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Discipline and Divinity: Colonial Quakerism, Christianity, and “Heathenism” in the Seventeenth Century

  • Geoffrey Plank


Quakers began arriving in the Caribbean and North America when their religious society was still new and struggling to define its core beliefs and institutional structure. There were tensions within the Society of Friends stemming from the Quakers’ validation of individual inspiration and their communal commitment to the Christian message as contained in the Bible. A bitter debate over scriptural authority wracked Quaker meetings for the remainder of the seventeenth century, and the controversy included arguments over the Quakers’ relations with Native Americans, Africans, and others outside of Europe beyond the reach of formal Christian teaching. On both sides of the Atlantic opponents of Quaker discipline challenged long-standing assumptions about the source and content of the Christian message and the social hierarchies that resulted when some groups claimed privileged access to truth. The ensuing argument influenced the Quakers’ plans for their colonies in North America, and their debate over slavery.



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1 John L. Nickalls, ed., The Journal of George Fox (New York: Cambridge University, 1952), 104; See H. Larry Ingle, First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism (New York: Oxford University, 1994), 81; Douglas Gwyn, Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox (Richmond, Ind.: Friends United, 1986), 28.

2 Phyllis Mack, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophesy in Seventeenth-Century England (Berkeley: University of California, 1989), 130–134.

3 Leo Damrosch, The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Naylor and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1996).

4 Kenneth L. Carroll, John Perrot: Early Quaker Schismatic (London: Friends Historical Society, 1971).

5 Allison P. Coudert, The Impact of the Kabbalah in the Seventeenth Century: The Life and Thought of Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614–1698) (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

6 On the Keithian schism see Butler, Jon, “‘Gospel Order Improved’: The Keithian Schism and the Exercise of Ministerial Authority in Pennsylvania,” William and Mary Quarterly 3d ser., 31 (July 1974) 431452 ; Andrew Murphy, “Persecuting Quakers? Liberty and Toleration in Early Pennsylvania,” in The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America, ed. Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2011), 143–165.

7 See Rosemary Moore, The Light of their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646–1666 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2000).

8 See Gerbner, Katharine, “The Ultimate Sin: Christianising Slaves in Barbados in the Seventeenth Century,” Slavery and Abolition 31, no. 1 (March 2010) 5773 , 61; Larry Gragg, The Quaker Community on Barbados: Challenging the Culture of the Planter Class (Columbia: University of Missouri, 2009), 38, 48–9; Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713 (New York: Norton, 1972), 57, 105; William Noel Sainsbury, ed., Calendar of State Papers, America and West Indies, vol. 7, 1669–1674 (London, 1889), 1101.

9 John Rous, A Warning to the Inhabitants of Barbados (London, 1656), 2, 6.

10 John Rous, The Sins of a Gainsaying and Rebellious People Laid Before Them (London, 1659), 1, 5.

11 George Fox, A Collection of Many Select and Christian Epistles, Letters and Testimonies (London, 1698), 117.

12 Statement by John Rous in Humphrey Norton, New England's Ensigne (London, 1659), 54.

13 Joseph Besse, A Collection of Sufferings of the People Called Quakers, (London, 1753), 2:189. See also George Bishop, New England Judged (London, 1661), 72–73.

14 John Rous to Margaret Fell, September 3, 1658, in Maria Webb, The Fells of Swarthmoor Hall (Philadelphia, 1896), 187–188.

15 Webb, Fells, 184–189.

16 Rous, Sins, 5–8.

17 Webb, Fells, 276, 295–301.

18 See John Donaghue, Fire Under the Ashes: An Atlantic History of the English Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2013), 261–266. While Donaghue has uncovered evidence of religiously informed antislavery earlier than most scholars have acknowledged, Rebecca Anne Goetz has focussed on the proslavery side of the debate. Goetz argues that in Virginia many of the most consequential, deleterious decisions affecting the status of Native Americans and African Americans took place within churches. Efforts to convert the enslaved to Christianity met fierce resistance in Virginia, leading to widespread assertions among whites that people of African and Native American descent were poor candidates for baptism. Most white Virginians assumed that the words “Christian” and “white” were synonyms, and they proceeded on that premise not only when drafting their statutes, but also in the daily governance of most of their religious communities. Thus the dominant strain of Christianity in Virginia justified the maintenance of a rigid racial hierarchy and as a consequence supported slavery. Rebecca Anne Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University, 2012).

19 See, for example, Brycchan Carey, From Peace to Freedom: Quaker Rhetoric and the Birth of American Antislavery, 1657–1761 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 2012); J. William Frost, The Quaker Origins of Antislavery (Norwood, Penn.: Norwood Editions, 1980).

20 Carroll, Kenneth L., “Elizabeth Harris, The Founder of American Quakerism,” Quaker History 57, no. 2 (October 1968): 96111 .

21 Carla Gardina Pestana, The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640–1661 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2004), 152–154.

22 Charles Bayly, A True and Faithful Warning to the Upright-hearted and Uprejudic'd Reader (London, 1663), 11. Bayly had a remarkable life. See Carroll, Kenneth L, “From Bond Slave to Governor: The Strange Career of Charles Bayly (1632?-1680)Journal of the Friends Historical Society 52 (1968): 1938 ; Alice M. Johnson, “Bayly, Charles,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1966), 1:81–85.

23 Jordan, David W., “‘God's Candle’ Within Government: Quakers and Politics in Early Maryland,” William and Mary Quarterly 3d ser., 39, no. 4 (October 1982): 628654 , 630.

24 John D. Krugler, English and Catholic: The Lords Baltimore in the Seventeenth Century (Baltmore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 215–216; Jordan, “‘God's Candle’;” Carroll, Kenneth L., “Persecution and Persecutors of Maryland Quakers, 1658–1661,” Quaker History 99, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 1531 .

25 Francis Howgill, The Deceiver of the Nations Discovered (London, 1660), 20–23; William Hand Browne, ed., Archives of Maryland, Volume 3 (Annapolis, Md., 1885), 104–105; Besse, Collection of Sufferings, 2:378–80; Carroll, Kenneth L., “Thomas Thurston, Renegade Maryland Quaker,” Maryland Historical Magazine 62 (1967): 170192 .

26 “Account of the passages of Th[omas] Thurston, Josiah Cole [Coale] and Thomas Chapman by land and water,” August 2, 1658, A. R. Barclay Mss. vol. 323, no. 13, Friends House Library; Josiah Coale to George Bishop, Journal of the Friends Historical Society, 26 (1939): 23.

27 Howgill, Deceiver of the Nations, 15.

28 Besse, Collection of Sufferings, 2:196.

29 Howgill, Deceiver of the Nations, 15; Josiah Coale, The Books and Divers Epistles of the Faithful Servant of the Lord Josiah Coale (London, 1671), 21–22; Henry Cadbury, ed., Narrative Papers of George Fox, Unpublished or Uncorrected (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United, 1972), 174.

30 Coale, Books and Divers Epistles, 135–136, 138, 140.

31 Besse, Collection of Sufferings, 2:196; Howgill, Deceiver of the Nations, 15.

32 Josiah Coale to George Fox, November 21, 1660, A.R.Barclaey Mss. 53, Friends House Library, London; Journal of the Friends Historical Society 35 (1938): 88–90.

33 Jordan, “‘God's Candle’.”

34 Josiah Coale, Epistle to friends, dated Barbados 27 7th mo 1661, Port. 1/75. Friends House Library, London; Coale, Books and Divers Epistles, 98.

35 Coale, Books and Divers Epistles, 16; see Melvin B. Endy, Jr., William Penn and Early Quakerism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1973), 105; Joseph E. Illick, William Penn the Politician: Relations with the English Government (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1965), 4n.

36 Pestana, Carla Gardina. “The Quaker Executions in Myth and History,” Journal of American History 80, no. 2 (September 1993): 441469 .

37 Mack, Visionary Women, 145–146; Carroll, “Elizabeth Harris,” 107.

38 George Alsop, A Character of the Province of Mary-land (London, 1666), 17.

39 Josiah Coale to George Fox, January 2, 1661, A.R.Barclaey Mss. 53, Friends House Library, London; Journal of the Friends Historical Society 35 (1938): 89.

40 Moore, Light of their Consciences, 193–203; Carroll, John Perrot, 95–8; Carroll, “Thomas Thurston.”

41 Carroll, John Perrot, 53.

42 Damrosch, Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus, 141, 243–244.

43 William Salt, Some Breathings of Life from a Naked Heart (London, 1663), 4.

44 Elizabeth Hooton, quoted in Mack, Visionary Women, 271.

45 John Perrot, An Epistle for the Most Pure Amity and Unity (London, 1662), 12.

46 Carroll, John Perrot, 3; Donaghue, Fire Under the Ashes, 250.

47 Carroll, John Perrot, 72–75, 95–102.

48 Coale, Books and Divers Epistles, 58–59; Coale, A Salutation to the Suffering-Seed of God (London, 1663), 7–8. See Carroll, John Perrot, 96.

49 John Rous to Sarah Fell, January 15, 1669, in Letters of Early Friends, ed. Abram Rawlinson Barclay (London, 1841), 166; Isabel Ross, Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism (London: Longman's, 1949), 212.

50 William Penn, The Spirit of Alexander (London, 1673), 9. See Hugh Barbour, “The Young Controversialist,” in The World of William Penn, ed. Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1986), 15–36, 24–27.

51 Liberty of Conscience Asserted (London, 1674).

52 George Fox, The Heathen's Divinity (1671), title pg.

53 See generally Sarah Hutton, ed., Benjamin Furly, 1646–1714: A Quaker Merchant and his Millieu (Firenze: Leo. S. Olschki, 2007); William I. Hull, Benjamin Furly and Quakerism in Rotterdam (Lancaster, Pa., 1941); Patrick M. Erben, A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012), 76–88. On Furly and Perrot, see Hull, Benjamin Furly, 13–20.

54 George Keith, The Universal Free Grace of the Gospell Asserted (London, 1671), 66, 88, 128–129.

55 Keith, Universal Free Grace, 10.

56 George Keith, Truth's Defense (London, 1682), 85.

57 Nickalls, ed., Journal of George Fox, 579.

58 Ross, Margaret Fell, 237.

59 Ross, Margaret Fell, 186.

60 Webb, Fells, 298–299, 415–418.

61 See Nickalls, ed., Journal of George Fox, 594–611; Fox, Gospel Family Order, 3. See also Stephen W. Angell, “Gospel Family-Order: George Fox's Ministry in Barbados and the Development of a Quaker Testimony of Family,” in Keeping Us Honest, Stirring the Pot: A Festschrift in Honor of Larry Ingle, ed. Chuck Fager and Becky Ingle (Fayetteville, N.C.: Kimo, 2011), 17–34; Thomas E. Drake, Quakers and Slavery in America (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965), 6–8; Gragg, Quaker Community, 53–55, Carey, From Peace to Freedom, 43–58.

62 Fox, Gospel Family Order, 14.

63 Fox, Gospel Family Order, 18.

64 Nickalls, ed., Journal of George Fox, 599.

65 Nickalls, ed., Journal of George Fox, 604–605.

66 Nickalls, ed., Journal of George Fox, 598. Carroll, “George Fox,” 18–19.

67 Carroll, “George Fox,” 17.

68 [George Fox], To the Ministers, Teachers and Priests . . . in Barbadoes (1672), 69; Nickalls, ed., Journal of George Fox, 604.

69 William Edmundson, Journal (Dublin, 1715), 74–75. See Carey, From Peace to Freedom, 58–66.

70 See especially Gerbner, “Ultimate Sin.”

71 Nickalls, ed., Journal of George Fox, 619–620.

72 George Fox, An Epistle to all Planters, and such who are transporting themselves into foreign Plantations in America (London, 1682).

73 See Evan Haefeli, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 262–264.

74 Grant from Governor Nicolls for land at “Sandy Point,” April 8, 1665, Documents Relating to the Colonial History of New Jersey, Volume 1 (Newark, N.J., 1880), 43–46; John E. Pomfret, The Province of East Jersey, 1609–1702: The Rebellious Proprietary (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1962), 42–43.

75 William Smith, The History of the Colony of Nova-Caesaria (Philadelphia, 1765), 63. For more on Hartshorne's relationship with Indians see Gawen Lawrie, et al to Richard Hartshorne, August 6, 1676, in The Papers of William Penn, ed. Richard Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982), 2:416–418; A Further Account of New Jersey (1676), 2–3; Minute Book of the Lords Proprietors of New Jersey 1664–1683, Penn Mss., vol. 1, Friends House Library, London, 46.

76 Minute Book of the Lords Proprietors of New Jersey 1664–1683, Penn Mss., vol. 1, Friends House Library, London, 27; William Adee Whitehead, East Jersey under the Proprietary Governments (New York: New Jersey Historical Society, 1846), 49.

77 The West Jersey Concessions and Agreements of 1676/7: A Round Table of Historians (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1979); John E. Pomfret, The Province of West Jersey, 1602–1702: A History of the Origins of an American Colony (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1956); Robbins, Caroline, “Laws and Governments Proposed for West New Jersey and Pennsylvania, 1676–1683,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 105, no. 4 (October 1981): 373–92; Pomfret, Province of East Jersey, 152–181; Ned Landsman, “William Penn's Scottish Counterparts: The Quakers of ‘North Britain’ and the Colonization of East Jersey,” in World of William Penn, 241–258.

78 Dunn and Dunn, eds., Papers of William Penn, 1:400–401.

79 Minute Book of the Lords Proprietors of New Jersey 1664–1683, Penn Mss., vol. 1:46, 2:31, Friends House Library, London; Instructions from William Penn and others, August 18, 1676, Documents Relating to the Colonial History of New Jersey (Newark, N.J., 1880), 1:219–224; First Agreement for Settlement of West Jersey, June 25, 1676, Documents Relating to . . . New Jersey, 1:225–226.

80 Minute Book of the Lords Proprietors of New Jersey 1664–1683, Penn Mss., vol. 2, Friends House Library, London, 31.

81 Carroll, Kenneth L., “Some Thoughts on George Fox's Visit to America in 1672,” Quaker History 61, no. 2 (October 1972): 8290 .

82 On the use of the terms “ranter,” “rantorism” and “rantism” in this context see Carroll, John Perrot, 90; Gerard Roberts, Impudency and Rantorism Rebuked (1670); William Penn, Judas and the Jews (1673), 19. See also more generally McConville, Brendan, “Confessions of an American Ranter,” Pennsylvania History 62, no. 2 (April 1995): 238248 .

83 Edmundson, Journal, 92.

84 George Whitehead, The Power of Christ Vindicated against the Magick of Apostacy: In Answer to George Keith's Book Abusively Stiled, The Magick of Quakerism (London, 1708), 232.

85 George Keith to George Fox and George Whitehead, June 22, 1688, in Whitehead, Power of Christ Vindicated, 225–232, 229.

86 Whitehead, Power of Christ Vindicated, 227.

87 Whitehead, Power of Christ Vindicated, 228–229.

88 See Butler, “‘Gospel Order Improved’;” Murphy, “Persecuting Quakers?”.

89 Journall and Procedure of the Governor and Councill of the Province of East New Jersey Jersey, anno. dom. 1682–1703 (Jersey City, N.J., 1872), 32. See also Documents relating to . . . New Jersey, 1:478.

90 Dunn and Dunn, eds., Papers of William Penn, 2:225.

91 Benjamin Furly's Criticism of the Frame of Government, in Papers of William Penn, 2:234.

92 Gail McKnight Beckman, ed., The Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania in the Time of William Penn, vol. 1, 1680–1700 (New York: Vantage, 1976), 128.

93 Furly's Criticism of the Frame of Government, Papers of William Penn, 2:235.

94 West Jersey Concessions, Papers of William Penn, 1:399.

95 Francis Mercurius van Helmont, Two Hundred Queries (London, 1684); Coudert, Impact of the Kabbalah, 180–184, 241–270; Hull, Benjamin Furly, 107–114; John Smolenski, Friends and Strangers: The Making of a Creole Culture in Colonial Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2010), 155, 171; Erben, Harmony of the Spirits, 83–85.

96 Benjamin Furly to William Penn, July 23, 1684, in Papers of William Penn, 2:566.

97 Van Helmont, Two Hundred Queries; George Keith, Truth defended against Calumny and Defamation in a late report spread abroad concerning the Revolution of Humane Souls (Philadelphia, 1692); Gerardus Croese, The General History of the Quakers (London, 1696), app., 11; Coudert, Impact of the Kabbalah, 180–184, 241–270; Hull, Benjamin Furly, 107–114; Smolenski, Friends and Strangers, 155, 171; Erben, Harmony of the Spirits, 83–85. Without being able to cite any explicit statement from Keith, scholars have generally assumed that he agreed with van Helmont.

98 An Exhortation and Caution to Friends concerning the Buying and Selling of Negroes (Philadelphia, Penn., 1693).

99 Gerbner, Katharine, “Antislavery in Print: The Germantown Protest, the “Exhortation,” and the Seventeenth-Century Quaker Debate on Slavery,” Early American Studies 9, no. 3 (October 2011): 552575 .

100 William Penn to the Kings of the Indians, October 18, 1681, in Papers of William Penn, 2:128–129. See Daniel K. Richter, “Land and Words,” in Trade, Land, Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America, ed. Richter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2013), 135–154.

101 Jean R. Soderlund, Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1983, 15–25; Mielke, Andreas, “‘What's Here to Do?’ An Inquiry Concerning Benjamin and Sarah Lay, Abolitionists,” Quaker History 86, no. 1 (April 1997): 2244 .

The author would like to thank Evan Haefeli for his help and advice.

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