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Emory Women Writers Resource Project

The Revelation of Jesus Christ by Anne Wentworth, an electronic edition. Edited with an introduction by Vickie Taft

by Anne Wentworth [Wentworth, Anne]

date: 1679
source publisher:
collection: Early Modern through the 18th Century

Table of Contents

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The Woman Prophet's Discourse of Personal Weakness

As noted previously in this introduction, the activities of seventeenth-century women prophets challenged gender hierarchies and were thus met with much anxiety and resistance. Since women prophets faced such hostility and skepticism, it is not surprising that they generated and extensively employed various techniques within their writings to authenticate their prophesying. Specifically, they posited themselves as mere amanuenses of God who lacked voices of their own that might interfere with or contaminate God's word. They further emphasized their lack of agency by portraying themselves as physically weak or ill. Finally, to lend Scriptural authority to their acquired prophetic capabilities, they often cited Biblical passages in which the weak are empowered by God. In doing so, seventeenth-century women prophets engaged in what could be entitled a "discourse of weakness" to validate their prophetic writings. In "Virtue of Necessity: English Women's Writing 1646-1688, Elaine Hobby claims that Quaker women prophets paradoxically gained the power to prophesy by acting weak. This assertion applies to seventeenth-century women prophets in general:
...the achievements of all these women were made possible by the power they obtained through being identified as the weak recipients of God's word. Within the confines of femininity, they were able to negotiate a space that allowed for decidedly unfeminine activities (Hobby 38).
To posit themselves as mere recipients of God's word, women prophets like Wentworth continually emphasized their lack of volition in the prophetic writing process. In "The Revelation", the anonymous author of the "Advertisement" narrates the procedural aspects of Wentworth's passive reception and forced transmission of God's message:
...in the Night, when others are asleep; then doth she hear the Voice of God, which is very sweet and pleasant to her, but having no opportunity then, to write down what is spoken to her, as soon as she is risen, she begs of God, that if it be his will, that the words, he spake to her, should be made known, that he would be pleased to bring it fresh again to her memory, if any thing be forgot by her: and upon her request the Lord is used to pour it down upon her, as a mighty Stream, that she cannot rest, nor mind any thing in the World, nor speak to any, nor understand what others say to her, until she have put all in writing, and so answered the mind of God ("The Revelation" A2 verso).
From the outset of "The Revelation", Wentworth is described as having no real voice of her own in the text. She herself is a dumb instrument through which God speaks. Indeed, Wentworth herself emphasizes her instrumentality throughout the text proper of "The Revelation". For example, in "Revelation I" she asks, "...why do ye then me so hate...What cause do I give, but that Gods commands I keep?" ("The Revelation" 2, A3 verso). In "Revelation VI" she says, "But the Lord sent me forth, and he brought me home. / To go on such an Errand, it was no pleasing thing, / And be so much abused, but I must obey my King" ("The Revelation" 6, B1 verso). Finally, in "Revelation XVI," she reminds her enemies that "That Spirit [Christ]...hath dictated the Verses in this Book," she has not composed them herself ("The Revelation" 19, C4 recto). Such assertions of personal voicelessness and lack of authorial control prevail in writings by seventeenth-century prophetic women (Ludlow 105): Jane Lead, for example, calls herself an "earthen and empty vessel" through which God speaks (quoted in Purkiss 141); Fifth Monarchist Mary Cary says, " I am a very weak, and unworthy instrument, and have not done this work by any strength of my own...that I could do no more herein...of my self, than a pencil or pen can do, when no hand guides it" (quoted in Mack 111); and Anna Trapnel asserts that her prophetic voice is under the complete control of God when she tells Bridewell prison officials that she cannot silence her prophesying because "what the Lord utters in me, I must speak" (quoted in Otten 72). Phyllis Mack asserts that the cultural distrust of women's speech required the constant description of women prophets as personally mute. Specifically, she argues that, because the talking woman became associated with female temptresses, the female prophet needed to be perceived as personally silent for her prophecies to appear to have divine authority:
Given these perceptions of the actual physical power and potential danger of women's speech, it is not surprising that the successful female prophet was invariably described, paradoxically, as dumb; 'dumb' meaning both stupid and mute, empty of everything but God (Mack 32).
These descriptions of female prophets as "dumb" often came from the prophets themselves, and eventually became conventional parts of their texts. To emphasize their passivity in the prophetic process, seventeenth-century women prophets often described themselves as physically weak or ill. In her article "Producing the voice, consuming the body: Women prophets of the seventeenth century," Diane Purkiss notes that female prophets like Anna Trapnel validated their prophesying by positing themselves as stereotypically weak or dying women who lacked the physical strength to contaminate God's word with their own:
In the seventeenth century, illness and bodily weakness were feminized. Women were thought to be particularly prone to illness, and illness and weakness were in turn negative signs of femininity, underwriting women's subordination. In Trapnel's writings, this gender difference is at once reinforced and undermined: the attributes used in the dominant discourse to signify feminine inadequacy are privileged as factors of verbal empowerment. Illness and physical incapacity stage the body as the passive prey of external forces, hence an authentic site of divine intervention (Purkiss 144).
Unlike Trapnel and other women prophets such as Sarah Wight and Martha Hatfield, Wentworth does not claim in" The Revelation to receive her prophecies during periods of sickness. However, she does assert that she initially became prophetic as the result of Christ's healing of her 18-year-long illness. Specifically, in "A true Account, Wentworth likens herself to the woman from "Luke 13:11 who is healed after God exorcises the evil spirit from her:
...having an Hectiff Fever, which came by so great oppression, and sorrow of heart; and wanting vent, and smothering it so long in my own brest, grew so hot, and burnt so strong, that I was past all cure of man, and given over by them, and lay at the point of death, being bowed together with my infirmity of 18 years, and could in no wise lift up my self: then at that inch and nick of time the great Physitian of value came, the good Samaritan passing by, and seeing me lye wounded, and bleeding to death, even as it were at the last gasp: then he spake as he did to the woman, "Luke 13.11. and said unto her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity; and he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God: and I was as immediately restored as she ("A true account 9, B2 recto).
Wentworth, then, prophesies from a healed rather than an ailing state. Nevertheless, as in the case of other women prophets, her sickness plays a crucial part in the illustration of her purity as a vessel for God's word. Whereas other prophets use their sickness to underscore their lack of female agency and thus their inability to contaminate God's voice, Wentworth uses her ailment and subsequent cure to posit herself as purged by God of all evil and faithlessness and, therefore, as a purified mouthpiece for His word. Wentworth continues to rely on this validatory discourse of physical weakness in "The Revelation" when she alludes again to herself as the woman from "Luke 13:11 in "Revelation IX":
Full eighteen years in sorrow I did lye,
Then the Lord "Jesus came to hear my cry;
In one nights time he did me heal,
From head to foot he made me well.
With Ointment sweet he did me anoint,
And this work he then did me appoint ("The Revelation" 9, B3 recto).
By citing a Biblical precedent for God choosing her, a weak, sick woman, to glorify Him, Wentworth Scripturally validates her prophetic power. Seventeenth-century women prophets, in fact, commonly justified their prophetic capabilities by alluding to God's special protection and empowerment of the weak in Scripture. According to Phyllis Mack, these women appealed to the "ancient Christian notion of paradox, which held that the last--the poor, the ignorant, the diseased and despised--shall ultimately be first" (Mack 172). Besides comparing herself to the woman in "Luke 13:11, for example, Wentworth quotes "Psalm 8:2 and 1 "Corinthians 1:27-28 at the very beginning of" The Revelation, thus positing herself as one of the "babes and sucklings" and one of the "foolish things of the world" who will be given strength to outwit and overcome the mighty ("The Revelation" A1 verso) . Wentworth also refers to herself throughout the text as one of Christ's "little ones," a common Biblical phrase that Christ uses to describe the helpless and innocent who fall under His special protection and who will be exalted by Him. In her chapter of "Visionary Women entitled "Female Symbolism and Female Prophecy," Phyllis Mack provides examples of other women prophets, including Mary Pope, Antonia Bourignon, and Elizabeth Avery, whose prophetic empowerment is justified by themselves or others as having Scriptural precedent. Mary Pope, for instance, Scripturally justified her prophetic activity when she reminds her readers that "...David held it no disparagement, though a king, to take the advice of a woman, (I "Sam. 25.33) and seeing that God himself, hath in many great acts honored women as well as men, and above men" (quoted in Mack 108-original parentheses). Antonia Bourignon reminds her readers that "they ought to let God speak by a woman, if it be his pleasure, since he spoke in former times to a prophet by a beast" (quoted in Mack 111). Finally, an editor of a treatise written by Elizabeth Avery argues
...the power of God doth appear in [this work] in respect of the weakness and contemptibleness of the instrument whom he doth here employ; as formerly it hath been his course in doing great things by weakest means, and so by such foolishness he doth bring to nought the wisdom of the wise (quoted in Mack 118--Mack's brackets).
When, to validate her prophesying, Wentworth alludes to many Biblical illustrations of the empowerment of the weak, she clearly employs a conventional justificatory technique used by women prophets who wrote using a "discourse of weakness."