Consolidation and Withdrawal: Circa 1690-1800

After the adoption of the Toleration Act by the English Parliament in 1689, conditions for Quakers changed. Though occasionally persecuted, they were mostly left alone. Perhaps ironically, their missionary zeal diminished almost as soon as they won toleration. What had once been an outward-looking, energetic movement now took on the characteristics of a closed sect.

In Pennsylvania, the Quakers had become a minority of the population by 1720, but they retained political control of the colony until the beginning of the French and Indian Wars in 1755. At that point, a few Friends gave up their seats in the General Assembly to allow Pennsylvania to pursue the war without their support.

While most Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Friends opposed the American Revolution, other responses to the war varied. Some supported the revolution, became members of the Free Quaker movement, and left the yearly meeting. Others adopted neutrality as their position, refused to affirm loyalty to the new government, withdrew from politics, and refused to use paper money issued either by the state or Congress. And some actively supported the British and, of these, some even moved to Canada.

In late eighteenth century America as in England, Quakers increasingly withdrew from active public life, as well as from public office, to focus on their religious community and their distinctive way of life based on spiritual understandings. During this period yearly meetings established requirements for membership and adopted books of discipline to define more precisely the expectations for Quaker conduct and to prescribe the means of enforcing these expectations. For instance, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s 1704 Book of Discipline discouraged the marriage of Friends to non-Friends; its 1712 discipline recommended disownment of such Friends; and its 1722 discipline required disownment for this conduct. Before such action was taken, a committee of the monthly meeting would meet with the “errant” Friend in an attempt to reclaim the Friend to right behavior. If that effort failed, the member would be disowned by the meeting, which meant being barred from attending meeting for business or holding office in the meeting. Such policies increased the exclusivity of the Religious Society of Friends, as did the Queries and Advices formulated to increase Friends’ mindfulness of their distinctive expectations for conduct.

This period of consolidation and conformity came to be known as the Quietist Period. Still, during the 1750s, Friends actively debated war taxes, Indian rights and slavery. Even as Friends turned their energies from political matters, they advanced their public witness. Friends in 1755 essentially began the movement for abolition and during the American Revolution required all Friends to free their slaves. They also expressed concern for the humane treatment of prisoners; established a number of philanthropies benefitting Native Americans; and opposed the payment of taxes for war.

A number of reforming ministers traveled widely seeking to improve the discipline of members, to set up new meetings, to preach against slavery and other social evils and to hold public meetings. One such minister was John Woolman (1720-1770), from Mount Holly, New Jersey, who exemplified what a Quaker life could be when obedient to Spirit. He led efforts to eliminate the enslavement of people, to improve the treatment of Native Americans, to end economic exploitation and to warn against wealth and its abuses. These efforts reflect his choice of a way of life “free from the Entanglement and the Desire of outward Greatness.” After Woolman’s death, his work and his public writings increasingly influenced the social and economic commitments of the larger society of non-Quakers. Another active Philadelphia area Quaker, Anthony Benezet, was a leader in the wider anti-slavery movement, in education for African Americans, and in relief efforts to aid those affected by war.