Monthly Archives: January 2015

Why I Love the Quakers in Colonial Pennsylvania

My general fondness for the province of Pennsylvania began in college while I earned a political science degree with an emphasis in early American political thought. During this time I read works from Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, and studied such important events as the First and Second Continental Congresses, the Walking Purchase and the numerous epidemics brought on by poor living conditions, climate, and the constant influx of immigrants.

Yet despite the many attempts of both the British and the microorganism to bring “Penn’s City” to it’s knees, Philadelphia remained the most important city in the Colonies during the eighteenth century, even gaining the nickname of the “American Athens” by the latter part of the century. Add some buckled shoes, knee breeches, and a tricorned hat to that independent spirit, and who wouldn’t be smitten?

Twenty years later, my interest in Colonial Pennsylvania persevered—“Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto the inhabitants thereof”—except this time I saw it as the perfect setting for a historical novel that happened to call for indentured servants, wheat farms, an Irish immigrant family, and an epidemic. It also helped that a woman had been accused of witchcraft in the colony in 1728, which isn’t surprising considering the high number of Germans and Scotch-Irish in the population.

And then there were the Quakers, those quirky, peace-loving people immortalized for modern day on the oatmeal box. From the first rough outline, I knew they would play a critical role in the story due to their overwhelming presence in the colony. But when it came to basic character sketches, I had surprisingly little knowledge about this group of dissenters other than what appeared in the Eighteenth century novels, History of Tom Jones, a Foundling and Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress. I started to dig, and the deeper I got the more I realized how far their peculiar teachings had set this colony apart from the other twelve.

The Society of Friends, or Quakers, came into being near the end of The Protestant Reformation in the Seventeenth century. Their founder George Fox espoused to the extreme the core Reformation ideal of removing all intermediaries between God and the individual. Needless to say, this often put his teachings at odds with established religious leaders and monarchies that derived their power from God. Between 1660 and 1685 around 15,000 Quakers—one in three—were imprisoned in England for such crimes as blasphemy, public speaking, refusal to swear an oath and disturbing the peace.

Something had to give, and on March 4, 1681, a prominent Quaker, William Penn, accepted a land grant of approximately 600,000 square miles from King Charles II in lieu of a large debt owed by the crown to his father, Admiral Penn. He used the land to establish a haven for religious freedom known as the “Holy Experiment.” Fed up with being tossed in jail and otherwise persecuted, Quakers came to Pennsylvania in droves.

Along with their plain dress and speech, they brought with them certain principles that would become ingrained in the American ethos, primarily, equality, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.

Quakers embraced true equality centuries ahead of their time. And I don’t just mean for white male property owners. Everyone was included—men and women, European, Native Indian and African, rich and poor. A person’s gender, race, or financial status was irrelevant as all people were the same under God. Though the practice sometimes fell short of the principle, they did an overall decent job in putting their words to action. Women could speak and vote in public meetings, and like male members, could travel unaccompanied to preach and be recognized with the gift of ministry. Before relations soured with the Walking Purchase, Native Indians and whites sat on juries together. And The Society of Friends was the first organization ever to officially ban slavery.

Stemming from their understanding of equality, Quakers refused to be respecters of persons. They did not acknowledge titles, regardless of how many generations a dukedom could be traced back. They also did not bow or curtsey or show deference of any kind. By virtue of being human, the king had the same intrinsic worth as the laundress and was treated accordingly, with acknowledgement of the person rather than a list of noble titles. This, along with their refusal to swear oaths often led to the misconception that they were one step away from treason.

In truth, Quakers considered government essential to civil society. William Penn in particular supported Quaker involvement in political office. When the government was established in Pennsylvania, he swore that, “You shall be governed by laws of your own making, and live a free and, if you will, a sober and industrious people. I shall not usurp the right of any, or oppress his person.” People were needed to create laws and maintain order. What they weren’t needed to do was oppress or elevate themselves above others, nor at any time insert themselves between the individual and God.

My gushing aside, Quakers would never have been voted most fun for a night out—that bawdy, rambunctious bunch stayed home in England. And as they were pacifists, I would have picked the Puritans or Anglicans for my team in any of the armed conflicts that occurred during the time. All the same, as an avid admirer of early American thought, I am thankful for the strength of character that allowed William Penn to write, “This prison shall be my grave before I budge a jot, for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.”

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