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Image The Friends’ Migration: Ethnic Origins

The Quaker idea of a universal “inner light” within all humanity encouraged a spirit of fraternity with other people. They addressed everyone as “Friend,” and welcomed others of many different backgrounds to live beside them. From the start, European settlers in the Delaware Valley were very mixed in their ethnicity. Even before the first English Quakers arrived, a diverse population had already gathered there. William Penn wrote in 1685, “ … the people are a collection of Divers Nations in Europe: as, French, Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Scotch, French and English, and of the last equal to all the rest.” By 1700, the proportion of English and Welsh colonists had risen from one-half to about two-thirds of the population. But a pattern of ethnic diversity persisted throughout the colony’s history. It was actively encouraged by William Penn himself, and accepted by his co-religionists.1

The Quakers, unlike Puritans and Anglicans, were comfortable with ethnic pluralism. In the seventeenth century, the Society of Friends was an evangelical movement which sent missionaries in search of converts throughout the world. From its birthplace in England, it spread rapidly to Wales, Ireland and many parts of Protestant Europe. In the seventeenth century, the Quakers had nothing like the Puritans’ Hebraic idea of a chosen people, nor anything comparable to the Anglican gentry’s fierce pride of rank and nationhood. They looked upon all humanity as their kin.

This attitude was reinforced in the Delaware colonies by a diversity of origins among the Quakers themselves. Most were English, but many came from other nations. A sizable minority were Irish. Nearly 10 percent of immigrants registered in Philadelphia County were from Ireland. Among Quaker missionaries who were recognized by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 16 percent were Irish. The proportion of Irish Quakers was smaller in rural Chester and Bucks counties, but even larger in other localities. The town of Newton, West Jersey, was largely settled by Friends from Ireland; surrounding lands were called the “Irish Tenth.”2

Also numerous were Quakers from Wales, who colonized a broad area called the “Welsh Tract” west of the Schuylkill River. They came mainly from comparatively prosperous parts of Merioneth, and also from Radnor and Montgomeryshire in east Wales. Few were from poor and backward regions such as Anglesey and Carnarvon. Many spoke Welsh and took great pride in their ethnic origins, even as they were also strong converts to the Society of Friends.3

Dutch and German Quakers were also recruited actively by William Penn, who had traveled as a missionary in the Rhine Valley. As early as 1683 thirteen families settled Germantown, north of Philadelphia, where their leader Francis Daniel Pastorius founded the first non-English-speaking Quaker meeting in Pennsylvania. These people came mostly from Protestant communities in the lower Rhineland such as Krefeld and Kriegsheim, and spoke a mixed German-Dutch Rhenish dialect called “Krefeld-Hollandisch.”4

The Germantown district (a cluster of small communities) became exceptionally diverse in its religion and ethnicity. Within a two-mile stretch of Germantown’s Great Road, churches were built by Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, Quakers, Dunkards and Calvinists. But within this mixture, Quakers were two-thirds of the population in 1690. During that year a Dutch Reformed clergyman came to Germantown and wrote that “this village consists of forty-four families, twenty-eight of whom are Quakers, the other sixteen of the Reformed [including] the Lutherans, the Mennists [Mennonites] and the Papists who are very much opposed to Quakerism.”5

After 1715, non-Quaker colonists began to arrive in growing numbers. Among them were North British Borderers who have been called Scotch Irish (inaccurately, as we shall see). The Quakers heartily disliked these people and hurried them on their westward way. Other non-Quaker immigrants also arrived from Protestant communities in western Germany, Switzerland and Alsace mostly during the mid-eighteenth century; half of all Germanspeaking colonists in Pennsylvania arrived within a period of five years from 1749 to 1754.6

By 1760, English Quakers were a minority in the colonies they had founded, and the Delaware Valley had become a cultural mosaic of high complexity. Some of these other ethnic groups, however, shared much in common with Quaker culture. Many had been recruited by William Penn because of this affinity, and had remained in the Delaware Valley because the Quaker colonies were congenial to their own ways.7

There was little conflict between German Pietists and English Quakers. Benjamin Franklin’s slur upon the Germans as a race of “Palatine Boors” was the attitude of a transplanted New England Yankee—not a member of the Society of Friends. Quakers by and large welcomed German settlers and lived comfortably beside them. German-speaking elites, for their part, rapidly assimilated English culture. Daniel Pastorius wrote to his sons, “Dear Children, John Samuel and Henry … though you are of high Dutch Parents, yet remember that your father was naturalized, and you born in an English Colony, consequently each of you [is] anglus natus, an Englishman by Birth.” Many Pennsylvania Germans anglicized their names. In Germantown, for example, the family of Zimmermann became Carpenter, Rittinghuysen became Rittenhouse and Schumacher became Shoemaker. Intermarriage frequently occurred between children of different nationalities who shared the same religious faith. English, Irish, Welsh, Dutch and German Quakers rapidly became an extended cousinage.8

Germans of other Christian denominations did not intermarry with Quakers so freely, but they came to terms with the Quaker establishment in different ways. Germans did not run for the Pennsylvania Assembly; they cast their votes for Quaker candidates and supported the “Quaker Party.” For many years, German Protestants and English Quakers tended to stand together in the politics of Pennsylvania. This cultural alliance dominated the Delaware Valley for nearly a century.9 It also supported the dominion of an English-speaking Quaker elite, which firmly maintained its cultural hegemony in the Delaware Valley for seventy years. Of the first generation, Rufus Jones writes that “we hear nothing of any men of prominence in these early days except Friends.”10

From 1675 to 1745, the dominion of this elite tended to grow stronger rather than weaker. An indicator was the composition of the Pennsylvania Assembly. In the year 1730, British Quakers made up 60 percent of that body. That proportion rose to 80 percent in 1740, and reached its peak in the year 1745 at 83 percent. It was 75 percent as late as 1755 when many Quakers withdrew from politics. Even after that event, the proportion of Quakers in the Assembly as high as 50 percent until 1773.11

In short, the English Friends who founded West Jersey and Pennsylvania welcomed immigrants of different national origins, but remained firmly in control of their colonies long enough to shape the character of the region. For eighty years, they wrote the laws, distributed the land, decided immigration policy and created institutions which still survive to the present day. Most important, the Quakers also established the rules of engagement among people of different ethnic groups. These governing principles developed from Quaker ideals of association, order, power and freedom. Even as the Quakers became a minority of the population, their values remained embedded in the institutional structure of the Delaware Valley for centuries to come.

It is easy to misunderstand the culture that the Quakers created in the Delaware Valley. Alan Tully warns us that “because of the dynamic nature of Pennsylvania society, observers have mistakenly described the social organization of the colony as fragmentary and weak. In fact, Pennsylvania possessed a strong, coherent and flexible community structure. … Because different individuals identified with, and felt they belonged to, the local community as they perceived it, Pennsylvania society had a cohesiveness that appearances belied.”12

Further, the Delaware Valley appeared at first sight to be a melting pot which attracted many different ethnic and religious groups. But the Quaker founders deliberately created a coherent cultural framework which allowed this pluralism to flourish. They did so in a highly principled way, and their organizing principles survived long after the Quakers themselves dwindled to a small minority.

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