Dorothy Leigh and Her Advice to Her Sons

Dorothy Leigh and Her Advice to Her Sons

            One of the best-selling 17th-century manuals on parenting was written by a woman, Dorothy Leigh. What may seem perfectly normal to us was unusual in an age when women’s writings were rarely taken seriously. Books on marriage, parenting, and even midwifery were written by men. But Leigh’s distinctly feminine view of marriage and parenting provides an important perspective in the training of her sons, and her reflections on prayer, the sabbath, the importance of sound preaching, and other aspects of the Christian life are weighty and worth of notice.

            Little is known of Leigh’s life. We only know her maiden name was Kempe and she married a gentleman from Cheshire County, Ralph Leigh. Together, they had three sons, George, John, and William.

Her Book

            Her book, The Mothers Blessing, was written as a letter to her grown children after their father had died. This was an acceptable form of writing for women. What was unexpected was its reception. Printed soon after her death (1616), it became an instant success, so much that 23 editions were published before 1674.

            While Leigh might not have anticipated such a response, she clearly hoped that the book would benefit more people than just her sons. She dedicated it to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of James I, and listed as one of her purposes “to move women to be careful of their children.”[1]

            As it was common at that time, the book starts with a word of apology for writing, especially since Leigh is a woman, and there are many “godly books in the world that mold in some men’s studies.”[2] It’s her motherly love, she says, that compelled her to write: “Can a Mother forget the child of her womb?”[3]

            In a moving paragraph, she recounts the efforts and sacrifices every mother makes for her children, carrying them within her, “so near her heart,” bringing them into the world, and praying as she breastfeeds them, “when she feels the blood come from her heart to nourish” them. “Will she not labor now till Christ be formed in” them?[4]

General Advice

            Her first advice to her sons is they might live for Christ and daily “labor for the spiritual food of the soul … as the children of Israel gathered Manna in the wilderness. By the which you may see that it is a labor, but what labor? A pleasant labor, a profitable labor, a labor without the which the soul cannot live.”[5]

            Besides this, they should not fear poverty, knowing that “it is the state of the children of GOD to be poor in the world.” In fact, “the fear of poverty makes men run into a thousand sins.”[6]

            Likewise, they should not fear death, “for the fear of death hath made many to deny the known truth, and so have brought a heavy judgement of God upon themselves.”[7] No one can escape death, so instead of fearing it they should be prepared for it, by strengthening their faith “with the promises of the Gospel, as ‘He that liveth, and believeth, shall not die: and though he were dead, yet shall he live.’” And “whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s.”[8]. And this strengthening comes by meditating on God’s word – not simply reading it.

            A large part of Leigh’s book is devoted to prayer, a duty that is hindered by both the devil and one’s nature. “A man’s own nature will never be willing to talk with God; for by nature we run away from him with Adam, and rather hide ourselves with fig-leaves, and excuses, than come to God and fall down before him on our faces, confess our sins, acknowledge our unworthiness, crave pardon for Christs sake of God, for all of our transgressions. Yet Adam had more cause to run away than we have, and we have more cause a great deal to come to God, than he had; for he knew not then that God would call him back again, and give him his pardon in Christ, who should tread down the head of the Serpent, which beguiled him.”[9]

How to Be Good Fathers

            Leigh spends much time instructing her sons on their roles of fathers. First of all, they should make sure their children, “males or females, may in their youth learn to read the Bible in their own mother tongue.”[10] Children can start learning to read when they are four. By the age of ten, they should read well. This is their duty during this stage of their life, “to learn how to serve God, their King and Country by reading.”[11]

            She reminds her sons to bring up their children “with gentleness and patience. … for frowardness and curtness harden the heart of a child, and make him weary of virtue.”[12]

            She then adds specific instructions for raising girls. After insisting that her sons allow her to name their children, she explains the reason for one of her chosen names: Susan, after Susanna, the heroine of the Jewish book by the same name.

            In a side note, Leigh clarifies she doesn’t consider the book of Susanna to be canonical. But Susanna is a woman who defended her chastity against some old men’s indecent proposals, and chastity is, for Leigh, a cardinal virtue.

            While traditionally the blame falls on Eve for deceiving Adam, Leigh reminds her sons that men are often prone to deceiving women. What’s worse, instead of repenting, many go on and brag about their actions, and “laugh and rejoice that they have brought sin and shame to her that trusted them.”[13]

            The only remedy, she said, is for women to be like Susanna, “chaste, watchful, and wary.” In fact, they should behave in a way “that no man may think or deem her to be unchaste.”[14] She goes on to touch on the difficult subject of rape, with its tough consequences, including the mental anguish of women who, after being raped, “either made away themselves, or at least have separated themselves from company, not thinking themselves worthy of any society.”[15] It was a serious problem then as it is now, and equally kept in the dark.

            Leigh also defends the dignity of women against those who saw them only in light of Eve’s sin. She reminded her sons that, if sin has come into the world by Eve, God chose another woman (Mary) to bring into the world the defeat of sin, in fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. If Leigh’s sons had daughters, they needed to consider these thoughts.

How to Be Good Husbands

            Apparently, George, John, and William were not yet married, because Leigh instructs them on their choice of a wife. Her first request that their wives be godly. Second, her sons must see love as a commitment. “Let nothing, after you have made your choice, remove your love from her.”[16]

            “If a man has not enough wit to choose him one whom he can love to the end, yet I think he should have discretion to cover his own folly; but if he want discretion, I think he should have policy, which never fails a man to dissemble his own simplicity in this case. If he wants wit, discretion and policy, he is unfit to marry any woman.”[17]

            This is an absolute deal-breaker for Leigh. “Do not a woman that wrong, as to take her from her friends that love her, and after a while to begin to hate her.”[18] It is so important that she is willing to disown her sons if they do. They have no excuse for changing their mind, even if their wives disappoint them. “If thou canst not love her for the goodness that is in her, yet let the grace that is in thyself move thee to do it.”[19]

The Preaching of the Gospel

            The book concludes with a defense of the gospel and a prayer that God will send more faithful preachers into the harvest, “for the true laborers indeed are not few, but very few,”[20] and a sad number of preachers drive many away from Christ “by their idleness and negligence.”[21]   

            Leigh hoped that at least one of her sons would become a preacher. Her hope seems to have come to fruition, since her son William was mentioned by Puritan John Winthrop as “a curate at Denston in Suffolk, a man of very good parts, but of a melancholic constitution, yet as sociable and full of good discourse as I have known.”[22]

            Leigh’s book continues to be a valuable read. Her voice is honest, direct, humble, and insightful, facing with clarity and discernment many important issues in light of Scripture and for the glory of God.


[1] Dorothy Leigh, The Mother’s Blessing, Ann Arbor, MI; Oxford (UK): Text Creation Partnership., chapter 5 (title), p. 15.

[2] Ibid., p. 4. Throughout this article, the original text has been turned into contemporary English (US).

[3] Ibid., p. 9, quoting Isa. 49:15.

[4] Ibid., pp. 10-11

[5] Ibid., p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 19

[7] Ibid., p. 21

[8] Ibid., p. 21-22, quoting John 11:25 and Rom. 14:8.

[9] Ibid., pp. 67-68

[10] Ibid., p. 25.

[11] Ibid., p. 47.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 33.

[14] Ibid., pp. 33-40.

[15] Ibid., p. 39.

[16] Ibid., p. 52.

[17] Ibid., p. 54.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 56

[20] Ibid., p. 235

[21] Ibid., p. 267

[22] Robert C. Winthrop, Life and Letters of John Winthrop, Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864, p. 21, (see footnote)


Simonetta Carr