Review: Strength in Weakness Manifest, by Elizabeth Stirredge (1634-1706)
With an introduction and notes by T.H.S. Wallace
Published by Foundation Publications, Camp Hill, PA USA
"Elizabeth Stirredge's small memoir, Strength in Weakness Manifest, is a treasury of spiritual wisdom on what it takes to be a faithful minister of the Lord Jesus Christ and how God's power works to raise up, direct, and support an ordinary soul to live a life of extraordinary faithfulness." (from the Introduction by T.H.S. Wallace, p. 1.)
Many people, both past and present, seem to have many things they would like to say about Elizabeth Stirredge and the life she relates in her work, Strength in Weakness Manifest. An introduction by T.H.S. Wallace, and a preface and testimonies by her contemporaries take us to page 51 of this publication before we reach Stirredge writing in her own words. We are also offered 89 (!) footnotes from edition editor Wallace to aid in clarifying meaning, offering definitions of words as used in the period, and elucidating historical details that Stirredge would have expected her readers to already know. It is an edited edition, and as explained in an afterward, lightly edited for punctuation and "sense," with brackets used to clearly indicate where the editor's hand has touched the text. I did appreciate the respectful and transparent manner in which the editor handled his task, as this is not always the case. I must also commend the layout for its useful, neat and tidy design. The font-style is nicely chosen, preserving a traditional feel without feeling gimmicky.
Wallace's introduction offers his usual elegant and eloquent prose, and I hope thee, dear reader, will forgive me if I quote heavily from this introduction, but once a thing is said and said well, it seems best to offer it up as is. In this introduction, Wallace gives the reader a clear and interesting discussion of some of the spiritual, historical and academic issues that pertained to Elizabeth Stirredge in life as well as to her published writings after her death. As in the original publication, the testimonies of her contemporaries offer both a Friendly confirmation of her writings being in Gospel Order and a loving image of a woman valued by her faith community in her lifetime.
I first read Elizabeth Stirredge's Strength in Weakness Manifest, in the fourth edition from the version printed and sold by James Phillips, George Yard, Lombard Street, London, 1795. I found her writing to be so powerful and to speak so particularly to my condition that I typed up the whole ancient book I had been lent, as I could not bear to part with it. I felt a strong spiritual kinship with Stirredge and was amazed how she seemed to be describing the same spiritual reality I was experiencing. The spiritual experiences she related were entirely similar to my own experiences, and that seemed incredible, considering the great difference between the particularities of our lives as well as the great difference between the general ages we have lived in. The Everlasting Gospel, as lived and experienced in the life of a first-generation Friend.
I found her advice considerably more helpful than any of the modern books on "discernment" where people spend a great deal of time trying to figure out which of the two great job offers God wants them to take, or whether he wants them to move to Seattle or Chicago. These books describe a situation where our human-centered needs are the focus and we are seen as essentially including God in our decision-making. That has not been the sort of discernment assistance I have required. Instead, like Stirredge, I have found myself called to things that seemed difficult, and specifically difficult for me--things others might not have found difficult at all--and that before I could come into obedience, I first had to be changed. Such change, as I experienced it, is a spiritual exercise that is both painful and hard. It became clear to me that today God could, in all seriousness, be calling me to change the diapers, and tomorrow he could ask me to change the world, and that these obediences, greater or smaller in importance outwardly, could be equally important to him.
Stirredge illustrates, as her title implies, that the Lord was her strength and that through that strength she was enabled to do things that troubled, challenged and changed her world. That she suffered for this did not surprise her, and her only concern was to be faithful to what the Lord Gave her to do. Too often we focus on the evangelism of the Valiant Sixty or George Fox, but Stirredge shows how one can be a faithful evangelist in one's own meeting and in one's own neighborhood, and still be entirely useful to the Lord.
In Wallace's words, from page 3 of the Introduction:
"Stirredge's memoir is also of particular importance in understanding the experience of the 'spiritual exercise' and how this sometimes painful and searching experience is of essential importance in distinguishing true leadings from false."
I, with Wallace, would place great emphasis on the Stirredge's description of her "exercises." Wallace offers a definition in a footnote on page 3:
"An exercise is an intense spiritual struggle, one that involves great labor to be clear that the call is truly from God, a difficult inward struggle to overcome one's natural tendency to avoid that which may elicit discomfiture, suffering, even death; and finally to relinquish one's self-will and to do what one is called to do."
Wallace also references, without quoting, the definition of "exercise" offered by Phillips Moulton in his Glossary (p. 314) appended to his edition of The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, which I will include here:
"Exercise. Inner turmoil; concern; awareness of a burden or obligation. The word has many nuances of meaning, all of which concern intellectual or spiritual, as distinguished from physical, exertion."
For those readers who have experienced such spiritual exercises, so little spoken of these days, then this book will be a revelation and a comfort, as well as a warning. See if she doesn't somewhat speak to thy condition:
"Then did I fall down upon my knees to pray unto the Lord with my heart full of sorrow and the tears running down my face, and could not utter one word, which seemed strange to me and set me to thinking that there was none like me. But it was the Enemy's work to persuade me there was none like unto me . . . Although I can say mine eyes have seen afflictions and no afflictions seem joyous, but grievous for the present, yet afterwards it brings forth the peaceable fruits of righteousness." (p. 55)
Elizabeth's writings seem like a lengthy explication of the condition Samuel Bownas briefly mentions in his A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to the Gospel Minister:
For the spirit worketh in us secretly, and we know not at the first what it is; but finding ourselves very uneasy, and in great trouble of mind, being under sorrow and heaviness, not rightly and coolly examining the reason, it is often mistaken to proceed from a natural cause, and so outward means are sought for to relieve from this uneasiness; some by taking their bottle with their companions, others diverting themselves with their sports and gaming, others again take medicines to help them against what they call melancholy; some oneway, and some another, thus mistake, and make merry over the witness in them, and stiffen their necks against the reproof of instruction, which is the way to life . . . (Prov. xxix. 1 ).
I am not one to argue that everyone can or should have the same spiritual experiences or that everyone is given the same spiritual gifts. Nor do I imagine that a book that spoke so entirely to my condition would speak to everyone's condition. It will trouble those who are uncomfortable with overtly Christian language or those uncomfortable with repentance language. It is not for those who find antiquated English annoying to parse for, while edited somewhat, it can still take some getting used to for the modern English reader.
I recommend this book to any reader interested in the lived experiences of the first generation of Friends, particularly as shared through the eyes of an early Quaker woman minister. I also recommend it to any who have felt themselves undergoing a spiritual exercise and who seek the sort of companionship only a fellow traveller can offer.
"Her life is also a testimony of how far we may be called out of our ordinary lives to serve Him. Today we often pay too much attention to concerns about how we're going to accomplish God's will, rather than simply heeding the call to go forward and find He, in His power, will make way for us." (Wallace, p. 30)
This book should not be confused with Gil Skidmore's Strength in Weakness, where Skidmore edited together the writings of a number early Quaker women (not including Stirredge).
Readers who desire to order this edition of Elizabeth Stirredge's Strength in Weakness Manifest can do so by e-mailing email@example.com or writing to Foundation Publications, 3032 Logan Street, Camp Hill, PA 17011-2947. Foundation Publications will bill those who order: the volume costs $10 + $2 s/h.