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.)

One of the Progressives’ big issues was abolition of slavery, which the Establishment wanted kept in a quiet, secluded corner, visited only occasionally. The Progressives couldn’t sit still for this. So another of their issues became a protest against the reality that Quakerism in those days was a two-tier group, with Ins ruling over Outs.

Thus in the course of time, there was a peculiar kind of a split among some Hicksite groups, and in 1853 the rebels in Pennsylvania formed their own Pennsylvania Progressive Friends Yearly Meeting.

Pennsylvania Progressive Friends & their Meeting House, Kennett Square PA
PA Progressive Friends & their Meetinghouse in Kennett Square PA, in 1865.

But the Progressive “split” was a peculiar one. In PA they abolished what were called “select meetings” (The official In-crowd), but they didn’t go around disowning all the folks who differed from them, as had happened in earlier splits.

In fact, they never got around to setting up much of a formal structure, and some of the best of the Hicksite activists came and went among Progressive circles, without ever formally quitting their Hicksite home meetings. My hero Lucretia Mott was perhaps the most effective of such double agents, and you’ll find more about that here.

Lucretia Mott -- Double Agent
Lucretia Mott, Double agent

Anyway, at the Pennsylvanians’ founding session in 1853, they wrote and issued a manifesto, a document with a clunky title, The Exposition of Sentiments. But if the title was clunky, the Exposition could knock some Quaker socks off — I know because it completely disappeared mine when I read it 150 years or so later.

So look it over; but in the meantime, back to their founding session. Among the attenders was Sojourner Truth, the rough-hewn but singularly eloquent advocate for abolition.

Sojourner-Truth

She is what moved me to cobble together this post. Here’s what the minutes say:

Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave mother, after uttering few impressive sentences, expressed herself as being deeply moved to sing, and she accordingly sung the following lines:

“I pity the slave mother, careworn and weary,
Who sighs as she presses her babe to her breast;
I lament her sad fate, all so hopeless and dreary,
I lament for her woes, and her wrongs unredressed.
O who can imagine her heart’s deep emotion,
As she thinks of her children about to be sold ;
You may picture the bounds of the rock-girdled ocean,
But the grief of that mother can never be told.

The mildew of slavery has blighted each blossom,
That ever has bloomed in her pathway below;
It has froze every fountain that gushed in her bosom,
And chilled her heart’s verdure with pitiless woe:
Her parents, her kindred, all crushed by oppression,
her husband still doomed in his desert to gay;
No arm to protect from the tyrant’s aggression.
She must weep as she treads on her desolate way.

O, slave-mother, hope! see — the nation is shaking!
The arm of the Lord is awake to thy wrong!
The slaveholder’s heart now with terror is quaking,
Salvation and Mercy to Heaven belong!
Rejoice, O rejoice! for the child thou art rearing
May one day lift up its unmanacled form,
While hope, to thy heart, like the rainbow so cheering,
Is born, like the rainbow, ‘mid tempest and storm.’”

Thank thee, Friend Truth.
Of the Progressive Friends, there will be more to say in future posts.

3 thoughts on “Getting Progressive With Sojourner Truth & Friends”

  1. Thankyou for posting this Chuck. There are some worrying gaps in Quaker acknowledged history and many popular and oft repeated self deceptions and myths, especially of who were early Friends. You help to fill in the gaps and straighten the distorted mirror . Hope you’re feeling better.

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