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Reimagining Women’s Sexual Agency in Eighteenth-Century Presbyterian Ireland, by Frances Norman

On 1 December 1710 Sarah Campbell and the married John Wilson appeared before the Presbyterian Kirk Session of Carnmoney, county Antrim, acknowledging their guilt of adultery and desiring baptism for their child. After rebuking the pair for the offence caused, the Session took the unusual step of banning Sarah from visiting John’s house. Their instructions, however, were not followed. In January 1711 when ‘askt whether she frequents John Wilson’s house … [Sarah] could not deny’ that she had done so.[1] Despite the Session’s warnings that unless Sarah obeyed their orders they could take no further steps in her absolution, she continued to frequent John’s house.

Sarah left the parish between May 1711 and January 1712 to act as a wet-nurse in Belfast. In March she cited to appear again before the Session where it was revealed that she had been spotted at John’s house. Sarah did not deny the fact, explaining that she had been there ‘two or three times’ and ‘the reason of her going … [was] that she was sent for by Wilson’s wife’. Moreover, she claimed that she ‘never went but when sent for’.[2] This time, the Session instructed Sarah not to visit John unless accompanied by another woman, who would essentially act as chaperone. These instructions also appear to have been flouted as in March 1713, a ‘fama clamosa’ (big noise) was brought to the attention of the Session of Sarah’s second illegitimate pregnancy, which she later confessed to be John Wilson’s.

Sarah’s failure to heed the Session’s warnings to stay away from John and her subsequent second pregnancy raise a number of interesting questions for historians of Ireland on the ability of women to exert agency over their sexual choices. These questions underpinned my undergraduate dissertation project, and will be explored further in my forthcoming article with Women’s History Today. Reading cases such as this against the grain pushes us to rethink the role of sexuality within the lives of Irish Presbyterian women, reimagining them not as ‘victims’ of unscrupulous men or male-dominated church courts, but as sexual independents.

Katie Barclay has argued for a hierarchical understanding of sexual sin within Presbyterian church courts, and additionally that congregants were able to negotiate both the boundaries of sexual sin and their punishment with the Session.[3] Women were able to submit to church discipline for their sexual deviance and profess ‘sorrow’ for their sin, whilst simultaneously defying other aspects of church discipline – in Sarah’s case continuing to see John – and even committing repeat offences despite previous admonition, by forming their own understanding of sexual sin and reconciling this with church discipline.[4]

That women committed repeat sexual offences, despite submitting to the Session, demonstrates their ability to act as agents of their own sexuality. Women found space to manoeuvre within the boundaries of church discipline, suggesting they did not see their sexuality as controlled by church or community involvement. Church discipline only shaped Sarah’s sexuality as far as she allowed it and, given the typical punishment for sexual deviance was the denial of access to church privileges (including infant baptism), Sarah may only have submitted to the Session in order to pay lip-service and secure a baptism for her child, rather than out of a feeling of moral wrongdoing.[5]

The church court records give us insight not only into women’s sexual agency, but also their ability to utilise church discipline to hold men sexually accountable. In July 1706 Carnmoney Session heard that Elizabeth Morton – who now resided in Belfast – was with child, and later that year that she had named her previous master, William Johnston, as the child’s father. While William ‘utterly deny’d any such thing and said it was malice whereby to defraud him of some money’, his offer of swearing an oath to his innocence was denied by the Kirk-Session.[6] Meanwhile, Elizabeth ‘obtain’d a warrand to apprehend’ William from the consistorial court – a court operating with legal authority under the Church of Ireland.[7]

When Elizabeth finally appeared before the session in 1710, her mother testified that she had heard her daughter ‘not only name but also swear to the midwife’ that William was the father of her child.[8] The testimony of midwives and the mother’s declaration of the father during their labour were popular tools in determining paternity as labouring mothers were thought unlikely or unable to lie. In this scenario, Elizabeth used the pressure of legal proceedings, and her understanding of the way paternity cases were customarily settled, to bolster her case against William and hold him personally and financially accountable for his role in her illegitimate pregnancy.

The cases that appeared before these Kirk Sessions, and the ways in which the women involved handled them, suggest that women did not confine their sexuality to the relative legitimacy of courting or marital relationships. Moreover, their refusal to submit – either wholly or partially – to church discipline allowed women to maintain independence over their sexuality. The church courts were also spaces where women were able to hold men accountable for their sexuality, both morally and financially, allowing women to locate agency within illegitimate motherhood.

Frances Norman is an MA student in Early Modern History at King’s College London with an interest in sex, gender, and sexuality. This was established through their undergraduate degree at the University of Hertfordshire, where her dissertation focused on female sexual agency and control in Presbyterian Ireland in the first half of the eighteenth century. You can find them on twitter, @FrancesLNorman

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[1] Leanne Calvert (ed.), ‘Carnmoney Kirk-Session minute book, 1686-1745’ (unpublished transcript of microfilm copy in Public Record Office of Northern Ireland), p. 37.

[2] Ibid., p. 44.

[3] Katie Barclay, ‘Marriage, Sex, and the Church of Scotland: Exploring Non-Conformity Amongst the Lower Orders’, Journal of Religious History, 43/2 (2019), 163–79.

[4] Calvert (ed.), ‘Carnmoney Kirk-Session minute book’, p. 39.

[5] Andrew Blaikie and Paul Gray, ‘Archives of Abuse and Discontent? Presbyterianism and Sexual Behaviour during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, in Ireland and Scotland: Order and Disorder, 1600-2000, ed. R. J. Morris and Liam Kennedy (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2005), 61–84.

[6] Calvert (ed.), ‘Carnmoney Kirk-Session minute book’, p. 27.

[7] Ibid., p. 27.

[8] Ibid., p. 35