Influence of Friends on Colonial Life

The Influence of Friends on Colonial Life. By Elbert Russell. Extracts from an address delivered at West River, MD, on May 6, 1922, at the 250th anniversary celebration of Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

[ I couldn’t find a published version of this lecture. The version below was provided to Martha Bunting in 1942, by a librarian at the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. Elbert Russell was Dean of the School of Religion, Duke University, 1928-1941.]


The Influence of Friends on Colonial Life

The influence of Friends during the colonial period culminated during the last decade of the 17th century. By the year 1700 they had staked off their American claim, so to speak. Six Yearly Meetings had been organized, New England, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Virginia, and North Carolina. These remained the only Yearly Meetings for more than a century until Ohio in 1812. For the next fifty years Friends continued to grow in numbers, but their immediate political and religious influence in colonial life was perhaps never greater than at this time. They had won their contest for tolerance in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, though they were still under some disabilities because they would not take oaths nor pay tithes. In New York and Virginia they had also won their struggle for religious freedom. They controlled for considerable periods the governments of Rhode Island and North Carolina. They held the balance of power in Maryland, and they owned, and controlled the Jerseys, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

No other single religious body had at that time so great an influence and so great promise of future power throughout the American colonies, though other denominations predominated in particular colonies. Friends exercised great influence upon the thought and practice of colonial life. This was often manifest only in subtle changes of attitude on the part of their neighbors. But there are certain definite results which can be ascribed with assurance to their influence.

The first of these is religious liberty, including the separation of the church and state, freedom of worship and belief, and liberty of conscience even in matters of state policy. These ideas were not original with Friends, but the Quakers were by far the most influential in making religious liberty the common and accepted order of American life. They supported the principle already recognized in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland and North Carolina; they staked all on its success in Pennsylvania; they suffered for it in such other colonies as Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. Freedom of worship and belief for the non-conformists was secured in England by the Toleration Act (1689); and was granted within a decade as a natural consequence in the colonies which had not already con­ceded it.

This, however, did not involve the separation of the church and state. The union of these two was almost universally believed to be necessary throughout Protestantism. It was the practical faith of the Quakers which finally demonstrated to the colonists that the church and state could be separated without jeopardizing the higher human value of which they are the official guardians.

Freedom of conscience was conceded most slowly and has never been granted fully, as the recent war reminded us. The right to substitute an affirmation instead of an oath was granted by the British Parliament in 1696, and generally conceded in the colonies within a decade. Relief from the payment of church tithes did not fully come in Massachusetts until 1747, and in Virginia until the Revolutionary War. Except in Pennsylvania and in other colonies under Quaker control, Friends were always liable for militia service and for taxes for military purposes. But in most of them some legal or practical recognition was gradually secured for Friends and others objecting to war on conscientious grounds.

The second great principle of Friends which powerfully influenced colonial life is the principle of democracy. It was not a new ideal among thinkers in Penn’s day, but nowhere in the world was it practiced without reservations and with full faith.

The Quaker meeting was from the beginning a democracy; a democracy which ultimately had come to allow women equality in worship and participation in the concerns and affairs of the business meetings. The successful working of Friends’ Meetings with equality of all members and equal rights for women was a testimony to and demonstration of human capacity which could not be confined to the meeting itself. It worked logically towards democracy in government. The Quaker democracy sprang from its fundamental principle of the potential divine worship of all men. It was not a democracy that came from leveling down nobles and saints to a vulgar level, but from the faith that it is possible for all men to be leveled up to the level of sons of God. Only on such confidence in human capacity for discerning truth and doing Justice can a true democracy be based.

When William Penn drafted his frame of government for his colony he made a very daring and noble experiment in free government. He put the power in the people and left himself and his successors as little room for harm as possible. Bancroft, the historian, thus summarizes the democracy of his experiment: “Thus did Penn perfect his government. An executive dependent for its support on the people; all subordinate elective officers elected by the people; the Judiciary dependent for its existence on the people; all legislation originating exclusively with the people; no forts, no armed force, no militia; no established church; no difference of rank; and a harbor open for the reception of all mankind of every nation, of children of every language and every creed; could it be that the invisible power of reason would be able to order and restrain, to punish crime and to protect property?” As finally amended (in 1701) the frame of government remained until the Revolution as the fundamental law of the most prosperous of the American colonies.

The third great Quaker ideal to influence colonial life is the ideal of peace. To the Friends it meant infinitely more than not fighting. It was the substitution of organized Justice, self­-government, and active good-will in place of warfare. None of the Friends who held political authority in colonial life were quite free to test this principle to its utmost. The colonies were subject to the Crown, and Penn’s Frame of Government was modified by the king. On the other hand, the principle of free self-government which was equally fundamental in the Quaker ideals, led in practice to limitations on the peaceful intentions of Quaker governors. They had at times to enforce laws and carry out regulations made by non-Quaker assemblies. Nevertheless, Friends trusted and practiced the ideal of peace as far as conditions allowed. They carried Rhode Island through King Philip’s Indian War with less suffering than any other New England colony endured, and Penn’s success with the Indians was a triumphant vindication of his policy. Though the colonies were compelled to share in the various wars in which the British government was engaged in the 17th and 18th centuries, Friends minimized the cost and waste of these wars in the colonies where they were influential. They kept the organization and cost of the militia at a minimum in those colonies under their control; and placed all possible emphasis on their peaceful ideals and on the peaceful activities of life. In Pennsylvania they had the invaluable help of the various non-resistant sects who came from Germany and Holland, but it is to be noted that the presence of these sympathetic settlers in Pennsylvania was due to Penn’s pacific ideals, and his determination to risk his fame and fortune in establishing a state on peaceful human relations.

These three principles – religious liberty, peace, and democracy – became ultimately part of the American system. At the close of the colonial period the struggle, testimony and social and political demonstration of Friends had become sufficiently convincing for these principles to be embodied in the life and government of the American people in a degree unknown elsewhere up to that time. The constitution and the bill of rights which it contained were modeled more closely after Penn’s frames of government than after any other colonial charter. The new constitutions adopted by the various states during or following the Revolution embodied most of these features in their working system, and after giving due credit to all other influences that worked in the same direction, the major credit for the adoption of them in the American system must be given to Quaker influences.

It remains to speak of the moral and religious influence of Friends as distinct from the features already mentioned. Between the moral standards of the Quaker and those of the Puritan there was a family kinship. Most of the early Friends were Puritans before their convincement. Much of the opposition which Friends felt towards such “vanities” as horse-racing, dancing, theatres, fiction, and sports was a Puritan inheritance.

But aside from this common ground, Friends based their moral standards more on the New Testament and less on the Old than did the Puritans. They were less legalistic, at least in the early days, and more humane in their moral standards. The Quaker insistence that there is a fundamental relation between social character and conduct, on the one hand, and religion, worship, and religious profession on the other, strengthened the moral influence of colonial religion wherever it was felt.

During the colonial period Friends were in general quite in advance of their neighbors in promoting moral reforms. Wherever there was a custom or institution which was detrimental to human welfare the Quaker conscience grew uneasy and the meeting soon began to question the practice and then to testify against the evil of it. In this way, usually on the initiative of some concerned member of meeting, Friends became pioneers in a host of moral reforms.

Friends did their best to secure just and kindly treatment of the Indians. They exercised a profound influence upon the education of those colonies in which they were numerous. It was a fundamental defect that they established no colleges or other institutions of higher learning during the colonial period, but they did value elementary education. Their schools in more than one province laid the foundation of the subsequent public school system.

Friends early developed a sense of the incompatibility of the slave-trade and of slavery with Christianity. In 1688 Pastorius’ meeting at Germantown, near Philadelphia, had voiced its protest against slavery. The Pennsylvania Assembly abolished the slave trade in 1711 but the act was rejected by the British government. By reason of the work of John Woolman, especially, but with the co-operation of numbers of other tender and concerned Friends, the Society itself had set the great example of freeing its own slaves in practically all the colonies by the close of the colonial period. It is not an accident that Pennsylvania, though no longer under Quaker control, was the first to abolish slavery by law. It is but just to recognize that the social philosophy, which proclaimed the inalienable rights and natural equality of all men, powerfully aided the anti-slavery movement at this period; but the Quakers had nearly all freed their own slaves and given their practical testimony to the world against slavery before this latter influence began to be effective.

During the colonial period Friends developed a strong testimony against the keeping of taverns, and the manufacture of alcoholic drinks, as well as against the abuse of them. Even the excessive indulgence in tobacco came in for a caution, and that in Maryland and North Carolina!

In an age when churches, charities, and even governments re­sorted to lotteries to raise money, Friends had a testimony against gambling and lotteries. They set an example of simplicity in dress and in the furnishing of their houses. They cared for their own poor, helped their distressed neighbors, and were considerate of tenants and laborers. Whatever influence they possessed was thrown on the side of temperance, honesty, industry, and social morality. The story of their work for each of these would be a chapter in itself. It is evident that the Quakers were a powerful influence alongside of New England Puritanism, making for the essential conscientiousness, sobriety, and clean moral tone of American life.

The influence of Friends in promoting the spiritual emphasis in religion is so intangible, that it is difficult to measure it. When we consider the types of religion that were brought to America by the colonial settlers, we find that externals were commonly believed to be of the essence of Christianity. In spite of their later insistence on conformity in matters of dress and address, Friends did make a testimony to the non-essential character of the usual outward forms in worship and belief. They did show that the fruits of Christianity in honest and neighborly living are, or may be, quite independent of the outward forms which were usually regarded as vital and essential.

The whole development of religious thought and emphasis in America has been in the direction of the Quaker testimony, and the movement towards the emphasis upon the moral and spiritual in religion has not been uninfluenced by the Quaker spirit and example.

In some quarters at the present time, it is the fashion to honor Penn, Woolman, and other Quaker pioneers in philanthropy and free­-government, but to ignore or discount their religion. This is to try to separate the fruit from the root which nourished it. The Quaker influence on colonial life was not accidentally associated with their religion, but sprang from it. It was out of the root of their experience of God in their own souls and their faith in “that of God” in all men, that their influence for good sprang. Because they had experienced the constraining impulse of the Love of Christ within, they trod gladly the paths of human helpfulness. Because they knew the convincingness of the Inward Truth, they imposed no outward creed. The sufficiency of the Inward Authority made needless outward restraints on the consciences of men.


  1. Of related interest:
  2. — Elbert Russell’s letter to Martha Bunting (1942).
  3. — Dictionary of North Carolina Biography: Elbert Russell.