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Image The Friends’ Migration: Religious Origins

The central truth about the Friends’ migration was its religious purpose and inspiration. In large part this movement was a flight from persecution by a people who had suffered severely for their faith. Quaker monthly meetings in England kept special “Books of Sufferings” which recorded the many acts of oppression against them. After 1675 some of the worst abuses of physical violence had come to an end, but persecution of another kind continued—much of it at the hands of Anglican clergy whose income was threatened by Quaker refusal to pay church taxes. Friends were jailed in large numbers, and many had their property seized in amounts far beyond the tithes themselves.1

Persecution played a major part in driving Quakers to America, but it was never the leading cause. The primary religious goals of the Friends’ migration were positive rather than negative. An historian observes that the founders of the Delaware colonies wished “to show Quakerism at work, freed from hampering conditions.”2

The great majority of leaders in Pennsylvania and West Jersey shared this sense of collective inspiration, but among ordinary immigrants religious motives tended to be more personal and individual. Many came to America as a direct result of spiritual experiences. In the year 1711, for example, a sixteen-year-old London Quaker of humble rank named Jane Hoskins fell desperately ill of a fever. As she lay delirious in “a sore fit of sickness nigh unto death,” the image of God appeared before her and said, “If I restore thee, go to Pennsylvania.” Jane Hoskins later wrote, “ … the answer of my soul was, wherever thou pleasest.” On her recovery, she borrowed passage money from another Friend and boarded an emigrant ship for the Delaware.3

For Quakers such as Jane Hoskins the Friends’ migration became a spiritual pilgrimage that differed very much from the secular movements of our own time. Jane Hoskins did not count the material costs and benefits of coming to America, except in the most incidental way. She thought of herself as a servant of God’s will, and embarked upon her westward voyage in a mood of optimistic fatalism, perfectly secure in the spiritual values of her faith.

To understand the culture that developed in the Delaware Valley, one must know something of the religious beliefs of Quakers such as Jane Hoskins. Quakerism, as we call it today, was a highly articulated form of Christianity, very different from Puritan and Anglican beliefs in its theology, ecclesiology and biblical exegesis.

To understand those differences one might begin with the way that Quakers read the Bible. All Protestants were children of the Book. The Bible was the foundation of their faith. But Quakers, Calvinists and Anglicans drew very differently upon that common source. The beliefs of the Quakers came from the New Testament. One of the most important Quaker texts, Robert Barclay’s Apology (1675), contained 821 biblical citations, of which 656 (80%) referred to the New Testament. In Barclay’s Catechism, 93 percent of biblical references were to the New Testament, and only 7 percent to the Old. This pattern differed very much from that of Anglicans and especially Puritans, who made heavy use of both books.4

Closely linked to the Quakers’ biblicism was their theology, which also set them apart from Puritans and Anglicans. The Society of Friends always maintained an official hostility to formal doctrine, and never required subscription to a creed. But Quakers developed what Barclay called a “system of religion,” which repudiated the Five Points of Calvinism, and many Anglican dogmas as well. At the center of this Quaker “system” was a God of Love and Light whose benevolent spirit harmonized the universe. One American Quaker copied the following couplet into his commonplace book:

For love in all things doth Oneness call,

Thinking no evil, but pure good to all,

Yea, love is God, and God is love and light.

Fullness of pleasure, joy and great delight.5

The Puritans worshiped a very different Deity—one who was equally capable of love and wrath—a dark, mysterious power who could be terrifying in his anger and inscrutability. Anglicans, on the other hand, knelt before a great and noble Pantocrator who ruled firmly but fairly over the hierarchy of his creatures.

A central tenet of Quaker theology was the doctrine of the inner light, which held that an emanation of divine goodness and virtue passed from Jesus into every human soul. They believed that this “light within” brought the means of salvation within reach of everyone who awakened to its existence. Most Quakers rejected the Calvinist principle of limited atonement. They believed that Christ died not merely for a chosen few, but for all humanity. Quakers also rejected the Calvinist ideas of inexorable predestination, unconditional election and irresistible grace. They agreed that people could spurn the spiritual gift that was given to them. “Man’s destruction is of himself,” wrote Thomas Chalkley, “but his salvation is from the Lord.”6

Quakers were twice-born Christians. They believed that salvation was attained through a process of spiritual conversion. Many were deeply troubled in their youth until they felt themselves to be born again. David Cooper recalled that “when very young, I experienced two spirits in strife in me.” Benjamin Ferris remembered that “when I was about four or five years old I had many solitary hours alone by myself thinking of an endless world after death.”7

The psychology of conversion among Quakers was similar in some respects to that of Calvinists. But it was not precisely the same. Most Quakers had little doubt that salvation could be achieved by individual effort, and that the instruments had been placed by God in their hands. Once converted, they felt a sense of optimistic fatalism about the world to come. There was less of the brooding salvation-angst and violent mood-swings of hope and despair that troubled so many Puritans.

The ecclesiology of the Quakers was an extension of their theology. They invented a system of church government which differed radically from those of Anglicans and Puritans. Quakers condemned what they called a “hireling clergy,” and “steeple house ways.” They repudiated all sacraments, ceremonies, churches, clergy, ordinations and tithes, and maintained no ministers in the usual sense—only lay missionaries and exhorters whom they were sometimes called ministers. But the Quakers were not Christian anarchists. Of the many radical sects who appeared in seventeenth-century England, they were one of the few to survive beyond the era of their birth, largely because they also created an exceptionally strong set of religious institutions.

The Society of Friends was organized as a complex structure of meetings—men’s meetings and women’s meetings, meetings for worship and meetings for business, monthly meetings, quarterly meetings and yearly meetings. They recognized a need for leadership by elders and overseers, whose task was to teach, counsel and support. But authority belonged to the society itself; Quakers created a rigorous system of collective discipline which regulated marriage, sex, business ethics, dress, speech, eating and drinking, politics, and law. Special attention was given to the rearing of the young—an important factor in the survival of Quakerism, and in the culture that it created in the Delaware Valley.8

These Quaker beliefs were not static. They changed in many ways through time. Four distinct stages might be distinguished in the history of this Christian denomination. The first was the seedtime of a revolutionary sect (ca. 1646-66), when Quakerism tended to be radical, primitive, militant, aggressive, evangelical and messianic. The second stage (ca. 1666-1750) was the time of flowering, when the Society of Friends became increasingly institutional, rational, progressive, optimistic, enlightened, liberal, moderate, political and actively engaged in world, without losing its piety and godly purposes. The third stage (ca. 1750-1827) was an era when Quakers turned inward upon themselves and grew increasing sectarian, exclusive, quietist and perfectionist. A fourth stage of denominational division and maturity followed the Hicksite separation of 1827.9

Of these four stages, the most important for American history was the second (ca. 1666-1750), when the cultural institutions of the Delaware Valley were created. The guiding principles of Quakers in this period were not the revolutionary, messianic ideas of the first stage, nor the inward-looking ideas of the third stage, but something in between. In this second stage, Quaker ideals were exceptionally open, outgoing, and liberal in an eighteenth-century sense.

The special teachings of Quakerism in this second period entered deeply into the culture of the Delaware Valley. Friends and neighbors alike embraced the idea of religious freedom and social pluralism. They favored a weak polity and strong communal groups. Most came to share the Quakers’ concern for basic literacy and their contempt for higher learning. They also accepted Quaker ideas of the sanctity of property, equality of manners, simplicity of taste, as well as their ethic of work, their ideal of worldly asceticism, their belief in the importance of the family and their habits of sexual prudery. All of these attitudes became exceptionally strong in the folkways of an American region.

After 1750, the Society of Friends turned inward, and distanced itself not merely from other people in the present, but also from its own past. It increasingly developed ideas of unyielding pacifism, withdrawal from politics, extreme sectarian discipline, and extravagant ways of “going plain” in the world. But the more open and liberal spirit of Quakerism’s second period survived apart from the Friends themselves, in the culture of an American region which they did so much to create.

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