Category Archives: Remarkable Friends

Friends’ History Coming Alive: The Quaker History Roundtable

I’ve been retired for four-plus years, and interested in Quaker history for about fifty. I’ve done research, attended conferences of historians, and written my share of articles and books on related topics. I’ve also organized some conferences. (For more about this work, click here. )

Retirement is supposed to be when, with time growing short, one gets to work on the bucket list. And on my list, making some sense of the last century — half of which I spent among Friends — is pretty high. Much higher than going on a cruise.

Call me weird, but I think watching glaciers melt is like watching paint dry. Besides, I’ve checked, and not one of these boats has a decent Quaker library.

Working on Quaker history has been continually stimulating for me, and often fun. And not much has been done on the 20th century among Quakers — despite the fact that a LOT went on.

Seventeen years past the end of that century, I figured it was time to start filling that gap. So about a year ago I started sounding out scholars and others I’ve met and heard about who are also Quaker history geeks, and suggested we do some work, then get together and share and discuss it; many were interested. And I had enough savings to underwrite it, so I did.  Continue reading Friends’ History Coming Alive: The Quaker History Roundtable

Ringing Spring’s Bell for Continued Quaker Resistance

When Friends pulled the rope on the bell atop Spring Friends Meeting, the ringing convened the Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation on March 25. And its session began with cheers & applause.

Pull the rope, ring the bell for victory over the AHCA, and to call for continued resistance.

That’s because there was a major success to celebrate: the abrupt, inglorious end of the so-called “American Health Care Act” the day before. Continue reading Ringing Spring’s Bell for Continued Quaker Resistance

Lucretia Mott & The The Wild Chase Scene

Who was Jane Johnson, and why was she racing down Philadelphia streets  in a coach with Lucretia Mott in September of 1855? And why were federal marshals trying to catch them??

And why did Johnson run through Mott’s house and out the back door?

There’s two ways to find out the answers to these (and many other) exciting questions.

One is hard, the other is easy . . . .

The first way is the harder one:

Continue reading Lucretia Mott & The The Wild Chase Scene

Angelina Grimke & Religious Liberty

Angelina Grimke & Religious Liberty

Grimke-rights-Jesus-Box

Maintaining religious liberty within the Religious Society of Friends has not always been easy. For instance, contrary to popular Quaker legend, work in the abolitionist movement was very unpopular among Friends, and especially repugnant to the entrenched power structure of recorded ministers and elders.

While these authorities did oppose owning, buying or selling slaves, they also thought public activism aimed at abolishing the institution of slavery was “creaturely,” needlessly dangerous — and many highly-placed Friends, while not owning slaves, yet had extensive business interests connected to the slave economy. All these were threatened by connections with abolition “agitation.”

The result was what I have called “The Great Purge”; many Friends were forced out of the Society, and others resigned, to uphold their antislavery principles. Even some meetings were laid down by “executive action” for being tainted by the reforming virus.

Some Friends did not wait for the Overseers and elders to show up to apply this “discipline.” 

Instead, they pre-emptively renounced their membership.  One early activist, for both abolition and women’s rights, was Abby Kelley. She left her Meeting in Connecticut in 1841, publishing her resignation letter, and insisted that she had disowned Friends, for defaulting on their own testimonies, not the other way around. 

In Philadelphia, two rising stars, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, also arranged a departure in their own unique way. Refugees and turncoats from a wealthy slaveholding family in South Carolina, they had joined Friends in Philadelphia because of the testimony against slavery. 

They had also become instant abolitionist celebrities in 1837, when they went on an antislavery lecture tour in New England. Their lectures were thronged, and they even testified before the Massachusetts legislature, the first women ever to do so. But they were rebuked and stifled by the enforced quietism of the Quaker establishment, and soon resolved to leave the Society. 

An elegant way out soon appeared, when Angelina became engaged to abolitionist activist Theodore Dwight Weld. Because Weld was not a Friend, under the existing and strictly applied rules of the Discipline, Angelina forfeited her membership when she married him on May 14, 1838 — and Sarah was disowned as well, simply for being present at the ceremony. (More Friends were expelled for such “offenses” in those decades than for any other cause.)

Lucretia Mott was a friend and supporter of the Grimkes — but she too had been the target of several disownment attempts, and she did not dare attend the wedding to avoid falling into that trap.

Indeed, Lucretia did not attend a non-Quaker wedding until 1863, twenty-five years later, when the strictures of the discipline were beginning to relax their grip:

Lucretia wrote of this in a letter to her sister Martha Wright, on Christmas Day, 1863. In it she told of the wedding of Laura Strattan, a distant cousin, who was marrying a dashing army officer, Col. Fitzhugh Birney. He was the son of James G. Birney, a prominent abolitionist who had run for president for the Liberty Party. The groom came in his dress uniform, accompanied by other soldiers. 

“They made an imposing appearance,” Lucretia wrote, “with all the awful regimentals — [William] Furness [the minister] acted well his part–the whole thing beautiful–his prayer touching– especially the close for Fitzhugh.” 

The marriage did not last long. Birney had taken part in many major battles, including Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and he had been wounded. The exertions of extended combat broke his health, and in the spring of 1864 his health failed.  After surviving so much combat, he succumbed to pneumonia in June; Laura Strattan Birney was a war widow after less than seven months. (Harvard Memorial Biographies, Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1867, Vol. 2, pp. 415-424)

Theirs was one tragedy among a multitude. But the significance of this report here is something else, a detail that by contrast seems trivial to the point of frivolousness, but is nonetheless portentous: 

By openly being present their nuptials that December, Lucretia Mott, aged seventy, had for the very first time attended a non-Quaker wedding, one furthermore conducted by a “hireling preacher,” in a church.  Any of these had long been grounds for immediate disownment in her Quaker world; it was why she had stayed away from Angelina Grimke’s wedding.  

But now she did it — and nothing happened. She had gained and used a new measure of religious liberty, for Friends. the “Great Purge” was ending.

More about this “Great Purge” and its religious context in my book, Remaking Friends, available here.

Progressive Friends & That Haunting Face In The Mirror: Hoping History Won’t Repeat — Or Rhyme Too Much

Samuel M. Janney
Samuel M. Janney, Virginia Friend

 

While reading about and “living with” Progressive Friends, I was inspired by several of the memorable personalities I walked with. I admired and learned from all of them, as well as others who interacted with them.

But there’s one Friend I identified with especially: Samuel M. Janney.

Continue reading Progressive Friends & That Haunting Face In The Mirror: Hoping History Won’t Repeat — Or Rhyme Too Much

Getting Progressive With Sojourner Truth & Friends

The Progressive Friends were a group that hasn’t yet got their props from Quaker historians. There isn’t space here for an outline of their fascinating history, except to say you can find out more here and here.

Pennsylvaia Progressive Friends Minute Book

But in sum, they started as liberal rebels in mid-1800s America, who took on a hidebound Hicksite Establishment. And they ended, invisibly but unmistakably, as the seedbed and founders of modern US liberal Quakerism. The fact that almost nobody knows this is a shame, but no surprise given the general ignorance of Quaker history among Quakers. (I’ll rant about that some other time.)

Continue reading Getting Progressive With Sojourner Truth & Friends