Tag Archives: Quakers

Using early church records: Quakers

Church records are valuable for two reasons. They include vital records like births, marriages, and deaths, and they also tell stories about people’s membership in a community. In particular, affiliation with a Quaker meeting had consequences for one’s behavior and the behavior of one’s family. The code of discipline required strict adherence to the rules of conduct, especially for marriage. The meeting expected its members to attend meetings and to subscribe to collections.  In return it provided a social network and a safety net for the needy. To know that someone was a Friend tells a lot about them. 1

Every Friend was a member of a meeting for worship and was expected to attend the closest meeting to his or her home. 2 Two more meetings for worship formed a monthly meeting. Monthly meetings were organized into quarterly meetings, and the yearly meeting presided over all of them. The monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings all kept records. The records of most interest to genealogists and historians are the monthly meetings, with births, marriages, deaths, discipline, arrivals and departures of members.

Friends had a tradition of birthright membership. A child born to Quaker parents was presumably raised as a Friend and had automatic membership in the Society. 3  It was therefore important for meetings to record marriages and births of children. They were less concerned with deaths and burials, but often noted those as part of the larger record-keeping process. In addition they kept minutes of the meeting business, showing the members appointed to the many committees for visiting wayward friends, attending marriages, settling disputes or handling subscriptions. Although they did not keep membership lists at this early period, most members were probably included in some type of record. However absence from the records does not rule out membership if someone was not active in the meeting and did not appear in the record of life events. 4

When the shiploads of Quaker emigrants flooded into the province in 1682 and 1683 most were strangers to each other. In order to accept each other into their communities, they used a system of certificates, letters from their home meeting in England testifying to their good behavior, “good conversation” as it was often called. It would certify that they were in good standing for behavior, that they had not left outstanding debts, and in the case of unmarried persons that they were free of engagements or promises to others. These certificates were often, though not always, recorded by the meeting they joined in Pennsylvania. Most Quakers probably came with such a certificate of clearance. In a few cases the minutes of the meeting specifically say that someone arrived without one and a request had to be sent back to England or the information gathered in other ways. 5

The early records are incomplete. Some people did not bring a record of their children’s births to the meeting clerk. Some early marriages were not recorded, for example those at Germantown meeting. The very earliest minutes have not survived for many meetings. For example the first men’s minutes from Falls Monthly Meeting begin in 3rd month 1683, almost a year after the first large wave of settlement. The early records may have been written in loose sheets, and some of those lost. Typically the meeting would gather these and keep them more systematically in later years. For example in 1717 Abington hired George Boone to transcribe the early records into a book.

Friends considered women to be spiritual equals to men, but did not treat them equally in the sphere of meeting management. The women had their own monthly meeting, with special responsibility for approving the request of young people to marry. They kept their own minutes, and went to the men’s meeting to present candidates for marriage. However they did not have the power of the men’s monthly meeting over raising subscriptions for the poor, building new meeting houses, or sending representatives to the quarterly meeting. 6

For identifying the people of Holme’s map the record of eight monthly meetings are the most relevant: Philadelphia, Abington, Falls, Middletown, Chester, Concord, Radnor, and Darby (plus a few from Newark or Kennett Meeting, and a few from Burlington). These are the earliest meetings within the bounds of the map. This is where we will look for vital records and stories.

  1. The proper name for the Quakers was the Society of Friends. They referred to each other as Friends. The term Quakers was originally given to them in ridicule. However they themselves occasionally used it, often in the form of “the people called Quakers”.
  2.  Occasionally this caused friction. When Middletown Monthly Meeting dealt with the wealthy landowner Joseph Growden over his lawsuit with John Gray, he tried to weasel out of it by declaring that he belonged to another meeting and refusing to give an account of his actions. (Men’s Minutes, 5th month 1687 through 4th month 1688). In 7th month 1699 the same meeting complained about the “slackness of the friends about the ferry that they never yet frequent this meeting”. A committee was sent to tell them that “they belong to this meeting and ought not make their appearance elsewhere”. In 10th month 1686 it was considered disorderly that Walter Forrest published his marriage intentions in another meeting, even though he followed the proper procedure in other ways.
  3. Non-Quakers could request to join the Society. The meeting would appoint a committee to investigate their good behavior and report to the meeting. Such requests were usually granted. Frequently a man asked to join, was approved, and some months later announced his intention to marry a woman of the meeting.
  4. To study appearance in the records, I counted members of Falls and Middletown monthly meetings to about 1688. There were 66 people who appeared in the meeting records but had no certificate of arrival. Another 42 had a certificate of arrival, and all but three of them appeared in other records as well. In other words it is likely that known members appear in the records, but some appear in only one place.
  5. For example, when Seamercy Adams and Mary Brett wanted to marry in 1687, she did not have a certificate and the Philadelphia Meeting asked her to bring some Friends who knew her in England to testify to her clearness for marriage. Minutes of Phila Mo Mtg, 7th mo 1687
  6. Of course women had little legal power in the larger sphere as well. They could not serve on juries, in political bodies, or in local offices. A married woman owned no property of her own; any property she had on the marriage became her husband’s. It was unusual for a married woman to make a will, until her husband died and she regained ownership of some of his property.

How it all started

In 1682 William Penn was in the business of selling land. He had a lot to sell, having received the province of Pennsylvania as a grant from King George the year before. Penn needed to raise money to cover his debts, and he wanted settlers for the land, especially Quakers, who were battered by persecution in England. Hauled into court, thrown into prison, and pestered by fines and seizure of their goods and crops, many were eager to leave for the freedom of Penn’s province.

Others were intrigued by Pennsylvania land as an investment. Wealthy merchants, some Quakers and some not, did not plan to emigrate themselves, but wanted land to place settlers on or as a base for commerce. A few had dreams of commercial empires based on fur trading and whaling.

The buyers, whatever their motivation, wanted to see what they were getting. Penn needed something to show them, and after a few years’ delay he finally got what he needed—a map. His surveyor general, Thomas Holme, drafted it and sent it to England to be printed. Penn and his business agents were pleased, and future historians were delighted, for this map was unique and wonderful. It showed the geography of the province, with its rivers, the mighty Delaware and flowing Schuylkill, and many streams. But it also laid out the land owners. By 1685 much of the lower counties, Chester, Philadelphia, and Bucks, had been bought from the Indians and sold to the settlers. The map showed their holdings, in tidy blocks, each one labelled with a name.

Who are the names on the map? With some digging through records it is possible to pin down their identity, find whether they were Quaker or not, see whether they emigrated and what they did for a living. This paints a rich and fine-grained portrait of the early landowners. But there is something missing — the people who are not on the map. Holme lumped the Germans together into the German township without naming them, did the same with the Welsh in Radnor and Haverford, and did the same with the Swedes along the Delaware River. This had the effect of making the province seem more homogeneous and English, whether Holme intended this or not. More seriously, the map largely omits the women, the servants, the slaves, and the native peoples. They are the faces hiding behind the white male landowners.

This study will look at everyone: the landowners, the unnamed Germans and Swedes and Welsh, the women, the slaves and indentured servants, the native Lenni Lenape. It will use data to tell a collective story, and individual stories to bring characters to life, like Elizabeth Shorter, cheated by her son-in-law, or Philip Theodore Lehnmann, Penn’s hapless private secretary, who almost caused him to lose the city of Philadelphia in the boundary dispute with Lord Baltimore.