The “Quaker Scout”: Highlighting A Very Relevant Piece of Quaker History

In 1848 Quaker farmer Jonathan Roberts moved his family south from New Jersey to a new farm in northern VA in 1848. He arrived with high hopes and even higher ideals.

The new spread adjoined George Washington’s Mt. Vernon plantation, already a historic site for the still-young nation. Yet with its distinguished lineage, the property brought its characteristic issues: the fields had been exploited to grow tobacco, which brought quick profits but depleted the soil; and the white owners had been corrupted by maintaining themselves and their culture on a system of enslaved labor and chronic indebtedness.

The more scarred the land became and the deeper in debt many planters sank, the more belligerent they had become in their system’s defense, threatening rebellion and war if it were at all disturbed or upset.

By acquiring land among them, Roberts intended to change all that: renew the soil and make it sustainably profitable; do so entirely with free labor; thereby they would show the slaveowners a way out of debt and the thrall of their brutal human commerce. This would undermine and banish the slavery system, not overnight, but by invincible example and thus without falling prey to the scourge of war.

Roberts didn’t expect to achieve all this alone. He was part of a group of Quaker transplants who formed what became the Woodlawn Antislavery Colony near the city of Alexandria. Historian Martha Claire Catlin highlights Roberts and Woodlawn in her new book, The Quaker Scout, including his memoir, Testimony of a Civil War Non-Combatant, from Quaker Heron Press.

As the title hints, the Woodlawn colony and Roberts fell short of their lofty goals. They made the most progress agriculturally, propagating healthier farming practices. They were also a quietly supportive resource for freed persons who wanted to stay in their home area. In those years, Virginia law dictated that any enslaved person who gained their liberty had to leave the state within a year, unless a local court granted their special request to stay. Not many such petitions succeeded, but enough did in that area to become the nucleus of more than one enduring landed Black community.

Some modern readers may wonder why, given the hazards of remaining in a slave state, any freed persons would stay; and many did not. But for some others, they were Virginians despite all, with families, land, histories and aspirations of their own.

Jonathan Roberts put down new roots there as well. Besides farming, he had been trained as a land surveyor, and he plied this trade in Nearby Fairfax County and much of northern Virginia through the 1850s. In this work he became intimately familiar with the region’s terrain, its roads, trails and forest pathways, assets which proved to be of much future value.

He also became a quiet ally to many of the enslaved. As he reported:

“I soon became well acquainted throughout Fairfax and adjoining Counties, not only with the County, but also with the people. But through all, and to all who cared to know my sentiments I was always an outspoken anti-slavery man, and would hire no slaves of their masters, except where the masters would give the slaves their hire [i.e., pay the enslaved helper wages along with Roberts’s fees] as they did in some instances. Consequently, I soon became known to the slaves as their friend, and they came to me from far and near for counsel. But I never advised any to run away; that I always left to their own judgment.”

[“Never advised any to run away” — this phrase has more than one possible meaning: the proper, legal “advice” in Virginia then was to repeat the Apostle Paul’s command, (e.g., in Colossians 3:22) that “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only to please them while they are watching, but with sincerity of heart and fear of the Lord.”

Not to parrot this mantra was to open by loud silence a door to other responses. An even louder silence echoed in declining to condemn attempts to escape. Recommending flight was a crime; ostentatiously leaving it to their “own judgment” even by unspoken inference, opened that door more widely, by clearly imputing to the enslaved an agency, a power they were definitely not supposed to have, or even to think about.

Roberts was walking a tightrope over a canyon here, as his many brushes with lynch-minded proslavery gangs recounted by Martha Catlin underlines.

Roberts’s tightrope was snapped from under him in the spring of 1861, not by personal misstep, but with Lincoln’s election. The dreams of Roberts and the Woodlawn colonists of a peaceful pastoral end of slavery vanished in the smoke of southern secession, and in April, the outbreak of civil war. All at once, not just Roberts but all the Woodlawn colonists found themselves, and their families, in enemy territory, and near the shifting, deadly lines of battle and skirmish.

Some of the Woodlawn colonists left, seeking safety in the North or West. Roberts stayed, and faced a dilemma that confronted many of his Quaker peers: by Friends’ testimony and tradition, Roberts  was forbidden to take part in war. But now he was surrounded by armies, battles and deadly military intrigues.

Further, whether fighting or not, he was hardly neutral in the contest: the war involved, on one side, saving the Union and the chances of ending slavery, versus rending the Union to preserve slavery. Roberts was definitely for the Union/Abolition side. Yet, as he wrote later, by July 1861:

“I now [had] come to a point where I had to choose between two courses of action. One was to keep on as I had been, [publicly] opposing slavery and secession, or to retire behind others and let them bear the brunt, while I skulked to a safe distance in the rear; and as I had not been of the skulking kind, I determined to keep on and to try to solve the questions as they arose.

Upon arriving in Alexandria. . . I went immediately to the [Union army] commanding officer, Col. (afterward Maj. Gen.) S.P. Heintzelman, and had a long private interview with him, after which he requested me to stay about his headquarters, as he said I was the first man that he was able to find who knew anything and was willing to tell it.

About a week after, Heintzelman came back from a council of war at Arlington, and said to me that the army was going up tomorrow to hunt the rebels, and he wanted me to go along as guide, and to consult with.

I told him I was a Quaker, and that Quakers did not fight.

He said he knew all that, and did not want me to fight. They would do all that themselves; but that I knew the country and people, and he wanted very much for me to go along. So I went along.”

He “went along”: did not pick up arms or formally join the Union army, but was “attached” to it as a scout. Yet armed or not, his deep knowledge of the region’s terrain and trails repeatedly proved to be of great value to Union commanders. Riding with them also often put him in as much danger as many combatants faced.

In mid-summer 1863, he was seriously injured while with a mounted detachment chasing the notorious Confederate guerilla John “Gray Ghost” Mosby. The wound was not inflicted by bullet or sword, but came when Roberts’s horse stumbled, threw and rolled on him, leaving him with a permanently ruined hand and knee. (Mosby escaped, as usual.)

Thus diminished for riding and active scouting, Roberts served as Sheriff of Fairfax County while it was occupied by Union forces. But after president Lincoln’s assassination, successor Andrew Johnson soon permitted former Confederates to retake most political power in Virginia. This retrenchment soon ended Roberts’s tenure in public office. Given their continuing threats and hostility, and his disabilities, by 1871 Roberts had had enough:

“After that time, finding I was proscribed by the rebel element, now let come back and placed in control, I seemed through with my usefulness, and having an opportunity I sold my farm, called “Cedar Grove,” and moved to Marshall County, Iowa, [transferred to Marietta Meeting, Iowa, in early 1871] where it is no disgrace to have been a loyal man and served the Government faithfully.”

In 1881, now widowed, Roberts moved one last time, returning to his ancestral home area in New Jersey. There he remarried in 1887, and in 1891 penned a three-part memoir, The Quaker Scout: Life in the Old Dominion Before and During the War. It was published in the National Tribune of Clarksboro NJ. He died there in March 1901.


Historian Martha Catlin has meticulously researched Roberts, and the widely scattered paper trail he left. Her book not only fills a major gap in American Quaker histories; it also offers all the raw material needed for a skilled novelist to turn into a major suspense novel, with twists and turns enough for the best of them. Plus she includes a special gift: the full text of his remarkable Quaker Scout memoir.

But there’s more. Jonathan Roberts and the Woodlawn colonists were aligned with the proto-liberal Hickite branch of 19th Century Friends, and had numerous connections with the more loosely-organized radical Progressive Friends movement. These Friends often congratulated themselves on having escaped the entangling, compromising bonds of formal theology, which they thought stifled the Spirit and ended up as obsolete and oppressive creeds.

But while they were wriggling out of old creedal bonds, these Quaker rebels did not do so well at avoiding the new entanglements and compromises of history — not the ancient history of biblical disputation, but the earth-shaking raw events of what became history in their time, with actual battles fought in their own back (and front) yards.

Catlin only hints at this theological tangle, and the most revealing points turn up in her very interesting footnotes. (This reviewer admits to being an inveterate footnote reader.) For American Quakers, one major theological issue — that of ecclesiology, the nature of the church community–was played out in these pages, less as formal dispute, than through coping with the traumatic pastoral demands of the time.

In the last decades before the Civil War, the leading members of both major branches of Friends (Orthodox and Hicksite) thought they were successfully pushing back against insurgents who wanted to reshape their inherited structures of power. The Religious Society of Friends was then a top-down, hierarchical, separatist church body, ruled by meetings-within-the-meetings of elders and ministers with life tenure. (More on this here.)

But after 200 years, this power structure (or ecclesiology) was being challenged by more democratically-inclined insurgents: the USA was (at least partly, for white males) increasingly democratic; why, some were asking, couldn’t some of that spirit be imported into Quakerism, by making monthly meetings more autonomous, and decreasing the power of a  ministerial gerontocracy?

The elders’ rebuttal was, in sum: the status quo should stay because it was God’s will. Those who differed often found themselves marginalized or disowned.

In 1859, it seemed the elders were stemming the dissident tide, and shoring up their ancient authority.

But in a mere six years, American Quaker church structure was shaken to its foundations, fundamentally reshaped, and was never the same afterward.

Martha Catlin’s narrative does not really tell this story, except implicitly. But the nub of it is in her footnotes. What the internal Quaker reformers had not been able to achieve, an external intruder did.

The intruder was the Civil War: Over its four destructive years, a large (uncounted) number, maybe a majority, and certainly an effective plurality, of young male American Friends joined the Union war effort, directly, or as in Jonathan Roberts’s case, indirectly. Their existential bargain was: to bring an end to slavery, which Friends had sought for a century, they felt obliged to lay down the ban on joining war, at least this once.

That was the first part of the change. The second was that when the war (or at least formal combat) ended, returning Quaker veterans (those who survived) faced disownment en masse, according to the clear establishment rules, codified in Books of Discipline.

But when these veterans, or their coffins, came home, the elders tasked with enforcing this strict discipline, faced with cutting off much of their own remaining kith and kin, could not bear to, as it were, “pull the trigger.”

In fact, they abjectly surrendered, and took back pretty much any Quaker soldier who wanted to rejoin, despite their default on the key disciplinary matter of joining the mass murder of war. In the process the locus of authority was abruptly moved from the corporate body, spoken for and enforced by the ministers and elders, to the individual Friend’s conscience and Inner Light.

And thereby, Quakerism rapidly became a basically different kind of church group. Further, once war avoidance became optional, it was soon followed by the shedding of plain dress, speech, authoritative ministers, and other separatist “peculiarities.”

Whether this change was good, bad, or both, Jonathan Roberts and his generation embodied it, and made it happen. It is one of the chief “back stories” of Catlin’s history.

And there is one more issue, a question that nags at the entire Woodlawn saga Catlin retells: did its non-confrontational “modeling” approach to ending slavery ever really have a chance? Or was it an example of agricultural wisdom, combined with social/cultural folly?

Moncure Conway (1832-1907)

One contemporary observer pondered this matter deeply: Moncure Conway, another Virginia convert to the abolition cause, he from Methodism to Unitarianism, also tried his hand at reforming his home state, in company with some Woodlawn allies. To agricultural reform, they added a call for support of public schools, arguing that an educated  citizenry, white and black, would be more productive and enrich all.

This is an obvious truism today. But to Conway and Woodlawn it seemed like a good — no, a brilliant–idea at the time. Conway recalled:

With Samuel Janney [a staunch friend of Woodlawn and “the most distinguished Quaker in Virginia,”] I consulted, and we framed a petition to the Virginia Legislature to repeal the law which forbade the teaching of slaves to read, and to restrict the arbitrary separation of families. A few influential signatures were obtained. A private reply came from a leading member of the Legislature, declaring that no such petition could be read in that body; that all social systems have evils, and those of the South were no greater than the evils of other countries. My friend Daniel Goodloe, a North Carolinian resident in Washington, sent to the Legislature of his State a similar petition with many signatures, with a similar result.

Ah, what naive days were those!”

Conway kept his doubts, but only resolved his dilemma by abandoning the U. S. and moving to England. If Catlin is trying to pass along the Woodlawn experience as one that Friends might usefully imitate today, the effort is provocative, but not entirely persuasive.

Even so, the modeling strategy still has a wide following among today’s liberal Friends, as one can tell from any Meeting’s parking spaces by counting the number of hybrid and electric cars, and their collection of admonitory bumperstickers. Today, of course, they have to contend with the sneers of skeptics who call this mere “virtue signalling.”

Such catcalls can be deflating; and the results are, to say the least, ambiguous. But they are thus far a seemingly preferable alternative to secession and another civil war.

Thus far. Woodlawn didn’t stop the earlier ones, did it?

Can we do any better? Or will Martha Catlin’s theological subtext  come down to Jonathan Roberts’s wry resolve to not be “of the skulking kind,” and at best to stay  “determined to keep on and to try to solve the questions as they arose. . . .”

Thanks to Martha Catlin for bringing us these very relevant questions, along with a gripping story of one intrepid Quaker’s existential answers.

[NOTE: While the antislavery colony is history, the Alexandria Friends Meeting at Woodlawn continues. More about it here.]

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