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 widely unpopular among Friends, and especially repugnant to the entrenched power structure of recorded ministers and elders. Abolitionist work even precipitated a purge that led to a formal schism in Indiana Orthodox Yearly Meeting. (Only after the Civil War was won and legal slavery abolished did many prominent Friends suddenly “discover” that they had really been for abolition all along.)
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 (later Abby Kelley Foster). 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 also 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 as a public speaker & abolition activist, 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 she was seventy, and when the strictures of the discipline were finally 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 at their nuptials that December, Lucretia Mott had for the very first time attended a non-Quaker wedding, one furthermore conducted by a “hireling preacher,” in a church, with the groom in military regalia, she had defied several rules that had long been grounds for immediate disownment in her Quaker world.
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.
There have been other struggles for religious liberty in our small Quaker world. Religious Liberty Day, May 24th, is not only for others. it’s for Friends too.
More about this “Great Purge” and its religious context in my book, Remaking Friends,available here.
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.
Researching and writing about Progressive Friends took up most of my time from the autumn of 2013 through the spring of 2014. Often this was a paradoxical experience: from one angle, it was a very solitary effort: from another, very crowded.
I did this research at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania, as the Cadbury research scholar in Quaker History. Most of my time at Pendle Hill was spent solo: in the Friends Historical Library at nearby Swarthmore College, poring over old letters, minutes, pamphlets and books; in my room, reading more old documents; then lots of staring into my computer screen, at the ever-growing store of texts available there.
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.
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.)
The 1989 Friends Ministers Conference was the fourth in a series that were held every five years. The event had started out as the Friends Pastors Conference, but this was changed for the 1984 gathering in a bow to traditional Quaker nomenclature, and to accommodate the sensibilities of the handful of attenders who came from the non-pastoral Quaker groups. (I was one.)The 1989 gathering was scheduled for Denver. The planning committee’s chairman was Eugene Coffin. Priscilla Deters’ introduction to the committee was succinctly described by an Investigator for the Kansas State Security Commission, Gary Fulton. Writing in 1994, he explained that:
In the early 1950s, Billy Britt attended Peoples Bible College in High Point, North Carolina. In 1993, Peoples had become John Wesley College, and Britt’s wife Viola was a member of its board. Frank Scurry, the NCYM pastor who also headed the Houston extension program there, told John Wesley’s President, Brian Donley, about Deters and Productions Plus. Donley was interested. His school was in tenuous financial condition: in debt, unaccredited, and paying very low salaries to its faculty. Donley and his board could think of many uses for matching grants: retiring the debt, some new building, scholarships.