Mission in Colonial North America

1656 – 1783

After Christopher Columbus’ epic voyage in 1492, European Powers  annexed various parts of North and South America, and the Caribbean, and established many colonies. By the time George Fox began preaching in 1652, Britain had, or would soon have, thirteen colonies in North America, covering most of the Atlantic coast, apart from Spanish Florida. They owed allegiance to Britain until the War of Independence (1776-83).

Quaker missionaries from Britain began visiting in 1656, and went on doing so throughout the colonial period, soon joined by American missionaries. They ministered to Quakers, and also proselytised widely. New converts were almost entirely colonists however - they had little success with the ‘Indians’ despite many positive and thought-provoking meetings.

Some missionaries made long journeys, of a year or more at a time, travelling through many colonies. Several names feature time and again- George Fox, William Edmundson, Thomas Story, Samuel Bownas, Thomas Chalkley, John and Samuel Fothergill, and John Woolman. There were many others, including some redoubtable women such as Elizabeth Harris, Elizabeth Hooton, Mary Fisher, Ann Austin, and Mary Dyer.

Circumstances in the colonies varied enormously. When Quakers began mission work in New England, Puritan thinking was dominant, making it a very hostile environment. Quaker belief in ‘that of God’ in everyone, the lack of a priesthood, the prominent role of many women, and the idea that God’s truth continued to be revealed in the present day and all the answers weren’t in the Bible, were all anathema to the Puritans. Ironically, they had fled persecution themselves, but were now equally intolerant of any dissent from their religious views. Groups of Quakers grew up nevertheless as time went on, notably in Nantucket.

The exception to early persecution within New England was tiny Rhode Island. From the outset, it stood for religious toleration, and it held to that principle despite much outside pressure. Quakers were welcome there, and came to have a very prominent position in the religious and political life of the colony.

New York was different. It had been the Dutch colony of New Netherlands, and New York City was originally New Amsterdam. It was ceded to Britain in 1664, and renamed after the Duke of York. The Dutch had a long history of religious toleration, and the colony was less hostile to Quakers. Quaker mission work in New York had its challenges, and there was some persecution, but Quakerism took root in some places, especially Long Island.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania (which included Delaware) were different again. Persecuted Quakers had become increasingly interested in the idea of leaving Europe to come to a place in the New World where they could live freely and demonstrate the Quaker way. New Jersey and Pennsylvania met that need, largely due to the efforts of William Penn, who described Pennsylvania as his Holy Experiment.  Mission work in New Jersey and Pennsylvania was welcome, and the missionaries must have drawn strength from these Quaker-led colonies for the travails they often experienced elsewhere.

The colonies to the south were primarily commercial opportunities for various proprietors who sold land to many settlers for tobacco and other farming, all based on slave labour. There were religious dimensions of sorts – Maryland began as a haven for persecuted Catholics, whilst in Virginia and the Carolinas, and later Georgia, the default assumption was the established Church of England. Dissenters had some difficulties, but nothing like those experienced in the north. Quaker mission work in these southern colonies was at its most effective in North Carolina, and there was soon a thriving group in Guilford. Quaker John Archdale was elected governor of the colony for a considerable period.

Slavery soon became a key concern. It was widespread, and the economies of many colonies were very dependent on it. Early missionaries stressed the importance of humane treatment, but soon they and increasingly other Quakers became more and more convinced of its fundamental inhumanity and its complete incompatibility with Quaker testimony to equality. Quaker missionary John Woolman, from New Jersey, travelled through all the colonies and to Britain, preaching passionately about the evils of slavery. He played a key part in its elimination amongst Quakers by the end of the colonial period.

When the colonists rebelled and fought for independence, Quakers were divided both about the cause and whether they should take up arms. The colonial period ended with some Quakers leaving, and many others withdrawing from public life. Nevertheless Quakerism's roots were deep in several places, and began to spread westward.

Further Reading and Credits

further reading

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