Consolidation / Withdrawal (1686-1800)
Previous Page: Beginnings (1652-1689)
Quakers continued to be maligned, and occasionally persecuted, even after the adoption of the Toleration Act by the English Parliament in 1689. But for the most part, Quakers were left alone. Perhaps ironically, their enthusiasm–or in other words, missionary zeal–diminished almost as soon as they won toleration; and the maintaining of discipline among a “peculiar people” tended to replace the expansive evangelism of the early years. What had once been a glorious and creative movement now took on the characteristics of a closed sect.
By 1720, the Quakers had become a minority of the population of Pennsylvania, but they retained political control of the colony until 1755 when, at the onset of the French and Indian Wars, most Friends gave up their seats in the Assembly rather than vote for war measures. There was, during this period, a kind of `interlocking directorate’ of the political leaders of Pennsylvania and the leading figures within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Nevertheless, Quakers throughout the eighteenth century tended more and more to withdraw from active public life; increasingly, they sought to deepen their own spiritual lives and to hedge their Society about with distinctive rules and customs. But there were some, Betsy Ross for instance, who chose actively to support the American cause during the revolution and who formed a movement called the Free Quakers; others sought to avoid the conflict by moving to Canada; and a few Quaker leaders were exiled to Virginia.
During this period Yearly Meetings established requirements for membership, and adopted, then rather frequently revised, Books of Discipline intended to define more precisely the code of Quaker conduct and to prescribe the means of enforcing this code on members. For instance, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s 1704 Book of Discipline included a provision discouraging the marriage of Friends to non-Friends; its 1712 Discipline recommended disownment (that is, expulsion) of members who married `out of meeting;’ and its 1722 Discipline required immediate disownment for this conduct. Such policies obviously enhanced the exclusivity of the Religious Society of Friends, as did the Queries and Advices formulated in order to increase Friends’ mindfulness of their distinctive code of conduct.
But this period of consolidation was also a period of creativity. Even as Friends turned their energies from worldly matters, and particularly as they withdrew from governing Pennsylvania in 1755, they clarified and refined the testimonies for which Friends are known today. For instance, they became more deeply involved as leaders in the movement to abolish slavery and to achieve racial justice, they expressed concern for the treatment of prisoners, and for the treatment of Native Americans, they established a number of philanthropies, and they opposed the payment of taxes for war purposes and adhered generally to the principle of nonviolence.
An unprecedented number of reforming ministers arose at this time, and traveled widely in the ministry, combining an effort to improve the discipline and to perfect the setting up of meetings, to preach against slavery and other social evils, and to hold public meetings in which they preached to the general public, just as their spiritual ancestors had done a century earlier. One such minister was John Woolman (1720-1772) who exemplified what a Quaker life could be when governed by the testimonies of Friends. His untiring efforts to eliminate the holding of slaves, to improve the treatment of Native Americans, and to end economic exploitation gave substance to the Quaker testimony on equality; and his choice of a way of life `free from much Entanglement and the Desire of outward Greatness,’ as he records in his Journal, likewise demonstrated the practical import of the Quaker testimony on simplicity. Though he directed his energies primarily to reform within the Religious Society of Friends, his work and his public writings were also clearly intended to influence the practice of the larger society.