A Religious Society (1690-1770)
Toleration and Expansion
There was a brief, astonishing moment at the beginning of the eighteenth century when it looked to Friends as though the Quaker movement would become the largest and most influential religious experiment in the American colonies. With the development of Quaker-organized colonies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and with the rapid expansion of Quaker settlements in New York, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Barbados, the leaders of the Quaker movement had every reason to believe that the coming decades would see an even greater expansion of the community in the New World, especially since the Act of Toleration of 1689 had removed all legal barriers to Quaker forms of worship.
Certainly in New England it must have appeared that way. By the beginning of the century the Quakers had become the most prominent political and social group as well as the largest religious society in Rhode Island, while in the neighboring regions of Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod they exercised major influence in the southern half of the Plymouth Plantation. In the newer Settlements of Maine and New Hampshire they were a significant minority, and many of the inland rural districts of Rhode Island a number in Massachusetts had become predominantly Quaker, as had the island of Nantucket. Connecticut was the only New England colony where the Quaker movement, despite repeated efforts, had failed to take root. This dramatic growth in the first decades of the eighteenth century was reflected in the spiritual liveliness and great attendance at New England Yearly Meeting. In 1722 some 2,000 Friends were said to have attended the meeting at Newport, and by 1743 the number had grown to not less than 5,000.
The sense of cohesion and growth so evident in these decades could not have been achieved without the contributions of travelling Friends who made their way through the wilderness forests and along the settled coasts of New England in order too Witness; to the workings of the Spirit among visitors and visited alike From the very beginning of the Quaker movement, visitations had played an important role in developing a sense of community among Friends scattered in distant places, and they have continued to serve this purpose ever since. These visitors, especially those from England and Ireland, kept Friends in New England informed of spiritual and institutional developments elsewhere, gave them a sense of belonging to a larger movement, and often helped them to sustain and revive the spiritual condition of their meetings.
Accommodation and Discipline
The rapid growth in the eighteenth century brought with it, however, a number of vexing problems whose resolution led to a profound alteration in the objectives and character of the Quaker movement. The original prophetic expectation of a direct spiritual encounter was never entirely lost, for it would break forth in each succeeding generation through the remarkable testimonies of individual Quaker lives, but the Quaker society as a whole now sought to make its way through the world less by confrontation and exaltation than by accommodation and discipline.
The tolerance that Quakers had gained through their suffering was a benefit they now wished to preserve. "Walk wisely and circumspectly toward all men, in the peaceable spirit of Christ Jesus, advised an Epistle of 1689 from London Yearly Meeting, "giving no offense nor occasion to them in outward government." This prudent attitude toward political authority was but one form of the accommodating spirit that prevailed among eighteenth century Friends. The hard-working, frugal, and trustworthy Quakers had also gained prosperity and even social respectability. By the first decades of the eighteenth century many of them had become comfortable with the ways of the world that surrounded them.
New England Friends responded to this transformation by seeking to build a more coherent organization for the Quaker movement and a more consistent discipline for its participant members. Increasingly during the first decade of the eighteenth century, Yearly Meeting sought to guide the practices and focus the spiritual concerns of local monthly meetings. In 1701 it introduced a set of questions on conduct, known as Queries, that were to be answered by monthly meetings. The following year it established "select meetings" of elders and ministers to oversee the affairs of local meetings. Three years later the quarterly meetings, which until then had primarily been occasions for worshipping together, were asked to take up business matters that the Yearly Meeting wished to transmit to monthly meetings.
Underlying this effort to create a more structured organization for the movement lay a concern for the individual conduct of its members. In 1708, the Yearly Meeting drew up a set of articles called A Testimony Against Superfluity. It was the first book of discipline in New England, and to ensure that Friends lived up to its injunctions "to walk in the self-denying way of truth," the Yearly Meeting recommended that monthly meetings appoint Friends to visit all families in their meetings every several months to advise them of Quaker standards and to report back to the monthly meetings "how they find things amongst them."
Whether the effort to develop a corporate discipline through the pressure of external guidelines and visitations succeeded or not is uncertain. One can appreciate, however, the dilemma in which sensitive Friends found themselves. On the one hand, they ran the risk that by emphasizing external behavior, plain speech, plain dress, and simple living they would lose sight of the inner spirit of the Quaker faith (as Margaret Fell Fox a few years earlier had warned that they would). On the other hand, to ignore the backsliding and indifference to "Truth's testimony" that the new social conditions were provoking would have reflected, many were convinced, a lack of concern for the spiritual well-being of fellow Quakers.
These innovations in internal organization and discipline brought about a subtle but persistent shift in spiritual focus that gradually transformed the prophetic movement of the seventeenth century into a formally organized religious society. As a result, the Quaker movement became less concerned to challenge the world with its vision than to maintain the purity of its founding principles and the integrity of its own ways in the world.
The Visit of John Woolman (1760)
Few Quakers in the eighteenth century were more sensitive to the difficulties of achieving moral and spiritual integrity than John Woolman of New Jersey. As a young man, Woolman had gone through an intense struggle to achieve humility and self-denial. Through this experience he recognized that he had himself been redeemed from the "taint and corruption" of the world as a direct consequence of God's love for him. He therefore sought to approach others with the same tenderness that God had shown to him. Seldom has a person so at odds with the prevailing outlook and practices of his day treated those he opposed with such careful regard for their own sensibilities and with such loving compassion for the difficulties they would encounter in changing their ways. This tenderness became a sign of his own spiritual condition, a living demonstration to others that the search for true discipline must lead from an inward transformation.
Early in his life the testing ground for Woolman had become the issue of slavery at first trading in slaves and then holding them. It was to become the testing ground of the Society as well. Although Yearly Meeting had censured the importing of slaves in 1727, twenty years later it had to advise Friends not to buy slaves once they had been imported, as many, including some of the most prominent members of the Society in New England, still kept slaves, and some were even engaged in the slave trade.
One of the most trying moments of Woolman's life came during his visit to New England Yearly Meeting at Newport in 1760. During one of its sessions he found out that a large number of slaves had just been imported from Africa into Newport itself and were then being sold by a member of the Society. He was so distressed that he could neither eat nor sleep, yet he did not censure New England Friends as a whole nor even the individuals directly involved. Instead, he persuaded the Yearly Meeting to petition the Rhode Island Assembly to abolish the slave trade. He pointed out that this trade had had a corrupting influence on the Society because it fostered arrogance, "a spirit opposite to that meekness and humility which is a sure resting place for the soul."
The Yearly Meeting united with Woolman's concern by working conscientiously from then on to abolish both the slave trade and the holding of slaves by members of the Society. Over the next two decades, monthly meetings had frequent "dealings" with Quaker slaveholders who refused to give their slaves freedom. Even a man as prominent as Stephen Hopkins, former governor of Rhode Island, one of the architects of the colony's Indian policy and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was disowned by his meeting for continuing to hold one slave.
Woolman's awareness of the need for reform in a Society that had once "walked in uprightness before God" touched off a reforming campaign that spread well beyond the effort to eradicate the awful contradiction of slavery. Before it ended, the reform movement would affect every aspect of the Quaker Society in New England.