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Image The Friends’ Migration: Numbers and Proportions

The colonization of West Jersey marked the start of yet another English folk-wandering, which might be called the Friends’ migration. Individual Quakers had begun to appear in the American colonies as early as the 1650s, only a few years after the Society of Friends had been founded in England. The earliest American Friends were mostly wandering evangelists and missionaries who were punished cruelly in the Puritan and Anglican colonies, just as they had been at home.2

The larger movement called the Friends’ migration began in earnest during the year 1675 when the first full shipload of Quakers disembarked in West Jersey, at a place which they named

Salem (from the Hebrew Shalom) “for the delightsomenesse of the land.” Other ships soon followed carrying some 1,400 people called Quakers to West Jersey by 1681.3

In the year 1682 the scale of this migration suddenly increased when twenty-three ships sailed into Delaware Bay with more than 2,000 emigrants who founded the colony of Pennsylvania. One of these vessels was the ship Welcome, which carried William Penn himself and 100 other Quakers on a ghastly voyage where smallpox was also a passenger and thirty died at sea of that dread disease. The Welcome was followed by ninety shiploads of settlers in three years from 1682 to 1685.4

The Friends’ migration continued into the early eighteenth century. Altogether, as many as 23,000 colonists moved to the Delaware Valley during the forty years from 1675 to 1715.5 The majority of these emigrants were either Quakers or Quaker sympathizers. So large were their numbers that in some parts of Britain’s North Midlands the number of Friends declined rapidly because of migration to America. In Derbyshire, for example, the Quaker population reached its peak in the 1690s and fell sharply thereafter for several generations. The leading historian of the Society of Friends in that county concludes that emigration was the primary cause of this depopulation.6 In parts of Wales the impact of the Friends’ migration was even greater. Monthly meetings of Welsh Quakers expressed deep concern about “runnings to America.” The historian of one small community in Penllyn, Wales, writes of the exodus for America that “It is not sufficient to say that Quakerism declined in Penllyn; it received a mortal blow.”7

During the early eighteenth century, the number of American Quakers increased very rapidly—doubling every generation. By the year 1750 Quakers had become the third largest religious denomination in the British colonies. Their 250 meeting houses were more numerous than the churches of any other faith except Congregationalists (465) and Anglicans (289). After the mid-eighteenth century the number of Quakers in British America continued to rise in absolute terms, but began to fall relative to other religious groups. Among all American denominations, Quakers slipped to fifth place by 1775 (with 310 meetings); ninth place by

1820 (350 meetings); and sixty-sixth place by 1981 (532 meetings). But in early America, the Friends were not a small sect.8

These Quaker immigrants were accompanied by many other colonists who were not members of the Society of Friends, but sympathized with the values of the sect.9 Throughout the Delaware Valley, in eastern Pennsylvania, West Jersey, northern Delaware and northeastern Maryland, travelers noted that Quaker meetings attracted a large attendance from neighbors who did not choose to join in any formal way or to subject themselves to its rigorous discipline. In 1742, for example, an English Quaker observed in West Jersey that “the meetings were very large and [with] great comings in of other people besides Friends, for 20 or 30 miles around in the country.”10 In Maryland’s Cecil County (the northeastern corner of that colony), the same traveler attended another Quaker meeting and noted that “abundance of people besides Friends were there.”11 Quaker schools throughout the Delaware Valley drew many children of other denominations. As late as 1795 Joshua Evans visited New Brunswick, New Jersey, and noted in his diary that “many of the people hereabouts have had an education among Friends, and are Friendly.”12

Together, these two groups of Quakers and Quaker sympathizers came to constitute a majority of English-speaking settlers in the Delaware Valley by the end of the seventeenth century. In 1702, James Logan reckoned that half the people of Pennsylvania were Quakers, and the rest were divided among many smaller groups. That guess, together with general estimates of population in these colonies suggests that at least 13,000 people were either Friends or “Friendly” in the Delaware Valley by 1700. This population increased very rapidly. By 1766, Benjamin Franklin estimated that between 60,000 and 70,000 Quakers lived in Pennsylvania alone. Many more dwelled in the neighboring colonies of West Jersey, northern Delaware and northern Maryland.

Other people who settled in the Delaware Valley were distinctly “un-Friendly” and showed no sympathy with Quaker beliefs and customs. This category included a large part of the population in Philadelphia, which attracted the human flotsam and jetsam that washed ashore in every seaport city during the eighteenth century. These “un-Friendly” immigrants appeared in growing numbers after 1716, and moved quickly to the interior of the colony. By the mid-eighteenth century, meetings of the Society of Friends were outnumbered by churches of other denominations throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But in the Delaware Valley, the dominion of Friends and “Friendly” continued long enough to imprint a large part of their culture and institutions upon this region.

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