Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 20 - J for Rebecca Jones

Sampler worked by Rebecca Jones
Rebecca Jones was born in Philadelphia in 1739 and remained attached to that city and to the welfare of its people all her life. Her father William Jones was a sailor and was lost at sea when Rebecca was a young child. Her mother Mary, left with the sole care of Rebecca and her elder brother Daniel, supported the family by setting up a school. Rebecca later praised her hard work which 'brought us up reputably, gave us sufficient learning and educated us in the way of the Church of England.' Mary wanted to pass the school on to her daughter and to that end educated her not only in book-learning but in other 'accomplishments' such as music, dancing and needlework. Rebecca studied needlework with Anne Marsh, a celebrated Philadelphia needlewoman, and one of Rebecca's beautifully worked samplers from this time survives in the Philadelphia Atwater Kent Museum.

Rebecca seemed to be following the path which her careful mother had set out for her but she had an independent, restless side to her which brought her into conflict with her family. Before she was twelve she got her mother's permission to go to Quaker meetings with the children of neighbours who were Friends and she kept going, not really knowing why, even when her mother began to be uneasy. Soon she was attending meeting without her mother's knowledge, sitting at the back near the door where she could come and go unnoticed.

Catherine Payton
Rebecca was in spiritual turmoil and had no-one to confide in until in 1754 when she was fifteen Catherine Payton (later Phillips) was visiting America from England as a travelling minister and came to Philadelphia. Rebecca was very struck by Catherine and her ministry and got up enough courage to write all her spiritual turmoil down in a letter, which she could not bring herself to sign, and slip it into Catherine's hand as she was going into meeting. Catherine asked the Friends she was staying with who this young woman might be and Daniel Trotter, a near neighbour of the Jones family said, 'I do not know who it can be without it's that wild Becky Jones, who has got to coming to meeting and sits by black Rose', for Rebecca unknowingly sat on the back benches usually reserved for African Americans.

Catherine wrote a reply full of encouragement and became a kind of mentor to Rebecca, continuing their correspondence when she returned to England. Rebecca was set on her path towards Quakerism but this also set her against her mother. Rebecca now felt that she could no longer continue to study or teach to others 'the lighter and merely ornamental branches' of learning and her mother, seeing the ruin of her hopes, tried to stop her attending meetings by any means she could. Rebecca stayed true to her calling and eventually, at the age of nineteen, was recognised as a minister by Philadelphia Friends. This acknowledgement of her daughter's gifts and the kindness and tact with which Friends treated both mother and daughter reconciled Mary Jones to Rebecca's choice. Rebecca did teach in her mother's school and took it over on Mary's death in 1761, together with her friend and fellow Quaker Hannah Cathrall. The school thrived and taught all branches of learning including practical, rather than ornamental needlework.
Silhouettes of Hannah Cathrall and Rebecca Jones

Rebecca became one of the pillars of Philadelphia Quakers. She was particularly assiduous in helping the poor, having known hardship herself and having to rely on her own efforts for her livelihood. She was a devoted friend of John Woolman and supported his campaigning against slavery. She might have remained in Philadelphia but in 1784 she gave up her school and laid before her monthly meeting a long-considered calling to visit Friends in England. She was given a certificate and set out on a journey which would take her four years. During this time, with a variety of women companions, her memorandum book reveals that she travelled thousands of miles in the UK and Ireland and attended hundreds of meetings of various kinds. She was particularly concerned with servants, apprentices and labourers and also spoke particularly to the young, remembering her own spiritual journey. Rebecca also managed to visit the ageing Catherine Payton Phillips and renew their loving acquaintance in person.

In 1788, under a sense of 'fresh and sure direction' Rebecca returned to Philadelphia. Having given up her school and with her eyesight deteriorating, she needed to find another way of earning a living and set up a
Rebecca in later life
small shop in a room of her house where she sold fabrics and haberdashery, some of it supplied by her Friends in England. In a letter of 1790 she acknowledges that the change brought some regrets, 'Thou hast doubtless heard that I have shaken my hands from the gain of school keeping – tho’ by the way I may tell thee my present gain is not so delicious, nor do I feel so every way complete as when my uncontrolled sway was love, serving my numerous tribe of various dispositions, circumstances, and ages – but as I cannot… renew my youthful sight & other requisites for the service, I endeavour after contentment in my present situation...'

In 1793 Rebecca fell ill in the yellow fever epidemic during which 4,000 Philadelphians died, but lived to resume her ministry and the wide correspondence which was a major activity of her later years. In the mid-1790s, she contributed her knowledge of Friends' education in England to the founding of Westtown  School, a boarding school which opened in the spring of 1799, patterned after the Ackworth Friends School in Yorkshire.

Over the years Rebecca retained, in her unassuming way, a certain 'queenly dignity' as well as an easy and gracious manner. and among women of her time she stood out for her intellectual capacity, quick wit, strength of character and 'sanctified common sense.'  She was a trusted counsellor and informal almoner, 'eminent for leading the cause of the poor.' Her modest home was always open to those in trouble or wishing her advice and it was said of her that she possessed 'singular penetration on discovering cases of distress and delicacy in affording relief.' 

In 1813, she suffered an attack of typhus fever and for the last five years of her life, she was confined almost entirely to her home, where she was devotedly cared for by Bernice Chattin Allinson, a young widow whom she had taken in as a daughter. Rebecca Jones died in Philadelphia in 1818 aged 78 and was buried in the Friends burial ground of  Arch Street meeting house. on the morning of the yearly meeting of ministers & elders.

Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia today

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