Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
" Elizabeth Sullivan's conversion to Quakerism profoundly changed her life. For the first time since childhood she felt that she had found her true religion, and this conviction gave her life a centeredness she had never before known. Yet her husband treated her Quakerism like a disease to be treated and cured. On the advice of an Anglican priest, Mr. Sullivan sought to remove her from Pennsylvania, the source, he believed, of her contamination. Elizabeth, fearing his choleric temper, and wanting to be an obedient wife, went with him quietly.
Having traveled all day on foot, Elizabeth was relieved when she and her husband stopped for the night at a tavern in Wilmington, Delaware. But she was also apprehensive, knowing that popular opinion regarding Quakers agreed with that of her husband. No sooner had they entered the tavern, than Mr. Sullivan began to tell fellow travelers and townspeople, hungry for diversion, that his wife had become a Quaker. Throughout dinner he regaled them with stories of her extended visit to her relatives, and of his horror at their reunion when she addressed him with the dreaded Quaker "thee". He won their sympathies when he told them of her former career in the theater and of how he had fallen in love with her because of her skill as a dancer, though she now refused to sing or to dance.
As her husband spoke, Elizabeth Sullivan saw the other tavern guests' sympathetic reactions so his story, and her anxiety grew, for she knew that her convictions and those of her husband would soon clash. When a musician among the group, evidently sharing Sullivan's view of Quakerism as a curable ailment, offered to hasten her 'recovery' by fetching his fiddle and starting a dance, Elizabeth knew the confrontation was at hand.
When the fiddler started playing, Sullivan, taking his wife's hand, said, 'Come my dear, shake off that Gloom, and let's have a civil Dance, you would now and then when you were a good Churchwoman, & that's better than a Stiff Quaker.' Wary of her husband's volatile temper, Elizabeth begged to be excused from the dance, but firm in his belief that with one dance he could bring an end to her foolishness, Sullivan insisted. He pulled her from the tavern bench, and when she remained still, dragged her across the floor until tears flowed from her eyes. The fiddler, seeing her tears, mercifully stopped playing and said to Sullivan, 'I'll play no more, Let your wife alone'. (source cited by Levenduski here).
This 1736 incident in the Wilmington tavern left its mark upon Sullivan's wife, and fifteen years later, when Elizabeth Sullivan Ashbridge wrote the story of her conversion to Quakerism, she remembered it vividly. This incident became a prime illustration of the conflict between her Quaker convincement and her marriage. Although her beliefs triggered a long series of abuses from her husband, the scene in the tavern is the first, the most detailed, and also the most dramatic story she tells.
The tavern incident is powerful because it resonates with a long history of anti-Quaker sentiment in American culture. All the actors in this scene-Elizabeth Sullivan, her husband, and the musician, are aware of this tradition; Elizabeth Ashbridge, the autobiographer, evokes it in her retrospective narrative within a cultural context that locates Quakers in general and female Quaker preachers in general on the fringes of acceptable society. So prevalent was this anti-Quaker mythology in the daily lives of Ashbridge and of her contemporaries that she feels no need to explain it, even though it provides an important and necessary subtext for her story. Her retelling of the Wilmington tavern incident must be read in this context in order to understand its bearing on her autobiography.
Mr. Sullivan had more at stake in the tavern that night in 1736 than his desire to have a carefree wife who enjoyed dancing with him. Sullivan, like the others in the tavern, knew early eighteenth-century Quakers as "peculiar people" , individuals set apart from the dominant culture by language, dress, behavior, and beliefs. By forcing Elizabeth to dance, he tried to rescue her from "otherness" and marginalization in a society valuing communal unity and conformity. Having tried unsuccessfully to sway her from her newly found Quaker convictions, he turned to physical means-removing her from the site of her conversion, preventing her from attending Quaker meetings, and forcing her to dance-all attempts to pluck her from the margins of peculiarity and place her within the mainstream. These were the acts of a desperate man threatened by the prospect of losing his wife to the supposed Quaker deviance that he and his neighbors had heard about, as well as by the recognition that his own life would be tainted by her beliefs and actions. That night Elizabeth Sullivan suffered not only from a harsh husband but also from an unrelenting cultural mythology. "
Levenduski, Cristine. 1996. Peculiar Power. A Quaker Woman Preacher in Eighteenth Century America. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington & London. p. 15-17.