History of Quakers in the Americas

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Early missions

Starting in 1656 the Quaker missionaries arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Puritan controlled colony which took a hard line against dissenting views. The authorities seized the new arrivals immediately, imprisoned them, burnt their literature, and expelled them from the colony. Laws were also passed fining ship captains who brought Friends to the colony, as well as people who defended the Friends or owned Quaker literature; the colonial leadership was more concerned with the Quaker beliefs they considered seditious, rather than their religious dissent.[1] The missionaries were undaunted, however, and began sneaking into the colony, disregarding the persecution handed down to them. In an effort to maintain control, the colonial government enacted the death penalty for any Quaker who had been expelled from the colony three times; in August of 1659 Quaker missionaries William Robinson, John Stephenson, and Mary Dyer defied the law and were executed in Boston. In 1661 the General Assembly passed a "Cart and Whip" bill, which led to arresting Friends and transporting them to Rhode Island while whipping them in each town they passed through.

The Quakers found Rhode Island to be much more welcoming, as it was a colony founded by the Massachusetts religious exiles Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. There was a high rate of conversion in the colony, for Williams and Hutchinson did not try to organize their own church.[2] By the 1670's the Quakers emerged as the dominant political and religious faction in the colony. Quakers for a while controlled West Jersey, where they created landed estates[3]. They established prosperous farming settlements in Virginia and North Carolina.

Colonial Pennsylvania

William Penn, after painting by West

William Penn, whose late father was owed money by King Charles II, in 1682 received ownership of Pennsylvania, which he tried to make a "holy experiment," by a union of temporal and spiritual matters. Pennsylvania made guarantees of religious freedom, and kept them, attracting many Quakers and others. Quakers took political control but were bitterly split on the funding of military operations or defenses; finally they relinquished political power. They created a second "holy experiment" by extensive involvement in voluntary benevolent associations while remaining apart from government. Programs of civic activism included building schools, hospitals and asylums for the entire city. Their new tone was an admonishing moralism born from a feeling of crisis. Even more extensive philanthropy was possible because of the wealth of the Quaker merchants based in Philadelphia. [4]


Originally the Quaker movement opposed abolitionism because it was a political issue that was divisive. However, in 1759 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting came out against slaveholding by its own members, under the influence of John Woolman and others, and this helped to change the stance taken by other Yearly Meetings, including London. The rank-and-file membership comprised a large fraction of the abolitionist movement, and indeed was the single group most responsible for promoting antislavery and abolitionism in the 1770-1860 era. Sassi (2006) compares Anthony Benezet's influential 1771 antislavery tract, Some Historical Account of Guinea, with the sources from which he gleaned his information about Africa and the slave trade, the narratives published by European travelers to West Africa. Benezet, a Philadelphia Quaker and humanitarian reformer, cited the travel literature in order to portray Africa as an abundant land of decent people. His purpose was refutation of the argument that the slave trade was a beneficial transfer of people from a land of barbarism and death to regions of civilization and Christianity. However, Benezet employed the travel narratives selectively, suppressing contradictory evidence as well as controversial material that could have been used to construct an alternative depiction of African humanity. Nonetheless, Benezet's research shaped the subsequent debate over the slave trade and slavery, as antislavery writers incorporated his depiction into their rhetorical arsenal and pro-slavery defenders searched for a rebuttal.[5]

After officially adopting a policy of emancipation in 1775, New York Quakers attempted to aid their former black servants through education, employment, and donations as compensation for their slavery.

In 1816 Virginia Quaker merchant William Hartshorne made the radical proposal that Virginia Quakers join their brethren outside the South in not participating in a slave-based economy, and not grow, buy or sell tobacco, cotton and sugar, nor sell to plantations. The merchants of the South simply could not disentangle themselves from slavery, forcing many to compromise their religious principles in order to remain economically viable, and others (especially in North Carolina) to migrate to Indiana.[6]

Individual Midwestern Quakers were often devoted to abolitionism. The Indiana Yearly Meeting set up a Committee on the Concerns of the People of Color ("African Committee"). Both Orthodox and Hicksite had radically abolitionist splinter groups - the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends and Congregational, or Progressive, Friends. Midwestern Quakers were influential in providing education for black children, helping runaway slaves and freedmen who had freed themselves from kidnappers, and providing relief to the poor.[7]

Although many Quakers became active abolitionists, most leaders feared that social activism would destroy their religious society, and therefore abolitionism, even as they made clear their opposition to slavery. In response, some abolitionists established "comeouter" churches dedicated to advancing the principle of immediatism, seeking to align churches with the American Anti-Slavery Society's agenda of racial equality. Other reform groups known as Progressive Friends advocated for women's rights. Both Anti-Slavery Friends and Progressive Friends engaged in civil disobedience. The contrast between the Society of Friends and the splinter groups demonstrates how republican religion was tied to social and political stability.[8]

19th century schisms

The schism between orthodox and Hicksite Quakers in Philadelphia in the 1820s involved tensions between rural folk and urban sophisticates, socioeconomic class differences, and religious doctrinal disagreements. The schism spread to Quaker settlements across the country. The expansion of evangelical churches and reform societies during the Second Great Awakening forced Quakers to make choices about what was appropriate religious activity. Orthodox and Hicksite Quakers chose differently. While orthodox Quakers did not see anything wrong in associating with their evangelical neighbors, Hicksite Quakers opposed the methods of evangelical benevolence associations, believing these associations would corrupt the purity and distinctiveness of Quakers.[9]

Disagreements over doctrine and evangelism split Quakers into the modernizing Gurneyites, who questioned the applicability of 17th century writings to the modern world, and the conservative Wilburites. Wilburites not only held to the writings of Fox and other early Friends, they actively sought to bring not only Gurneyites, but Hicksites, who had split off during the 1820s over antislavery and theological issues, back to orthodox Quaker belief.

In the late 19th century Hicksite Quakers looked optimistically toward the future despite declining membership rolls and the decline of their rural base. Advocates of a more liberal Quaker theology reconciled traditional beliefs with Higher Criticism of the Bible and a relativist view toward other faiths. Hicksites dismissed the quietism of an earlier generation and, drawing on contemporary intellectual and social currents, embraced causes such as education, ending racial discrimination, and other social reform.[10]

Earlham College

The Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends, founded in 1821 by refugees from the slave South, was the largest Society of Friends meeting in the world by 1850. Earlham College, founded 1859, became their intellectual center. It was coeducational from the first and after the Civil War the students abandoned plain dress and plain speech, and engaged in debate tournaments and intercollegiate sports that made competition respectable in the Quaker ethic. Darwinism was taught, and the modernist religion department alienated some conservatives in the community. The American Friends Service Committee proved highly popular among students, as it embodied humanitarian service and liberal attitudes toward race and world peace.[11]


  1. Barbour and Frost (1988) p.51
  2. Barbour and Frost (1988) p.53
  3. It was a separate colony that later merged with East Jersey to form New Jersey.
  4. Illick (1976) p 225
  5. Jonathan D. Sassi, "Africans in the Quaker Image: Anthony Benezet, African Travel Narratives, and Revolutionary-era Antislavery." Journal of Early Modern History 2006 10(1-2): 95-130. Issn: 1385-3783 Fulltext: Ebsco
  6. A. Glenn Crothers, "Quaker Merchants and Slavery in Early National Alexandria, Virginia: the Ordeal of William Hartshorne." Journal of the Early Republic 2005 25(1): 47-77. Issn: 0275-1275 Fulltext: in Project Muse
  7. Thomas D. Hamm et al. "'A Great and Good People': Midwestern Quakers and the Struggle Against Slavery." Indiana Magazine of History 2004 100(1): 3-25. Issn: 0019-6673 Fulltext: in History Cooperative and Ebsco
  8. Ryan Jordan, "Quakers, 'Comeouters,' and the Meaning of Abolitionism in the Antebellum Free States." Journal of the Early Republic 2004 24(4): 587-608. Issn: 0275-1275 Fulltext: Ebsco
  9. Bruce Dorsey, "Friends Becoming Enemies: Philadelphia Benevolence and the Neglected Era of American Quaker History." Journal of the Early Republic 1998 18(3): 395-428. Issn: 0275-1275 online at Jstor
  10. Thomas D. Hamm, "The Hicksite Quaker World, 1875-1900." Quaker History 2000 89(2): 17-41.
  11. Hamm (1997)