Josiah Parker Papers

About Quakers

About the Quakers
(Religious Society of Friends)

The members of the Parker Family were members of the Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers). One becomes clearly aware of many of the unique practices and terms associated with the Society of Friends after reading only a few of the Parker letters.

Early History and Beliefs

The Society of Friends arose about 1650 in the Lake Country of northwest England. The middle part of the seventeenth century was a time of religious and political ferment and upheaval in England, and many groups of “Seekers” were scattered throughout the country.

George Fox, the son of an English weaver, underwent many years of searching before being told plainly in 1647 in what he believed to be divine revelation, “there is one even Christ Jesus who can speak to thy condition.” This idea, of Jesus Christ come to teach His people Himself, has remained central to Quaker theology in the centuries since. In 1652 Fox climbed Pendle Hill in Lancashire, where he saw a “vision of a great people to be gathered.” Through the preaching of Fox and others the group, known in its formative years as “Friends of the Light” or “Children of the Light,” grew rapidly. Friends disregarded the “ordinances,” as the sacraments of baptism and communion were called, and replaced them with spiritual worship. Ordained priests were rejected in favor of recorded ministers, though the “priesthood of every believer” has been widely believed and practiced among Friends since their earliest days.

The church building, or “steeplehouse,” was viewed as no more sacred than any other place. The law prevented Friends from building their own buildings in the early years; however, the Declaration of Indulgences in 1687-88 allowed Friends to build public meetinghouses legally for the first time. The Quaker meeting house, devoid of spire, bell, stained glass, and pulpit, stood in stark contrast to the established church buildings of the day. Believing themselves to be the true Church of God, Friends traveled widely, preaching the Gospel. Friends reached the North American colonies in 1655 or 1656. Large numbers were converted and immigrated, so that Fox himself, found many Friends there when he visited in 1672. William Penn, perhaps, the most famous Quaker to the outside world, established Pennsylvania Colony in 1682. Huge numbers of Friends came into the new colony.

After the death of the earliest generation of Friends, the Society lapsed into a period of mystical quietism. Vocal ministry, which had been so vibrant during the earliest days of the Society, focused more on maintaining internal purity than evangelism. Worldly amusements, worldly speech, and worldly apparel were forbidden. A rigid discipline was enforced by increasingly powerful elders, who served for life. Disownments, most for relatively minor infractions, were very common. Increasingly, the meeting for worship consisted of long periods of silence, presided over by the elders. Men and women entered through separate doors and sat on separate sides of the meeting house.


From their earliest days Friends have carried on a number of social concerns, which they call “testimonies.” Believing that “war is utterly incompatible” with a Christian life, Friends have officially condemned war and armed conflict for centuries. Concern for follow man is also evident from the earliest days of the Society of Friends. Fox in 1676 urged that Friends free their slaves after a number of years. In 1688 Germantown Monthly Meeting in Pennsylvania became the first Quaker body to condemn slavery, though slaveholding remained present among Quakers until at least 1776. Friends took an active role in colonization, then manumission societies. Many Quakers were leaders in the “Underground Railroad.” In fact Levi Coffin, a Quaker of Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana, was regarded as the “President” of the Underground Railroad, and his home was its “Grand Central Station.” Humane treatment of the Indians was also of particular concern to Friends. When Penn arrived in 1682, he made a treaty with Tamenend, the local Delaware chief. This treaty is remembered as the “only treaty never sworn to and never broken.” Friends were especially concerned with plain and simple living. This was manifested through “plainness of dress,” which consisted of wearing drab colors of clothing with no ornamentation, and through “plainness of address,” which consisted of using the archaic personal form of the second person (“thee,” “thou,” and “thy”) instead of the formal form (“you.”) The latter testimony was seen as a part of the testimony of honesty, since “you” is plural and it was being used to single individuals as a form of flattery and deference. A number of linguistic historians have studied the Quaker use of this plainness of address. Most have concluded that only in northern England, where the Quaker movement arose, did the selective use of terms carry much weight. In fact the personal form was dying out nearly everywhere else. Friends carried on the “plain language” diligently, though the nominative “thou” was hardly used. Instead, Friends used the objective “thee” as both a nominative and an objective pronoun.

Quaker Organization

Since Friends believe that the Church was the whole of God’s kingdom, they have not generally referred to local congregations as “churches,” but rather as meetings. Nearly all local meetings had regularly organized and held meetings for worship. Occasionally in the early stages of organization a local meeting might be granted the status of “indulged meeting,” which was overseen by a committee from the monthly meeting. These meetings generally were soon elevated to the position of meetings for worship. Every meeting for belonged to a preparative meeting. Nearly all local meetings also held their own preparative meetings. A preparative meeting, the business body of the local congregation, was held once a month to prepare business for the ensuing monthly meeting. Preparative meetings acted on very few matters themselves, but rather determined which business was important enough to go on the monthly meeting. A monthly meeting consisted of at least two, and usually four or five, preparative meetings. It was held monthly. The monthly meeting is the basic unit of Quaker organization. It handles membership and finances, the two most important matters in any religious organization. It was also responsible for the recording of ministers (with oversight of the quarterly meeting) and the appointment of elders and overseers. The monthly meeting was also responsible for the discipline of members. Members who violated the discipline of Friends were dealt with by the overseers. Members who “were treated with without the desired effect” were disowned by the monthly meeting. All monthly meetings are a part of a quarterly meeting, which generally encompasses one or more counties. Quarterly meetings meet four times each year. All quarterly meetings belong to a yearly meeting. Yearly meetings are the highest level of authority among Friends. They hear appeals of membership decisions from quarterly and monthly meetings. They compile and publish the “Discipline” that governs their members and meetings. Yearly meetings appoint committees to carry out concerns dealing with the testimonies. Yearly meetings generally include all of the quarterly meetings in one or more states.

At every level the business meeting is very similar. A presiding officer, called a clerk, listens to the concerns of members. Through the process of discerning God’s will, the clerk crafts a minute. The minute is then read to the membership, who are asked to give their approval. If they approve, they say, “Approved.” Voting does not take place in Quaker meetings. During the earliest years, women held separate meetings, with their own clerks. This was to ensure independence and equality of action on the part of the women and men.

The Quaker Context of the Early Nineteenth Century

The letters in the Parker collection were written during a time of great change and turmoil among American Quakers. In the earliest years of the nineteenth century, Friends, influenced by other denominations, were beginning to emerge from their long period of quietism. This created great stress. One who spoke against an increasingly evangelical view of Quakerism was Elias Hicks, a New York Quaker minister. Hicks’s travels often brought him into conflict with those who had more orthodox Christian beliefs, including Thomas Shillatoe, Hannah Chapman Backhouse, and Elizabeth Braithwaite from England, and Stephen Grellett of Philadelphia. The stress finally broke into open conflict and division at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1827. Competing groups of Friends, “Orthodox” and “Hicksite,” appeared in nearly every American yearly meeting. Only North Carolina, Virginia, and New England Yearly Meetings were held together. The Parkers were firm supporters of the Orthodox side, as evidenced by their statements in letters from Indiana Yearly Meeting in 1828.

Friends Since 1828

In the years after 1828, Orthodox and Hicksite Friends traveled on increasingly diverging paths. Orthodox Friends found themselves facing internal stress over the place of Quaker distinctives in worship and in life. This resulted a second round of divisions, called the Wilburite, or Conservative, Separations between 1845 and 1904. The Orthodox Friends who were more open to influence by non-Quaker forces, known as “Gurneyite” or “Evangelical” Friends, grew rapidly during the period after the American Civil War. These Friends, the largest group of American Quakers, adopted a programmed style of worship, replete with paid pastors, sermons, musical instruments, and singing. Their meetinghouses were transformed into “Friends Churches.” Stained glass and belfries became commonplace among the Gurneyite branch.

Hicksite Friends went through a long period of decline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the latter part of the twentieth century, something of a renewal occurred among Hicksite Friends, who became increasingly universalist and unitarian in their theology. Today, many Orthodox Friends are working more closely with Hicksite Friends. The old terms have been replaced by more innocuous ones (Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference, respectively), and complete reunion was accomplished in Philadelphia, New York, and Canada yearly meetings in 1955 and in Baltimore Yearly Meeting in 1968. A large number of Midwestern and Western Orthodox Friends have been increasingly at odds with the more liberal theology of Friends in the East. The result has been the formation of an Evangelical Friends organization, currently known as Evangelical Friends International. American Quakers, though a statistical small and fragmented group, continue to influence American life in to a much greater degree than their numbers would indicate.