Much as New England was shaped by its Puritan heritage, the history of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley intertwined heavily with the Religious Society of Friends. Philadelphia gained one of its nicknames, “The Quaker City,” from its founding and settlement by the Friends, colloquially known as Quakers, a historically Christian religious sect that emerged during the English Civil War (1642-51). Although less influential in Philadelphia after the eighteenth century, the Religious Society of Friends remained a vital part of the city’s religious landscape.
Quakerism grew out of the ministry of George Fox (1624-91), a shoemaker’s apprentice who rejected the special authority of university-trained priests and ministers, arguing that divine revelation was accessible to anyone. Fox believed that Jesus “had come to teach his people himself” and that this occurred in the form of an “inward light” that was present and accessible to human beings. By gathering together in silence with other believers, which was called a “Meeting for Worship,” Quakers believed that individuals might be directly influenced by God to offer vocal ministry.
One of the notable features of this new religious group was its relative egalitarianism. While early Quakers did not seek to abolish all earthly hierarchies, they spurned established custom by addressing everyone (including those of higher social status) using the informal plain speech of “thee” and “thou,” language that was normally reserved for intimates. One embodiment of Quaker faith was the adoption of “plain dress,” unadorned clothing designed to defy the custom of having fashion signify social status. In pursuit of this same social goal, men in the Quaker sect violated established custom by not doffing their hats to their social superiors.
This concept of equality also extended to the idea that both sexes were equal in spiritual matters. Early Quakers believed that women had the same authority to preach in meeting as men did, and, like their male counterparts, women often traveled in their ministry. Within and among local congregations (Quakers called these “Meetings”), committees of women known as “Womens’ Meetings” were empowered to carry out some of the group’s administration, and their decisions were supposed to be of equal value to the governance provided by the “Men’s Meetings.”
The Quakers’ understanding of Christianity led to the group being different from its neighbors in other ways. They professed a “peace testimony,” which called on their members to avoid violence and warfare. And though it was a common requirement in courts of law at the time, Quakers also refused to swear oaths, arguing that Jesus had forbidden the practice in the New Testament. Because of these differences and their belief that they alone correctly practiced Christianity, Quakers were endogamous, marrying only within their own group and expelling members who married non-Quakers.
William Penn’s “Holy Experiment”
Because of their distinctive religious practices and their rejection of the established Anglican Church, the Quakers endured significant persecution in England and thousands were forced to pay fines or imprisoned. By the 1670s Quakers had begun to consider the possibility of immigrating to North America to escape religious oppression. In 1680 William Penn (1644-1718), a prominent leader with the Quaker movement, received a land grant for a new colony from English monarch Charles II as a payment for a debt that the king had owed to Penn’s father, William Penn. The elder William, who had been an admiral in the Royal Navy, became the namesake for the new colony.
Penn saw the colony as a religious venture, a “holy experiment,” and he designed the laws of the new colony to be congenial to Quakers. No oaths were required in courts or to hold public offices, Quaker-style marriage ceremonies were made the legal form of marriage, and because of past Quaker experiences with persecution, religious liberty was extended to all monotheists.
The colony’s capital, Philadelphia, became the site of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM), an aggregation of Quakers in the Philadelphia region. Extending over a particular geographic location, PYM comprised several Quarterly Meetings, which in turn were composed of multiple Monthly Meetings (similar to congregations). Though technically separate from the civil government, important Quaker men tended to be elected to fill leadership roles in both bodies, so much so that historian Arthur J. Merkel has suggested that “the relationship [of the Yearly Meeting] with the government resembled an interlocking directorate.” Though other Yearly Meetings existed in New England, Maryland, and North Carolina, PYM soon became the most influential grouping outside of London.
War and Peace
By the 1750s Quakers’ involvement with Pennsylvania politics began to conflict with their commitment to nonviolence. In 1754 when the French and Indian War began, the British government instructed Pennsylvania to equip an army to prepare to fight. Many Quakers in the colonial legislature were initially willing to comply. However, after Catherine Payton (1727-94), a visiting English Quaker minister, exhorted them to adhere to Quakerism’s peace testimony, many reconsidered. When the Assembly voted to go to war regardless, Quakers resigned en masse rather than violate their peace testimony. As historian Rebecca Larson has explained, this was “the beginnings of a movement that would finally end with the complete exodus of Quakers from government twenty years later.” Over the next several centuries, only a small number of Quakers have served in elected positions. Many Quakers, however, redirected their public-service energies into various forms of philanthropy, an arena where Quakers have brought high participation and leadership.
The issue of Quaker participation in war arose again during the American Revolution. Most Quakers refused to take part in this conflict because of their avowed pacifism, causing persistent accusations that they were loyal to the British crown. Some Friends were disowned, or expelled, from Quaker Meetings for serving with the American army. These included a small group that founded a splinter denomination, the Free Quakers, which existed into the early nineteenth century.
By the early eighteenth century some Quakers had become increasingly skeptical about the compatibility of slavery with their religious convictions. By the early 1700s, the PYM and other Yearly Meetings began exhorting Quakers not to import enslaved people, and in the ensuing years they put out a number of pronouncements advising Friends to avoid slaveholding. Influential Quaker members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, particularly John Woolman (1720-72) and Anthony Benezet (1713-84), stressed the immorality of slaveholding and its tendency to corrupt masters into such sins as haughtiness, laziness, and violence.
Beginning in the 1690s, individual members’ arguments against slavery became increasingly vocal and insistent. By the 1770s, PYM’s constituency had become mostly united behind the policy that any Quaker who bought, sold, or held slaves should be barred from membership. In subsequent years PYM helped to coalesce the national efforts to petition Congress to end the slave trade entirely.
Quakers Support an Abolition Society
Philadelphia Quakers’ disdain for slavery led them to help found the nation’s first abolitionist organization in 1775, when seven Quakers were among the ten men who gathered at the Rising Sun Tavern and created the Society for the Relief of Free Negros Unlawfully Held in Bondage. This society brought a number of lawsuits to secure the freedom of African Americans who had been kidnapped into slavery, or whose rights had otherwise been breached. In 1787 (after state legislation in 1780 provided for the gradual abolition of slavery in the commonwealth) the group expanded to include more non-Quakers, and renamed itself the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, also expanding its mission to include slaves. The next generation of Pennsylvania Quakers included a number of leading abolitionists such as noted Quaker minister Lucretia Mott (1793-1880); these radicals spearheaded the creation of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society in 1833.
Slavery was not the only social issue about which Philadelphia Quakers were vocal. In the late eighteenth century they were pioneering reformers, creating a number of organizations designed to improve life for their neighbors. Quaker women in particular were active in establishing Philadelphia’s first philanthropic and charitable societies. The Female Society for Relief of the Distressed, founded in the 1790s, sought to minister to the “Inner Light” in every individual by clothing, feeding and providing nursing care to the poor, while the Aimwell School was established to provide primary education to poor girls.
Prison reform was another key concern of Philadelphia Friends. In the 1770s a group of Quakers founded the Philadelphia Society for Relieving Distressed Prisoners, which was intended to improve conditions in the city’s prisons. During the ensuing decades this group was heavily involved in developing the Walnut Street Jail, the first “penitentiary” in the United States. At Walnut Street, rather than incessant labor, prisoners were to be allotted quiet time by themselves to reflect, to read the Bible, and to be visited by church members who would help them to “repent” and to behave better in the future. The concept behind the new institution was drawn partially from Quaker religious practices, stressing the value of silence to facilitate an encounter with the divine. These concepts, first implemented at Walnut Street, became the prototype for the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary and the basis for the widely adopted “Pennsylvania System” of prison management.
To outside observers early nineteenth century Quakerism must have seemed to be a harmonious success story. A new meetinghouse was built on Arch Street in 1804, and the membership Quakers rolls were high. Yet just a few years later Quakerism broke into several rival branches.
Though each faction laid claim to being the “true” Quakers, many factors led to the split between what would be known as Orthodox and Hicksite factions. Among these issues, the Orthodox claimed that the followers of Elias Hicks (1748-1830), a popular Long Island Quaker preacher, overemphasized belief in the Inward Light while underemphasizing the Bible. Hicks’s followers accused the Orthodox of abandoning traditional Quaker teachings on these subjects. In 1827 this conflict reached the breaking point during the gathering of PYM, when both factions tried to assert their rights to leadership.
The Hicksites stormed out the Arch Street Meeting House and built their own meetinghouse on Race Street. Over the following decades, Quaker yearly meetings in other regions of the United States experienced similar splits. The schism meant there were now two Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, one Hicksite and one Orthodox, with each side refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the other. By the 1830s, the Orthodox had established an all male school outside the city, which would eventually become Haverford College. Hicksites founded coeducational Swarthmore College in 1864, a few miles distant from Haverford. Decades later, in 1885, the Orthodox helped established Bryn Mawr College to educate women.
By the 1840s, in other Yearly Meetings, the Orthodox faction had further divided into into separate groups, the evangelically-inclined Gurneyites and the more traditional Wilburites. The Orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting tried to avoid taking sides and essentially sealed themselves off from the rest of Quakerism. The Hicksites also were in a state of upheaval due to intense arguments over how vigorously abolition and women’s rights should be pursued. A short-lived group, the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends, even broke away from the Hicksite Yearly Meeting; for several decades they gathered at a meetinghouse in Longwood.
Reunification and Social Activism
Over the course of the nineteenth century Quakers in Philadelphia from both groups became receptive to liberal theological ideas, such as the idea that the Bible was the product of a particular ancient historical era, or the truth of the theory of the evolution. By the early twentieth century Quakers had given up most of the peculiarities of dress and speech that separated them so visibly from the rest of the population, and began to intermarry with non-Quakers; they no longer saw these things as being essential to their faith. Religious leaders like Haverford Professor Rufus Jones (1863-1948) pioneered a new understanding of Quakerism as a mystical religion uniquely suited to the modern age.
In the effort to reunite the divided parts of Quakerism, Jones and other influential Quakers helped to develop the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Philadelphia-based organization intended to unite Quakers through a common interest that would transcend the Hicksite-Orthodox theological separation by focusing instead on relief, peace, and charitable work for others. The AFSC’s efforts included advocating for interracial justice in the United States, providing food to starving miners in labor disputes in Appalachia, and trying to rebuild Europe after both world wars. One of the largest undertakings was feeding millions of needy German children a day after the end of World War I. For its relief efforts worldwide, particularly during and after the world wars, the AFSC shared the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize with the English Quaker-run Friends Service Council.
These shared efforts helped facilitate a reunification of the fractured PYM in 1955, which was part of a similar reunion undertaken by many of the other Quaker factions in the United States. Subsequent decades saw Philadelphia Friends trying to uphold their denomination’s traditional testimonies of equality and peace by supporting the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting tried to assist minority communities, undertaking community development project in Chester, Pennsylvania, and establishing the Minorities Economic Development Fund to fund similar projects around Philadelphia. Pennsylvania Quakers also were harshly critical of the Vietnam War. In 1967 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting expressed its support for a group of Quaker activists who illegally sent medical supplies to North Vietnam in the ship Phoenix, an action prompted by both humanitarianism and a desire to protest the ongoing conflict. Gay and lesbian issues were a third area of concern; in 1973 PYM publicly voiced its support for gay rights, and by 1991 it was publishing a guide for same-sex couples that wanted to be married in Quaker ceremonies. Increasingly, the majority of Quakers in the Philadelphia region identified themselves as politically liberal, and many saw these beliefs as intertwined with their religious identities.
Quaker populations became substantially older in the twentieth century, causing many local meetings to focus on providing retirement care. By 2016 many Quaker-inspired retirement communities operated near Philadelphia, such as Kendal, Pennwood Village, and Foulkeways. Often they originated nonprofits at the prompting of members of local Meetings. These communities often boasted well-attended Quaker Meetings, though only a fraction of their residents were Quakers.
Since the mid-1970s Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has gathered at the Friends Center, a building at Fifteenth and Cherry Streets built in 1974. Statistics from 2010 indicated that the Yearly Meeting then had 11,800 members spread across the Philadelphia region among 106 monthly Meetings, a precipitous drop from more than 30,000 members in 1775 or even the 15,000 recorded members in 1925. Although declining membership numbers have been a source of concern for the denomination, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s central role in Quaker history has meant that it continued to be an influential body within American—and indeed international– Quakerism.
Isaac Barnes May is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He has previously published articles in Quaker History and Quaker Studies. (Author information current at time of publication.)
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