Stephen Grellet

1773 – 1855

Stephen (Etienne) Grellet was born in Limoges, France. His family was wealthy, so when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, they had to flee, along with everyone else who had prospered under the old regime. He was captured and sentenced to death, but managed to escape and get to Amsterdam, and then sailed to the West Indies. He arrived in New York in 1795.

There he read William Penn’s No Cross, No Crown, which moved him deeply. Soon afterwards he met Quaker missionary Deborah Darby, who was visiting New York, and the conversation with her had a profound effect too.  He became a Quaker in 1796, and settled in Philadelphia, where he earned a living teaching French.

He was in New York in summer 1798, when he heard that an epidemic of yellow fever was ravaging Philadelphia. He returned and ministered to the sick and dying, before falling ill himself. When he recovered, he dedicated his life to missionary work.

In 1799 he went to North Carolina, with missionary John Hall. They had many meetings on the way, including some with slaves. The journey was as dangerous as it had been for William Edmundson a hundred years before – they had to contend with rattlesnakes and wolves and food was very scarce. Later that year he spent several months in Nantucket.

For the next few years he journeyed in Vermont and Canada, and around Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He married Rebecca Collins and they had one child, a daughter.

His foreign travels began in 1807.  Napoleon had restored law and order, which made it possible to go to France. He visited the small community of Friends at Congenies, but couldn’t get to Paris, or tell Napoleon what he thought, though he tried.

For the next two years he travelled in the States, including to Kentucky and Maryland. In 1810 he was in Europe again, visiting many parts of Scotland, Ireland, and England. When in London, he stayed with William Allen, who had become a great friend. Prison conditions had become a key concern of his, and he alerted Elizabeth Fry to the plight of women prisoners, leading to her work on prison reform. He then travelled extensively in Italy, Germany, France, and Switzerland, where he saw the devastation wrought by the Napoleonic wars.

In 1814 he was staying with William Allen when they learned of the visit of the Russian Tsar Alexander I to London. Friends prepared a statement to give him, which Allen, Grellet and another Friend delivered. They had a thoughtful discussion, which led to their own visit to St Petersburg in 1818-19.

Late in 1814 he went home, after nearly four years, thinking that he would now spend the rest of his life in America. He continued his missionary work, including a journey to Haiti where he fell seriously ill and thought he would die. As he slowly recovered he became certain that his duty lay in going to Europe again.

In 1818 he travelled with William Allen to Norway and Sweden, and then to Russia. In St Petersburg they visited prisons, schools and hospitals, went to meeting at Daniel Wheeler’s house, and met with Tsar Alexander several times, discussing what they had seen.  Then they went to Moscow, and on to Turkey and Greece.

Allen then went home, and Grellet continued to Italy. He gained access to a secret library containing books banned by the Inquisition. This caused an outcry, but he held his nerve, and even had a long audience with the Pope. He travelled back to England over the next several months and then returned to his family, now living in Burlington, New Jersey.

He continued to travel in the States, including to New Orleans and Tennessee, where he spoke often about the evil of slavery. He was back in Europe from 1831- 4, for the last time, and journeyed with William Allen to Germany, France and Spain.

He spent the rest of his life at home. He died in 1855 and was buried in the grounds of Burlington meeting. He had demonstrated the courage to speak the truth as he saw it wherever he was, and had touched many people’s lives.

Further Reading and Credits

external links

further reading

  • Ormerod, J O, Quakers and Relief, Sessions of York, 1975.
  • Scott, R C, Quakers in Russia, Michael Joseph, London, 1964.