Open Access Articles- Top Results for Quakers in North America

Quakers in North America

Quakers in North America constitute approximately 32% of Quakers worldwide, according to the online Quaker Information Center. There are about 108,500 individual Quakers and about 44 Friends Yearly Meetings in North America.

Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends, a movement that started in England in the 17th Century. Some Quakers came to North America in the early days because they wanted to spread their beliefs to the British colonists there, while others came to escape the persecution that they were experiencing in Europe. The first known Quakers in North America were missionaries who arrived there in 1656. Soon other Quaker preachers arrived, many colonists converted to Quakerism, and Quakers from Europe migrated there. The colony of Rhode Island, with its policy of religious freedom, was a frequent destination, as the Friends were persecuted by law in Massachusetts until 1681. The British colony of Pennsylvania was formed by William Penn in 1681 as a haven for persecuted Quakers. Quakers also spread into Mexico and Central America. Also known as Mexican Quakers.

The arrival of the Quakers

Mary Fisher and Ann Austin are the first known Quakers to set foot in the New World. They journeyed from England to Barbados in 1656 and then went on to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their purpose was to spread the beliefs of the Friends among the colonists.

In Puritan-run Massachusetts the women were persecuted. They were imprisoned and their books were burned. Only one man, Nicholas Upsall, was kind to them during their imprisonment. Nicholas became a Friend himself and began spreading Friends beliefs in Massachusetts. Due to the intolerance of the Puritans, the Quakers eventually left the Massachusetts bay colonies and migrated to the more tolerant colonies in Rhode Island.

The first Monthly Meeting

Nicholas Upsall was banished from Boston and took refuge in the town of Sandwich, Massachusetts. It was there that he helped to found the first Monthly Meeting of Friends in the United States. It began meeting in 1657 at the home of William and Priscilla Allen. Besides the Allens and Upsall those in attendance included Richard Kerbey and Elizabeth Newland.

Quakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

The first Friends who settled along the Delaware River were John Fenwick, Edward Wade, John Wade, and Richard Noble. They formed a settlement at Salem, New Jersey in 1675.

In 1681 King Charles II granted William Penn, a Quaker, a charter for the area that was to become Pennsylvania. Penn guaranteed the settlers of his colony freedom of religion. He advertised the policy across Europe so that Quakers and other religious dissidents would know that they could live there safely. On November 10, 1681, Robert Wade established the first Monthly Meeting in the colony at his home. It eventually became the Chester Monthly Meeting.

Branches of Quakerism in North America

Quakers in the United States are diverse in their beliefs and practices. Friends there have split into various groups because of disagreements throughout the years.

Liberal Friends emphasize the Inner Light as a source of inspiration and guidance. They practice unprogrammed (i.e., spontaneous, Spirit-led) worship. They have no ordained clergy. Among them are both Christians and universalists. Many liberal Friends groups are part of the Friends General Conference. Some of them are part of both the Friends General Conference and the Friends United Meeting. Others are independent or not affiliated with any larger group. They are very involved in service projects but not in evangelism. They are widespread throughout Canada and the United States but are concentrated in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.

Pastoral Friends emphasize the Bible as a source inspiration and guidance. They practice programmed (i.e., planned) worship led by ordained clergy. Most pastoral Friends groups are part of the Friends United Meeting. They conduct both service projects and evangelism. They are found primarily in Indiana, North Carolina, Iowa, and Ohio.

Conservative Friends are a small group that emphasize both the Inner Light and the Bible as sources of inspiration and guidance. They practice unprogrammed worship. Many of them adhere to the traditional standards of "plainness" in speech and dress (see Testimony of Simplicity). Their meetings are not part of any larger groups. They are found primarily in Iowa, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Evangelical Friends strongly emphasize the Bible as a source of inspiration and guidance, considering the ultimate authority for faith and practice. They practice planned worship led by ordained clergy. Their congregations are often called churches instead of meetings, and they are usually part of Evangelical Friends International. They are very active in evangelism and missionary outreach as well as service projects. They are found throughout the United States and Latin America but are concentrated in Guatemala, Panama, Ohio, California, Oregon, and Kansas.

Yearly Meetings in North America

For a complete list see Yearly Meeting.

The Religious Society of Friends is organized into various regional groups called Yearly Meetings.

Trouble for Quakers in Colonial America

Persecution and Martyrdom

Quakers, in their zest for proselyting, experienced quite a bit of persecution, and even martyrdom. Eventually, the idea of martyrdom became something that a Quaker would search for. "The quakers engaged in a relentless quest for martyrdom… In colonial Rhode Island, where the rulers refused to persecute them, Quakers were unwilling to stay.”[1] While many Quakers did remain in both New England and Rhode Island, many of them migrated to cities or areas where they would be put through a "test of fire." Boorstin expounds that “One after another of them seemed to lust after hardships, trudging thousands of wilderness miles, risking Indians and wild animals, to find a crown of martyrdom.” The Quakers wanted to preach not to spread their faith, but to become martyrs and thus, become more personally “pure.”[2]

Christopher Holder[3] is the perfect exemplar of a Quaker martyr. Searching for this trial by fire, Holder turned to Boston,MA to preach his faith. Puritans at the time, who had a large community in Boston, were becoming fed up with Quakers interfering in their lives. Boorstin again explains that “Puritans were not sadists, but they wanted to be alone to pursue their orthodoxy and to build Zion according their model. What right had the Quakers to interfere? The Puritans had not sought the Quakers in order to punish them; the Quakers had come in quest of punishment.”[4] What the Puritans didn't understand, sadly, was that when they increased the legal penalties against the Quakers, it made their colony that much more enticing to the them, drawing even more Quakers. Christopher Holder was part of the group being "drawn" to Boston.

After being expelled from their community multiple times, the community in Boston realized expelling Holder wasn't keeping him away. They decided to capture and punish him and his traveling companion. He was confined to a bare cell with no bedding, no food, and no water for 3 days. He was imprisoned for 9 weeks during a New England winter without fire. He was whipped twice a week with a three-cord knotted whip. When they finally let him go, he traveled to Barbados, but because he did not receive enough persecution there, he returned to Boston, where the Puritans cut off his ear in one last "lesson."

Another epic example of Quaker martyrs was that of Mary Dyer.[5] She left her husband in Newport to travel to Boston in 1659. She and her companions (which included an 11-year-old girl) were banished on pain of death while in Boston. Not dismayed, she returned and the governor announced their death sentence [6] On the day of her execution, they walked her to the gallows where she stood and watched two of her companions meet their fate. Just as she was leaning upon her own gallow, the governor recanted her sentence. The governor didn't really want to kill her. He just wanted her to think she was about to be sentenced so that she would be scared to come back. Yet, she wasn't fazed. She requested that either the law was changed involving Quakers, or that she received her sentence. The governor had to send her off on horseback to her home. She was still unsatisfied and eventually she came back once more and requested that justice was met. She either had to have her sentence or they had to change the law. She was hanged.


While Quakers were striving to test and purify themselves through martyrdom, they were also living in fear of doing anything that might compromise their purity. An example of this was their rebellion to the taking of oaths that caused troubles in colonial America not just for the Quaker community, but for their overall government as well. Because the Bible deems swearing a sin, the Quakers conflated this idea to mean that the giving or taking of oaths was also a sin. Rather than taking oaths in court, the Quakers preferred to give passive affirmations.[7] This caused issue when the Quaker assembly would pass laws on the subject which were sometimes vetoed by the Governor and which, even when approved by him, were repeatedly repealed by the Crown.

Around the same time, the issue of capital punishment arose. Quakers were against the death sentence except for in cases of murder or treason. However, in England, the death sentence was much more strict and adhered to a numerous amount of petty crimes as well. Back in Pennsylvania, there was a man named Jonathan Hayes who was murdered in 1715 in Chester County. Because of the predominance of Quakers in that part of the country, if Hayes's murderers were to be brought to trial at all, judges, probably witnesses, and some jurors would have to be Quakers; but since Quakers refused to take the required oaths, no trial was possible and the prisoners suspected of the crime were released on bail for three years. Meanwhile, Deputy-Governor William Keith came to office and revived the case; Hayes murderers were executed before their appeal made it to England. This caused an uproar in London because British subjects were being executed in Pennsylvania on the verdict of unsworn juries. The threat to exclude Quakers from office altogether became a prominent idea, and the Quakers were scared. On the governor's suggestion, they decided to merge their laws on capital punishment with those of the Crowns in order to be able to give affirmations rather than take oaths in court.

Because they adopted the criminal laws of England, automatically much more crimes were punishable by death in Pennsylvania. Daniel Boorstin explains that Thus, to remain “pure” in the matter of oaths, the Quakers bargained the lives of all those men and women who might be convicted of one of a dozen miscellaneous crimes... "It showed how zealous men might sacrifice the welfare and even the lives of their fellowmen to the overweening purity of their own consciences.”[8] Because the Quakers were so involved in the purity of their souls, they were not only willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause (martyrdom), they were also willing to sacrifice others to secure their own "safety" in heaven.


This same rigidity in strictness to Quaker beliefs caused the loss of even more life on the borders of the American frontier. In 1739, England broke into war with Spain. This caused issue with the Quakers because they didn't believe in war. They were pacifists, and thus wouldn't fight. This ignited the debate between those who wanted to fight and Quakers who thought they could deal with war in other ways. Benjamin Franklin published The Plain Truth[9] in 1747 justifying the need for protection, but it was to no avail. The Quaker assembly didn't want war. He was, however, to gather a man-made militia of considerable size. But the real calamity occurred when Quakers began meddling in governmental affairs with Indians. While the Indians were becoming more and more enraged because of the colonial push to settle more of their land, their anger was growing; they began massacring many settlements and plantations on the edges of the frontier (Mary Rowlandson's A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration[10] is a good example of this). Rather than fight back, the Quakers hoped to befriend them. They traded guns and supplies with them, and made sure they were getting a fair price for the sold goods. Unfortunately, many times the Indians would take those supplies and attack more settlements with them.

Moreover, In 1756[11] they formed the: “Friendly Association for Regaining and Preserving Peace with the Indians by Pacific Measures.” While it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it worsened the situation. Because the Indians thought the "Friendly Association" represented the Governor, miscommunication occurred and the Indians thought they were being lied to when the Governor failed to uphold what the "Friendly Association" had promised. Thus, more and more massacres occurred until London Quakers finally convinced Pennsylvanian Quakers to step down from office and let someone rule that could and would want to fight back. Unfortunately, hundreds of innocent lives of women and children were lost well before this occurred in 1756.

Colonial Loss of Power

The colonial Quakers, hoping to regain the power that they lost in 1756 with the resign of 6 of their men from government, never had the chance. With the American Revolution came upheaval and more war that never gave Quakers the opportunity or time to build up their political prominence. Because of this, in 1777, Quakers were extremely well focused on their faith and personal purity. They called for a "Reformation" in the simplicity of apparel, household furniture, education of youth, and attendance of meetings. With this reformation, the Quakers turned even more inward to themselves and increased their focus on personal purity. While this strengthened their faith, many historians have said that this weakened their influence in America at the time.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Boorstin, Daniel J. "The Inward Plantation." The Americans: The Colonial Experience. NY: Random House, 1958, Print. Pg 46
  2. ^ Boorstin, Daniel J. "The Inward Plantation." The Americans: The Colonial Experience. NY: Random House, 1958, Print. Pg 46
  3. ^ Holder, Charles. Quakers in Great Britain and America. LA: Neuner Company, 1913. Print. Pg. 413
  4. ^ Boorstin, Daniel J. "The Inward Plantation." The Americans: The Colonial Experience. NY: Random House, 1958, Print. Pg 49
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Boorstin, Daniel J. "The Inward Plantation." The Americans: The Colonial Experience. NY: Random House, 1958, Print. Pg 57
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Abbott, Marergy Post. Historical Dictionary of the Friends (Quakers). UK: Scarecrow P, 2012, Print. Pg 137
  12. ^ Boorstin, Daniel J. "The Inward Plantation." The Americans: The Colonial Experience. NY: Random House, 1958, Print. Pg 60

External links