The freedom of worship has been at the foundation of American society from the moment the first English colonists arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Both the Puritans and the Quakers (known formally as the Religious Society of Friends) were congregationalists, Christians who prioritized the individual’s relationship with God and distrusted the hierarchy of the Church of England. But the radically egalitarian theology of the Quakers was not welcome in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The arrival of Quakers in North America marked the beginning of important and ongoing ethical and moral discussion regarding the role of the individual and of religion in the evolution of the American nation and its politics.
The First Quakers
365 years ago, on 11 July 1656, the first Quaker immigrants arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Quakers were motivated by the same spiritual impulses the Puritan colonists, fellow congregationalists, had been when they landed at Plymouth Rock 36 years earlier: the freedom to worship their God without the interference of the Church of England.
From the perspective of the British monarchy, all forms of congregationalism were anathema to the Church of England. The granting of a charter allowing English Puritans to immigrate to North America was a temporary solution to the nation’s growing atmosphere of religious dissent. But to the Puritans who had worked for three difficult decades to establish their “City on a Hill” (as Puritan leader John Winthrop envisioned the new colony) in Massachusetts, the arrival of Quakers in Boston in 1656 was perceived as a grave threat to the colony’s theocratic political structure.
The immigrants in question, two English women named Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, did not see themselves as a threat to anybody. Austin and Fisher were, like many Quakers of their time, evangelical believers who devoted their lives to revealing the plain truth of God’s love to all people. The fact that they were women was significant; unlike most other Christian sects, Quakers believed that women and men were equally capable of receiving the gift of prophecy and spreading His word to others. According to Quaker leader George Fox (1624-1691), any individual, regardless of gender or formal education, could preach the word of the Lord, because it was “Christ that made his ministers and gave gifts unto them,” not the Church hierarchy or training in a seminary. This radical vision of individual grace allowed Austin and Fisher an opportunity for spiritual education and adventure available to few women before them in European history.
Mary Fisher (1623–1698), was working as an illiterate, indentured servant when she first heard the promise of Quakerism from George Fox himself. An employee of the Tomlinson family in North Yorkshire in 1651, Fisher and the entire Tomlinson family heard the teachings of Fox when he visited their home in the town of Selby, and soon they were all converted to his vision. Fisher first began spreading the Quaker word alongside her employer, Mrs. Tomlinson, and her religious fervor soon distinguished her as one of Fox’s so-called “Valiant Sixty,” one of several dozen itinerant English Quaker preachers of the second half of the seventeenth century.
Following Fox’s model, Mary Fisher preached about the necessity of reforming all aspects of daily life according to the principles of Quaker theology. This included not only reforming church services--stripping them of manmade ritual and iconography--but also to everyday issues such as fair legal representation for all, decent wages and conditions for workers, a responsibility to the poor and indigent in society, as well as the abolition of slavery.
Shortly after starting her evangelical mission, Fisher was imprisoned in York Castle as a heretic. During her several stints of imprisonment there between 1652-1654, Fisher’s fellow imprisoned Quakers taught her how to read and write. Their fellowship in the prison served as a training ground for these Quaker leaders, who used the time to strengthen their religious convictions and their preaching skills. After her release, Fisher continued to espouse Quaker teachings across England and she and others were imprisoned again and publicly flogged in Cambridge and Buckinghamshire for doing so.
Ann Austin (? - 1665) was Fisher’s fellow itinerant preacher. She was older than Fisher and the mother of five children when the two women undertook a religious mission to Massachusetts. Their first stop was Barbados, a British slave colony, where they successfully converted both enslaved Black people as well as many wealthy white slave owners, including the lieutenant governor of the island. Their sojourn of several months established Barbados as an outpost of Quaker belief that would serve as a key way station for future Quaker missionaries in the New World.
Eventually their ship, The Swallow, arrived in Boston in July 1656. Puritan authorities in Boston had heard about their mission in Barbados and were dreading their arrival in Massachusetts. Before the women could even set foot on dry land, much less begin preaching, they were arrested by colony officials. Their luggage and belongings, including all their religious materials, were destroyed in the public square while the women were publicly undressed, their naked bodies inspected for signs of witchcraft (none were found). Then they were thrown in prison. To prevent them from preaching from confinement, the windows to the prison were covered with boards. No food was provided to Austin or Fisher; the intention was to starve them to death. Neither woman had been charged with any crime.
A local colonist and innkeeper, Nicholas Upsall, was moved by their persecution, and he successfully bribed a jailer in order to smuggle food into their cell, thus saving the women’s lives. Austin and Fisher were held without trial or representation in the Boston prison for five weeks until finally local authorities agreed to send them home to England. They had only had regular contact with one colonist during their stay, Nicholas Upsall; he became the first American convert to Quakerism (Upsall went on to offer succor to future Quaker missionaries in the New World and was himself eventually banished from Massachusetts).
Puritans viewed Quakers as heretics. They distrusted the personal, emotional relationship with God the Quakers espoused and considered Quakers to be scandalously out of control of their own emotions and beliefs. But ridding the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Ann Austin and Mary Fisher did not bring an end to their Quaker problem. More Quaker immigrants arrived the following year, leading the Puritan authorities to authorize their banishment and execution. Between 1659-1661, four Quaker missionaries were executed in Boston for their religious beliefs: Marmaduke Stephenson, William Robinson, Mary Dyer, and William Leddra, who were publicly hanged and became known as the Boston Martyrs.
After returning from Boston both Ann Austin and Mary Fisher continued their preaching. Austin spread the gospel of Quakerism in London, where she was again imprisoned and eventually died during the Great Plague of London in 1665. Austin was buried in the Quaker Burying Ground, London’s first cemetery for the Religious Society of Friends
Mary Fisher took her work abroad. Fisher preached in Holland, then traveled throughout the Mediterranean evangelizing for Quakerism, a practice not always welcomed by locals in these new lands, either. Although briefly detained and questioned by the Roman Catholic Inquisition while traveling through Livorno, Fisher eventually made her way by foot from Greece through Macedonia and Thrace and across Turkey in 1658, until announcing her arrival at the palace of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed IV (1648-1687). Despite warnings from virtually every authority figure about the violent reception she would likely meet, Fisher found the Sultan attentive and interested in what she had to say. “He was very noble unto me and so were all that were about him… They are more near Truth than many nations; there is a love begot in me towards them which is endless,” Fisher later wrote. The Sultan offered Fisher an armed escort to accompany her home, which Fisher declined. She returned to England without incident, and eventually married and had three children. Fisher returned to the American Colonies and died in Charleston, South Carolina in 1698. She was survived by three children.
The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were unable to keep the Quakers out forever. A decade later they witnessed the establishment of an entire Quaker region to the south when the influential Quaker William Penn became the largest private landowner in the world and was extended a Royal Charter for his 45,000 square-mile land grant (current day Pennsylvania and Delaware). In 1681 Penn approved the Frame of Government of Pennsylvania, establishing for the first time by Europeans in North America a freedom of worship that was absolute.
Researching the Religious Society of Friends: Meeting Minutes
The genealogical information recorded by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) can add generations to the family trees of those whose ancestors practiced that faith, but first you need to understand the types of records kept, where to search and how to read them!
The most genealogically-pertinent records left by Quaker ancestors were the meeting minutes. A meeting was the congregation in which a member participated and was named for a geographical location, such as the Westerly Meeting in Westerly, Washington, Rhode Island. Sometimes, depending on the size of the location or Quaker community, such as in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there were multiple meetings in which an ancestor may have participated.
There were four main types of meetings organized within a hierarchical structure: preparative, monthly, quarterly and yearly. Preparative meetings, common from around the 18th to the early 20th centuries, were a more informal meeting held prior to the monthly meeting to prepare the upcoming business. The monthly meeting minutes are the records which are most likely to be a genealogical gold mine, as they are the records of individual congregations. A group of monthly meetings participated in a larger quarterly meeting and, in turn, quarterly meetings participated in larger regional bodies called yearly meetings. Often, the different types of meetings will be archived together based on geography. The archives which hold these records are predominantly Quaker colleges or genealogical and historical societies. The meeting records held by four Quaker colleges: Earlham (Richmond, Indiana), Guilford (Greensboro, North Carolina), Haverford (Haverford, Pennsylvania) and Swarthmore (Swarthmore, Pennsylvania) have been digitized on Ancestry.com as part of the “U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935.” Some meeting records from Canada and Great Britain have also been digitized through popular genealogy websites. In order to know where to search for records, it is important to determine which meeting your ancestors may have been members.
Quakers were diligent record-keepers for those who were members of the meeting. They recorded the births, marriages, deaths and burials of members, as well as changes in membership such as reports on their movements to join different meetings (certificates of removal) or disownment from the meeting. Some ancestors who may have attended meetings, but were not members, will not be recorded in the minutes. However, those ancestors who were members may have consistent vital records which provide you with vital dates and the names and relationships for generations of ancestors.
Often, monthly meeting minutes are divided into different books showing the minutes of the meeting and the records of the meeting. Meeting minutes, which can also include separate books called the “Women’s Minutes,” recorded information about the care of members and concerns or disciplinary actions, authorized marriages and removals for the meeting and conducted general business and discussions. Record books may be divided into years by event and contain the records of births, marriages, deaths and burials for members of the meeting. Both sets of books can offer valuable information and insight into your ancestors. Many of the records are filled with standard abbreviations, A Friendly Glossary: Quaker Abbreviations, will help you to read the records.
Another important aspect to Quaker records is understanding how Quakers dated those records. Up to and including the year 1751, the Julian calendar (also referred to as the Old Style calendar) was used in the American colonies, as well as England, Wales, Ireland and all other British colonies overseas. In the Julian calendar, the first day of the year was not 1 January, but 25 March, meaning that the year began on the 25th of March and ended on the following 24th of March. British law, including in the American colonies, changed in 1752 and the calendar switched to the Gregorian calendar, which was already in use in Europe and Scotland, and it is still the standard calendar used today. The year 1751 contained nine months (March - December), before the new year began on 1 January 1752. This dating system is applicable to all colonial records. A more thorough explanation of the Julian vs. Gregorian calendars can be found in Issue 13 of Without a Trace, in the article entitled “The Lost 11 Days.”
The Quakers, however, objected to the use of the names for days of the week and the months of the year, which were derived from pagan gods or Roman emperors, such as Julius Caesar, for whom the month July and also the Julian calendar was named. The Quakers preferred to refer to the days of the week and months of the year by number, with Sunday being the first day of the week, followed by the second day (Monday) and so on. Months of the year were written with Roman or Arabic numerals (i-xii and 1-12, respectively) or with ordinal numbers (first month, second month, etc…). When reading through the meeting minutes, these dates can be confusing, so just remember that up to the year 1751, the first month was March, and beginning in 1752, the first month was January. When dating these records for your family tree, the old style can be set apart with the abbreviation “o.s.” A date converter will help you to translate those old style dates into their modern equivalent.
Ancestral Quakers left behind biographically-rich records that encompass not only major life events, but can also paint a detailed picture of their day-to-day lives and that of their community. Being thorough and methodical in your research efforts may highlight a path to many generations of family history.
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