Mission work and Quaker settlement in colonial New Jersey

1674 - 1783

In the 1650s the land that became the ‘Quaker colonies’ of New Jersey and Pennsylvania was a vast tract of sparsely populated Indian land, about 170 miles from north to south. It completely separated the northern colonies of New England and New Netherlands (later New York), and the southern colonies of Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch claimed it as part of New Netherlands, but there were only a few settlers, near the southern boundary, along Delaware Bay.

The only way to travel overland between north and south was the Indian trail (later the Burlington path) through the forest.  The earliest Quakers to pass this way were Josiah Cole (from Gloucester), and his companion Thomas Thurston, in 1658. Far from being threatened, as they might have feared, they were frequently fed, sheltered and guided by the Susquehanna Indians whose home it was.

In 1664 the British acquired New Netherlands, renaming it New York, after the Duke of York, the new proprietor. He was short of funds, so sold the future New Jersey to wealthy aristocrats. One of them came from the Channel Island of Jersey, hence the name.

Many other missionaries walked the trail, including John Burnyeat.  In 1672, after the first yearly meeting in Maryland, he, George Fox, and others, followed it north, heading for Rhode Island.  Like others before them, they experienced much Indian hospitality. By then there was a small group of Quakers in the north, exiles from Puritan Massachusetts, and they made the travellers very welcome too.

When Fox arrived home in 1673 he stayed in Rickmansworth, with Gulielma and William Penn, and told them about his journey. Penn and Fox began to realise that this tract of land could become the Quaker homeland of their dreams. There they could put their vision freely into practice, and show its strength to the world. Penn’s connections could make this possible.

The opportunity came the following year. Jersey had been divided into East and West, and the owner of West Jersey was very short of funds. Penn helped facilitate its sale to two Quakers, John Fenwick (a neighbour of Penn’s) and Edward Byllynge. Penn and others drew up a constitution, enshrining religious and political freedoms, and spread the word about the opportunity to buy plots of land and settle there. In 1675 Fenwick sailed with a group of Quakers in the Griffin, and founded Salem district. In 1677 the Kent brought 230 Quakers, who settled in Burlington. All of them reimbursed the Indians for their land, and fostered good relations with them. Other ships followed and by 1681 some 1400 had settled.

In February 1681 the opportunity came to purchase East Jersey too. Penn was equally active in arranging this, despite being immersed in parallel negotiations for acquiring Pennsylvania.  Many Quakers came to settle, joining the other settlers already there, but the East was never predominantly Quaker, unlike the West.

Quakers were prominent in the public life of both the Jerseys. The first governor of West Jersey was Quaker Samuel Jenings, from High Wycombe, a friend of Penn’s. Robert Barclay, the Scottish Quaker theologian, was the first governor of East Jersey. Although he appointed someone to act for him, and never came himself, many Scottish Quakers were inspired to come and settle.

The Jerseys were united as New Jersey in 1687, and in 1702 it became a colony, instead of a proprietorship. This made the Church of England the official religion, but religious toleration persisted and Quakers continued to play a full part. There were Quaker governors, assembly members, justices of the peace, and much else. Good relationships with the Indians prevailed throughout.

New Jersey was always on the itinerary for Quaker missionaries.  Many names recur, including Thomas Chalkley, Samuel Bownas, John Fothergill and Samuel Fothergill. But perhaps the most famous of them all, John Woolman, known for his writings and his anti-slavery campaigning, was Jersey born and bred.  Slavery was commonplace in New Jersey, and deemed acceptable by many Quakers, as long as slaves were well treated. Both they and the Indians were thought of as inferior, and Woolman’s passionate message was that they should be seen and treated as equals. In 1758 New Jersey Quakers began serious work to achieve this, and by 1783 few if any Quakers were involved in slavery in any way.

Further Reading and Credits

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