QUAKERS IN ACTION

Mission in Colonial Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia

1656 – 1783

Lord Baltimore founded Maryland colony in 1632, as a Catholic haven. It always practised religious toleration, so was open to Quakers.

Virginia was originally founded in 1584, and named after Queen Elizabeth I. That first colony did not last, but when it was re-established in 1607 the name was retained. It was strongly Episcopalian (Church of England). Quakers were often imprisoned and/or fined for refusing to pay tithes, or take an oath. Sometimes it was because they would neither do military service, nor find a substitute.

Carolina was chartered in 1663. It later split into two colonies, North and South. Like Maryland, religious toleration was the policy. Many Friends were active in public life in the early years. Quaker John Archdale was the proprietor during the 1680s, and governor from 1695-7. However from 1704 the British Parliament required everyone in public office to swear allegiance to Queen Anne. As Quakers would not comply, they were excluded from public life, though never persecuted in other ways. Georgia was carved out of South Carolina in 1733, and named after George II.

Early mission work was in Maryland and Virginia. Elizabeth Harris came in 1656, soon followed by Josiah Cole, Thomas Thurston and three Woodhouse missionaries (including Christopher Holder). Maryland welcomed them, but the Virginian authorities imprisoned several of them for short periods on account of their subversive political views.

John Burnyeat came in 1665 and built considerably on the early work. He returned in 1671-2, when he helped organise a functioning network of local meetings.  He also arranged a gathering for all Quakers at Patuxent (West River) in Maryland in April 1972, now remembered as the first Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Among the participants were several prominent Marylanders including the Speaker of the Assembly, showing that Quakers were well accepted by this time.  George Fox and William Edmundson arrived from Jamaica for the meeting, and it must have been an inspiring occasion.

After the meeting Fox and Burnyeat crossed the Chesapeake and had further meetings, including one with Indian leaders. Edmundson headed south through Virginia, reaching North Carolina later that year.  Fox had paid a quick visit in 1671, but Edmundson was the real Quaker pioneer there. His journey was long and hard, through swamp and forest, but he and his companions finally reached the plantation by the Albemarle River they had been looking for. It belonged to Henry Phillips and his wife, both Quakers, who had left New England seven years before. When Fox arrived the following year, on his way home, he found a well-established group of Quakers, thanks to Edmundson’s work.

Edmundson returned in 1677, visiting many meetings in Virginia and Maryland on the way. It was another difficult journey. In his journal he wrote:
It was perilous travelling… the Indians…did mischief and murdered several…in that wilderness betwixt Virginia and Carolina.

Nevertheless he arrived safely and spent time with many Friends from before, as well as drawing in many new ones, before travelling home to Ireland.

Many other missionaries followed Fox and Edmundson in the ensuing years, such as Thomas Story (1698), Thomas Chalkely (1713) and Samuel Bownas (1726). They visited Quaker groups and helped them grow, and often established new ones. They reinforced governance arrangements, participating in many local, regional and yearly meetings.

From about 1725 more and more northern Friends migrated south, probably for economic reasons. Many were from overcrowded Nantucket, but there were large numbers from Pennsylvania too. Some of them settled away from the coast and the great estuaries like the Chesapeake, beginning to open up the interior. New meetings grew up and others expanded, one of the largest being New Garden meeting, in Guilford County, North Carolina, founded in 1754 and a major Quaker centre today. Some Friends went further south, founding meetings in Charleston and elsewhere, and also in Georgia, but none of these lasted for very long.

Slavery took time to become a key concern. The southern economy was based on it, and many Quakers owned and traded in slaves. Samuel Fothergill and John Woolman, both passionate abolitionists, made extensive visits in the 1750s, and had considerable influence. By 1776 slavery was forbidden amongst Friends. Furthermore, as well as educating their own children, as they had done all along, they began to provide education for former slaves too.

Further Reading and Credits

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