Saturday, April 11, 2015

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2015 - G for Priscilla Hannah Gurney

Priscilla Hannah Gurney was born on 22 June 1757 in Norwich, the elder of the two daughters of Joseph Gurney, a merchant, and Christiana Barclay. Priscilla's father died when she was four, but when she was ten her mother married John Freame, her first cousin, and the family moved from Norfolk to Bush Hill, Enfield. A son was born but John Freame's poor health led him and his wife to leave their children with relatives and travel on the continent. In 1770 he died and the family moved again, this time to Bath, which Priscilla saw as a 'vortex of dissipation'. About two years later her mother married for a third time, to William Watson of Bath, a physician, scientist and non-Quaker. This was the second time that Priscilla's mother had married against the rules of the Society of Friends, marriage with first cousins and non-Quakers both being frowned upon. On both occasions she had escaped with a loving reprimand rather than disownment, but she was determined that her daughters should not offend in this way and kept a close eye on their suitors.
Company At Play from The Comforts of Bath by Rowlandson 1798

In 1775, when she was 18, Priscilla went on an extended visit to her Norfolk relations and while she was there refused a marriage proposal from a young Quaker. This visit also brought into focus the spiritual dilemmas she was facing. For several years afterwards she was torn between the influence of her Quaker relations and that of her worldly friends in Bath, one of whom was zealous in urging Priscilla to convert to the Church of England. Eventually Priscilla, wanting to please her friend, was baptized and attended church services but was still unsatisfied. Her Quaker relations talked and wrote to her and gave her Quaker books to read. She tried to blot out the inner voice she heard saying "I must be a Quaker" by going to balls, concerts and plays in Bath, but the mental anguish of her spiritual struggle made her ill.

Barclay's Apology title-page
At last Priscilla decided to read some Quaker books and found to her surprise that she agreed with everything in her ancestor Robert Barclay's Apology, a standard work of Quaker theology. She told her family that she was now a Quaker. Her mother asked Priscilla not to change her appearance and Priscilla tried to oblige but eventually felt compelled to dress and speak as a 'plain Friend'. She was still stuggling spiritually and felt more comfortable with other Quakers than with her family.

When Priscilla was 27 she turned down another proposal from a young Quaker to whom she had at first been attracted. He refused to accept her rejection, trying to hold her to an 'understanding' which she did not feel they had, and harassing her both personally and through his family and friends. This emotional pressure made her ill and she took to her bed where she was visited by several weighty Friends. Among them was Mary Davis of Minehead, who befriended Priscilla, introduced her to Richard Reynolds and his wife Rebecca and took her to visit them at their home in Coalbrookdale.

Dale House, Coalbrookdale
Mary and Priscilla planned to set up home together, and even after Mary's marriage to John Merryweather in 1788 they still pursued their intention. But Mary's death, after the birth of her second child in 1791, put paid to this and Priscilla made her home instead with the Reynolds, who she called her 'parental friends', at Dale House, Coalbrookdale. The close-knit Quaker circle of families at Coalbrookdale, enlivened by a constant stream of visitors, at last gave Priscilla a secure base in which she felt at home and to which she could contribute. She became a Quaker minister in 1792 and travelled both locally and as far afield as Scotland and the Scilly Isles.

Priscilla, described by a friend as 'small in person, beautiful in countenance, elegant in manner', was the ideal person for her young cousin Elizabeth Gurney (later Fry) to be sent to visit in 1798 when she too was going through a spiritual struggle. Priscilla acted as a calm and sympathetic influence and introduced Elizabeth to Deborah Darby, who prophesied her future service.

Mary Ann Schmmelpenninck
In 1804 Richard Reynolds, after the death of his wife, decided to leave Coalbrookdale for Bristol and Priscilla also moved away, back to Bath where her sister still lived. There she made a striking figure in her old-fashioned plain Quaker dress and black silk hood. Her friend Mary Ann Schimmelpenninck recalls, 'She had what is called a helmeted eyelid, and a beautiful and serenely arched eyebrow, which contributed to her devout and tranquil expression, beautifully formed nose indicated at once strength and acuteness of intelligence and great delicacy of taste'. For the rest of her life Priscilla, in increasingly delicate health, lived in Bath, sometimes travelling in the ministry, and cultivated her talent for friendship. She was 'constant, ardent and faithful in attachment, earnestly persevering in the endeavour to serve her friends'. Eventually confined to her house by an extreme susceptibility of the lungs, but still welcoming small groups of friends, she died in Bath on 17 November 1828 at the age of 71.

In spite of Priscilla's misgivings about publishing her spiritual autobiography Memoirs of the Life and Religious Experience of Priscilla Hannah Gurney edited by S. Allen was issued in 1834, only six years after her death. Much of its interest lies in what it tells us about the struggles of one brought up both among Friends and 'in the world'. Priscilla Hannah is referred to by both her names because there was a contemporary Priscilla Gurney who was also a minister.