Elizabeth Ashbridge, born Elizabeth Sampson, was delivered to Thomas and Mary Sampson of Middlewich in Cheshire, England, in the year 1713. Her father earned a living as a ship surgeon. Her mother was a devout member of the Church of England, and raised her daughter and Thomas’ two children from a previous marriage in adherence to her faith.
At the age of 14, Ashbridge eloped without parental consent, only to become a widow after five months of marriage. Unwelcome at her parents' home, Ashbridge was sent to Dublin, Ireland; there, she resided first in Dublin with a relative of her mother and member of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Upon finding life in accordance with his strict religious beliefs “gloomy,” Ashbridge moved to Ireland’s west coast, where she stayed the rest of her time with relatives of the Catholic faith.
Voyage to the U.S. and life in New England
In 1732 Ashbridge sailed to New York as an indentured servant, owned first by a woman in the slave trade and later by the ship's captain. After completing three of the four years of servitude required to pay her passage to the colonies, she bought her freedom with money she earned performing odd jobs and sewing. With her new-found freedom she considered a career on the stage, even going so far as to befriend members of local playhouses and study scripts in her spare time; instead, she married a school teacher with the surname Sullivan.
The nature of Sullivan's profession led the couple to travel widely throughout New England in search of schools in need of a schoolmaster. They settled briefly in Westerly, Rhode Island, where Ashbridge half-heartedly joined the Baptist church. After a failed attempt to travel to England, they moved to Boston in 1735, then back to Rhode Island later that year, where Ashbridge once again joined the Church of England. While visiting relatives in Pennsylvania, Ashbridge was taken with the Quaker faith, and converted, much to the disapproval of her husband. The couple stayed some time in Delaware, then moved on to Mount Holly, New Jersey, home of the influential Quaker John Woolman. Both Ashbridge and her husband taught school there. Ashbridge’s religious beliefs caused much turmoil in her marriage, and, in a drunken stupor, Sullivan enlisted himself as a soldier and left for Cuba in 1740. Claiming the Quaker’s right to pacifism, he was beaten brutally for his refusal to serve and died in a hospital near London in 1741.
Sometime between the death of her second husband in 1741 and her marriage to Aaron Ashbridge in 1746, Elizabeth Ashbridge recorded the story of her life with focus on her religious experiences and conversion to the Society of Friends. Titled Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge, her spiritual and historical narrative is the source of the majority of present-day knowledge regarding Ashbridge’s early life and religious beliefs. Few records exist regarding Ashbridge’s life in colonial America prior to her activism in the Society of Friends. Even the original manuscript of her Account is not accounted for; most later editions are based on the first edition, published in 1774.
Chronologically, Ashbridge’s narrative begins with her childhood in England and her subsequent moves to Ireland and America, and ends with the death of her second husband. While dates and names are included in her narrative, much of it is dedicated to her religious experience and her acceptance of the “true” faith. The autobiography traces her childhood in the Church of England, her early experiences with Quaker and Catholic relatives, her brief foray into the Baptist church, and ends with her acceptance of and into the Society of Friends. Such documentation of spiritual and religious journeys were not uncommon among those of the faith at the time. John Woolman’s spiritual autobiography was very popular both within the Quaker church and throughout New England. Ashbridge's narrative was first published posthumously in 1774 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Today, Ashbridge's Account remains an important text, both in the context of early American literature and, according to some critics, an interesting example of feminist literature and unique female voice. The Quaker's belief that men and women are equally responsible for sharing their spiritual stories was somewhat unique among the faiths present in New England in the eighteenth century. In this way, the Quaker community challenged the dominant culture: in fact, for a time Rhode Island was the sole state in which anti-Quaker legislation did not exist.
On May 7, 1746, Elizabeth married Aaron Ashbridge, a well-known member of the Quaker community in Chester County, Pennsylvania. After becoming an authoritative speaker at the Goshen, Pennsylvania Quaker meetings, she appeared with other prominent Quakers such as John Woolman, Jane Fenn Hoskens, and Anthony Benezet at the General Spring Meeting of ministers and elders in Philadelphia in 1752. The signature on the roster, signed March 16, is the only surviving sample of Ashbridge’s handwriting. In 1753 she became an ordained minister of the church and, with the consent of her husband, traveled through England and Ireland speaking at meeting houses testifying to her spiritual journey.
In Cork, Ireland, Ashbridge fell sick with an unknown illness, attributing her poor health to "bodily hardship in traveling" and "spiritual exercise in mind". After several weeks she proceeded to Waterford, where she again fell ill. She spent three months indisposed at the home of fellow Quaker John Hutchinson. She then continued to Carlow County, where she lodged at the home of Robert Lecky and died on May 16, 1755. She was buried three days later at the Ballybrumhill burial ground near Fennagh, County Carlow, Ireland.
- Levenduski (2006), p. 2
- Shea, p. 127
- Levenduski, p. 1
- Shea, p. 142
- Madden, pp. 171, 179
- Levenduski, p. 23
- Shea, pp. 124–125
- Shea, p. 172
- Shea, p. 140
- Levenduski, Cristine. Peculiar Power: A Quaker Woman Preacher in Eighteenth-Century America. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution, 1996. ISBN 1-56098-670-0.
- Shea, Daniel B., ed. Introduction. Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women's Narratives. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1990. ISBN 0-299-12584-X.
- Madden, Etta M. "Quaker Elizabeth Ashbridge as the Spectacle & Discourse of the Company: Metaphor, Synecdoche, and Synthesis". Early American Literature: Vol. 34. Ed. David S. Shields. University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 171-189.
- Ashbridge, Elizabeth (1713–1755), ODNB article by Etta M. Madden, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004