Saturday, January 05, 2013

A Quaker Alphabet. Week 1 - A for Abiah Darby

For the first post in this Quaker Alphabet of people and concepts I have chosen someone with an unusual first name beginning with A - Abiah Darby.

She was born in 1717, the youngest of the thirteen children of Samuel and Rachel Maude of whom six survived their childhood. The Maudes of Sunderland were a prosperous family who made most of their money from coal mining in Durham and Abiah grew up in comfort in Bishopwearmouth in a house called Sunniside.

When she was fourteen her father died and Abiah began to feel the stirrings of a call to the Quaker ministry although she struggled against it for years. Once she even got to the stage of standing up in Meeting but, she says, "sat down again without opening my mouth". While in this state of mind she met John Sinclair, a young man who was not of her social standing but who seemed sympathetic to her feelings. They married in 1734, against the wishes of Abiah's family, and she found that domestic cares "quenched the Holy Spirit" in her. Abiah's mother died soon after the marriage, then her daughter Rachel died of smallpox and her husband too also died, all before Abiah had reached the age of twenty-one.

Abiah moved to Kendal to live with one of her sisters and was greatly influenced by the Friends she met there. She was still struggling against her call to the ministry and was much helped by Elizabeth Shipley, a minister visiting from America, who spoke about "her own experience and long disobedience" almost as though she had been told of Abiah's state of mind.

Another local older woman Friend, Grace Chamber, took a practical interest in Abiah's future and in 1744 introduced her to another visitor to Kendal. Abraham Darby was a prosperous ironmaster from Coalbrookdale in Shropshire and a serious and sincere Quaker. He was six years older than Abiah and his first wife had died in 1740 leaving him with a daughter Hannah, then aged nine. Abiah's friends saw that having passed through sorrow as she had, Abraham could offer her understanding and would support her religious development.

Dale House, Coalbrookdale
They were married in 1746 and Abiah entered into a busy domestic life at Dale House in the heart of Coalbrookdale, giving hospitality both to visiting Friends and to Abraham's business colleagues. She gave birth to the first of her seven children, three of whom died young. Still she struggled against her call, but at last, in 1748 when she was thirty one, she tells us, "I finally did speak these words, 'My Friends, I am engaged to invite you all to get inward and taste and feel with my soul how good the Lord is', the very same words I should have opened my mouth with when fifteen and seventeen years of age."

Painting of Sunniside
From this time on, with the support of Abraham and the close-knit Quaker community in Coalbrookdale, Abiah added the duties of a Quaker minister to her other responsibilities. In 1751 her family moved to a newly-built house, named Sunniside after her childhood home, further up the hill and away from the industrial centre. [The house was demolished in 1856 but can be seen on the left in a watercolour painted by A. Tregellis which was used on the cover of Abiah Darby by Rachel Labouchere, Willam Sessions, 1988.] Abiah continued to offer hospitality to a steady stream of visitors, with many of whom she also kept up a regular correspondence. All her religious activities are recorded in the Journal which she kept throughout her married life.

Abraham died in 1763 but Abiah lived on in Coalbrookdale for another thirty years at the centre of her family and community, both Quakers and others. She was a great support and encouragement to her daughter-in-law Deborah Darby, who also became a travelling minister and found in 'Mother Darby' a kindred spirit. Abiah also encouraged -and disputed with - the local Methodist minister, John Fletcher of Madeley. She lent him books on Quaker doctrines and he did not press against her his legal right to tithes.

  Eventually Abiah's health and strength gradually declined although she remained "clear in her understanding to the last". She died in 1794 when she was seventy-seven and I feel deserves to be remembered as much by the many visitors to Coalbrookdale today as is her son Abraham's Iron Bridge.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Gil, this is a good way for me to learn :-)

KM said...

Hi Gil, looking forward to the next 25!
Have you signed up for Bloggers for Peace? It might be fun :-)