Mission in Colonial New York

1657 – 1783

In the second half of the seventeenth century Quaker missionaries came to the North American colonies, including New York.  Their work bore fruit among the colonists, but despite friendly relations and many meetings, few ‘Indians’ became Quakers.

In 1657, when the Woodhouse brought the first Quakers to New Amsterdam, (later New York), it was part of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands.  Some colonists lived in New Amsterdam and others in small townships scattered across Long Island. The Dutch had a longstanding tradition of religious toleration (they had supported the Pilgrims back in 1620), so Long Island was home to many refugees from Puritan Massachusetts where no form of dissent was tolerated. New Amsterdam was fertile ground for the Quaker missionaries by comparison with the persecution they were already experiencing in Massachusetts.

Five Quaker missionaries disembarked at New Amsterdam.  Two of them (Dorothea Waugh and Mary Wetherhead) were soon preaching in the streets. This horrified the Dutch colonists, as this was considered completely inappropriate behaviour for women. They were soon imprisoned, and sent packing to Rhode Island.

The other three (Sarah Gibbons, Richard Doudney, and Robert Hodgson) went to Long Island, and were warmly received. However Hodgson stayed on after the others left for Rhode Island, and was suddenly arrested, sent to New Amsterdam, imprisoned, and very badly treated. He was eventually released without charge and sent to Rhode Island, after pressure on Governor Stuyvesant from many Dutch colonists.

There were soon several Quaker groups on Long Island. They experienced some persecution, notably fines, despite the Dutch principle of religious tolerance. It seems that the pressure from the large Massachusetts colony to the north was too much for the Governor to resist. This did not prevent several further Quaker missionaries from visiting, or deter the new Quakers from their faith. On the contrary, so many Dutch colonists objected to any persecution that in 1663 the colony proclaimed a principle of complete religious toleration. ‘The consciences of men should remain free and unshackled’.

For much of this time there had been an ongoing war between the British and the Dutch, involving their colonies and their trade routes not only in North America, but also in Indonesia. When the war ended in 1664, the Dutch ceded New Amsterdam to the British, and gained more rights to the spice trade from Indonesia in return. The British changed the name of the colony to New York, but kept the principle of religious toleration, and there was very little persecution thereafter, though there were occasional problems when Quakers were confused with Ranters.

Several Quaker missionaries came in the following years, and reinforced the growing community of Friends. In 1671 John Burnyeat spent several months on Long Island, visiting all the meetings there, including the ‘half-year meeting’ at Oyster Bay. George Fox came to the half-year meeting in April 1672, and later that year had a famous meeting with the Indians on Shelter Island. William Edmundson came often, and visited many meetings.

Thomas Story came several times between 1699 and 1704. His journal records meetings in New York City, Westchester on the mainland, and many places on Long Island, notably Westbury: he describes some of the meetings as ‘glorious’. Samuel Bownas came in 1702, and spoke powerfully to many meetings, including the half-year’s meeting when 2000 people were said to be present. Thomas Chalkley came in 1704 and again in 1724: his journal talks of ‘many being convinced’ and of meetings so large that the Meeting House could not contain them.

New York Quakers developed principled positions on contemporary issues. Slavery was commonplace in the early days, and to begin with many Quakers had slaves. John Woolman’s visit in 1760 reinforced their growing awareness of its immorality, and they had eliminated it within the Quaker community by the 1780s.

The right to education for all became clear to them at much the same time, and in 1781 they planned a school in New York: it is now Friends Secondary School.

They refused to help pay for refurbishing New York Fort, stating that they paid all other taxes, but did not support the military: this seems to have been accepted. However they were very divided during the ‘revolutionary war’ when the colonists sought independence from Britain, and numbers almost certainly diminished over this.

Nevertheless there were about 1000 Quakers in New York City in 1781.

Further Reading and Credits

further reading

  • Jones, Rufus M, Sharpless, Isaac, Gunmere Amelia M, The Quakers in the American Colonies, Macmillan, London, 1911.

Map reproduced by kind permission from the copyright holders http://www.timepage.org/images/MiddleColonies.gif