The Withdrawal

BY THE SPRING of 1756, even the die-hard Quakers in Pennsylvania were beginning to wonder whether they could long continue to hold both the reins of government and the principles of their religion. As early as 1702, James Logan reported to William Penn that governing was “ill-fitted to their principles,” and events of the first half of the 18th century confirmed the accusation now repeated by their enemies that “to govern is absolutely repugnant to the avowed principles of Quakerism.”

At the moment of crisis, the conflict was no longer simply between a Quaker oligarchy in Pennsylvania and a hard-headed imperial government in London. In Pennsylvania three parties contested. Benjamin Franklin’s popular party included broad-minded Quakers among others and was opposed equally to religious absolutes and oligarchic rule. They proposed a militia bill making all men subject to military duty (commutable by a fine) with officers democratically elected by the soldiers. Quakers would not have to bear arms, but they would be required to help pay for defense. Against Franklin’s party were the Quaker extremists, led by such unbending pacifists as Israel Pemberton, who had refused to pay any tax to be used for any military purpose. Against both of them stood the Proprietors and their Governor, who were unwilling that the Proprietors bear the Quakers’ share of the costs. They feared the democratic method of electing militia-officers, but had no sympathy for pacifism.

Despite the growing opposition, the increasing non-Quaker population of the Province, and the exasperation of successive Governors, the Quakers were still in control at the beginning of 1756. In that year the Quakers, probably comprising less than one-fourth the population, held twenty-eight of the thirty-six seats in the Pennsylvania Assembly. Of that number, the die-hards were the most influential and active.

As news of the border massacres reached London, agitation against Quaker rule was redoubled; the English government again threatened some decisive measure, such as permanent disqualification of Quakers from holding office in Pennsylvania. Opinion on both sides of the ocean seemed to support such a measure. Dr. John Fothergill, a weighty member of the London Yearly Meeting, summarized the Proprietary case against the Quakers:

The point upon which all rested, was you are unfit for government. You accept our publick trust, which at the same time you acknowledge you cannot discharge. You owe the people protection, & yet withhold them from protecting themselves. Will not all the blood that is spilt lye at your doors? and can we, say they, sit still and see the province in danger of being given up to a merciless enemy without endeavoring its rescue.

Several practical considerations became important: fear of the law disqualifying Quakers, hope that some blame for the Indian massacres might be shifted to other shoulders by putting the government in non-Quaker hands, and a desire to keep open the possibility of return to power at a later time. All these combined with the desire to preserve inviolate the principle of pacifism.

London Quakers urged the Quakers of Pennsylvania to abdicate quickly while there was still time to hand to others some of the blame for bloodshed. They busied themselves on the backstairs of the government in London, and finally negotiated a bargain with Lord Granville, President of the Privy Council: if he would see that the Quakers were not disqualified from officeholding, they would see that the Friends in Pennsylvania withdrew from the Provincial Assembly. Dr. John Fothergill in London wrote to Israel Pemberton explaining the need for withdrawal, and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting wrote back their pledge that everything would be done to induce Quakers not to hold office in time of war. But this pledge did not satisfy the London Friends, who promptly sent over two of their number, John Hunt and Christopher Wilson, to see that the promise was fulfilled, and to try to heal the breaches within the Quaker community in Pennsylvania.

In late spring of 1756, when the Governor and Council declared war against the Delaware and Shawnee Indians, matters came to a head. On June 4, 1756, six leading Quakers in the Assembly offered their resignations. They complacently disavowed “any Design of involving the House in unnecessary Trouble” but, they declared, “as many of our Constituents seem of Opinion that the present Situation of Public Affairs call upon us for Services in a military Way, which, from a Conviction of Judgment, after mature Deliberation, we cannot comply with, we conclude it most conducive to the Peace of our own Minds, and the Reputation of our religious Profession, to permit in our Resolutions of resigning our Seats, which we accordingly now do; and request these our Reasons may be entered on the Minutes of the House.” Quaker rule in the Pennsylvania government, after a stormy three-quarters of a century, thus came to an end—not by defeat but by abdication.

London Quakers breathed a sigh of relief. In the colony men of all persuasions were glad to be disburdened of doctrinaire principles. Franklin reported with audible pleasure that “all the stiff rump, except one that would be suspected of opposing the service from religious motives, have voluntarily quitted the Assembly; and ’tis proposed to chuse Churchman [Anglicans] in their places.” These changes would finally “promise us some fair weather which I have long sigh’d for.”

Franklin might well have been pleased; it was his party that profited most from the withdrawal. In the special election to replace the strict Quakers, six reliable Franklin men were chosen. And in October came the regular elections for the thirty-six members of the Assembly. The emissaries from the London Yearly Meeting did not arrive in time to persuade the Quakers not to vote for Quakers or, preferably, not to vote at all. In the final count, despite a temporary coalition of Franklin and the Proprietary party (who cordially hated each other) sixteen Quaker Assemblymen were elected. This was, of course, a measure of the reluctance of Quakers to acquiesce in the decision made for them by Israel Pemberton and other intransigents. Soon after the votes were counted, Hunt and Wilson, the English Quaker emissaries, added their voices to Pemberton’s. Each of the elected Quakers was called individually before the Quaker Meeting for Sufferings to persuade him to resign. Four did so, leaving twelve professed Quaker Assemblymen of whom, as both Quakers and their enemies were pleased to discover, only eight were in good standing in the Society of Friends.

Even though people continued to speak of the “Quaker Assembly” at least until 1776, this was only because many of the members still preferred to take an affirmation or were related somehow to earlier Quakers. In fact, the dramatic withdrawal of 1756 was much more than a gesture; it was an abdication of political power by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the highest authority of Quakers in Pennsylvania. Some pseudo- and semi-Quakers continued to seek and to hold political power in the Assembly, but these were disavowed by the orthodox. Strict Quakers made it plain that they were neither represented by these backsliders nor responsible for their decisions. The die-hards went on “labouring” among all good Friends to keep them from standing for the Assembly or voting for any Quakers who stood. There were already hints that some of these Quaker leaders looked to the day when the end of war in the colony would enable them to resume power.

That day was never to come, for the reins of government cannot be picked up and laid aside at will. The Quaker abdication, with its avowal of the inconsistency between their principles and the responsibilities of government, was perhaps the greatest evidence of practical sense they were ever to give. But their secret hope of returning to power with the peace of the 1760’s showed their fundamental failure to understand society and its problems.

Whatever chance there may have been for such a political comeback was smashed by the American Revolution: the Quaker principle against war was also a principle against revolution. “The setting up and putting down Kings and governments,” their Yearly Meeting had declared nearly a century before, “is God’s peculiar prerogative, for causes best known to himself.” As the Quakers had tried to remain neutral in the plots and counterplots of troubled England during the 17th century, so they sought neutrality during the days of the American Revolution. Again they were less concerned with complex questions of government than with whether any law violated their private Quaker consciences. As the Revolution approached, the Yearly Meeting asked of every Monthly Meeting, “Are Friends careful not to defraud the King of his Dues?” Some of the more far-sighted Friends in England, aware that the cause of liberty in England was bound up with the success of the American cause, urged the American Friends not to obstruct it. But the Americans looked to their consciences, were scrupulously subservient to all non-military requirements of the English government, and were, on the whole, equally uncooperative with the British and the American armies. They refused to pay taxes and fines levied by the American government, and were, understandably, labeled as Tories. To the charge of fanaticism hung on them in 1756 was now added the greater odium of treason.

After the Quakers withdrew from government in 1756 they gave much of their great energy to the purification of their own sect. By 1777 the Yearly Meeting called for “a reformation.” If they could not rule the Province, they must at least not cease to be a “peculiar people.” Some of the Quarterly Meetings, like that at Chester, sought “a revival of ancient simplicity in plainness of apparel, household furniture, the education of youth, and a due and wakeful attendance of our religious meetings.” They sought, for example, to remove and abolish gravestones, as simply another of the vanities of this world. They attempted to increase the religious influence in their education. They began more intensively “to labour for a Reformation in Respect to the Distiling and Use of Spirituous Liquors amongst Friends and the Polluting Practice of keeping Taverns, Beerhouses, etc.,” and they were beginning to report “a number of Friends having Used Spirituous Liquors very Sparingly in the time of our late Harvest and others have with great satisfaction used none at all.” They intensified their effort to secure the freedom of all slaves held by Quakers. In a word, they undertook to build a wall around the Society of Friends against all alien influences, opposing even attendance at the religious services of other sects. There is no denying that their abdication of political power led them to look more closely into their own hearts and to preserve more strictly the tenets of their sect.

Fortunately for the Society of Friends, and for the Province of Pennsylvania, the Quakers did not withdraw entirely from communal concerns. Some of them became prosperous merchants and enterprising men of science. The humanitarian currents within Pennsylvania Quakerism grew stronger as the political currents weakened. During the 18th century they gave increasingly of themselves in the growing movement against slavery and the slave-trade, in the building of hospitals, and in the humanizing of prisons and insane-asylums. Many surviving institutions, like the Philadelphia Lying-In Hospital, are monuments to the effectiveness of Quakers in one small area of the practical world. But that very success, which was a measure of what the Quakers no longer gave to politics, was a fitting, if ironical, criterion of the unfitness of their dogmas for the larger tasks of building a new society in a new world.

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