Sunday, March 08, 2009

Let me introduce you to my Friends - Grace Hall Chamber

I have been meaning for a while to begin a series on some of my Quaker Friends from the past who inspire me and I hope will inspire others. On International Women's Day I thought it appropriate to begin with a woman who, although a minister, did not travel extensively and did not write anything for publication. Most of what we know about her comes from a handful of surviving manuscript letters and from references to her in the writings of many of her contemporaries. To them she was usually known affectionately as 'dear Grace'.

Grace Hall Chamber was born in 1676 near Durham. She was the only child of James Hall and his second wife, but she also had five siblings, the children of her father and his first wife. Grace was educated at home in a prosperous Quaker family and being 'endowed with an excellent understanding' acquired considerable skill in medicine and surgery which she used throughout her life.

In 1704 she married Robert Chamber, a substantial Friend, and moved to his family home at Sedgwick near Kendal. Grace had an extensive acquaintance among all classes of society in her local community and concerned herself with the lives and happiness of all her friends, not only Quakers. In 1711 she was recognised as having a gift of ministry among Friends although she did not speak frequently or at length. Her travel in the ministry was mainly local and in the company of her husband. There is no record that Grace and Robert had any children of their own, but Grace acted as a mother, nurse and friend to all who needed her, often caring for them in her own home.

Grace's letters give two glimpses of her caring ministry. In 1737 she writes an account for his friends of the death in her house from smallpox of Charles Barnett, a travelling minister far from home. She writes - 'He had not one minute of perfect ease since he came to us so that we had very little discourse with him upon any account but his illness and what might be of service and most suitable for him, but the first morning after he found he was not able to travel he named his wife, as she little knew how he was and said, "I am out of all their reach. I am two hundred miles from my habitation." And I answered, "Think thyself at home. We will do whatever we can for thee. Thou shalt want for nothing we either have or can get to do thee good."' The letter continues with a description of the funeral and, on a practical note, an account of the effects of the deceased and of the memoranda Grace had written at his dictation.

In 1743 Grace writes about the care she is giving to Fanny Henshaw who she took into her home for more than a month. Fanny was brought up in the Church of England but became a Quaker as a young woman, much to the dismay of her family and friends. Very soon after her convincement - perhaps too soon - she began to travel in the ministry and became exhausted both physically and mentally.

Grace writes of Fanny's situation - '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.' Grace gave her rest, counsel and the recommended treatment of salt and fresh water baths until she recovered and reflects - 'May we above all things look to the giver of all our good enjoyments in all our circumstances, whether it being plenty or poverty, he knows best what is good for us and we may soon learn by experience both how to order ourselves and advise others - this is what I am and have often been concerned for in secret.'

In 1753, when they had been married for almost fifty years, Robert Chamber died. Grace characterised Robert as 'one of the best of husbands' but acknowledged that her ministry had always to take account of his needs. As she said, 'He was very unwilling to want me, but I think he made that up, as much as any man in his circumstance could have done, in letting his house be free and open to sick and lame, poor and rich. If I were but there it was mostly well.'

In her widowhood Grace travelled further afield in the ministry, often with her lifelong friend Lydia Lancaster. In 1760 they went on a journey to Bath, Bristol and London. Contemporaries wondered at their taking on so much when so advanced in years but described them both as 'green in old age'. On her return Grace became more infirm, finding it difficult to get to even local Quaker meetings. She died, aged 85, at Sedgwick and was buried in the Friends burial ground at Preston Patrick.

1 comment:

Heather said...

That was fascinating - thanks, Gil!