Frances Henshaw, usually known as Fanny, was born at Caldon Hall near Leek in Staffordshire in 1714 into a wealthy family but lost both parents before she was six years old. She and her elder sister were committed to the care of their uncle as guardian, who made sure that they were well educated according to their station and placed with a serious and observant Anglican family.
|A wealthy family in the 1730s|
In 1734,when she was just 20, the serious illness of her sister brought about a religious crisis in Fanny, As she says ‘I was ready to petition the Almighty in the secret of my mind, that she might be relieved if it were consistent with his will, and if one of us must suffer, that it might rather be myself than she, judging myself less timorous; but in the midst of these considerations, I was informed as certainly in my own conscience, as if it had been told me by a person of unquestionable validity and authority, that I must undergo a great work, and know a thorough change before I could be prepared for a happy death. A query arising in me what this could import and what this change must be, I presently had an answer uttered to my breast with great weight and solemnity to this effect – The change is this: Thou must with others bear the Cross in the closest way, and become a Quaker.’
When Fanny told her friends they were horrified and looked for reasons for her resolution. They suggested ‘that possibly it might be the good opinion I and our family...had entertained of a neighbour of ours who had sometimes been at the house, and done many acts of friendship for us, that had biased my judgement in favour of the Quakers’ principles; he being a strict Quaker and very conscientious in his whole conduct and conversation, which I thought was praiseworthy both in him and others. But I was very far from any personal liking or affection to him, though the report was soon spread that I was in love with him.’
Fanny's friends tried hard to change her mind by argument, enlisting the aid among others of the poet
John Byrom and of William Law, the author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, who corresponded with her, but she remained firm. After nearly
two years of inward and outward struggle Fanny visited her guardian and
convinced him of her sincerity and that she had come to her decision
independently. As she says ‘The searcher of hearts who knew the strait I was
in, wrought upon my uncle in my favour, and made him plead my cause with them
that strove against me, and with a courage becoming his station, assert and
plead for my just liberty of worshipping God in the way I believed to be right;
saying I had as good a title to this liberty as any person, and none should
abridge me of it and he stand by.’ Thus championed Fanny became a Quaker in 1736
when she was 22.
|Etching of John Byrom|
|Titlepage of Law's A Serious Call|
Grace took Fanny into her home for an extended period, giving her rest, good advice and fresh and salt-water baths. Writing to Joshua Toft, a friend who was particular concerned about Fanny, Grace summed up the young woman's problem, ‘She has been quite overdone, both body and spirits, and the fever coming upon her in that low condition was beyond what her constitution could undergo without being borne down below measure, which is not easily recruited, there being need of both inward and outward helps. As divine providence has provided both for our souls and bodies so I conclude we ought to receive both in as much faith and thankfulness as possible we can.’
When she was on the road to recovery Grace also introduced Fanny to another young woman, Abiah
Sinclair, later Darby, and the
two became lifelong friends and travelled together in the ministry. Grace was
instrumental in introducing Abiah, a young widow, to her second husband,
Abraham Darby, and perhaps she also made a match between Fanny and William Paxton of
Durham as the two couples married in the same year, 1745. Marriage and children (she and William had four sons) were good for Fanny, although she remained of a nervous disposition. The network of Quaker friendship centred on the Darby's home in Coalbrookdale also remained very important and supportive for Fanny both personally and for her Quaker ministry. Two years after William Paxton's death in 1753 Fanny married William Dodgson, also of Durham. In 1771 the family moved to Leek, Fanny's birthplace, but William died in 1775. Fanny continued to travel extensively in the ministry until she died at the home of her son William Paxton in Macclesfield in 1793 aged 78.
|Leek Quaker Meeting House today|
Fanny left a memoir of her convincement, which stresses the lack of influence which individual Quakers had on her and the strength of her Iward Guide, written partly before her first marriage and partly afterit, the two sections being signed with her different names. It was published after her death, but not without problems. According to William Phillips, the Quaker printer, writing in 1808, it was approved for publication by Second Days Morning Merting in 1794, but was suppressed by Meeting for Sufferings on the advice of William's father and Morris Birkbeck in their role as 'correctors pf the press' because of discoveries they had made 'of a certain kind of spiritual pride.' A revised version was eventually published in 1804, but this shows that doubts about the possible influence of Fanny Henshaw as a convinced Quaker remained even after many years.