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Category: Quaker



In the early 19th century, to be a Quaker was to be opposed to slavery. But how to live out this opposition? To work against slavery was to live in tension with Quaker testimonies to both integrity and peace. Helping an escaped slave, for instance, sometimes created pressure to bear false witness. Or to bear arms. As it turns out, balance is difficult. And there was disagreement between what historian Errol T. Elliott has called the activists and the gradualists. Some Friends gave up their membership. Some Friends lost their membership. Meetings were split.

American Friends at North Carolina’s Rich Square Monthly Meeting minuted in 1843 that they did not “allow their members to hold slaves,” but neither did they allow interference “with the system of slavery further than by petitions, reason, and remonstrance in a peaceable manner.” The larger yearly meeting minuted its condemnation in that same year of “those Friends who had given ‘shelter improperly’ to slaves.” That, too, was the year that Indiana Yearly Meeting would split over the issue of slavery. Hundreds of Indiana Quakers would leave their yearly meeting and start a new one, the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends.

Of course, they would argue they’d been kicked out.

At issue was the Underground Railroad. With active Quaker supporters in both North Carolina and Indiana, its existence created a problem for Friends everywhere. Support for the Underground Railroad looked to many like a form of religious extremism.

Initially, Friends had worked together to support the education of African-American children, as well as to fight the “Black Laws.” These laws, first enacted in Ohio and later in neighboring states, required that any free person of African descent obtain and carry certain court documents for employment and residency. These laws also fined those who helped fugitive slaves. But Levi Coffin called Quakers to a greater cause. An Indiana Quaker with North Carolina roots, Coffin had personally witnessed the separation of a slave woman from her child, resulting in his resolution “to labor in this cause until the end of my days.” For 30 years, he served as an unofficial president of the Underground Railroad.

Many Friends joined him.

Their activism resulted in an 1841 minute by Indiana Yearly Meeting: “As the subject of slavery is producing great excitement in our land, we again tenderly advise our dear friends not to join in associations.” The following year, an enforcing minute was approved, excluding from service on committees, any who identified themselves as abolitionists. Coffin and hundreds of others, having been removed from their leadership positions, simply started a new yearly meeting.

There was reconciliation, with the two yearly meetings effectively recombined by 1857. But old wounds heal slowly. There are still those who call us to orthodoxy. There are others who argue that faith without works is dead.

Quakers today have the privilege of looking back on our history with pride for what was accomplished. What we forget are the compromises that were made, the internal rancor that often boiled up into battles for control over meetinghouses and yearly meetings, battles that frequently led to schism. We forget that the never-ending tension between righteous faith and loving acts is yet to be resolved. There are still activists and gradualists among us. There are still battles. There are still wounds. There is still hope for reconciliation.

We forget that the never-ending tension between righteous faith and loving acts is yet to be resolved. There are still activists and gradualists among us.



When Zachariah Dicks visited Friends in Georgia in 1803, he predicted that the house in which they met – only five years old at the time – would soon stand empty. “O Bush River! Bush River! How hath thy beauty faded away and gloomy darkness eclipsed thy day.” Only five years later, what Dicks foretold had come to pass. Bush River’s member meetings in South Carolina and Georgia had been disbanded. The roughly 500 Quakers of Bush River had moved away, most of them to Ohio.

The issue was slavery.

Many early Quakers in America owned slaves, and when George Fox made his 17th-century visit to American Friends, he urged them to treat their slaves with kindness, to educate them (an open violation of the law) and to “let them go free after a considerable term of years, if they have served . . . faithfully.” William Edmundson offered Friends an additional challenge: “Many of you count it unlawful to make slaves of the Indians, and if so, then why the Negroes?” Eighty years later, traveling minister John Woolman further identified slavery as a kind of moral disease motivated by “the love of ease and gain.”

But effecting change proved difficult.

Southern Quakers argued that purchasing a slave often prevented the separation of man and wife or parent and child. In addition, Friends in North Carolina had learned from painful experience that their former slaves could be seized by their non-Quaker neighbors and once again sold into slavery. In many meetings, then, trustees were appointed to receive transfers of ownership for the slaves, giving freedom while legally binding these “ex-slaves” as property of the entire meeting. Others worked together to get slaves to the North, where they could be free.

Every step closer to abolition of slavery made southern Quakers a nuisance to their neighbors. So when Zachariah Dicks visited Bush River, he found an audience that Errol Elliott describes as “tired and largely hopeless. They had stood firm, but uprisings and violence” in the region had convinced them that war was imminent.

So they left, sold their property and resettled in Ohio, where they helped build up towns like Salem and Springboro – stops on the Underground Railroad.

Many early Quakers in America owned slaves, and when George Fox made his 17th-century visit to American Friends, he urged them to treat their slaves with kindness

A Portraiture


British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson set out in 1806 to tell the story of Quakers, to help the larger English-speaking world understand these foreign-seeming Friends. He titled the work, A Portraiture of Quakerism. Why Quakers? As Clarkson puts it, he had been “thrown frequently into the company of the people, called Quakers” in his work against the slave trade, and he “conceived a desire of writing their moral history.” But Clarkson’s explanation doesn’t quite work. This book – presumably conceived in 1787 – didn’t come to fruition for almost 20 years. If the subject – near to Clarkson’s heart – was as important as he claimed, then why did the inexhaustible writer, speaker, publisher, and organizer keep putting off the project?

Some historians have suggested that the book – published when it was – proved politically expedient.

Clarkson had founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He had interviewed 20,000 sailors as part of his research. He had ridden on horseback more than 35,000 miles in his search for artifacts and evidence. He had published essay after essay against the slave trade. He had convinced William Wilberforce to present legislation, year after year, that if passed, would have abolished the slave trade. But in 1794, war with France had largely ended the debate in Parliament, and Clarkson was tired. He retired from the movement, bought a home, married, and had a child. Then, 10 years later, as the war was coming to an end, Clarkson saw an opportunity for victory.

He wrote a book, a book that normalized Quakers in order to give public appeal to a cause that had largely been championed by this marginalized religious sect. And it worked. Within a year of the book’s publication, the Slave Trade Act was passed.

But what about the book? What exactly does Clarkson say about Quakers?

He says that no matter the issue, Quakers will consistently “reason on principle, and not upon consequences.” He says that Quakerism itself is a system that leads “towards purity and perfection.” He says that Quakers “never make a sacrifice of conscience.” He says that Quakers are “anxious for the moral improvement of mankind.” He says that “we seldom see a noisy or irascible Quaker.” He says that although Quakers are just as apt as others to enjoy wine with a meal, “neither drunkenness, nor any situation approaching to drunkenness, is known in the Quaker companies.”

Clarkson says that Quakerism, at heart, is “an attempt at practical Christianity . . . as far as it can be carried.”

Quakers “never make a sacrifice of conscience.”



In liturgical Christian tradition, children enter into the faith through a formal, church-directed process such as catechism or confirmation. Among evangelicals, it is largely understood that one becomes a Christian by making a personal decision to believe in Jesus Christ. Historically, Quakers fit with neither group, relying instead on a process of “socialization” in which children were raised into faith by their families and by the larger community of believers.

Howard Brinton’s survey of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century Quaker journals, published in 1972, demonstrates the process by which many young Friends first came to faith: a childhood experience of God’s presence, a period of youthful distraction, an “experience of a divided self,” and sharing publicly in open worship.

Of this first stage, William Penn wrote how it was when he was 12 years old that he first experienced “divine impressions” of the Lord’s presence. Mary Penington wrote that it was at the age of 10 or 11 that she first desired to know the nature of true prayer, later pouring out her soul “to the Lord in a very vehement manner.” John Crook decided at age 11 that he would “serve the Lord God of heaven and earth, whatsoever I suffer.”

But many of these young Quakers set faith aside in favor of “youthful frivolity,” investing their time in music, sports, fashion, friendships, humor – all activities we would deem normal. For these young Quakers, however, it wasn’t the activity itself that was wrong as much as it was the effect these activities had on them personally. They had become divided, tempted, as Margaret Lucas wrote, “to discharge myself of the worship due to God” in order “to attain happiness.” Job Scott wrote that he tried to “persuade (himself) there was no harm” in “frolicking and gaming.” Scott sometimes skipped meetings for worship in order to play cards with his friends. But he could not overcome a feeling that he was missing God’s best for his life, “returning home at night in condemnation, and sometimes sighing and crying.”

The point of change – the evidence of baptism by the Spirit into Christian community – frequently came through vocal ministry. John Yeardley, for instance, recorded that he spent 11 years of his life, resisting God’s nudging, refusing to share in open worship. But he finally came to a place in which he “could not doubt the time was fully come.” John Churchman wrote that it took him eight years to work up the courage to speak in meeting. But he finally stood, expressing “what was on my mind, and therein had peace.” Martha Routh first felt she should speak at age 14. But she did not speak in meeting until she was 29, and even then, she spoke but one sentence: “Be more willing to hear, than to offer the sacrifice of fools.”

Be more willing to hear, than to offer the sacrifice of fools.

Witch Trials


The witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, comprise one of the darkest periods in American history. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned under the charge of witchcraft. Of those, 29 were convicted, 19 were hanged, and one man, Giles Corey, was crushed to death under heavy stones when he refused to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. But contrary to popular belief, American witch trials were not simply the provenance of Massachusetts Puritans. There were also trials for witchcraft in New York, in Virginia, and among Quakers in Pennsylvania.

The first Pennsylvania trial took place almost a decade before the more-famous trials in Massachusetts and was presided over by William Penn. Two women – Yeshro Hendrickson and Margaret Mattson – stood accused of bewitching “calves, geese, cattle, and a few persons.” Mattson’s daughter testified that her mother was in league with the Devil. Several sources also report an exchange in which Penn asked whether it was true that Mattson was a witch: “Hast thou ridden through the air on a broomstick?” When Mattson answered in the affirmative, Penn responded that he knew of no law against it. Both women were set free.

In 1695, members of the Chichester and Concord Monthly Meeting minuted that two young men, Philip and Robert Roman, had studied astrology, earth divination, palm reading, and necromancy. The brothers agreed that if members of the meeting could convince them of the evils of witchcraft, they would give it up; and it was later reported that both brothers had set aside their studies of the dark arts unless it was found that such arts might be used “to do some great good.”

Instead of letting that be the end of the matter, local authorities commanded a trial. Robert Roman was found guilty of possessing certain questionable books. He was fined, ordered “never to practice the arts,” and released.

Responding to this crisis early in 1696, the quarterly meeting issued a testimony against all forms of magic, divination, and witchcraft as an “abomination to the Lord,” further warning that Friends everywhere must “use their utmost endeavors, in the way and order of the Gospel practiced among us, to bring such person or persons to a sense of their wrong practices . . . and, if any shall refuse to comply with such their wholesome and Christian advice, that then the Friends of said respective Monthly Meetings do give testimony against them; and so Truth will stand over them, and Friends will be clear.”

Penn responded that he knew of no law against it. Both women were set free.



Civil authorities in 17th-century Antigua weren’t known for their love of the Quakers. They banished some and jailed others. Charges brought against Quakers included speaking out in church, holding meetings in their homes, refusing to bear arms. But when George Fox visited the island in 1671, he found a community of Friends that included most of the island’s landed gentry, including his host, Samuel Winthrop, the owner of a sugar plantation that covered more than 1,000 acres and required the work of more than 60 slaves.

The irony is that Winthrop would befriend a Friend, let alone become one. Winthrop’s father, Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was the first to banish Mary Dyer from the New England colony, the same Mary Dyer who was eventually killed for her defiance of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s anti-Quaker law. Winthrop’s brother, Connecticut Gov. John Winthrop (the younger), had Quakers banished, fining and forcibly removing those who entered the colony.

What convinced Samuel to cast his lot with Quakers? Nobody knows for sure, but historians trace the time of Samuel’s convincement to a letter in which he addresses his brother as “thee,” when in all previous correspondence, Samuel had used the formal, plural “you.” The suggestion is that Samuel’s thoughts on the death of his mother had borne in him a rejection of Puritan moralism in favor of what David Hackett Fischer calls the Quaker mode of “fatalistic optimism.” Samuel wrote that death no longer frightened him. He had no need to fear the God who had become for him “a resting place in the day of trouble.”

Winthrop’s convincement to Quakerism gave him peace. But it cost him politically. In 1671, Winthrop lost his post as registrar and as lieutenant governor. In the same year, Winthrop wrote to his brother John: “Be comforted in the Lord, who abideth forever.”

Samuel wrote that death no longer frightened him. He had no need to fear the God who had become for him “a resting place in the day of trouble.”

Just War

In the last three days, three different students have approached me with questions about the war in Iraq.

If the war was meant as a swift response to our own loss in 9/11, then why did we attack a country with no known ties to Al-Qaeda? If the war was meant to safeguard the U.S. from future attacks, then why did we invade a country that had no means with which to carry out such attacks (weapons of mass destruction)? If Pat Tillman was a hero, then how do we explain our government’s cover-up of the fact that he was killed by his own trainees (not insurgents)?

I’ve avoided answering questions like these that focus on this specific conflict. The real issue isn’t whether this war is just (or unjust). Instead, Christians must consider whether any war can be justified.

Jesus introduced a new ethic in Matthew 5, when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

For almost 300 years, Christians were so united in their acceptance of Christ’s message that they refused to fight for their country, in rebellion against it, or in their own self-defense. Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity in A.D. 312 changed all that as the Roman ruler made the cross of Christ the banner for Rome’s military conquests.
Before A.D. 173, there was no such thing as a Christian soldier. By A.D. 417, the Roman army only accepted Christians (Christian Attitudes Toward War, 1960).

This acceptance of the “just war” led to the Archbishop of Pisa writing of the crusades that Christians triumphantly proclaimed Christ while riding “in the blood of the Saracens up to the knees of the horses.” Apparently, Muslim infidels and Christian soldiers alike failed to appreciate the irony.

Jesus taught that we should turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, do good to those who hate us, pray for those who mistreat us, love those who have given us reason to hate them. He taught that even hateful anger is evil.

Here are some quotations from early Christian leaders, who believed Jesus knew what he was talking about:

Tertullian (150-225): “Christ in disarming Peter ungirt every soldier . . . . Shall the son of peace, for whom it is unlawful to go to war, be engaged in battle?”

Justin Martyr (c. 165): “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war – swords into plows and spears into agricultural instruments. We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but gladly die confessing Christ.”

Clement (c. 200): “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. What then are his laws? ‘Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. To him that strikes thee on the one cheek turn also the other.'”

Maximilianus (c. 295): “I cannot serve as a soldier. I cannot do evil. I am a Christian.”

Lactantius (c. 304): “It can never be lawful for a righteous man to go to war.”

The real issue isn’t whether this war is just (or unjust). Instead, Christians must consider whether any war can be justified.

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