Quakers: Their History, Beliefs and Meticulous Records

Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends

Quakers are members of a group with Christian roots that began in England in the 1650s. The formal title of the movement is the Society of Friends or the Religious Society of Friends

Their founder was George Fox (1624-1691) of Leicestershire, England. Fox never intended to form a denomination, but rather tried to take belief and believers back to the original and pure form of Christianity. He was a religious activist who traveled around the country on a spiritual quest. Fox was imprisoned eight times for sharing views that annoyed the religious and political establishments of his time. 

Refusal by the Quakers to take oaths or take their hats off before a magistrate, and their insistence on holding banned meetings in public, led to 6,000 Quakers being imprisoned between 1662 and 1670. The Quakers suffered for years from whippings, torture and imprisonment. 

Unwelcome Arrival in the New World

Quaker missionaries arrived in colonial America in 1656 in a quest for religious freedom. The first to arrive was Elizabeth Harris, who visited Virginia and Maryland, and is often referred to as the “Mother” of American Quakerism.

By the early 1660s, more than 50 Quakers had followed Harris. These early arrivals faced persecution in certain parts of the colonies, particularly in Puritan-dominated Massachusetts. 

Quakers were punished harshly by the Puritans, who saw them as a threat to their authority.

The Quakers were dealt with harshly in Massachusetts.

  • Beginning in 1656, laws forbade any captain to land Quakers.
  • In 1657, it was decreed that any Quaker arriving in the Colony should have one of his ears cut off. For any offense, he should lose the other ear.
  • In 1658 it was decreed every Quaker woman should be severely whipped.
  • For a third offense, the tongue was to be bored through with a hot iron.
  • To set foot in Massachusetts in 1660 was death by hanging. A sentence of death was ordered and executed in several cases in Boston.
  • A 1661 law ordered that “any wandering Quakers be apprehended, stripped naked from the middle upward, tied to cart’s-tayle and whipped thro the town.”
  • Quakers who persistently returned were to be branded with the letter R on the left shoulder.

In 1681, King Charles II gave William Penn, an English Quaker, a large land grant in America. Penn was jailed multiple times for his Quaker beliefs, but went on to establish Pennsylvania as a community based on the principles of religious tolerance and pacifism.  Within a few years, several thousand Friends moved to Pennsylvania from England. 

The earliest Quaker settlements were in New England, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. From these states, Quakers migrated in the mid- to late-1700s to Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Then in the 1800s to the Midwest, Oregon, California, and Canada. 

About half of people in the United States who had ancestors residing in the Mid-Atlantic region between 1680 and 1780 have at least one Quaker ancestor. 

Quaker Beliefs

Quakers believe that there is something of God in everybody and that each human being is of unique worth. That is why Quakers value all people equally, and oppose anything that may harm or threaten them. They do not accept value judgments based on race or gender. Quakers seek religious truth and place great reliance on conscience as the basis of morality. 

Source: Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

They don’t believe in clergy, rather they feel that all believers can minister to one another.

They emphasize the importance of leading your own life well, as an example to others. 

The Quakers opposed slavery. The origins of Christian abolitionism can be traced to the late 17th Century and the Quakers. By 1696, the Quakers in Pennsylvania declared their opposition to the importation of enslaved Africans into America. Founded April 14, 1775, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was formed, 17 of the 24 men who attended the initial meetings of the Society were Quakers. Benjamin Franklin was elected president of the society and he petitioned the U.S. Congress in 1790 to ban slavery.

Barnard Station. This historic farm in rural Chester county was once the home of Sarah Marsh and her husband Eusebius Barnard.

Quaker abolitionists operated stations on the Underground Railroad in their homes during the first half of the 19th Century. Among them are direct relatives of the author of this article, Gravener Marsh (1777-1849), his wife Hannah (Bennett) Marsh (1789-1865), and daughter Sarah B. (Marsh) Barnard (1819-1887). The Marsh family lived in historic Chester county, Pennsylvania.

Typically, men acted as conductors on the Underground Railroad and led or drove freedom-seekers from one station to another. Most often, wives and daughters acted in traditional ways, cooking for the arrivals, nursing injuries, and providing clothing that could be spared. But one famous conductor was Sarah (Marsh) Barnard. Sarah was the driver of the wagon that conveyed the freedom-seekers from her parent’s home, and later the home she shared with her husband, to the next station in northeast Chester county on their way to Philadelphia.

Quakers have always treated men and women as equals, and were pioneers in the women’s suffrage movement in America. Sarah also played instrumental roles in the suffrage movement.

Quaker Recordkeeping

Founder George Fox established a meticulous system of recordkeeping, including records from their earliest days. Most of those records are still accessible today.

To get the most out of the Quaker collections, you’ll need to know a few things about Quaker meetings and various types of records, which include meeting minutes, births, marriages, deaths, memberships, certificates of removal, and disownment.

Meetings of Worship. Quakers call worship events meetings for worship, rather than services. In a Quaker meeting for worship, a group of people sit in a room in silence for an hour. From time to time someone may speak briefly, but sometimes the entire hour may pass without a word being spoken.

Quaker Meeting House

Quaker meetings for worship take place in meeting houses, not churches. These are simple buildings or rooms. A meeting begins when two or more worshippers come together to be in the presence of God. They usually sit facing each other in a circle, which puts everybody in a place of equal status.

Everyone sits in silence until someone is moved by the Spirit to do something as part of their worship. A person will only speak if they are convinced that they have something that must be shared, and it’s rare to speak more than once. The words spoken are brief and may include a reading from a book, a prayer, or sharing of a personal experience. There may be no outward response to the contributions by others. There is no discussion or argument as part of the meeting. 

Quaker meetings were organized by geographic areas and named after the frequency with which a group meets. The structure is organized as follows: at the local level (Preparative Meetings or Particular Meetings); smaller and larger district levels (Monthly and General Meetings); and national level (Yearly Meeting). 

Individual Quaker meetings carry out matters of business and administration at “Meetings for Worship with a Concern for Business.” Most local Quaker communities hold monthly business meetings.

Monthly Meeting Minutes. Records of Monthly Meetings hold the most vital information for genealogists. They contain a history of the meeting, lists of members, births, marriages, deaths, and disownings. Quakers do not practice baptism. 

Birth Registers. Monthly Meetings kept birth registers. Births were either listed by date or by family group. The register typically would include: name of the child, birth date, residence, and parent’s names. 

Certificate of Removal.  A Certificate of Removal is a letter of transit for a person or family that is leaving one meeting and seeking to join another (essentially they are relocating to a different community). With this certificate, a new arrival would be welcomed to the new meeting and given any assistance to get settled. A certificate would typically include the current and destination meetings, a date, and the name of the individual or family moving. It may also include a statement about the person/family’s financial welfare. 

Intention to Marry. One type of event you’ll find recorded in the Monthly Meeting minutes is an Intention to Marry. When a couple decided to marry, the prospective bride and groom requested that the meeting “oversee” the wedding. The request generated entries in the monthly meeting minutes for three consecutive months. First month’s record: Once a request is made, two people from the “Overseers Committee” are assigned to visit with the couple in their homes and report back. The Overseer’s report is recorded in the minutes the next month. Second month’s record: The second entry in the minutes will be an indication that the couple has been “cleared for marriage” and a “Date of Liberation” certificate is given to the couple so they can be married later or elsewhere. Third month’s record: The third entry will be a report that the wedding was held. 

Quaker Marriage Record, dated 1782

Marriage Records. Quaker marriage records include the names of those being married, marriage date, names of parents, names of witnesses, and place where the wedding occurred. Quakers strongly believe in the sanctity of marriage. Their weddings are informal, but must be held indoors. There is no priest or minister to lead the couple as they make their vows. They believe that no one but God can join a couple in matrimony. They see marriage more as a religious commitment than a legal contract. If both parties are Quakers and regularly attend monthly meetings, they can marry in a Quaker marriage ceremony.  

Death Registers. Quakers have no collective view on what happens after death. They tend to concentrate on making this world a better place, than on pondering what happens after you leave it. Because they are thankful for having known the deceased, Quaker mourners tend not to wear black. Death registers listed deaths among members, including the descendant’s name, death date, and place of residence (most recent residence), and sometimes their parents’ names. 

Disownment. Another type of record is called a “disownment.” Disownment by the Quakers could be for one of several reasons: 

  • Marrying contrary to discipline
  • Unchastity or fornication with finance
  • Drunkenness or dispensing liquor (Quakers are not forbidden from using alcohol or tobacco, but most Quakers avoid them or consume them moderately)
  • Nonpayment of debt
  • Military activity (Quakers believe that war and conflict are against God’s wishes and so they are dedicated to pacifism and nonviolence. Many conscientious objectors are Quakers. But Quaker pacifism is not just a refusal to fight, they work to bring about or preserve peace.) 
  • Inattendance of meetings
  • Showing contempt for the Society’s authority over one’s conduct
  • Assault
  • Profanity
  • Quarreling or fighting
  • Entertainments (frolicking, or permitting fiddling and dancing in one’s home)
  • Marrying too close a relative
  • Neglecting family responsibilities
  • Slander
  • Slaveholding and slave buying
  • Fraud
  • Gambling or horse-racing
  • Violating good business ethics (fraudulent dealing)
  • Theft or destroying property
  • Adultery or other sexual immorality
  • Wife-beating or mistreatment of mother
  • Ignoring Quaker arbitration (instead going to a law enforcement agency)
  • Courting and fraternizing
  • Dishonesty, lying and false accusation
  • Disobeying parents
  • Counterfeiting
  • Smuggling
  • Departing from plainness (Quakers refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry or trendy designs.)
  • Misuse of the First Day of the week (although Quaker meetings for worship generally take place on a Sunday, this is purely for convenience and not because Sunday is the Sabbath or a holy day) 
  • Joining another denomination

If an offense of these behaviors was reported, a committee was formed. The offender(s) was interviewed, and if they confessed to the offense and expressed an intent to change, they were usually allowed to remain a member. If the disorderly individual could not be persuaded to mend their ways, then Friends would go on record as not “owning” that person to be a member of their community. 

Disowning was not done lightly. Documents from the 1669-1690 monthly meetings indicate that the Overseers labored, sometimes for years, with offenders. It was not unusual to postpone disownment as long as there seemed the least possibility that an offender might mend their ways. When Friends disowned a person they were not trying to do anything to that person. Rather, they were trying to define for the world’s benefit what Quakerism meant, in particular, that it was not consistent with the type of behavior for which the person was disowned. 

The primary consequence of disownment for the disowned person was that he or she no longer had a right to attend business meetings. For the Society, they no longer had an obligation to oversee his/her behavior. There was no shunning involved in disownment, familial and secular relationships continued as before. The pastoral concern for that individual did not cease.  

The route to reinstatement to Quaker membership was the same as that for avoiding disownment. The disowned person would need to write a statement acknowledging one’s fault and expressing repentance. As a condition of assessing the sincerity of a penitent, a period of time may be required to permit that individual to understand their guilt and show genuine contrition. The normal period of disunion for those reinstated was a year or longer. Disownment was never final, there was no kind of behavior or belief that the Friends never forgave. Once a sin had been forgiven, it was supposed to be forgotten. 

The word “disownment” has been dropped by the Society of Friends, and replaced with the more ambiguous “membership discontinued.” Some branches have ceased to record any kind of involuntary membership termination. Disownment was practiced from the 1660s into the early 20th century. 

Quaker Dates

When using the dates on Quaker records, keep in mind that they chose not to use the names of the days and months. For instance, when the Quakers referred to the “First Day” it is translated as “Sunday.” “First Month” (when it was used prior to 1752) meant “March” using the Julian calendar. To prevent confusion, AncestryBirdDog.com offers a FREE Quick Key for Quaker Dates you can use as a reference for properly transcribing the dates on Quaker records. Bookmark the document or download a copy for your genealogy toolbox. 

Access to Online Quaker Records 

  • American Ancestors and New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts. Search the NEHGS library catalog for transcriptions of individual meetings. 
  • FamilySearch Wiki
  • Quaker Records, Indiana Historical Society
  • Digital Quaker Collection, Earlham College
  • Quaker Collection, Haverford College
  • Quaker Records, Guilford College, North Carolina
  • Friends Historical Association
  • Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy. The six-volume set was published by William Wade Hinshaw.  When he was 71 years old in 1936, he began compiling the volumes and continued until his death in 1947. Then his work was continued by others and Volume 7 was published. At the beginning of each volume is a list of the common abbreviations used in Quaker records. Each volume also includes a surname index. Six-Volume Set. Volume 1, North Carolina; Volume 2, the Philadelphia area; Volume 3, New York City and Long Island; Volumes 4 and 5, Ohio; Volume 6, Virginia; and Volume 7, Indiana and other areas. Volumes 1 through 6 are out of copyright and accessible free of charge.
  • Ancestry.com has many Quaker data collections. While this is a paid subscription website, many libraries have subscriptions and you can access these files free of charge through them. 

Article References


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