The World Before Her
She was perfection. That late spring day at Fairhaven, where he had preached a sermon, how the congregation wept as they sang the parting hymn. Then the pews emptied, and all in the church gathered around the young woman who had once taught their children. The devout in this southern Massachusetts seaport marveled, as did pious evangelicals everywhere, at her decision to marry him, a missionary bound for the Ottoman Empire that very summer. How brave she was, how selfless—and how soon would they all read of her exploits in popular religious monthlies like The Missionary Herald. It must have been a quarter of an hour before the crowd finally gave way and he could reclaim his prize. They were already almost famous.
Being the center of attention was nothing new to Martha Parker. She had drawn admirers long before these last several weeks as the engaged pair made their farewell visits to family and friends in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Some of the most heartfelt tributes came from young men at Dartmouth College, one of whom sighed that she was “possessed of many charms” and “these have secured for her an abundant tribute of flatteries, caresses and admiration.” Her elders praised Martha, too. “Lovely” was the word that often came to mind among the teachers and ministers who extolled her Christian character and winning ways. She was pretty, it seems, though no portrait survives. She was accomplished, her lively intelligence cultivated by a year of schooling at a private academy. She was devout, a religious seriousness intensified by losses early in her life. Her eldest sibling, twelve-year-old Leonard, had drowned in a millpond when Martha was five; her father, William, sickened and died six years later. Through it all, her faith held firm.
And now, much to Elnathan Gridley’s satisfaction, she was nearly his own. After traveling through New England in June, they would wed and shortly thereafter set sail for the island of Malta, then on to Beirut, part of Ottoman Syria. How providential, he reflected, that adulation had not spoiled his fiancée. Being so popular, as she confided to him, had made her “accustomed to caresses,” but all that “tribute” was unwelcome, “beyond what she desired,” because, as they both knew, the sin of pride feasted on a surfeit of praise.
Such sentiments reflected the evangelical Calvinist culture pervading rural New England, the milieu in which the two had been raised, one that deemed ambition suspect and self-regard among the worst of sins. From her earliest youth, Martha recalled, she had taken those teachings to heart and felt drawn to a life of sacrifice for others. No sooner had she received some assurance of saving grace and found “peace in believing” than she “desired to spend my life on heathen shores,” converting the rest of the world. Modest and self-effacing as she was, when Elnathan first sounded her out on the subject of marriage, she had demurred and “looked in vain for an excuse from engaging in so great a work.” It was only some six months later, after being encouraged by him and her family, that Martha at last saw “the finger of Providence point[ing] me plainly . . . to Western Asia.” Somewhere in that part of the world, she would labor with him as an “assistant missionary.” She would organize and teach in schools that boarded and educated local children. And she would reach out to their mothers, striving to challenge the customs that kept them subservient.
Other fingers had also pointed Martha Parker in the direction of foreign missions, most of them attached to mere mortals at Bradford Academy. Founded in 1803 by some forward-thinking inhabitants of Essex County, Massachusetts, it was one of many institutions springing up in the early republic, often under evangelical auspices, that offered sons—and a growing number of daughters—from elite and middling households an education more advanced than the rudiments taught in the common schools. When Martha attended Bradford Academy in the years around 1820, women considerably outnumbered men in a student body of nearly two hundred, and many, like her, came from some distance and boarded with local families. The academy reserved training in Latin and Greek for those young men headed toward college and instruction in navigation for the sons of merchants and master mariners, but male and female students alike received a firm grounding in English grammar and composition, arithmetic and geography. Bradford also offered its female students some of the “ornamentals”—drawing, embroidery, and painting—genteel accomplishments that reinforced geography lessons. Students drew maps on paper, embroidered them on silk, or painted them on velvet.
Their conservative religious beliefs did not keep these committed Calvinists from numbering among the new nation’s staunchest proponents of formal education for young women. “It is pagan to keep the female sex in ignorance,” one leading evangelical periodical pronounced, so women must “illuminate their minds,” to keep from being “compelled to think that their sphere is that of the butterfly, to flutter in useless gaiety and wandering thoughtlessness.” (Hence the deliberate omission of dancing and French classes in Bradford’s offering of “ornamentals.”) A pious Middlebury College student and future missionary agreed, lecturing his sister that ignorance was “a mark disgrace” in women because of the essential role that they stood to play in promoting social progress and the spread of their evangelical faith. Such were the convictions that prompted Bradford’s citizens to launch the town’s academy and to take particular pride in its predominantly female clientele. According to Isaac Bird, one of Martha’s brothers-in-law, she ranked among the school’s most promising graduates. He cherished “higher hopes” for her than for anyone else within the Parker family circle and described her letters to him as “a treasure, an intellectual feast.”
Evangelicals’ prominent role in their founding fostered a deeply religious atmosphere at schools like Bradford Academy. Every day there began and ended with devotions led by the preceptor (or principal) of the young men’s department or a local clergyman, and ministers in training from neighboring Andover Theological Seminary often conducted evening prayer meetings. Particular fervor seems to have prevailed among Bradford’s female students, one of whom recalled the occasion on which her teacher singled out “all who loved the Saviour, to remain a few moments after the close of the school,” and then pointed out to these young converts their “obligations and duties as Christians” to exert a good influence on their companions who had not yet experienced saving grace. The efforts of their elders combined with the zeal of adolescents ensured that religious revivals often set afire academies like Bradford, and students who had not yet received some inward assurance of salvation were pressed to strive toward that goal by both their teachers and their peers.
Some found that atmosphere oppressive. There was the poet Emily Dickinson, who kept her distance from a revival during her time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and avoided all organized religion for the rest of her life. But other young women welcomed the spiritual urgency that suffused academy life, and Martha Parker seems to have been among them. She spent her youth in an intensely pious household, her parents being pillars of the local Congregational church in the rural village of Dunbarton, New Hampshire. Martha, along with most of her siblings, came to join in that communion upon her “entertaining a hope in Christ”—experiencing the transformative “second birth” that, then as now, stands as the hallmark of evangelical spirituality.
In Dunbarton’s meetinghouse, she would also have first heard the message that Christianity could offer a great deal to young women, a favorite theme of the village’s longtime minister, Walter Harris. From his sermons Martha would have learned that women as well as the twelve apostles “followed Jesus and ministered unto him.” Indeed, as Harris pointed out, those early female followers had proved more faithful than most of the men, staying with him throughout his crucifixion and burial, a loyalty that Jesus rewarded by appearing first to Mary Magdalene. Thereafter, committed believers like Phoebe and Dorcas “took a very active part” in the early Christian community, and even the apostle Paul—no fan of women who stepped too far forward in defense of the faith—commended their service to the church. Scripture itself thus showed to Harris’s satisfaction “that it is the will of our Lord, to make use of the exertions of women . . . in support of his cause.” They should not, or course, exert themselves unduly: allowing women to preach was as remote from the mind of Dunbarton’s minister as he believed it was from that of the deity. Still, his including women in New Testament narratives on a basis of equality with men must have caught the attention and nurtured the piety of the village’s young women.
Among them was one of Martha’s friends, an earnest thirteen-year-old when she embroidered a sampler to read, “Lydia Hacket is my name / English is my nation / Dunbarton is my dwelling place / And Christ is my salvation.” But the most locally renowned of the village’s spiritual prodigies was Sally Ladd, a young woman only a few years older than Martha. After her death from tuberculosis in 1816, Sally became the subject of a pious memoir, one probably composed by Walter Harris himself. The little pamphlet did not circulate widely, but it celebrated Sally for recognizing “that she was in the hands of a God, who is ‘angry with the wicked every day’ ” and for warning her friends of their peril. Such influences—to say nothing of the premature deaths of her father and eldest brother—would have disposed Martha toward religious seriousness even before her time at Bradford Academy. They would have taught her, too, that piety could be empowering for women.
The prime mover when it came to putting a religious impress on education at Bradford Academy was the preceptress of its “female department,” Abigail Hasseltine. The daughter of a prosperous local deacon, she ruled the lives of her pupils for several decades, a figure of Olympian dignity as one recalled, “moving about in our midst like a queen.” As realms go, hers was not even a Monaco. Bradford’s female department occupied half of a one-story brick structure topped by a belfry and consisted of a single large schoolroom with ascending rows of hard, double-plank seats. Yet within that small kingdom, Hasseltine exercised absolute rule and taught her subjects to honor and imitate inspiring role models.
Those most worthy of imitation were missionaries, among them Abigail’s younger sister, Ann Hasseltine Judson. How gratifying for Bradford’s preceptress, the stir it created among the students when Ann, after several years in the mission field of Burma (today’s Myanmar), returned to visit her alma mater in 1823. Years later, one Bradford graduate remembered Ann as “a woman of much grace and beauty and of a refined and lady-like manner,” and another could still recall her account of Burma as “thrilling in the extreme.” Abigail could do more than bask in her sister’s reflected glory, because by then she had made Bradford a veritable greenhouse for the forcing and flowering of missionary wives. It was an outcome fostered by the academy’s proximity to Andover Theological Seminary, then the prime training ground for evangelical clergymen set on the conversion of the world. Hasseltine knew how to make the most of that advantage.
By the time that Martha Parker sat under her tutelage, two Bradford alumnae numbered among the first missionary cohort sent to the Sandwich Islands (Hawai‘i), and another had accompanied her husband to a mission at Bombay. Then there were the two other Bradford graduates who had served for a time as assistant teachers under Hasseltine’s direction before following their missionary husbands abroad. The first, Mary Christie Spaulding, inspired so much affection that her Bradford students formed a group they called “the Sister Circle” to support two of the children who boarded at a mission school in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) staffed by their former teacher and her husband. Donors won the privilege of giving their sponsored children new names—a popular fund-raising ploy—and the members of the Sister Circle decided on “Fanny Baker,” in memory of a devout classmate who had died “hopeful” for her salvation “in the triumphs of faith,” and “Parker Kimball Hasseltine,” the surnames of three Bradford teachers.
Among the trio so honored was that second Bradford alumna and assistant teacher, Martha’s eldest sister, Ann Parker Bird. Shortly after Ann married Isaac Bird at the end of 1822, they decamped to the newly established headquarters of the Palestine mission in Beirut. The examples set by Mary Christie Spaulding and Ann Parker Bird imparted a powerful lesson to Martha and the Sister Circle: they saw that women just like themselves could put their impress on the wider world, knowing it in ways that went well beyond mastering the globe and drawing maps.
Ensuring that her younger sister took that lesson to heart became Ann’s cherished aim. Five years Martha’s senior, she had forged a close connection with her in childhood, one that only strengthened over time. “From infancy, until I left America, I knew her whole heart, as far as it could be known by man,” Ann recalled, and “perhaps, no other human being ever possessed that influence over her which I have.” She could discern in her younger sister, having “read her character over and over” for all those years, the sort of woman who was “best qualified and most suitable for the wife of a missionary.” What fitter judge than this veteran teacher, one who had spent several years at Bradford Academy “studying the character of hundreds of young ladies many of whom are now the ornament and glory of our land”? Proud of her sex, even prouder of her sister, Ann gave Martha the gift of her esteem—and possibly, the burden of her expectations. For her part, Martha admired her eldest sister, longed for her approval, and even stood a little in awe of her. She missed her, too. After Ann settled in Beirut, Martha wrote to her more often than did all their other relatives combined.
Even if her eldest sister had not come to number among them, missionary wives would still have loomed large in Martha’s imagination. Everything that she read or heard about them—reports in religious newspapers and magazines, biographies and memoirs, and their widely circulated letters to family and friends—beckoned her admiration and imitation. Evangelicals touted these women as superior spirits who, not content with the usual round of benevolent activities, undertook more strenuous and courageous work to advance God’s kingdom. There were, for example, the plucky wives of missionaries in Rangoon who—as breathlessly chronicled in the religious press—escaped the wrath of a Burmese mob by donning native dress, darkening their faces, and losing themselves in a milling crowd before being rescued by an invading British fleet. Such women would submit to any sacrifice, even the loss of their own lives or those of their spouses and children, for the great cause of converting the world. They would awaken the globe’s inhabitants to the truth of Christianity and, beyond that, to the dignity of all humankind.
Copyright © 2021 by Christine Leigh Heyrman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.