Why did Quakers come to North America? As Max Carter tells it, it wasn’t to escape religious persecution.
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- Max describes the founding of Pennsylvania as a “holy experiment” where the kingdom of God could be felt experientially.Have you ever been to a place that felt like a holy experiment?
- What do you perceive as the geographical center of modern Quakerism?Where have you encountered the most faithful Quakers?
People associate Quakers primarily in the United States with Pennsylvania, and actually it wasn’t the first place the Quakers came to in the American colonies.
How Quakers Came to North America
Quakerism began in England—1640s and 50s—as missionaries, those who went forth to share their experience, to lead others into convincement, first came to Virginia.The first known Quaker in the colonies, I believe, was Elizabeth Harris 1656 in Virginia.There were Quakers in the Carolinas by the 1660s.So they were washing ashore in various places, initially as missionaries, carrying the gospel message as Friends.
William Penn and Pennsylvania
But in the 1670s, William Penn was a convinced Friend and was offered a tract of land on what we today call “Pennsylvania” by the King of England, who owed his father, Admiral Penn, a large debt for Admiral Penn’s having loaned a significant sum of money for the prosecution of a war.
Penn refused to accept the land until he sent his agents over to treat with the Native Americans who actually lived there on how they would live together, and Penn actually bought the land from the Native Americans.[In] 1681, 1682, in the treaty of Shackamaxon, painted by Benjamin West and Edward Hicks and those sorts of folks.
But whatever the historical details were, Penn did seek to live peaceably with the Native Americans in what became known as Pennsylvania.Penn didn’t call it Pennsylvania.The king said, “I want to honor your father by calling it ‘Penn’s Woods,’ Penn’s-Sylvania, to honor Admiral Penn,” and so the name stuck.
The Holy Experiment
It became, for William Penn, and opportunity to display what became known as “The Holy Experiment”, which we understand in two different ways.It was an experiment in how to organize our political and religious and social lives around those testimonies of Friends, around the Quaker understanding of restoring original Christianity.So it would be a place where people could practice their religion freely, without the dictates of the crown, where all would be equal in the society, regardless of their class and their religious background, and a place that would not be organized around the military power and might, where anyone who believed in God could run for office and serve in civil society.
But it was also understood to be a place where you would go and you would experience the power of that life.Quakers talked about knowing truth “experimentally”, which meant experientially.So the holy experiment was not just “We’re going to try this and see if it works,” it was actually, “Come here and experience what life living as if the kingdom of God has come on Earth as it is in heaven” is like, and many did.So many Quakers settled in the Delaware valley, in Pennsylvania because of that.
Expanding to Other Colonies
So it wasn’t as a refuge.Folks didn’t flock to the colonies to escape persecution.In fact, if they got to Massachusetts, they were hanged.It was not a capital offense to be a Quaker in England.It was in Massachusetts, and several Quakers were hanged for the crime of “driving while Quaker” in Massachusetts.They came to bear truth, to bear witness—and before long, almost half of the original colonies has Quaker majorities, or Quakers in government.
Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas all had significant Quaker governments, leadership well into the early 1700s.
Then from that center of the Delaware Valley Quaker culture, Friends started spreading out as it got expensive there or crowded there, in the mid 1700s, Quakers went down the Shenendoah Valley into the Carolinas, went north, went west, hit the Appalachian mountains and went south, eventually over the Appalachian mountains and into Ohio, Indiana…
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.