Discerning Truth in Abolitionist Activities Centered in
Westbury Quarterly Meeting 1830-1860
By Gretchen Haynes
Almost from the inception, there has been conflict within the Society of Friends over claims of authority for personal action: individual leading versus corporate discernment. On the one hand is the fundamental opening of George Fox that “there is that of God in everyone.” The “God in each” leads to the concept of the direct, unmediated relationship to God through the Inner Light or Holy Spirit.
On the other hand is the need to test one’s leading with others before proceeding to action. The possibility of direct revelation of God’s Will has posed a problem to Friends going right back to Fox and James Naylor. It played out again in the Hicksite-Orthodox Separation and Friends response to anti-slavery activity. And it arises today when we try to apply the Peace Testimony to contemporary world conflicts.
Are the individual members ultimately responsible for discerning the Will of God, and their own conduct? Or is the Meeting ultimately responsible for discerning the Will of God and, therefore, the conduct of its members? What happens when two people hear the Will of God in diametrically opposed messages? How shall such issues be tested and resolved?
may be instructive to study Friends’ responses to the issues of slavery to
better understand the contradictions inherent in discerning whose will the
individual is hearing. This article focuses on
slavery issue came to the forefront with John Woolman
traveled under the concern of slave-owning Friends, calling the
Society to labor with the paradox of Friends’ owning human beings as
way was to visit Meetings and individual Friends to preach and pray with them towards
releasing their slaves. He acted from his own leading to persuade others to
witness to the testimony of equality. He refused to use any product produced by
slave labor and this became an article of faith for many Friends. Elias Hicks
(1748-1830), the fiery preacher from
Hicks’s view of slavery grew directly from his views on where authority lay, which eventually led to the 1828 Separation that took place in New York Yearly Meeting and other, but not all, yearly meetings among the American Society of Friends. He believed in holy obedience to the “manifestation of the will of God by his own spirit in the soul,” (Barbour 119) rather than the authority of moral laws, scripture, or elders. The “Hicksite Friends” separated themselves from the turmoil of the “World” and called themselves “Quietists.”
Designated as “radical” in ethics, the Quietist Quakers tended “to polarize good and evil, to reject compromise. They may see good and evil in terms of social structures and oppression…. They will work to change human motives, for instance by education, but are more likely to try to persuade good people to isolate themselves out of society into pure groups…. Over slavery, then the quietist Elias Hicks was a radical: he distrusted equally self-will and slave owners. He was also a separatist, seeing the Society of Friends as a pure community against the corrupt world.” (Barbour, 192-3)
Elias Hicks wrote in Observations on the Slavery of Africans and Their Descendents, (1811) “I think it is self evident….the slavery of the Africans is the product of mere power, without any possible pleas of right….Every child of an African, born in America or elsewhere…is born free, and therefore suffers the same cruel force of fraud and power….Slaves, being taken by violence…are taken prisoners of war, prize goods.” (Barbour, 74) By linking slaves to war booty, Hicks tied freeing slaves to the Peace Testimony. He preached to Friends to manumit their slaves as a matter of faith. Like Woolman, he acted alone to challenge individuals and the Society to live up to Friends’ testimonies.
put the period in perspective, Shane White, a researcher into slavery in
as early as 1759, New York Yearly Meeting “decided that Friends could not
import slaves.” (Barbour 66). In 1771 the Yearly Meeting ordered members not to
sell their slaves if they wished to remain in good standing with their Meeting
and in 1774, that all slaves had majority (age 21) (67). In 1776 the Yearly Meeting “mandated the
freeing of their slaves if members wished to remain in good standing. By 1776,
Long Island Friends from Manhasset to
During the early period, individual actions to oppose slavery seem to be the norm. Many Friends followed the leading of John Woolman and instituted a boycott of slave-made goods, known as the Free Produce movement. New York Yearly Meeting endorsed the idea in 1811 by publishing Hicks’s Observations (Densmore 82). As anti-slavery sentiment mounted in the 1830’s and 40’s, some Friends went even further. James Mott, husband of Lucretia Mott, “abandoned the cotton trade in protest” over slavery (Day 46). Thomas Willis helped Henry Highland Garnet, the black abolitionist, to escape a slave catcher and Capt. Epenetus Smith, another L. I. Quaker, provided endentured employment for Garnet. (Driscoll, 17-18) Many, but not all, Friends were active in the Underground Railroad network. [For a thorough discussion of Quakers’ role, see Driscoll et al., Angels of Deliverance: The Underground Railroad.]
the Separation, most Friends in both Hicksite and
frowned upon participation with those “not in unity with the
Society”; they found other, less fractious activities. In addition to Free
Produce, this included the petition campaign to the U. S. Congress to end
slavery in the
the pre-Civil War era, some Friends were wary of involvement in what they saw
as social action rather than religious concerns. They saw the gathering storm
and sought to remove Friends from aggravating the tendencies toward war. From about 1840,
It is, to me, absurd that, at this day and age, Friends should talk about keeping to the quiet. Have they not, since the first rise of the society, been agitating the public? Their testimonies were calculated to do so, and, I believe, the agitation has been productive of great good to the world. (Densmore 84-5)
As in other instances in Friends’ history, the tensions grew over how to resolve conflicts that arose within the Society. In Genesee Yearly Meeting, some Friends, such as Amy and Isaac Post, asked to be released from membership while about 200 others withdrew to form their own Yearly Meeting in 1848 (Densmore 86).
Individual Quakers continued their involvement in various organizations that included non-Friends. In 1785 the N.Y. Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves was founded by 12 Friends and 6 other men. Their focus was on securing legislation, monitoring compliance, educating the freed slaves, and later cooperation with other abolitionist societies. In the first 40 years, of 454 members, 251 were Friends, showing that at that time, Friends were free to associate with non-Friends in anti-slavery activities. That society was dissolved in 1849. The Charity Society was founded by Elias Hicks in 1794 “for the relief of the Poor among the black people, more especially for the education of their children.” (Gaines 1). This society still promotes education for minority children. [For a list of Westbury-Jericho contributors to the Anti-Slavery Society, see appendix.]
better understand the paradox arising when Friends have diametrically opposed
understandings of the Will of God, we can see how slavery affected the
New York Association of Friends for the Relief of Those Held in Slavery was
organized in 1839 by Hicksite Friends to publish
pamphlets on slavery, endorse the free produce movement, and help educate free
grew between these activists and those Friends who, while abhorring slavery,
did not believe in direct intervention to end it. George F. White, for example,
a recorded minister of New York Monthly Meeting (Hicksite),
spoke “against societies for popular reform, a category that included
missionary and temperance societies and the abolitionist organizations.”
…. An article highly critical of White
was published in the
The charges brought against the three illustrate the paradox and the conflict between personal witness and corporate discipline. According to the Monthly Meeting minutes:
1. The Will of Man, not the Will of God, prompted the activity; therefore it was wrong and sinful because it was not under divine Guidance.
2. Such activity was a mixing in the world, with the “low and the vile, the just and the unjust”; therefore it could not have a good outcome.
3. Friends in such activities came into contact with ministers of other faiths, in violation of the testimony against being “corrupted by the hireling ministry” and constituted a “slippery slope” leading to leaving the Society of Friends.
4. If there were anything wrong with slavery, or any other situation, God would correct it. Such activity implied that abolitionists thought they were wiser than God.
5. Such activity implied that something was wrong with Friends testimonies. Faith should be sufficient to cause change; therefore, it was not necessary to form or participate in man-made organizations.
6. Such activity ignored the slaveholders, many of whom were performing a moral good by making slaves morally good and happy; it also ignored the problems that abolition would bring to slaveholders.
7. Such activity employed strong language and harsh activities unbefitting to Friends.
8. Quakers belong to a religious society, not a benevolent society; therefore, slavery was not a proper issue for the care of the Society of Friends. (Hourahan)
In three separate actions the three men were disowned in 1842: first by the New York Monthly Meeting, then by Westbury Quarterly Meeting to which N.Y. Monthly belonged, and finally confirmed by the New York Yearly Meeting. The 1842 Minutes of the Yearly Meeting read as follows:
The following minute was received from Westbury Quarterly Meeting.
“The Committee to inform Isaac T. Hopper of the judgment of this meeting, and of his right to appeal, responded that he informed them he intended to appeal from the judgment of this to the Yearly Meeting. John C. Merritt, Sam’l Underhill, Nathaniel S. Merritt, John Leggett, and Richard Field are appointed to attend the Yearly Meeting, with copies of this and of New York Yearly Meeting’s minutes relative thereto, and to give such explanations as may be necessary.
“Isaac T. Hopper being present, and informing the meeting that he intends to prosecute his appeal. The following Friends are appointed to hear the Appelant and the Committee of Westbury Quarterly meeting and report their sense to [unclear] sitting of this meeting viz [list includes Friends from] Purchase, Nine Partners, Easten, Stanford, Ferrisburgh, Duanesburgh, Saratoga, Cornwell, Shrewsbury & Rahway.”
[The Minutes continue]
“James S. Gibbons being present, in reply to the question whether he intended to prosecute his appeal, Said, he had no intention of doing so, but retired from it. This information is directed to Westbury Quarterly Meeting.”
Following the deliberations, the Yearly Meeting Minutes read:
“The Committee appointed in the case of Isaac T. Hopper on his appeal against the judgement of Westbury Quarterly meeting made the following report:
“To the Yearly Meeting
“The Committee on Isaac T. Hopper’s appeal report, that, after patient deliberation, we find that eighteen of our members are in favor of confirming the judgement of the quarterly meeting, fifteen for reversing it, and three decline giving judgement in the case. [Emphasis in the original.]
“On behalf of the Committee”
“On consideration, and after a general expression of sentiment theron, this meeting concluded to confirm the judgement of Westbury quarterly meeting, Eleazar Haviland and Simon Brown are appointed to give this conclusion to Isaac T. Hopper and direct similar information to the quarterly meeting of Westbury.”
The Yearly Meeting action is highly unusual in Quaker decision-making. Voting, or taking a poll, is not a part of Friends’ right order. But even by non-Quaker standards, there was not a majority in favor of the judgement, but an even tie when the abstentions are counted. One can only imagine the turmoil this “case” must have caused among Friends.
Lucretia Mott wrote to
the Yearly Meeting in support of Hopper and angry at the actions of George T.
White, who she accused of provocative actions.
She may be considered partisan, however, since her daughter, Anna,
married the Gibbon’s son, Edward.
Following disownment, Hopper continued to sit on the facing bench at his
In personal terms, Isaac Hopper lived until 1852 and continued his abolitionist activities, continuing to attend Meeting. Following the Civil War, his daughter, Abigail H. Gibbons, became active in another reform movement, the Women’s Prison Association. She presented her letter of withdrawal from the Society of Friends personally to Rose Street Meeting, at which Sally Hicks of Westbury spoke against her actions. In 1870, members of New York Yearly Meeting approached her to return to Friends. She agreed, if the Yearly Meeting would approve a minute retracting her father’s disownment. This did not occur, and even as late as 1900, the sides were still adamant. (Hourahan)
In one sense, Friends could participate in individual actions such as support of the free produce movement. Similarly, Friends could respond to a fleeing slave by giving sanctuary and passing the person on to safety, as Valentine Hicks is reported doing. These actions grew out of the personal witness to Friends’ testimonies. They did not violate any of the precepts laid out in the charges against Isaac Hopper. On the other hand, these individual actions did not urge any one else to follow, but left it up to each person. It seems that advocacy, agitation, and overt action, particularly in cooperation with non-Friends were frowned upon. Just as abolitionists acted outside of monthly meetings’ approval, today peace activists are forming alliances to alleviate Meeting dissent around their actions, such as civil disobedience.
The dilemma of holy obedience in a world of war and social injustice can be further examined in the life and work of a Westbury woman who became a noted Quaker minister. Rachel Seaman Hicks [1789-1878] was the daughter of Gideon Seaman, a long-time clerk of Westbury Monthly Meeting. At the time of the Separation, he remained clerk of the Westbury Orthodox Friends while his daughter went with the followers of Elias Hicks, her uncle by marriage.
She was a shy, deeply spiritual woman who felt called by God. At the age of 18, (1808) she writes in her Memoir, “when the language was sounded intelligibly to my mental ear, ’If faithful to My requirings, thou wilt have to speak in My name to the assemblies of the people, and travel extensively in the ministry.’ This was an unexpected and unwelcome message. My nature revolted, and I said in my heart, ‘This is a service I cannot perform.’ …Any other service I thought I could perform, or make any sacrifice in lieu of so great a work for which I felt unfit and unworthy.” (R. Hicks, 7-8) She resisted the leading, married, had five children, lost her husband and her father. In 1831, she “made a surrender of my will to my Divine Master to speak in the assemblies of the people.” Shortly thereafter, her son Gideon aged 8 died and in 1833 her oldest son William died at the age of 18. In 1836 she reluctantly answered the persistent call she felt to become a traveling minister.
plagued by self-doubt and homesickness, she traveled widely in New York Yearly
Meeting, along the East Coast from
She saw her mission as calling Hicksite meetings back into faithfulness to the Quietist path. “The same spirit of departure from faith in, and obedience to, the Divine principle in the soul which was the root and ground-work of the sad Separation in 1828, was still at work in the minds of many bearing our name” (R. Hicks 43). She labored with meetings and individuals in an “earnest appeal for obedience to the voice within,” which she had so abundantly found sufficient to guide her through life (62). She died at the age of 89, out-living all her children.
Rachel Hicks, like so many Friends, lamented the institution of slavery and its bitter fruits. She wrote in her Memoir in 1856, “In the course of this journey I had afresh to mourn over the deplorable system of human slavery that exists in our land, not only on account of the injustice and cruelty exercised toward the African race, but also for its demoralizing influence on the white people who claim them as their property.” (74)
She foresaw the day of retribution “not only to the slaveholder, but also to those who sustain the system by using and trafficking in the articles produced by the labor of slaves…. In view of the power and majesty of Deity my soul bows reverently before Him. He will work, and none can hinder; therefore I fear that, ere long, the soil that has received the tears and sweat of the oppressed in our land will be moistened by the blood of the white man – the inevitable consequence and just retribution for his unrighteous doings” (74).
No one can doubt the sincerity of her feelings against slavery and her steadfast belief in the hand of God working in history. Her life and ministry were based on the “Hicksite belief that ‘perfection’ or salvation came though an individual’s faithful obedience to the Inner Light.” (West 11) Nevertheless, she could not condone the efforts of the Quaker abolitionists, who also believed they were being faithful to their own Inner Light to overturn slavery. She was a strong supporter of George F. White, and in her ministry she warned of failing to “keep in the quiet” and wait upon God to make things right.
We learn, not from Rachel Hicks but from Lucretia Mott, that Hicks strongly criticized Mott’s abolitionist and women’s rights activities. Hicks’s reasons are summed up in the charges against Isaac Hopper – with the added charge that Lucretia thrust herself upon Meetings uninvited and would refuse to keep silent. (West, conversation) When Mott became an embarrassment, she was urged to resign from her Meeting and George F. White threatened her with disownment in Philadelphia Y.M., neither of which took place.
During Hicks’s life, Westbury Meeting supported her ministry, and various Friends accompanied her on her travels. Although she may have doubted her persuasiveness, she never doubted the call to faithfulness, and the hand of God in history. She does not mention Hopper’s disownment in her Memoirs, nor is there any mention in Westbury’s Minutes of any dissention between her views and those of the active abolitionists. We are left to wonder how the evident tensions might have been addressed.
Hopper and Hicks each followed their understanding of the Will of God, although the messages were diametrically opposite. For Hicks, salvation lay in faithfulness to the Inner Light but not, apparently, when it contradicted the Will of the Meeting, as it did with Hopper and Mott. Discernment in Hopper’s case lead to disownment by a process far removed from Friends’ right order. Neither the Monthly, the Quarterly, nor the Yearly Meetings were willing to continue testing for as long as it might take to find the sense of the Meeting. The outcome, a poll or vote, reflected more the emotional state of those involved than the spiritual commitment to finding “Truth” in the conflict.
approximately 50 members of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, the following
were from Westbury and Jericho Meetings:
further indication of Westbury’s support for abolitionist activities comes from
lists of those who gave financial support. Among them, Elizabeth Hicks donated
to this project; her correspondence contains letters from both Abigail Hopper
Gibbons and Rachel Seaman Hicks. While
full lists are not available to this writer, the treasurer’s report for
Anti-Slavery Society, for example in the week of 9th Mo. 9, 1843,
shows Phebe Ketcham, and
Margaret Ketcham, both of Jericho M.M. gave $1.00
each; in 1844, John Ketcham gave $1.; for the week of
Feb. 9, 1845, Mathew F. Robbins and Stephen Robbins, both of Jericho gave $1.50
and $2.00 respectively and E. Levi of Hempstead Harbor gave $1.00. In March 1849 for “Donations to be
appropriated for labour in
Hugh, Christopher Densmore, Elizabeth H. Moger, Nancy C. Sorel, Alson D. Van Wagner & Arthur J. Worral,
Eds. Quaker Cross Currents: Three Hundred
Years of Friends in the New York Yearly Meeting.
Lynda R. Making a Way to Freedom: A
History of African Americans on
“The Dilemma of Quaker Anti-Slavery: The Case of
James, Derek M. Gray, Richard J. Hourahan, Kathleen
G. Velsor. Angels
of Deliverance: The Underground Railroad in
Forbush, Bliss. Elias Hicks: Quaker Liberal.
Gaines, Edith. The Charity Society 1794-1994. Charity Society, 1994.
Hicks, Rachel. Correspondence, 1855. Website of westburyquakers.org Archive, Hicks, Rachel.
Hicks, Rachel. Memoir. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1880.
Moger, Elizabeth H. “Quakers as Abolitionists: The Robinsons of Rokeby and Charles Marriott.” Quaker History, Fall, 2004, v. 92, No. 2.
Personal conversations with Richard Hourahan, and James Driscoll of Queens Historical Society.
West, Rachel OSF. “Rachel Hicks: To Tell Unto Others What Thou Hast Done For My Soul,” Pendle Hill Lecture.
West, Rachel. “What I Learned from Rachel Hicks,” Friends Journal, 10-12, July, 2001. Personal conversations with Rachel West.