Education for Women: the Bethehem Seminary

JUDITH SARGENT MURRAY (1751-1820), born in Massachusetts, was an essayist, poet, and playwright who believed that women should have the opportunity to receive an education equal to that of men. She was also one of the few women of her time to keep letter books over a long period of time—most women did not think their letters serious enough to be worth saving. (In 1984, 20 volumes of 5,000 letters by Murray were discovered in Natchez, Miss. in a house near her daughter’s where she died.) Murray and her husband had visited the Bethlehem Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1790 and she sent her cousin’s wife Dorcas Sargent an extensive description of the town of Bethlehem as well as the school for young girls located there and run by Moravians: its founding, its physical appearance, its curriculum, etc. The next several posts contain excerpts from that letter which will give the reader a feeling for the school which Maria Jay was attending. (See two previous posts.)

. . . . I have this morning been endeavouring to summon before me, the several events of our journey, for the purpose of selecting for you, something which may be calculated for your amusement, and as you are so usefully engaged, in forming the opening mind, I think I cannot do better, than to make for you a little sketch of our Bethlehem tour —
We were drawn thither, by the fame of that Seminary, and high as our expectations were raised, we are obliged to acknowledge them far surpassed—Bethlehem is in the State of Pennsylvania, situated fifty four miles North of Philadelphia—It is a beautiful Village, which may, without the smallest enthusiasm, be pronounced a terrestrial Paradise—It is true, we do not wander through Orange, and through Citron Groves, but nature hath shaped the most enchanting walks, embowering shades, meadows, hills, and dales greet the eye, with most refreshing Variety—Parallel rivers pursue their glassy course—the margins of which are planted by the most flourishing and highly perfumed locusts, Cedars, Chestnuts and a variety of trees bearing in their season, the most delicious fruit—Now the fertilizing stream murmurs along, in a direct line now indented, or projecting, its Borders still ornamented by the richest foliage, its diversified meanderings exhibit the most pleasing, and romantic views—
Upon an eminence in Bethlehem, the cultivated scene opens before us —a chain of verdant hills encircle it, and this little Eden, is embosomed in the midst—The Town, with a very few exceptions is built with stone, and the dwellings are generally planned upon a large scale—The house of the Brethren, that of the Sisterhood, the Asylum for widows, and the Seminary for young Ladies, are uncommonly elevated and capacious, and there is an air of dignified simplicity remarkably exemplified, through the several structures—The greatest Order, and unanimity, is preserved in Bethlehem, even their water works are characteristic—the inhabitants are supplied from one spring, a cistern conveys it to their kitchens, by the aid of a pump, worked by a water Machine, the cedar pipes receive it, and the ready spout issues at pleasure, the purifying stream in every dwelling—
The Town was originally founded by Germans—Many natives of Europe now reside there, and they preserve their ancient customs with much exactness—A great variety of Arts, and manufactures, are carried to high perfection in Bethlehem, among which is the business of the Tanner, Clothier, stocker[,] Weaver, Tin Works, Blacksmith, Gold and silver smith, saw and sythe Maker, Wheel Wright, and Chaise and harness maker—Grist Mills are fashioned upon the best plan, and they have a Brewery after the English model, Printing, and book binding are said to be finished in the neatest manner—in short they exhibit, and encourage, all the common Crafts—
Their Religion seems to be a system of Benevolence—its foundation is true Philanthropy, upon which broad base, is erected the super structure of Philanthropy—I admire, beyond expression, the regularity conspicuous in every department, and the Virgin Choir derive all the advantages, which the Cloistered Maiden can boast, without connecting her restraints—I inquired of one of the sisters, if it were in her power to quit her engagements—Our doors, Madam, replied the charming Recluse, are always open—but once relinquishing this retreat, a reentrance is very difficult—the Circle of Amiable Women dwell together in perfect Amity, every one cultivating and exercising her different talent, the profits arriving there from, constituting a common fund—Never did I see all kinds of needle work carried to higher perfection—every flower produced by prolific Nature, is exactly imitated, as to render it only not impossible to designate them—I never saw them surpassed, by any imported from Europe, and with the beauty, richness, and exquisite shading of their embroidery I was highly pleased—as we pass through the apartments, the tambour embroidery, flowers, etc etc are displayed for sale—I requested that their Value was beyond my reach—Neither is the Loom, or the distaff neglected—Cloths of a superior kind are manufactured in Bethlehem—and we were shown the art of spinning, without a wheel!

See complete letter HERE. Bonnie Hurd Smith is an author and the founder of The Judith Sargent Murray Society. The paragraphing in the letter has been added by Smith. She describes the contributions of Judith Sargent Murray in this VIDEO. See other posts by Murray HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE. See also another POST about the Seminary. The portrait of Murray is by John Singleton Copley (Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection).

posted December 12th, 2016 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Bethlehem Seminary, Education, Murray, Judith Sargent


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