by Leonard Kenworthy

Chapter 2, in Part I of Friends for Over Three Hundred Years from Quakerism: A Study Guide on the Religious Society of Friends (1st published 1981, now out of print).


The Quaker movement, launched in England in the 1650, has continued without interruption for well over 300 years. During that time it has remained a small group numerically, limited largely to the Anglo-American world. But it has continuously exerted an influence far out of proportion to its numbers.

Quaker historians, such as Elfrida Vipont Fouldes and Harold Loukes of England, and Elbert Russell and Howard Brinton in the United States, have not agreed completely on the dates of demarcation for various periods, depending in part on whether they were writing primarily about English or American Quakerdom. But their differences are small and immaterial.
Perhaps the easiest to follow is that provided by Howard Brinton in
his book Friends for 300 Years. In it he used the following dates for
four major periods and indicated the outstanding characteristic of
each period by a telling phrase, as follows:

  1. The heroic or apostolic period, about 1650-1700.
  2. The period of cultural creativeness, about 1700-1800.
  3. The period of conflict and decline, about 1800-1900.
  4. The period of modernism, from 1900- .

In this chapter we will try to telescope the history of Quakerism from around 1700, where we left off in the first chapter, to 1800. That means that we can merely sketch in thin pencil lines some of the major emphases or trends, a few major events, two of the outstanding personalities, and a few of the many concerns of that period.

Some Characteristics of Quakerism in the 18th Century

Various Quaker historians have attempted to catch the spirit of different
periods in a single word or phrase. There is the danger of oversimplification in that approach, but there is the value of focusing on the state of the Society of Friends in a given period in that way.

Thus Harold Loukes in his book on The Discovery of Quakerism characterized the second period of the Society of Friends as one of consolidation. That was certainly true in England and to almost the same extent in the American colonies.

In her volume on The Story of Quakerism, Elfrida Vipont Fouldes emphasized the transition of the movement from a loosely-knit fellowship to a more structured religious society, with various efforts to tighten the discipline of Quakers and Quaker meetings. This might be considered a growing trend toward conservatism.

In his volume on Friends for 300 Years, Howard Brinton gave a
more optimistic interpretation to that century. He even went so far
as to state that the period from 1700 to 1750 was “The Golden Age
of Quakerism,” with the inward and the outward states and the’
mystical and the e’ angelical aspects in good balance.

Believing that all of these trends are apparent in that century, we have included them in our title – “Consolidation, Cultural Creativeness, and Conservatism”.

The Great Migration to the American Colonies

Certainly one of the major events of that period in Quaker history was the migration of Friends to the American colonies. So extensive was that migration and so influential were Friends in the New World, that
Elbert Russell wrote in The History of Quakerism:

At that time (1700) Friends were the greatest single religious organization in the English colonies as a whole, both in their influence and in their promise.

Friends first arrived in The New World as travelling ministers and often they met with persecution. Nevertheless they persisted in preaching and won some converts. Then a few Quaker settlers came to the American colonies. Finally there was the large migration to Pennsylvania, starting in 1682 with the arrival of the ship Welcome, in Delaware, with its passengers bound for the new, planned city of Philadelphia, with 30 of the 300 passengers dying of smallpox, en route to their new home. Surely the arrival of that ship ranks with the arrival of the Mayflower as one of the most important and most dramatic events in early American history.

Most people know something about the settlement of Pennsylvania, but many are not aware of the extent of Quakers and of Quaker influence in all the original colonies of what is now the United States.

Their impact was particularly pronounced in Rhode Island. That colony, with its comparative tolerance, was a good place for many of the first Friends on these shores. For example, as early as 1673 they were exempt from military service on grounds of conscience. By 1700 half of the population of that colony were Quakers and for 36 terms (from 1672 until 1768) there were Quaker governors. At times the assembly adjourned on Fifth Day so that the large number of Friends in that body could attend mid-week meeting.

On the nearby island of Nantucket, it is estimated that half of the population of 5000 attended Quaker meetings.

So, as early as 1661, New England Yearly Meeting was established, the first such body in the American colonies.

There were Quaker groups in New York, too, especially on Long Island in the 1600s, and by 1695 New York Yearly Meeting was “set off” or established by New England Yearly Meeting.

The first colony in The New World in which Friends were the owners or part owners was New Jersey, even before Pennsylvania was settled. Among those owners were William Penn and Robert Barclay. In New Jersey Friends were able to institute some of the reforms in government which were to mark Pennsylvania in a few years.

But it was in Pennsylvania that Quakers had a unique opportunity to try to apply their religious principles in government on a comprehensive scale. That large tract of land had been obtained by William Penn as payment on a loan his father had made to King Charles II of England. Penn considered that colony a tremendous opportunity to provide a refuge for the persecuted of England and Europe, to apply Quaker principles in government, and to institute a more democratic system than had existed up to that time. Pennsylvania was to be A Holy Experiment.

In Pennsylvania people were promised freedom of speech and worship, and trials by juries. All men could vote rather than a restricted few, and elections were to be held yearly. Amendments were possible, thus providing for changes when they were needed. The Indians were to be dealt with fairly and prisons were to become workshop for the rehabilitation of inmates rather than places of punishment. These and other innovations made Pennsylvania the most democratic government in the world and an influential example for the United States when it was formed.

Despite some difficulties between Pennsylvania and Maryland, there were several hundred Quakers in Maryland, as well as in Virginia. And in the Carolinas Quakers were the first organized religious body, and in places the only organized one. At one time half of the legislators of North Carolina were Quakers and John Archdale, a Quaker, was Carolina’s distinguished colonial governor.

Rufus Jones estimated that by 1750 there were 25,000 Quakers in
Pennsylvania, 6000 in New Jersey, 3000 in Maryland, 4000 to 5000
in Virginia, and 4000 to 5000 in the Carolinas. He did not give any
figure for New England.

The Effect of Those Migrations on English Quakerism

That exodus of Friends from England changed the pattern of Quakerism
drastically in the 18th century. Henceforth the largest number of Friends would be in The New World, even though they continued to look for leadership to London Yearly Meeting, which American Friends regarded as the parent body.

But that mass migration attracted many of the younger and more able men and women and thus deprived English Friends of their talents. In addition, it decimated the ranks of many Meetings in the British Isles.

Some contacts were maintained, however, between those two strongholds of Quakerism. Each yearly meeting prepared annually an Epistle, summarizing the spiritual state of its Meeting, and sent these accounts to other groups. The spiritual diaries or Journals, kept by many leading Friends in the early days of the movement, were also published and read widely by Quakers. Even more important were the travels of Friends ministers, especially from England, to the colonies. It is estimated that 70 such ministers from abroad travelled in the area of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting between 1700 and 1756. When such persons felt a “call” or “concern” to travel, they presented their desire to the local Meeting for its approval (or disapproval). If it was approved, they were given a “Minute” saying that they were “released” for service among Friends. Often such a Minute was sent on to the Quarterly Meeting and Yearly Meeting for further endorsements. The importance of such travel cannot be overstated as it kept American and English Friends in contact with each other and often provided the only new voices in the Meetings which they visited.

Migrations in the New World

But Friends did not always remain where they had originally settled in the colonies. Early they became a mobile group, moving south or west from their original settlements along the Atlantic coast.

Thus many New England Quakers moved into New York — along the Hudson river, into the Mohawk Valley, and into Western New York. Friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey moved west in those colonies or into Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina.

A Quaker Culture Develops

Wherever they went, Friends took their culture or way of life with them. As soon as a settlement was started, a Meeting House was built. Often a school was begun in that building, or a separate edifice constructed near the Meeting House.

The plain but often beautiful Meeting Houses were the centers of community life. Meetings for worship were held twice a week, on the First Day and on the Fifth Day, indicating that every day was a holy one.

In those close-knit communities Friends were married in special meetings for worship and Friends were buried after a special service in the Meeting House. Infractions of the accepted code of behavior were dealt with by the elders or overseers, or by special committees appointed by local monthly meetings to counsel with recalcitrant Quakers, trying to persuade them to mend their ways.

A small library was also established in many Meeting Houses or in the Friends School nearby. In homes the Bible and some of the Journals of leading Quakers were considered as essential as the furniture, and were read regularly, often aloud in the family group. Some of the original zest of the movement lingered well into the 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic ocean and the totality of he Quaker message and mission remained intact.

Thus a Quaker culture or way of life emerged, leading Howard Brinton to call this period from 1700 to 17 50 “the flowering of Quakerism.” The American historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, in his Oxford History of the American People, refers to this generation of Quakers as having “sloughed off the frenzy and fanaticism of Fox’s early converts, yet (having) retained the serenity, the high ideals, and the sturdy pacifism that are the finest flower of that sect.”

Others, however, maintain that Friends retreated into respectability and a stable life-style very much in contrast with the enthusiasm and vitality of early Friends.

Quaker Quietism: Conservatism Develops

Every institution and every movement is faced eventually with the problem of how to retain the purity and fervor of its founders, how to maintain the momentum generated in the early years, how to become self-renewing.

By the middle of the 18th century several measures had been taken which were intended to strengthen the Religious Society of Friends. However, taken collectively, they tended to place the emphasis upon group discipline rather than on group dedication to the original ideas of the movement. What had been a loosely-knit fellowship now became a society, with formal membership instituted, including the recording of children at birth — known familiarly now as “birthright membership.”

In order to cope with problems of conduct and the business affairs of the group, elders and overseers were appointed in each Meeting. They were almost always older and more “weighty” Friends, with great concern and long experience in Quaker ways. Hence they tended to be conservative in their approach — guardians of tradition rather than creators of new ways for changing times.

Then, too, a book or Discipline was published, delineating the acceptable ways of carrying on the Society’s affairs. Although not intended as a rigid codification of laws, it approximated that situation. That event occurred in England in 1738.

Eventually considerable religious tolerance was established in England and in the American colonies and Friends were no longer subjected to persecution. But they were also spared the purifying experience of being tested under fire.

Friends were hard working, honest, frugal people and many of them prospered as farmers and business people. People have quipped that the Quakers came to Pennsylvania to do good — and they did well. But the same was true in England. People knew that if they dealt with Quakers, they would receive good work or good materials, at a fixed price — something new in those days. So they did business increasingly with Friends. And many Friends prospered.

Quietism in Worship

There were many itinerant ministers in the 18th century and they did much to keep the authentic Quaker message alive. But the days of the great preachers and the large public meetings were gone and the evangelical fervor of the early days of the movement was lacking.

Local meetings for worship were often held without any vocal messages and the silence tended to become something sacred rather than a living, vibrant environment out of which messages could be expected to arise from time to time. And without some ministry Friends meetings often became paralyzed and died.

Thus the evangelical and mystical phases of Quakerism tended to become out of balance, with the mystical predominant. Likewise, the inward and outward aspects of Quakerism became unbalanced, with the inward becoming uppermost.

Some Positive Aspects of Quietism

Nevertheless there were positive aspects of Quietism. Elbert Russell summarized them tersely in his volume on The History of Quakerism. In that book he wrote:

It developed souls of fine spiritual discernment, brave un-worldliness, human tenderness and rare beauty of character. It gave some of its devotees a singularly true and helpful discernment of spiritual “states” and rare skill in “speaking to their conditions.” The system or ideal which flowered in the philanthropic zeal, moral pioneering and social daring of the next period had a worthy place amid the formalities, frivolities, and immoralities of the middle eighteenth century.

The Quaker Withdrawal from the Pennsylvania Assembly

Almost from the beginning of The Holy Experiment, Quakers in the Pennsylvania assembly were faced with a dilemma with moral, spiritual, and political implications. The question was how far they were willing to go in promoting friendly relations with the Indians, in voting against money for defense, and in refusing to take part in the military aspects of the British empire.

Under pressure from the non-Quaker elements in the colony and from the British rulers, Friends sometimes voted money for the King or Queen, knowing full well that some of that money would be used for defense. But with the coming of the French and Indian wars, the issue became even more acute and further compromises unacceptable to them. In that resolve they were supported by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and by a special delegation of English Friends sent to Pennsylvania to advise with Friends on that extremely difficult situation.

Eventually the decision was made that the members of the Quaker minority in the assembly would withdraw. The alternative seemed to have been a vote demanding the oath of every member of the assembly, thus disqualifying all Quaker legislators.

It was a sad day because it meant the end of The Holy Experiment and the active participation of most Quakers in government in the colonies and in the United States government for decades to come. But it was a decision which Quakers had to make to remain true to their principles.

This, too, had its effect in driving American Quakers still further into the period of Quietism about which we have already written.

Quakers During the American Revolution

Over a long period tensions between the American colonies and England increased, breaking out eventually in the American Revolution. Most Friends were firmly opposed to the attempt to resolve differences by war and so remained neutral, despite their valiant attempts before the war to seek the redress of grievances.

But their neutrality caused suspicion and many Friends in the colonies suffered at the hands of those supporting the American cause. In some instances their property was seized for the non-payment of taxes which would have supported the revolution. And in a few cases their homes were burned. The worst example of persecution was the banishment of 20 prominent Philadelphians to Virginia, 12 of them Quakers. Around 1779 the Pennsylvania
legislature demanded an oath of all teachers, thus disqualifying Quakers from such posts, including those in Quaker schools. That was a bitter blow.

A small group of Friends, however, openly supported the American Revolution and even formed a branch of Quakers known popularly as The Free Quakers or The Fighting Quakers, a body which existed for a few years and then disappeared.

After the Revolution, Friends supported the new government; Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sent a warm letter to George Washington upon his inauguration, pledging their assistance, to which he replied generously.

Two Outstanding Friends of the 18th Century

Many men and women could be listed in a Who’s Who of the 18th century
Quakers, even though the list would not be as long as that for the 17th century. Two seem especially interesting and important. They were Anthony Benezet and John Woolman.

Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) was born in France and raised in a Huguenot family. But when the persecutions against members of that Protestant group became oppressive, he fled to Philadelphia, by way of Holland and England. There he became a “convinced Friend” at an early age and taught in the Penn Charter School, an institution still in existence. Later he founded a school for girls, wrote textbooks, and championed many educational reforms. But it is largely for his work in the anti-slavery movement that he is best known, playing a role second only to that of John Woolman.

Far better known is John Woolman (1720-1772), whom many people today regard as the finest product of the Religious Society of Friends, a rare combination of the inward and outward aspects of Quakerism — a spiritually motivated social actionist.

Born into a Quaker family in New Jersey, he became a tailor by trade, curbing his thriving business in order to avoid the dangers of wealth, against which he spoke and wrote continuously and convincingly. His words bore much weight because his actions squared with them.

His chief concern, however, was the abolition of slavery, a cause in which he believed passionately and one which he pursued persistently. But he did not carry placards, march in parades, or take part in public demonstrations. He believed the Quaker way was to talk with the owners and to convince them to free their slaves. Patiently he pursued this policy, travelling hundreds of miles by foot and on horseback in behalf of this cause, leading eventually to the release of many former slaves.

His was a personal concern, eventually supported by other Friends. By 1761 London Yearly Meeting declared that Friends owning slaves or taking part in the slave trade should be disowned. And by 1780 no Friends in the American colonies were slave owners — 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Such action by Quakers was the result of the slow growth of a corporate consciousness and concern, due in large part to Woolman’s efforts.

But that was not his only concern. The abolition of war and the type of living which would remove the causes of war were likewise much on his mind, as was the treatment of the Indians. To him the whole body politic had to be purified.

Fortunately he left his Journal as a spiritual diary of his travels and thoughts, as well as other writings on the social order. Two brief passages from his writings should give readers some idea of his approach to life. Explaining a visit to the Indians, he said:

Love was the first motion and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might in any degree be helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them.

And on the purpose of life he wrote:

…to turn all that we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.

Writing on these two men, Horace Alexander, a leading British Friend of recent times, said:

It seems to me that Anthony Benezet and John Woolman and their associates in the campaign against slavery were the pioneers among Friends in producing a wider sense of social and political responsibility. Living in the eighteenth century quietist period, they stand out as striking exceptions to the quietism of that period.

Some Central Concerns of Friends in the 18th Century

Friends in that period were particularly concerned with discipline, as has already been pointed out. But they were also active in many concerns, some of which will be developed in detail in Chapters 9 and 10. Among them were education, the fair treatment of Indians, the abolition of slavery, government (especially in the early years of that century), temperance, and fair dealings in business.

Some Questions on Quakerism in the 18th Century

  1. What idea or ideas in this chapter strike you most forcefully? Why?
  2. Some Friends and others believe that Penn and his fellow Quakers were overly generous in admitting people into Pennsylvania who did not believe in the principles behind The Holy Experiment. How do you react to this proposition?
  3. What obstacles do you see today for a Quaker becoming an elected government official? What advantages? Would you urge some Quaker you know to run for public office? Why? Why not?
  4. Does the idea of separate Quaker communities today appeal to you, as it does to some Friends? Why? Why not? Would you like to live in such a community? Why? Why not?
  5. Do you share the admiration many Friends today have for John Woolman, almost raising him to the rank of a Quaker saint? Why or why not?

A Brief Reading List on Quakerism in the 18th Century

Readers should consult the relevant parts of the general histories cited at the end of Chapter One — by Brinton, Newman, Russell, Trueblood, and Vipont. In addition, see the following references:

  • Bacon, Margaret H. The Quiet Rebels: The Story of Quakers in America. Basic Books, 1969.229 pp. Chapters 4 and 5.
    Elliott, Errol T. Quakers on the American Frontier. Friends UnitedPress, 1969. 434 pp. (A short account on Quakers in the southand west in the 18th century.)
  • Comfort, William Wistar. Stephen Grellet: A Biography. Macmillan, 1942.
  • Kenworthy, Leonard S. John Woolman Speaks. 8 pp. Also in Kenworthy’s Sixteen Quaker Leaders Speak.
  • Moulton, Phillips P. (ed.) The Journal & Major Essays of John Woolman. Oxford, 1971. 336 pp.
  • Moulton, Phillips P. The Living Witness of John Woolman.
    Pendle Hill Publications, 1973. 32 pp.
  • Whitney, Janet P. John Woolman. Little, Brown, 1942.
  • Woolman, John. The Journal of John Woolman & a Plea for the
    Poor. Citadel Press, 1961. 249 pp. (a paperback)