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Image Delaware Age Ways: Quaker Elders as “Nursing Fathers and Mothers”

When the Quaker missionary Mary Dyer was about to be hanged in Boston, her Puritan executioners asked if she wished an elder to pray for her. “Nay,” said she, “first a child, then a young man, then a strong man before an elder.” In her response, one may observe how radical was her challenge against conventional attitudes. Mary Dyer did not merely challenge the prevailing system of age-stratification. She turned it upside down.1

The second generation of Quakers took a different view. They revived something of the traditional respect for age, but tempered it by the tenets of their faith. Meetings and moralists in the Delaware Valley routinely urged honor and respect for elders, citing the same biblical injunctions and rewards that were so often mentioned in Massachusetts and Virginia. “Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long,” the Burlington Friends’ meeting quoted from Scripture, just as their New England neighbors did. Further, elders within the Society of Friends were thought to be entitled to the same honor that was due to parents.2

In other respects, however, ideas of age relations were different among the Quakers. Their notion of respect for age did not rest upon principles of veneration as in New England, or on ideas of patriarchy as in the Chesapeake. Quakers did not think of elders as Abraham’s seed who had been specially chosen by God to live a long life. Nor did they believe that older people were Adam’s heirs who had been specially ordained to rule the young.

In the Society of Friends, older people were thought of in another way—mainly as “nursing fathers and mothers to the young,” and teachers (in the Christian sense) who were assigned a special sort of nurturing role which the Quakers called “elder-ing.” This idea developed in the late seventeenth century, when the young Quaker radicals of the 1650s had become “ancient solid friends,” with a special standing in their sect. In Richard Bauman’s phrase, they were highly respected as “weighty veterans of the Lamb’s war.” When they spoke to the young, their words seemed to rise from the very roots of the movement. As a consequence, they had a special eminence as prophetic ministers whose role was to “feed the flock of God.” Thereafter, this status passed to subsequent generations of elders.3

One women’s meeting described the function of elders in the following way:

Elder women in the truth were not only called Elders but Mothers and likewise mothers in Israel; now a mother in the church of Christ and a mother in Israel is one that gives suck and nourishes, feeds and dresses and washes and rules, [and] is a teacher in the church and … an admonisher and instructor and exhorter. … so the elder women as mothers are to be teachers of good things and to be teachers of the younger and the trainers up in virtue, holiness and Godliness, in wisdom and in the fear of the Lord.4

Men’s meetings used different metaphors, but the organizing principle was much the same. Quaker elders were not saints or patriarchs, but nursing mothers and even “nursing fathers” who supported, exhorted, admonished and when necessary also corrected the young. In turn, youngsters were urged to respect their elders, and to follow their advice. Instruments of this purpose included the memoirs which elderly Quakers produced in large number for the instruction of the young. One example was Joseph Oxley’s huge manuscript called “Joseph’s Offering to His Children.” Another was David Cooper’s autobiography which he called “Some Memoirs … Intended for the Use of His Children.”5

This ideal of a nurturing relationship became a living reality in the Delaware Valley. Autobiographers warmly remembered the support they had received from elders in difficult moments of youth. Thus, Benjamin Bangs wrote, “ … there was a tender care in the elders over me, who often would be dropping some seasonable cautions to me, by which I was greatly benefited.”6 Israel Norris remembered of his father:

In the latter part of his life his great care was to consider the difference between Age and Youth … his innocent cheerfulness to … his children … deservedly merited their respect and duty due a parent, and his pleasure in their company and the ease and cheerfulness of his conversation made them choose him as a companion and friend.7

That “difference between age and youth” also had another side. Elders made themselves very busy in the way of admonition—so much so that among Quakers the word “elder” was not merely a noun but a verb which meant to scold or correct the young. One Quaker wrote of another that “she gave her friend a good eldering.”8

In the first years of the Quaker movement, elders did not have a special status. But as time passed, they became a separate “station” or quasi-office in the meeting—“pillars in the House of our God,” Barclay called them.9 Friends began to be formally selected to serve as elders—a process that was full of pain and difficulty for Quakers.10 As early as 1686, the Philadelphia monthly meeting asked its elders to talk with those “professing truth that walk not according to it.”11 In 1727, the York quarterly meeting in England appointed four elders to correct “a growing evil of pride … [and] other vain and pernicious practices run into by some of the youth among Friends, which notwithstanding the frequent and repeated advice given in that respect. …”12 Elders were also made responsible for organizing the affairs of the meeting, and maintaining order. It was their task to deal with mentally disturbed people in meetings.13 During the early eighteenth century, they were also given the task of advising ministers.

On difficult and doubtful questions, young and even middle-aged Friends were actually compelled by their meetings to consult elders. Thus, the York quarterly meeting in 1708 issued a minute on “unnecessary and extravagant wigs,” which required that any Quaker who needed to wear a wig should “acquaint” the elders with his problem and get their advice.14 This process of consulting with elders was common in that culture. Anne Cooper Whitall remembered the Quaker community where she grew up as a place where

the old governed the young, and those of them that obeyed not … were punished—it was a shame not to hear reproof among the youth and among the aged a matter of punishment not to give it. … the youth mixed with the aged to awe them, and give them examples.15

When elders fell out among themselves, communities were deeply riven. George Churchman described the shattering effect of “a difference between two members not in low stations, and advanced in age,” much to the distress of “younger branches of our heavenly father’s family.”16

There were limits, however, to the authority of elders in Quaker culture. Their roles were not as authoritarian as those in Puritan Massachusetts or Anglican Virginia. The young had an obligation to listen, but not always to obey. Further, elders were entitled to respect only when Truth was with them. Not all elders were honored among the Quakers. And the young were also to be respected when truth was on their side. Ministers were apt to be Quakers of any age: some were as young as ten; others of ripe years. Elders themselves were not always very old; meetings were often instructed not to choose their elders merely according to age, though normally they did so.17

In daily affairs, younger Quakers commonly waited for their elders to take the lead. But when elders failed to do their duty, then youth itself stepped into the breach. John Woolman remembered one such incident. It arose from a disturbance at a public house in Mount Holly, New Jersey, about the year 1742, when “many people, both in town and from the country,” were “spending their time in drinking and vain sports.” Woolman was then a young man in his twenty-third year. He waited for his seniors to do something. “I considered I was young,” he wrote, “and that several elderly friends in town had opportunity to see these things.” When they did nothing, the young man himself reproved the master of the drinking house.18

But elderly Quakers were often very active in their nurturing and teaching role. An example was Susannah Morris, a Quaker missionary. In 1746 at the age of sixty-four she “found drawings in my mind to go to and fro in visiting meetings.” Leaving her husband and children at home, she sailed from Pennsylvania to Europe on her fourth Atlantic crossing to proselytize for her faith. Two years later she was traveling in America on another mission. Even in the coldest months when the Delaware was frozen, she was busy visiting “much at home in winter,” though she wrote that “for my age could not well bear cold.” In the year 1752 (aged 70) she made still another transatlantic missionary trip, and continued her work until she died at the age of seventy-three.19

Quaker age ways, in summary, were less hierarchical than in Virginia or Massachusetts. The precepts of patriarchy and veneration were condemned within the Society of Friends. But elders were honored by this culture in other ways, and they served actively until the end of life—which leads to another question about attitudes toward death.

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