preach. When restrictions were relaxed a few years later, he began his own successful ministry in London.

We don’t know much about Susanna’s upbringing, but we can draw a few conclusions from her later life. When she was 13, Susanna decided to leave her father’s church and return to the Church of England. There she met her future husband, Samuel Westly, who also had left the church of his dissenting father to return the Church of England. He later changed the spelling of his name to Wesley out of respect for his father. They were married after Samuel’s graduation from Oxford and ordination as a minister; he was 26 and she 19. This strong sense of her own convictions and dedication to the Church would be passed on to her sons; both John and Charles would remain in the Church of England although dissenting to the point that John would be barred from the pulpit and begin preaching in the fields and on street corners.

After their marriage, Samuel took several positions before they ended up at South Ormsby in a small parish with a one room parsonage. Children followed in quick succession contributing to her poor health. Susanna had nineteen children, ten of which survived into adulthood (3 boys and 7 girls.) With no public education available to girls, Susanna would have been educated at home. We don’t know details, but we do know that she was equipped to educate her own children to a degree that the boys would be successful at Oxford.

Susanna ran a very structured household. None of the children were taught lessons until they turned five years old. The day after their fifth birthday, the day was devoted to teaching them the alphabet. Once this was mastered, they began reading instruction from the Bible. All of the children with the exception of two of the girls learned the alphabet in one day and reading instruction began the following day. Lessons were conducted six days a week from 9 – 12 and 2 -5.

The parish at Ormsby provided an income too small for their growing family, so when Samuel was offered a parish at Epworth it appeared to be a blessing. It provided more money and an opportunity to preach to wealthier and more influential people. Five more births followed the move, but all five children died young. While at Epworth the Wesley’s also lost their house to fire twice. The second fire completely destroyed the house with all of the family’s possessions. While the house was being rebuilt, the children were farmed out to various relatives and friends, and one month later the last of the children was born. When the children returned, Susanna was dismayed to find that they had been allowed to be unruly, so she began to schedule weekly private sessions with each child devoted to helping them reflect on their behavior and conduct. This would contribute to the life-long habit of reflection for John and Charles, which they would incorporate into the message they passed on to their followers.

The family had ongoing financial problems. Twice Samuel would be put into debtor’s prison. To try to remedy this he traveled often to London to preach. During one extended absence he hired a curate to preach in his stead. Susanna was dissatisfied with the sermons of the Curate and began reading sermons on Sunday afternoons. Initially just for the family and neighbors, she soon had audiences of up to 200 people. When Samuel got word, he disapproved. Her response was that she couldn’t neglect her responsibility to her charges, her children and their parishioners. After presenting her case to him in a letter, she told him that if he desired her to stop the meetings, it would not be sufficient. He would have to command her to stop in such “full and express terms as would absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting the opportunity for doing good.”

This wasn’t the only time that she maintained her own convictions. For a period of six months Samuel left the family following a disagreement over the legitimacy of William of Orange (he in favor, she against.) Susanna was pregnant at the time, but when he objected that she didn’t say “Amen” to his prayer regarding King William, she stood her ground. Soon afterwards, King William died and Queen Anne came to the throne. When Susanna’s child was born, she named her Anne in honor of the Queen and Samuel soon returned home.

Samuel died in 1731, leaving Susanna without resources. She went to live with their oldest son Samuel until his death, after which she moved between her children until her death in 1742. Many of Susanna and Samuel writings were lost in the fires, but in addition to materials used for teaching her children, Susanna wrote meditations and extended commentaries on The Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. Although, only Charles had a lasting happy marriage, it could be said that Susanna had many more children than the ones she gave birth too. The disciplines of daily meditation and reflection, as well as a belief that each person can have a personal experience of God, were passed on to generations through the work that her two sons John and Charles did. In many ways she can be called the “Mother of Methodism.”

“Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself.” ~ Susanna Wesley

The Prayers of Susanna Wesley edited by W. L. Doughty
Christian Leaders of the 18th Century by J. C. Ryle
Susanna Wesley by Eliza Clarke
The Women of Methodism by Abel Stevens

Carrie Nation – Saintly or Insane?

“When I first started out in this crusade, I was called crazy and a ‘freak’ by my enemies, but now they say: ’No, Carry Nation, you are not crazy, but you are sharp. You started out to accomplish something and you did. You are a grafter. It is the money you are after.”

Carry A. Nation

Carrie Nation c. 1874 (source)

Carrie Nation c. 1874 (source)

Carrie Nation (also spelled Carry) is usually portrayed with a hatchet in her hand. She is best known for marching into saloons, declaring that she was there to save people from the evil of drink, and proceeding to smash anything breakable in the establishment. She never showed any remorse for this destruction of property, although she did pay the fines that were a result of her arrests. In fact, when she was initially charged with “defacing public property”, she stated that she had not defaced it, but destroyed it. Carrie believed that she was doing God’s work and she was good at it.

Born Carrie Amelia Moore in Kentucky on November, 25 1846, she had an inconsistent childhood. At the beginning of her autobiography she describes what seems like a happy childhood, but her memories are not all happy. She suffered from poor health and the family had financial setbacks. At least one source says that Carrie’s mother suffered from delusions. She doesn’t discuss this in her book. In fact, she doesn’t say much about her mother at all. She was often left in the care of Betsy, one of the family’s slaves or would stay with the other slaves watching them spin the flax that was grown on the farm.

Carrie was a serious child and interested in religion from an early age. When she was 10 years old, she attended a church meeting with her father. Afterward during the invitation she “began to weep bitterly” and felt compelled to go forward. “I could not have told anyone what I wept for, except it was a longing to be better.”  The next day she was baptized and emerged from the water without saying a word. “I felt that I couldn’t speak, for fear of disturbing the peace that passeth understanding.”

Although Carrie was young when she was baptized, she didn’t simply take on the theology of others. As an avid reader of many different things (poetry, history, Josephus, mythology, etc.), she devoted herself to reading and understanding the Bible as well. She had “doubts as to whether the Bible was the work of God or man” and thought “It often seemed to be a contradiction.” In spite of this she studied it diligently and ultimately used the Bible as the justification for her actions against the sale of alcohol.

In 1855, the family moved from Kentucky to Missouri just before the breakout of hostilities between Kansas and Missouri over slavery. When the Civil War broke out, they moved to Texas with their slaves, but left them there and returned to Missouri. Carrie spent time nursing soldiers and felt that the experience was something that all young women should do. The thought of not being useful was anathema to her. Throughout her life she would look for ways to help those less fortunate than she.

One group of people that Carrie would work to help and which she related to strongly were wives and children of alcoholics. She didn’t just oppose alcohol based on theological reasons. She was intimately acquainted with the damage it could do to a family. In the 1860s, Carrie fell in love with Dr. Charles Gloyd. Charles was teaching school, saving money to begin his medical practice, and boarded with the Moore family. Carrie’s parents disapproved of the match because of Gloyd’s drinking so Carrie and Charles would communicate by leaving notes in his copy of Shakespeare. Eventually they went ahead and were married in November of 1867.

It wasn’t long before Charles’ drinking became a problem, so when Carrie became pregnant she moved back to her parent’s home. She had strong feelings about children inheriting alcoholism or other negative traits, but it’s not clear in her autobiography whether or not she really means traits that are passed on or just exposure to a negative atmosphere and negative thoughts from the mother. She gave birth to a daughter, Charlien, in September of 1868 just six months before Charles died.

Throughout her life Carrie would give much of her money to those less fortunate than she, but at this time her focus had to be on supporting herself, Charlien, and her mother-in-law. Although she taught school until she was dismissed over a disagreement with the board, it was difficult for a woman to support herself alone during this time and Carrie finally decided to pray for a husband. She soon met David Nation and they married in 1874. From the time they were married until 1889 they did a variety of things to support themselves without success including the purchase of a cotton plantation in Texas. David worked as an attorney, minister, and newspaper editor. In 1889, the family moved to Medicine Lodge, Kansas where Carrie ran a hotel. This is where she began her work against the sale of alcohol.

Carrie and David Nation in the 1880 Census.

Carrie and David Nation in the 1880 Census with their daughters from previous marriages and her ex-mother-in-law, Nancy Gloyd.

Although prohibition would not become the law of the land until 1919, some states already had such laws on the books, including Kansas. Just as the national ban on the sale of alcohol gave rise to widespread corruption, so did the ban in Kansas. This was particularly egregious to Carrie. She saw alcoholics, the families of alcoholics, and prostitutes associated with saloons, as victims. The real offenders in her mind were those who would take advantage of the weakness for drink. This included not only those who sold alcohol, but those in politics and law enforcement who turned a blind eye and of course received payment for this service.

Carrie began her work by campaigning for the enforcement of the Kansas laws. She petitioned politicians and law enforcement. She organized a branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and she would kneel outside saloons singing hymns and praying, often with other women. This proved largely ineffective and I’m sure was very frustrating. On June 5, 1899, Carrie was praying for guidance when she heard God speak to her saying “Go to Kiowa. I’ll stand by you.” Over the next couple of days she gathered large rocks and wrapped them in paper. On June 7, she went to Kiowa and beginning with Dobson’s saloon, began “smashing.” Before long she began using a hatchet and calling these events “hatchetations.”

Carry Nation c. 1910 (source)

Carry Nation c. 1910 (source)

Carrie had seen visions before so the idea that God would appear to her and give her direction didn’t surprise her and neither did the “demons” she saw on the road barring her way when she set out for Kiowa. She found support for the idea of smashing from the story of Jesus throwing the money lenders out of the temple as well as other biblical stories of destruction in the name of God. She believed that she had a mission from God. At some point she began spelling her name Carry A. Nation and saw her mission as one to “carry a nation.”

Much of Carrie’s autobiography is spent using the Bible to justify her actions. She didn’t avoid the consequences and was jailed as many as 30 times, but she was certainly not remorseful. She would do her time and pay her fine. She raised money through speaking fees and the sale of souvenir hatchets. There were people who thought she was crazy and more than once she believed she was being held in jail while people tried to find evidence to support this claim.

Both the term saint and insane, at least in the colloquial sense, are subjective. Among other religious people of the day, opinions ran the gamut from those who wholeheartedly agreed and even participated with her, to those who were against prohibition. Some must have seen her as a “martyr” for the cause, willing to endure the humiliation of ridicule and imprisonment in order to get the message out, but this was hardly a universal view even among the religious. On the other hand, religious delusions are certainly not unheard of among the mentally ill. And while many people consider anyone who believes God speaks to them as mentally unstable, much of what Carrie describes and the way she uses the Bible can be seen and heard in churches today.

Reading Carrie’s account and justification of her actions it sounds reasonable, if you start from her assumptions. If you don’t believe that God speaks to people or intervenes in the events of the day it is difficult to see her as rational, but then you must include a lot of other people (even today) in the same category. This is certainly a question that is much bigger than any one person and will endure for generations to come if not as long as we inhabit the planet.

As far as Carry A. Nation is concerned, I don’t see her as “insane” or “crazy” in any real clinical sense nor would I call her a saint. In fact, I’m not sure the question is fair framed in such black and white terms. Given her religious experiences as a child and young adult and her experiences with alcoholism in her first marriage, I think in many ways her response is very rational. Although, many people with similar backgrounds would never take it to that extreme. Admittedly, this is based on a very one-sided account, her own. I would love to hear your opinions on this or other information that you may have. Please comment.

The Use and the Need of Carry A. Nation by Carry A. Nation (in the public domain)
Carry Amelia Nation at Find-a-Grave