Nantucket; a History
New York. G.P. Putman's Sons, Knickerbocker Press
[Transcribed by Coralynn Brown]
QUAKERISM IN NANTUCKET
"Nothing is more difficult of explanation than the strength and moral influence often exerted by obscure and uneventful lives." - John G. Whittier.
The sect known as Quakers was founded in England, by George Fox, about the middle of the seventeenth century.
It has been stated that the name Quakers was first applied to them in 1650, when George Fox was brought before the magistrates of Derby, and he having told them to "quake at the name of the Lord," one of the magistrates, Gervose Bennet, an Independent, caught up the word, and, as Fox himself said, "was the first to call us Quakers."
Without any definite creed of religious faith, the essential principle of their belief was that an innder Light "lighteneth every man that cometh into the world." This formed the basis of the sect's organization, and constituted its moral and intellectual claims for adoption. This inner light was a free gift from Heaven which dowered every individual born into the world, and every soul was responsible for its recognition and development, while its directing influence was the unerring guide to the interpretation of the Holy Writ.
In the seventh year of Fox's preaching (about 1650) there were more than sixty preachers following in his footsteps, but their peculiar views subjected them to persecution in every direction. As early as 1647 Fox had traveled twice to America - at the time little better than a wilderness - and during the two years of his sojourn was frequently maltreated, and suffered persecution and privations innumerable. He was beaten by a mob and left for dead. Abuse of every sort, imprisonment in the loathsome jails of that time, exposure, lack of decent food, all failed to touch his indomitable spirit; yet, in after years, North America, became the stronghold of the sect, numbering, as it did, at one time, over 100,000!
In 1656 two Quaker women - Ann Austin and Mary Fisher - came to Boston - but they were regarded as witches, imprisioned, and later banished from the country. In 1650, three men and one woman were subsequently hanged for their fanatical zeal. It is further stated that the persecutions inflicted upon Quakers, during the first forty years of their existence, have hardly a parallel in the history of the last two centuries. Bad as many of our prisons now, they are places of comfort compared with the loathsome dungeons of the 17th century. In these pestilential cells there were confined at one time more than 4000 Quakers.
It has been estimated that there were in the world 200,000 Quakers during part of the nineteenth century, more than one half of which flourished in the United States. Principally, it may be inferred, to escape persecution a number of Quakers became domiciled in the quaint, freedom-loving island of Nantucket, early in the eighteenth century, but, although they met some opposition, they were never maltreated as they had been on the mainland.
As early as 1664 (as appears from an original official document never utilized before), Jane Stokes, from England, was the first "Friend" that visited the island. In 1698, Thomas Turner, from England, and Thomas Copperthwaite, from Long Island, both Quakers, visited Nantucket.
Thomas Chalkley, an Englishman, arrived in June of the same yearl; also John Easton and Joanna Mott, from Rhode Island. In 1699 came Ebenezer Slocum, Jacob Mott, and his son, from Rhode Island.
In 1700 (from which year, the writer essays to faintly trace the history of Quakerism in Nantucket), Thomas Story arrived from England, and John Butler from Ireland. From this time forward, the leaven of the new doctrine began to work, and gradually propagated itself. Several other visiting Friends arrived in the meanwhile from England and various parts of the United States. Thus, in June, 1701, Thomas Thompson from England, and Jacob Mott, with Walter Clark, from Rhode Island, came amongst them, as did also, during July of the same year, John Clark, from England, and Susannah Freeborn and Ruth Fry, from Rhode Island.
Between 1701 and 1708 the following visiting Friends arrived:
Jedediah Allen, from New Jersey.
Thomas Cornell, from New Jersey.
John Richardson, from England.
James Bates, from Virginia.
Jacob Mott, from Rhode Island.
Susannah Freeborn, from Rhode Island.
Peleg Slocum (first visit) from Dartmouth.
John Kinsey, from England.
Richard Gove, from England.
John Hussey, from England.
Ephraim Hicks, from Rhode Island.
Peleg Slocum (second visit) from Dartmouth.
Thomas Chalkley, Richard Harper, Mary Slocum from England.
Samuel Bownas, Mary Banister, from England.
Ann Chapman from England.
Hugh Copperthwaite from Long Island.
Peleg Slocum (third visit) from Dartmouth.
William Anthony, from Rhode Island.
John Fothergill, celebrated London physician.
William Comstead from England.
John Smith, from Philadelphia.
Susanna Freeborn, from Rhode Island.
Hope Borden, from Rhode Island.
Joseph Menton, from Rhode Island.
Ephraim Hicks, from Rhode Island.
Mary Lason, from England.
Esther Palmer, from Rhode Island.
Jacob Mott and wife, from Rhode Island.
It was fortunate for the success of the new religious movement that it received its first impulse from such zealous and eloquent preachers as Thomas Chalkley, who arrived in 1698, Thomas Story, who came in 1700, and John Richardson, who followed them in 1702. These three Englishmen were stalwart upholders of the new faith - well-versed in all its details, while possessing enthusiastic temperaments, persuasive tongues, and rhetorical experience - and their meetings in Nantucket were not only well attended, but effective and highly appreciated by the islanders.
There was an undercurrent of opposition to their peculiar views at first, but it never became aggressive, and was confined almost enitrely to the official authorities, while no repressive measures were instituted. Little by little the tenets of the new religionists influenced the minds and hearts of Nantucketers.
In 1701, at the age of fifty-six, principally through preaching of Story, Mary Starbuck became interested in the faith of the Quakers, and no event could have been better calculated to give a great impetus to the new movement which had already been inaugurated, for, from that time, she took the spiritual concern of the whole island under her special superintendance.
Mary Starbuck was the seventh child of Tristram Coffin - the mother of four sons and six daughters - a woman of strong magnetic personality and extraordinary administrative ability, who had a judicial mind, clear understanding, and possessed a genius for participating in public, social and domestic duties. She was withal a fluent and impressive speaker, and the whole island looked up to and consulted her in all matters of importance. She became one of the most celebrated preachers among the Friends, and gained many converts by her stirring and heart-touching addresses. In her own home she had a large room, known as the "Parliament House," and here the meetings took place durin four years.
In April, 1708, the Quakers were fully established in Nantucket, and in this year they sought communion (by means of a petition to the Rhode Island Yearly Meeting) with some "Quarterly Meeting," and to have a yearly meeting of their own. The latter was duly established. They evidently became affiliated with the Rhode Island and Sandwich Quarterly meetings, and a special note in an unpublished official return states that "the first quarterly meeting held at Nantucket was on the 1st of the seventh month, 1782." Be that as it may, from 1708 the sect gained so rapidly that, in 1711, they secured a lot, serving for meeting-house and burying-ground, and built their first meeting-house a little to the southeast of the ancient burial ground; and in 1717 they were obliged to enlarge this by adding twenty feet more to its length.
Mary Starbuck died on December 13, 1719, and her death was a serious loss to the community.
In or about 1720, the town was moved from Wannacomet to Wesko - the present Nantucket - and the Quakers, still increasing, resolved to build a new and larger meeting-house in the new town, which they accomplished in 1731, at the corner of Main and Saratoga Streets, in the space still known as the "Quaker Burial Ground," and here the Friends held their meetings and flourished for over sixty years.
Still increasing rapidly in numbers, and finding their second meeting-house inconvenient, owing to its remote situation, the Friends once more, in 1792, determined to build a still larger house on the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets, and, in the building of this, much of the material of the former house was utilized. It was a spacious building of two stories, fifty-six feet long and thirty-eight feet wide, and, owing to its size, had on several occasions been used as a courthouse, and also for holding the annual meetings of Nantucket Friends, added to those of adjacent or affiliated centers.
In the autumn of the same year (1792), they erected yet another meeting-house - the fourth - in order to accomodate the northern members. This was situated on Broad Street, but was not so large as that on Main and Pleasant Streets. The membership was divided between these two meeting-houses, according to locality of residence, and up to the end of the eighteenth century, both houses were filled with large congregations, each being active, vigorous, and flourishing. A Nantucket monthly meeting was not established until 1794; and the monthly meeting was the real source of power among the Friends.
During this period, the success of the Quaker organization reached its climax, and the elders had secured a hold upon the islanders such as no other religious denomination had ever acquired. They professed that although in the world, they were not of it, and therefore despised and spurned every form of worldliness, although in this matter they were frequently inconsistent. They were rigidly economical, and were opposed to a paid ministry, or to the slightest extravagance in outward attire, as a principle, and they had no sympathy with anything calculated to make earthly life either happy or even pleasant; but they were absolute in their self-righteousness, unnatural in their formalistic aceticism, and as time wore on they tightened their authorative grasp upon all concerned.
Their form of church government consisted of a select committee comprising the "unco guid" in the community and connected with each meeting-house; monthly meetings for business and religious purposes; quarterly meeting, at which the agenda of monthly meetings were further discussed, and to which all matters concerning the monthly meetings were reported; and yearly meetings, at which the combined power and wisdom of the organization considered and determined the discussions, findings, and suggestions of the various quarterly meetings "for the good of the order."
From a list of English and off-island Friends who had visited the society at Nantucket from 1698 to 1845 - the year when the "sorrowful division" took place - it appears that Thomas Chalkley, from England (later of Philadelphia), visited the island four times, viz: in 1698, 1704, 1713, and 1737.
Phebe Nichols, afterward wife of James Newbegin, in June, 1746.
Curiously enough, one of the visitors in 1793 was Benedict Arnold of Smithfield. The name of Lucretia Mott does not appear at all, either on the visitors' list or on an official "List of Female Members of Nantucket Monthly Meeting," dated "8th month, 1851."
John Woolman, in June, 1747.
Samuel Fothergill, Esq., in 1755.
Elias Hicks (subsequent Reformer), 1793.
John Wilbur, of Hopkinton, Reformer, 1818, 1829, 1836 and 1839.
Joseph John Gurney, of Norwich, England, Reformer, 1838.
Before the end of the 18th century, when the population of the island was 5617, nearly one-half of this number belonged to the Society of Friends.
It may here be in order to glance rapidly at some of the instrinsic causes which, originating early in the 18th century, became gradually more potential during the 19th century, and ultimately broke up and completely disintegrated the Society of Friends in Nantucket.
A few of these can only be outlined here in the faintest manner; but fortunately Henry Barnard Worth has ably described the strife and subsequent divisions which hastened the decline of Quakerism on Nantucket during the last century of its existence, in one of the Bulletins of the Nantucket Historical Association (Papers of Nantucket Historical Association, vol. i, bulletin I.) to which the attention of all interested in the matter is specially directed.
For some years after the beginning of the 17th century the Quaker organization was flourishing on the old lines although their members had been thinned by an exodus from the island, by the war of 1812, and by the institution of more popular sects. Symptoms of cleavage had also manifested themselves, arising from austere and uncompromising discipline, but in 1827-28, a great schism, which arose in Philadelphia yearly meeting, almost disrupted the organization, and caused a permanent division in the American branch of the society.
The orthodox party protested against the heretical teaching of Elias Hicks, which threw doubt upon the absolute divinity of Christ, and the full meaning of the Atonement, while the Hicksites protested against unwarrantable interference with the liberty of individual belief. The division was, however, restricted to the Friends on the mainland, and did not affect Nantucket until 1830.
Elias Hicks was a farmer in Long Island, and had for many years been a Quaker preacher, with a well-deserved reputation as an orator. In 1830, a preacher representing Hick's views came to Nantucket, and those who sympathized with his views succeeded in obtaining a meeting-place; so successful were his efforts that many of those who heard him - including a number of those who had hiterto been staunch supporters of the orthodox sect - were convinced by his preaching, and broke away from the original organization. Popular interest in the society gradually declined, and the membership of the sect was by degrees becoming less and less.
On May 13, 1829, it was thought advisable to close one of the two meeting-houses which had been in such a flourishing condition at the beginning of the century, and accordinly the house in Broad Street, which had been instituted to meet the convenience of the northern section of the society, was dissolved and the remnant of members were transferred to the older meeting-house on Main Street.
In 1833, the Hicksites, who became affiliated with the Westbury Quarterly meeting of Long Island, purchased a lot on Main Street on which in 1836, or 1837, they erected a large meeting-house where they met during several years, but with gradually decreasing congregations, until finally the building was sold. After its sale it was known as Atlantic Hall, and was used for various secular purposes.
In 1833, also, the orthodox Friends resolved to remove from their meeting-house on Main Street, which was no longer convenient, and, having purchased a lot on the west side of Fair Street, they erected, on the southern part of it, a large two-story building, which was opened for worship during September of that year. A little to the north was another building, which was utilized as a schoool-house.
The old meeting-house on Main Street was sold and removed to Commercial Wharf as a warehouse.
Up to 1845 the orthodox Friends continued in the old paths, but in addition to other influences their rigorous disciplinary code was gradually reducing their membership more and more.
For a number of years previous to 1832 a new schismatic movement had been gradually spreading itself among the members of the society generakky through the teaching of Mr. Joseph John Gurney, an educated Englishman who, although belonging to an old Quaker family, introduced the study and interpretation of the Bible into the sect, as the sold guide in religion, instead of entire dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Gurney's powerful and persuasive pleading made him very popular in England, as well as in America, and gained him many adherents, and in him the orthodox Quakers recognized an iconoclastic opponent far more dangerout than Hicks had been. Matters came to a climax in the New England Yearly Meeting at Newport, in 1845.
After thirty years if a severe struggle, and although the American Friends had appointed John Wilbur of Hopkinton, R.I., as far back as 1838, to oppose Gurney and his heretical propaganda, Gurney had carried everything before him in Great Britain, and every meeting he addressed had approved not only his preaching but his teaching. In New England, however, the bitterest contest was waged, and the Friends became divided into Wilburites and Gurneyites.
Nantucket favored the Wilburites and stood out for the essential of the old Quaker faith; and when the division took place in the Nantuckt meeting the majority was found to favor the Wilburites - the only section which had remained faithful to the old principles throughout New England.
A decision of the Supreme Court with regard to a division of property favored the Gurneyites, who demanded from the Fair Street Friends their meeting-house, records, and other property in accordance with the decision. To this demand no reply was given.
The Gurneyites therefore sought temporary quarters, and on New Years Day, 1846, had made arrangements for securing Atlantic Hall, where they continued to meet until November, 1850, when a new meeting-house, which they had been building, was ready for occupation, on Centre Street. Here they remained until 1866, when all their property was transferred to the New Bedford Monthly Meeting, and their last meeting was held January 10, 1867. This building is now a part of the "Roberts House" property and is used as a dining room in connection with that hotel.
The orthodox members, or Wilburites, after 1845, struggled on with varying success until 1863, when the society was weak and dwindling. Under these circumstances they deemed it advisable to sell their Fair Street meeting-house, but the Centre Street representatives put in a claim against it, and would not allow the property to be sold without their permission. At length by mutual concessions it was arranged that the deed of sale should be signed by both parties and it was ultimately sold and carried off the island. The north part of the property was repurchased by the orthodox Friends, and the building that had been used as a school-house was remodeled into a meeting house in 1864.
Only one member of the Nantucket orthodox Friends resided in the town in 1894, and as there were only twenty-three persons in the Nantucket Monthly meeting altogether, it was therefore determined to sell the meeting-house, and, in June of this year, it became the property of the Nantucket Historical Association, who still hold it as part of their premises.
Beginning about 1700, and flourishing for a century, - at the end of which their membership amounted to thousands - at the end of another century their last members, William Hosier, in 1899, and Eunice Paddock, in 1900, both died, and today there is not a single representative living in Nantucket. Such as history as this surely conveys a useful lessons, which cannot be better formulated than in the following apt and forcible words by Mr. Henry B. Worth:
....If they had established a better proportioned theology; if they had not obscured or undervalued any portion of Divine Truth, wherever revealed; if they had abandoned their discipline and allowed the laws of the land to deal with offenders; if, instead of expelling members for trivial offenses; they had exercised towards them a wise charity; if, instead of maintaining their society as an organization composed of men and women who never departed from rectitude, it had been regarded as a portion of the Church of Christ, in which men and women of every degree of moral acquirements; if their beautiful system of simplicity had been built on the rock, and not on sandy foundations they might have been as vigourous today as they were a century ago.
There can be little doubt that, in proportion to its numbers, no sect has so influenced public opinion as the Quakers, and it would be difficult to find a parallel under similar circumstances to their active and practical philanthropy. The consistent purity of their lives, and their united protest against immorality in every form have had a restraining and civilizing force which can be compared with no other similar movement of modern times; but they became too prosperous and this resulted in the development of a tendency towards arbitrariness and despotism in connection with the enforcement of their disciplinary code, which harassed and ultimately disgusted the rank and file of the membership.
Quakerism, in its essentials, was Utopian and reactionary - a dream of spirituality incompatible with the vital experiences and intellectual expansiveness of humanity. While generally law-abiding, the Quakers insituted a code of their own which made no allowance for the conventionalities of life sanctioned by custon and experience; nor did they recognize the recreative form of human activity or the usual amenities of polite socieites; in fact, their narrow and inelastic formalism excluded the rational exercise of instinctive pleasures to a vanishing point.
Acknowledging no duty to the state, and holding themselves aloof from all the political duties of citizenship, they outlawed themselves and were persecuted for it; but among their own people, and especially in the social life of their membership, they gradually assumed a rigidity of discripline which eventually became intolerable. They frowned upon music, mirth, and sports of every kind, and even dogmatized as to the apparel which young people should or should not wear, and to every infraction of their Draconic code punishment was invariably meted out; while in everything concerning love, courtship, and marriage they adopted such inquisitorial espionage as in these latter days would have caused a rebellion.
Their zeal for purity, and for what they called "the good order of truth," was doubtless commendable, but they went too far, and failed to foresee or to recognize the spirit of tolerance which was evolving itself in all directions; the standard of ethics which they imposed so rigorously was far too high; in a word, they sought to oppose the rising wave of intellectual expansion which was gradually overspreading the country, by a too restrictive formalism in faith and morals, and thus becoming submerged their numbers melted away.
Flattering themselves that they alone enshrined the "Inner Light," the Quakers assumed the right to believe that all who remained out of their pale were heterodox and heretical. "Pride goeth before a fall," and thus, becoming autocratic and tyrannical, they gradually instituted a system of petty despotism, under the guise of discipline, which, even at the climax of their success, thinned the ranks of their followers, and later disrupted the organization altogether.
Human nature, even in religious matters, is much the same in all places and at all times. The Quakers but followed in the footsteps of the Pilgrims and the Puritans who preceded them, in dictating to the world what was right and what was wrong; but the world still goes on, buoyed by Hope. Truth-seekers are everywhere, but
God's in His Heaven -
All's right with the world.
By way of postscript, it may be stated that the first burial ground of the Quakers was situated just to the west of Elihu Coleman's house on the old Madeket road, but, left for many years without a stone, a fence, or any kind of protection, it has long been unrecognizable, and no one could imagine that it had ever been a place of interment.
In the latest burying place of the Quakers, at the corner of Upper Main and Saratoga Streets, with the exception of a few small markers in the Hicksite section, there is nothing to indicate that, beneath the weedy grass of the enclosure, between nine and ten thousand human bodies are buried without even a flower to mark any of their graves, and yet there is none of the older Nantucket families whose ancestors are not sleeping their last sleep in this neglected field.