Solitude and Sociability in Early Modern Protestant Dissent

In June 2021, the Solitudes networks met to discuss research and ideas related to the theme of ‘Solitude and Gender’. In this paper, Naomi Pullin explores the conflicting and contradictory benefits of solitude in early modern dissenting and nonconformist groups.

The perceived benefits of solitude were conflicting and often contradictory for many dissenting and Protestant nonconformist groups in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many, like the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and Independents viewed solitude as a positive state because it was a means through which God and Christ could be reached, experienced, and known. This might be in the form of private withdrawal, meditation, silent worship, reading, or spoken prayer. The propensity of many dissenting groups to favour solitude and pious withdrawal from the society that surrounded them became a characteristic trademark of ‘enthusiasm’.[1] From the middle of the seventeenth century, dissenting solitude, sparked intense moral concerns as Anglicans and other mainstream religious groups were concerned about the corruptions and sinful behaviour that might take place behind closed doors. Many also connected the Dissenters’ wish to isolate themselves from the rest of society as a marker of their unsociability and general lack of social decorum. Samuel Parker, for instance, warned of the consequences of a tumultuous imagination, and spoke of the ‘sullen and unsociable Niceness’ of nonconformists, whose ‘morose and surly Principles’ made them the ‘rudest and most barbarous people in the world’.[2]

Even among the nonconformists there was a recognition that too much time spent in private contemplation was damaging and had the potential to encourage sinful behaviour or, at the very least, made it possible for impure desires and thoughts to intrude. It was therefore essential that these godly individuals were able to strike the correct balance in their everyday lives between pious withdrawal that was fulfilling and useful whilst also continuing to interact with their wider circle of acquaintances, many of whom might not share their beliefs. Dissenting men and women therefore had to find a space for themselves, even when in company. This was a theme that ran through much of their writing.

It is the negotiation between being both solitary and social that forms the basis of the following discussion. The case studies I will be drawing upon for the most part focus on the experiences of women from dissenting and nonconformist backgrounds in the aftermath of the 1689 Toleration Act. These were women who had to continually navigate time spent in the company of both coreligionists and those from other religious backgrounds in their daily lives. The experiences of this disparate group of women are of particular interest in this period because their solitude and wish to withdraw from the Establish Church was perceived as a threat to the stability of the church and state. Although the legislation of 1689 brought freedom of worship to Protestant Dissenters, its results were highly ambiguous and the subsequent debates surrounding the meaning of the Act caused significant religious and political tension. Many remained concerned about the dangers to the wider social order from these news freedoms for Dissenters.


Gender and Nonconformity

Questioning the impact of solitude on women’s experiences is of particular interest for a number of reasons. In the first place, most contemporary discussions of solitude excluded women from the benefits of solitary retreat. As David Vincent has argued in his recent book on this subject, the display of virtues achieved in solitude were believed to be ‘highly unlikely amongst women’. In addition, women were perceived as lacking the intellectual capacity necessary to counterbalance solitude’s destructive effects.[3]

Women’s time alone was not regarded as solitary. Since women were viewed as the more sociable of the two sexes, their identities were, for the most part, constructed in relation to their relatives and social acquaintances. Especial attention was thus placed on the companionship they needed to provide to their male relatives during times of solitude. This had Scriptural foundation, as Eve had been created to provide companionship to a solitary Adam as a devoted ‘help meet’. There was an expectation that wives were expected to support and sustain their husbands throughout the various trials they might face. It was only when women became widows, after they had lost the companionship of their husbands, that a solitary existence was regarded as a more acceptable and appropriate state.[4]

Even if women were not believed to be capable of solitude and might not deliberately seek solitude, many frequently experienced states of solitariness in their everyday lives. These moments of involuntary solitude were felt at particular times in the lifecycle. Marriage, for example, often brought about significant changes to women’s sociability, as decisions about how they spent their time, and with whom, were frequently out of their control. As Mark Philp has argued in his study of the middling ranks of London society in the 1790s, women’s social networks and social lives were strongly dictated by their husbands’ professional connections and interests. Few women were able maintain the friendships they had cultivated prior to marriage with the same degree of intensity.[5] Moreover, as Katharine Glover has underlined in her study of elite Scottish women, whilst marriage might provide agency and autonomy for some women, it could also be ‘a restrictive and at times lonely experience for those whose married homes were country houses far from their family or other female company’.[6]

Women from Dissenting and Nonconformist backgrounds often experienced the consequences of solitude more acutely than many of their female contemporaries. This is because they came to be regarded as outsiders from their wider communities and often faced social ostracism for their peculiar religious beliefs. Standards of dress, for example, especially among the Quakers, were strict, and contempt for fashion and vanity excluded many female Quakers from an important part of female culture.[7] Patricia Crawford has argued that women from nonconforming backgrounds faced a double exclusion from public life ‘on the grounds of gender and religious affiliation’ in the aftermath of the 1689 Toleration Act.[8] Noting the social ostracism they experienced, she argues that women were aversely penalised for their religious beliefs because women had traditionally depended on the support of members of their own sex in their daily household tasks. The ‘loss of neighbourliness’ thus became a handicap’.[9]


Dissenting experiences of solitude

Although women were understood by some contemporaries to be innately more pious than men, they were also considered to be unable to devote lengthy periods of time to examination of religious principles.[10] This meant that they were continually forced to negotiate the extreme impulse towards pious retreat with wider expectations of politeness. This is evident throughout the diary of Cheshire Presbyterian, Sarah Savage, who kept a regular journal for the majority of her adult life. Diary-keeping was an important part of her religious observance and was thus full of spiritual self-examination and observations of the merits and flaws of her social acquaintances. Her sociability and solitude were thus central preoccupations of her writing and show how her faith played a large role in how she perceived and described her social encounters. The pressure to be polite when confronted with uncomfortable social situations is encapsulated in an entry from January 1717, when she recorded that:

we dined at Wrenbury Hall with Mr Voice, a splendid entertainment – I envy not ye great mans’ state more inward satisfaction with a good Book in my own Closet than with all ye visits, modes & forms &c. yet think it duty to be friendly and respectful to those who are so to us.[11]

As a nonconformist, Savage’s competing impulses to retreat from company and to appear outwardly friendly continually permeate her writing. The pages of her diary demonstrate her commitment to solitude and quiet retirement above any kind of activity that involved social interaction. She believed it was books that taught her how to live an exemplary Christian life rather than ministers or other social acquaintances, and hours of her time were spent pouring over religious texts in the belief that they might offer her paradigms for living an exemplary Godly lifestyle. On 10 February 1717, she recorded that ‘I should have had my heart more rais’d & warm’d with a good book in my own closet, yet think it my duty when I can to attend Publick worship’.[12] Reading, as Carys Brown has recently argued, had a significant place in the puritan culture from which Presbyterianism and Independency emerged. Yet, as Brown notes, the preference of dissenting women like Sarah Savage to spend significant amounts of time reading religious texts rather than in engaging in other social activities could be damaging to their reputations and ‘undermine inclusion within wider social communities’.[13]

Undoubtedly, Savage relied on the connections and friendships she forged with those both within and outside her religious community. Yet one particularly striking feature of her writing was her active decision to eschew company altogether, preferring to devote herself to religious books and to writing in her diary. As Amanda Herbert has noted, the benefits of sociability for Savage, ‘were rendered better in a ritual of the mind rather than that of the body’.[14] Indeed, imagining conversations with deceased friends and relatives often had a stronger hold over her sense of Christian duty than physical encounters with friends, relatives, neighbours, and other members of her religious community. She recounted various scenarios where her memories of past conversations acted as comforts and spiritual guides.[15] In September 1715, she wrote that she had decided to remain at home with her Sister Tylston, while her husband and children took the sacrament at the local church. During her time alone, she read Richard Baxter’s Converse with God in Solitude, taking comfort from the fact that he believed conversing with friends in heaven was more profitable than transitory encounters in this life.[16] Interestingly, in choosing to retreat from public employment and duties to engage with the wider world, Savage was directly contravening Baxter’s recommendations. It suggests how she was able to appropriate his ideas for her own edification, at once finding his emphasis on heavenly rather than physical friendship uplifting, whilst also disregarding his emphasis on the selfishness of those who actively sought solitude over public service.[17] But it also may hint at the different ways in which men and women approached and encountered solitude, since public employment carried with it very different connotations for Baxter’s male and female readers.

Savage’s piety was central to her conception of solitude, and so was her sense of friendship. As a dissenting woman living in an Anglican town, Savage and her family frequently experienced hostility and even periodical violence. Yet rather than conveying her intense sense of social isolation, she instead documents her active decision to retreat from the unwelcome and unprofitable company of her neighbours. Many of the entries in her early diary recount the many hours she spent reading the letters and other personal papers of her deceased friend, Jane Hunt, who died in January 1716. This was made all the more poignant by the fact that Savage continued to write letters to Hunt after her death, as if the two women were still engaged in a continual conversation during her solitude.[18] As Herbert has noted, Savage’s dialogues with Hunt were unusual, especially since Hunt’s voice was given emphasis in the layout of the diary, as her phrases and expressions were separated from Savage’s punctuation forms like spaces and quotation marks.[19] Savage also wrote of her companion as if speaking in the present tense. For example, on 24 March 1717, Savage remarked how she had spent the whole afternoon alone, ‘yet not alone I read in dear Mrs H’s papers – s[ai]th she “How w[oul]d my Conscience startle at playing or idling away ye Lords day before others” … elsewhere s[ai]th she, “I do truly in judgment & Affection account it my chiefest Happiness to enjoy God”’.[20]

Savage’s imagined conversations with Hunt, which included spiritual, domestic, political, neighbourly, and family matters, gave meaning to her solitude and gave her opportunities to engage in self-examination. At other times, however, Savage’s imaginary conversations with Hunt instilled a profound sense of longing for the sociability that she had lost. In one entry, Savage explained that ‘in my sleep I oft converse with her [Hunt]’, and then ‘wake with a sad heart’.[21] Her regular interactions with her deceased friend nevertheless offer an important example of how time alone might be regarded by women as more profitable than time in company. As an outsider, facing social ostracism for her beliefs, she found strategies to pursue sociability that was compatible with her own spiritual and world outlook.

The tension between sociability and solitude was therefore present in every public (and private) activity that Savage performed. This was characteristic of a Calvinistic impulse for the individual believer to elevate themselves above the company they kept. This enabled Savage to distinguish herself from the corrupt and sinful practices taking place around them. The Rochester Presbyterian Anne Dawson viewed her sociability and solitude in similar ways to Savage. She placed great emphasis throughout her diary, which was penned between August 1721 and August 1722, on her own piety and how that compared to the company that surrounded her. She often lamented the time that she spent in company rather than at home. There were even occasions when she lamented the consequences of spending too much time alone rather than in company. On 2 June 1722, for instance, she recounted how acquaintances from Chowbent had spent the week staying at the family home. Although she regarded their company as ‘very agreable because of their parts and piety’, she lamented that she had been unable to profit from their visit because she had spent too much of her time ‘conversing with my self’.[22]

The delicate balance between sociability and solitude is especially evident in the writings of Quaker women. In their troubled early and more radical years, solitude came to epitomise the zeal of those who identified as ‘Friends’. The value Quakers placed on silence as a form of worship, and on waiting on the spirit, gave ascendance to a faith that centred on withdrawal, retreat, and quiet contemplation. According to Quaker beliefs, Christ was present in the person he inhabited. Group meetings were thus conducted in silence, where believers entered into their own internal dialogue with the divine. Withdrawal also came to symbolise the isolation that many Quakers felt and experienced.

Quaker silent worship at once epitomised the need to separate themselves from the corrupt and sinful world that surrounded them, whilst also underscoring the social ostracism of many individual believers following their conversion to the movement. Alice Hayes, for instance, ruminated on her urge for silence and private contemplation following her first attendance at a Quaker meeting:


I kept close and constant, as Opportunity permitted, in going to the publick Worship, and very often got alone into private Places to pray, and greatly delighted to read the Scriptures, and to get good Passages by Heart; and when my Hand has been in my Labour, my Heart was meditating on good Matter, and very glad that I was from my Father’s House, because of the Quietness I enjoy’d.[23]

On another occasion she described how ‘I spent all my spare Time either in reading, or in getting alone, or in some Religious Performance’.[24] Hayes’s solitary pursuits thus perfectly matched the ostracism she encountered from her family and former friends. Her husband, for instance, was so outraged that she had joined the movement that he threatened to leave her and went to the extremes of hiding her clothes before she went to meetings.[25] Mary Penington, who converted to Quakerism in later life and became an influential member of the community, similarly described how her intense zeal and desire to retreat into private prayer at least three times a day separated her from her wider household. She noted how she ‘sought remote places to pray in, such as the fields, gardens, or out-houses, when I could not be private in the house’.[26]

Shunning society was characteristic of early Quaker conversion narratives, as was eschewing many of the activities accepted as part of mainstream sociability, such as playing card games, drinking, dancing, and attending theatres and pleasure gardens. However, as Quakerism evolved and became more established, the intensely communal nature of Quaker life served as a crucial lifeline for members of the community. As I have argued elsewhere, the practice of friendship among early Quakers was strongly shaped by their faith.[27] Worship for Quaker men and women was intensely social and communal in its structure. Indeed, they found a form of worship that managed to seamlessly blend the sociability of attending meetings for worship whilst also facilitating individual introspection. In their daily lives too, the Quakers were exhorted to wait in silence for ‘renewal of strength’ when in company. Not only did Quaker meetings provide a safe environment for like-minded men and women to physically meet, but it also offered them an opportunity to share in spiritual communion.

Although not comprehensive, this discussion has sought to underscore the complex place of solitude in English nonconformist and dissenting culture in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. While acknowledging the ways in which their peculiar patterns of faith might have created moments of intense isolation, it has stressed the important ways in which many female dissenters sought to balance sociability and solitude in their daily lives. In doing so, it suggests a number of ways in which there may have been a distinctive culture of solitude for women from the religious sects, whose intense piety often put them at odds with their wider circle of acquaintances. This does not mean that they fully secluded themselves from the society that surrounded them, or indeed that they shunned all occasions for sociability, but it does underscore that solitude was not only a necessary counterbalance to their social activities, but also an essential part of their world outlook. It therefore shows that women from this period were not only capable of achieving solitude, but that they actively found time for solitary pursuits in their everyday lives. This sometimes came at the expense of their personal relationships. Above all, I want to suggest that greater recognition is needed of how women’s experiences of sociability and solitude were shaped by cultures of nonconformity and how these shifted as the landscape of religion in early modern England became more pluralistic.



[1] On the perils of solitude and enthusiasm see Lawrence Klein, ‘Sociability, Solitude, and Enthusiasm’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 60, No. 1/2, ‘Enthusiasm and Enlightenment in Europe, 1650–1850’ (1997), pp. 153–177.

[2] Samuel Parker, A Discourse of Ecclesiastical Politie (1670), pp. 65, 74.

[3] David Vincent, A History of Solitude (Polity, 2020), p. 25.

[4] A telling comparison of expectations of solitude for men and women can be seen in early modern conduct books, such as The Young Gentleman and Lady Instructed in Such Principles of Politeness (1747) and N.H., The Ladies Dictionary; Being a General Entertainment for the Fair-Sex (London, 1694).

[5] Mark Philp, Radical Conduct: Politics, Sociability and Equality in London 1789–1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: forthcoming, 2020), pp. 93–122, esp. pp. 100–101

[6] Katharine Glover, Elite Women and Polite Society in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2011), p. 22.

[7] I have explored this issue in more depth in Female Friends and the Making of Transatlantic Quakerism, 1650–1750 (Cambridge, 2018), pp. 200–251.

[8] Patricia Crawford, ‘Anglicans, Catholics, and Nonconformists after the Restoration, 1660‒1720’ in Susan E. Dinan and Debra Meyers (eds), Women and Religion in Old and New Worlds (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 163.

[9] Patricia Crawford, Women and Religion in England 1500–1720 (London, 1993), p. 191.

[10] See Carys Brown, ‘Women and Religious Coexistence in Eighteenth-Century England’, in Naomi Pullin and Kathryn Woods (eds), Negotiating Exclusion in Early Modern England, 1550–1800 (Routledge 2021), pp. 68–87.

[11] Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS.Eng.misc.e.331, Sarah Savage Diary, 31 May 1714 to 25 December 1723, p. 123, entry for 9 November 1716. [hereafter Sarah Savage Diary]

[12] Ibid., p. 138, entry for 10 February 1717.

[13] Brown, ‘Women and Religious Coexistence’, p. 74.

[14] Amanda E. Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (London: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 169.

[15] One such scenario is cited by Herbert, Female Alliances, p. 182. In 1717, she wrote that she had spent the day alone, but had ‘call[ed] to mind some discurse I had with my dear mother lately …. [on] an excellent minister’.

[16] Sarah Savage Diary, 31 May 1714 to 25 December 1723, p. 65, entry for 25 September 1715.

[17] Richard Baxter, Converse with God in Solitude: Or, The Christian Improving the Insufficiency and Uncertainty of Human Friendship (2nd edition, 1774), esp. pp. 29–34.

[18] Sarah Savage Diary, p. 65, entry for 25 September 1715, e.g. pp. 87, 88 , 90, 92, 96, 106, 116, entries from 12, 14 and 26 February 1716, 25 March 1716 and 10 April 1716, 1 July 1716, and 22 September 1716.

[19] Amanda E. Herbert, ‘Queer Intimacy: Speaking with the Dead in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Gender & History, vol. 31, no. 1 (2018), p. 7.

[20] Sarah Savage Diary, 31 May 1714 to 25 December 1723, p. 144, entry for.  24 March 1717

[21] Sarah Savage Diary, p. 86, entry for 5 February 1716.

[22] Ibid., entry for 2 June 1722.

[23] Alice Hayes, A Legacy, or Widow’s Mite, Left by Alice Hayes, To Her Children and Others: Being a Brief Relation of Her Life (London, 1786), p. 17.

[24] Ibid., p. 19.

[25] Ibid., pp. 39–41.

[26] Mary Penington, A Brief Account of Some of my Exercise From My Childhood, in David Booy (ed.), Autobiographical Writings by Early Quaker Women (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), p. 83.

[27] Pullin, Female Friends, pp. 152–199.


Naomi Pullin (@naomipullin) is Assistant Professor in Early Modern British History at the University of Warwick.