Sophia Wigington Hume (1702–1774) was raised among the elite of Charleston, South Carolina, but joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) after a health crisis that she was convinced was a judgment upon her love of fashion, frivolity, and luxury. Shortly after her conversion, she traveled to England, where she became an active member of the London meeting and received training as an exhorter. In 1747, Hume felt called to return to her native city of Charleston to preach a gospel message coupled with a call to personal reform and simplicity. Hume was apprehensive that her former friends and neighbors would accuse her of hypocrisy or forwardness in taking on such a public role; she hoped to forestall some such criticism by publishing her own testimony of conversion the pamphlet excerpted below.
Like many women in colonial America, Hume found evangelicalism offered a sense of self and a confidence to speak on serious issues in public that she had not previously experienced. Although Quakers adopted plain dress in an effort to suppress the individual sin of pride, as Hume notes in her essay, there were societal benefits to humility as well.
Source: Sophia Wigington Hume, An Exhortation to the Inhabitants of the Province of South-Carolina (Philadelphia: 1748). We have modernized spelling and capitalization.
My Friends and Neighbors,
After an absence of near six years from this province (my native country) and my arrival among you, I have beheld the faces of many of the inhabitants whom I have known, and been known to, some years: but the novelty of my religious sentiments, and meanness of my appearance, has, I find, rendered me despicable in your eyes; which has been obvious, when a few of us, called Quakers, have met to worship the Supreme Being in a manner agreeable to the best of our understanding and knowledge: And though some perhaps may stile our principles and tenets by the hard name of heresy, and our mode or manner of worship, ridiculous or absurd; nevertheless, we are humbly of opinion, they are neither unscriptural nor unchristian, having, as we think, the sanction and authority of our Lord himself, the example of primitive believers, and right reason, on our side.
But notwithstanding, as I have noted, that I have suffered your ridicule and reproach, as I am conscious it is for no other than obedience to the will of my heavenly master, whose I am, and whom I serve, I am willing to become more vile in your eyes; which, it is more than probable, I shall appear, when I expose the following lines to your observation and censure. I would not have you imagine that any consideration, less than his favor, could have prevailed with me to have appeared thus publicly in print, or otherwise; for could I, with any ease to my own mind, have evaded this, or been excused from returning to this place (as I apprehended it required of me by the Almighty) you had never beheld my face in the province, much less any performance of this sort in public. I am not insensible, that the reason I have offered for writing, as well as the subject itself, may probably be considered as the production of a distempered and enthusiastic brain; as it is possible, on such a novel and uncommon occasion, as a woman’s appearing on the behalf of God and religion, you may (as others have done in the like circumstances) be induced to consider such an one under some unaccountable delusion, or affected with religious madness; and more especially, as the things recommended to your consideration, are offered by a simple female of your own country: . . .
. . . I shall premise one proposition, on which all I have to offer will greatly depend, viz. That all mankind have a measure and manifestation of the Light, Spirit, or Grace of God, given them to profit withal. This doctrine of the universal extent of the grace of God, the people called Quakers, hold in a peculiar manner, and are distinguished by, from some other dissenting sects, who generally limit God’s gifts of his Holy Spirit, or saving means, to what they call The Elect; and assert, that the rest of mankind are (as they term it) passed by, or denied the means of salvation, being predestinated from all eternity to destruction.
. . . But some have said to me, We grant that Christians ought to walk agreeable to the dictates of the spirit of Christ; but the Quakers make the guidance and direction of the Spirit necessary in trivial and indifferent matters; nay, sometimes they offer its dictates as a reason for many things accounted by us irrational and absurd.—I answer; With reference to our duty and obedience to the Almighty, I consider no action indifferent; everything of this nature must tend to some purpose, good or evil: And ’tis upon this consideration that we extend the doctrine of the cross, self-denial and perfect obedience to the precepts of Christ, farther than the generality of those who profess the Christian name: And I take this occasion to say, my principal errand among you is to recommend, as far as I am enabled, these Christian doctrines; since our Lord himself positively declares, That unless we take up a daily dross, (to our corrupt wills and affections) we cannot be his disciples. . . .
. . . I have also considered, how backward the generality of people are to receive advice, even when it has been offered by religious, pious and learned men; and that the labors of such have had but little effect on the minds and conduct of many called Christians; and reflecting on the greatness of my inability, as well as the improbability of my being serviceable in God’s cause, I have been induced to say, Lord! who will believe my report, since so many have labored (as I have thought) in vain? Shall I, a poor female, undertake for God? . . . And farther, though I am but dust and ashes, I thus presumed to excuse myself; Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast been pleased to discover thy will to me. But to an Almighty Power, who doth according to his righteous will, both in the armies of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, who shall say, What dost thou? And since he is pleased to send by the hand of whom he will send, I no longer resisted his will, but became obedient to his word and power, against which I had long reasoned, and objected my unfitness; though the Apostle Paul informs us, That as many as have been baptized into CHRIST (or with his Baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, and have witnessed the chaffy nature in them consumed, and by this means) have put on CHRIST (that then there is no distinction or difference among Christians in a religious sense) there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: For, says the Apostle, ye are all one in CHRIST JESUS. Thus, he seems to allow our sex the same Gospel privileges with the rest of mankind. And the royal prophet calls on the female, as well as the male part of God’s rational creation, to celebrate the praise of our common governor and benefactor. “Why then,” says one, “should woman be denied her canticle of praise in the general chorus, since out of the mouth of babes and sucklings, God will still ordain and perfect praise?” And we may further observe, when the Tabernacle of the Lord was erected in the wilderness, the women, we are told, who were willing hearted, brought their free-will offerings, and presented them towards the building, or at least embellishing of this moveable temple, which, ‘tis said, was a type of the true church militant, and the tabernacle which God has pitched, and not man. And if females were allowed to assist and contribute to the work of the Lord, under the law, why should any, or the least essay towards the repairing the breaches in God’s building, be rejected under the Gospel; since we do not offer or propose any new doctrine, nor endeavor to lay any other foundation than that which is already laid, viz, “The revelation of the spirit of JESUS CHRIST the righteous, in the soul of man, on which the church of CHRIST is founded and built. . . .
. . . . And we may further observe, that the Spirit of CHRIST was not limited to his immediate disciples, to whom it was to be sent as a comforter and director; but he tells them, it should appear to the world of unbelievers in another administration or office, viz. That of a reprover for sin. For when CHRIST ascended up on high, he gave gifts to men, yea, even to the rebellious, Eph. 4:8. And the gifts of the Holy Ghost, Poole, in his Annotations, tells us, “Were not, as some imagine, confined to the Apostle’s days, but that Christians, in succeeding ages, received as large proportions of the divine influences and gifts of the Holy Spirit as formerly.” And that females did receive these gifts, as well as the men, and on proper occasions did exercise them, John Locke, in his paraphrase on Paul’s Epistles, assures us, by proof. He tells us, “That God, for order sake, had instituted in the world a proper subordination of the weaker sex to the stronger; yet (says he) this hindered not but that he might make use of the weaker sex to any function, whenever he thought fit, as well as he did the men.” He says much more to the same purpose; but I leave him to those who may have an opportunity and inclination to read him further on this subject; and return to illustrate, as well as I am able, the rule of my conduct in religious matters. I am sensible that it is my duty, first and principally, and above all other considerations, to love, adore, honor and obey, the Supreme Being; and next, I find it my duty to love my neighbor as myself; and to observe to act in the same just and upright manner in every circumstance, that I desire he should act in towards myself: Therefore, if, upon a scrutiny, or examination, I find my design or action directly or indirectly tending to the dishonor of God, or in any shape injurious to my neighbor, I am immediately instructed, by the inward monitor, or light of CHRIST in my conscience, to decline it; and if I forbear the action, &c. I believe you will grant I am right so far.
. . . I was naturally led, in some degree, to what is called Quakerism (though’ it appeared to me in no other form nor name, than that of primitive Christianity) which, in my first thoughts of religion, I had no more intention of embracing than I had of receiving Mahometism; knowing little more of the Quakers, than that they were a plain people in their garb and speech. But it has been remarked to me, that my mother was some time of this persuasion, and no wonder that I should have a warm side for her opinion. I answered, my father was a member of the Church of England, and educated me in that way; and I well remember, I had a much warmer side for his opinion; not that I knew what was the essential difference in their religious sentiments, or at least that affected me, any farther than that one allowed me something more liberty in dress; whereas the other would tell me plainness in apparel was most agreeable to Christianity, and to the Divine Being, who hated pride in his creatures. To be sure I thought this doctrine absurd, by the reflection I remember I made at the time, That God, I believed, would not reject me, on the score of wearing lace, or a fine and gay silk gown. I have thought since . . . that the Almighty could not descend so low as to notice such trifles, or mark little follies, if gaiety in apparel should be one; but no wonder that when I was a child, I should reason as a child. I am sensible that silks, ribbons and lace, are not anywhere in Scripture directly forbidden; but I learn from thence, that pride, and all manner of superfluity, is. And if, by wearing this rich silk, or adorning ourselves with the other superfluous ornaments, we feed and nourish a proud, vain desire, it becomes by this circumstance as unlawful as pride itself; and that they do so, I have greatly experienced: For though religion stands not simply in clothes, yet true religion stands in that which sets bounds and limits to the mind with respect to clothes, as well as other things. And to strengthen this assertion, or rather to prove it, I shall offer an instance of my own experience, viz. When it pleased the Lord to visit my soul, and to appear to me in his glory, the view of which discovered to me my own unworthiness, and caused me not, only to despise and abhor myself, but my splendid apparel also: I had now no delight in dress and ornament, nor other things I had usually taken much pleasure in: true Christianity, which I began to be acquainted with, set a bound to my desires, and directed me to plainness, before I had any intention of joining the Society of the people called Quakers; and indeed all earthly and transitory objects were, and are, in my view and estimation, as loss, dross and dung, in comparison of the excellency, glory and beauty, I behold in God, and find in the enjoyment of his divine favor; and at times I am ready to cry out, O! how great is his Glory, and transcendently great his beauty! . . .
. . . I have told you already, that I have felt great trouble and anxiety of mind on your account; but though’ my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears; and could I, or anyone else, weep continually day and night for you, that you may rest in the day of trouble; yet another’s concern cannot do this great work for you, without your own hand in the business which relates to your soul’s happiness; since an inspired apostle assures you, you must, by divine assistance, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling:” For no man can redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for his soul. I may (as I do earnestly) desire your happiness, but I can’t procure it for you. I may wish you Heaven, but I can’t obtain it for you: Yet I earnestly pray, That the God and Father of our Lord JESUS CHRIST may give unto you the Spirit of Wisdom. . . .
. . . To Him, and to the Word of his Grace, I commit and commend you; assuring you, my dear Fellow-mortals, that my fervent desire and unfeigned prayer, unto the God of my Life, for you all, is, that you may be saved!
- To what, exactly, is Hume exhorting South Carolinians, and why? What makes her case compelling (or not)?
- How is Hume’s call for a reformation of manners among Southerners related to Angelina Grimké’s (Appeal to the Christian Women of the South) later call for Southern women to embrace the cause of abolition?
- Chaff, the inedible portion of wheat, is separated from it during the threshing process; similarly, Hume appears to imply that the sinful aspects of human nature will be separated from the redeemed elements of the soul in the process of sanctification.
- Galatians 3:28
- Matthew Poole (1624–1679) was a dissenting minister whose verse-by-verse commentary on the Bible, English Annotations on the Holy Bible (1683), went through multiple editions from its original publication through the end of the nineteenth century.
- The manuscript of English philosopher John Locke’s (1632–1704) A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul was published posthumously in 1707.
- Susanna Bayley Wigington was raised by a Quaker exhorter, Mary Fisher.
- Henry Wigington, a prosperous landowner and political leader in Charleston, was an Anglican.