Mary Peisley was born into a Quaker family in Ballymore, County Kildare, Ireland, in 1717. At age 27, she was recognized as a gifted minister and funds were made available to enable her to travel in the ministry among Friends. Her last major trip was to the American colonies between 1753 and 1756.
While on that journey, she was struck by the "low state of discipline" among American Quakers and cried out for a reformation within the Religious Society of Friends. Remarkably, the letters and epistles that she wrote during that trip were to be seen 70 years later as prophesying the separations that took place within the Religious Society of Friends in 1827 and 1828.
Her criticism was initially restrained. In an epistle entitled "To the Living, Solid Remnant of Friends, at the Yearly Meeting, to be Held at Curles, for the Colony of Virginia, in the Sixth Month, 1754, and Especially Such as Constitute the Select Meeting," she used imagery of the Jews returning from exile in Babylon in urging Quakers to rebuild the "wall" or "hedge" that separated them from "the people of the world" (significant scriptural references have been added in brackets):
Now as the hedge is thus sadly taken away, and the wall greatly broken down, we are sensible the reparation must be by gradual steps, yea, by laying a single stone at a time, and planting a tender twig. . . . The Lord will bless his work in your hands, and richly reward you for it, though you may have a long and painful travail, and sometimes as in the night season [Psalm 22:2], before you come at the right place for building; and when you come there, you will find much rubbish to be removed [Nehemiah 4:2]. This we apprehend must be the first work, before one stone can be properly laid on the right foundation, i.e. to have all unsanctified spirits, both of your own and other societies, excluded the privilege of sitting in your meetings for business; otherwise we believe it will be building with the rubbish, which will never stand to the honour of God and the good of his people.
The first two verses of Psalm 22 are, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent." It was expected that the use of the words "night season" would bring these verses to the readers’ minds. The choice of these words is a measure of the degree of anguish that Mary Peisley (and other Quaker reformers she was meeting in her travels) felt over the state of the Religious Society and of how serious they felt the need was for a radical regeneration.
The "rubbish to be removed" referred to people who were unwilling to live up to the faith and practice of Friends, but by claiming seats in meetings for business, wanted to call themselves Friends. In the early 18th century, meetings had become lax—less and less likely to require that members live up to the Quaker testimonies. In this respect, the story in Nehemiah of the return from Babylonian exile was instructive. Jews who had married non-Jews during the years in Babylon were required to put away their spouses or be excluded from Israel—symbolized by the newly rebuilt Jerusalem, set on firm foundations by first removing the rubbish left over from its destruction some 50 years earlier. To the Quaker reformers, members who "married out" with non-Friends were similarly compromising the purity of Friends. They saw the Religious Society drifting complacently along and, in the process, losing its identity as a "peculiar people" (i.e., the new chosen people) and thereby losing its right to claim a special relationship with God.
As her travels progressed, Mary Peisley increasingly came into conflict with those she described as "high pretenders to revelation." These were Quakers—often among the richest and most influential—who resisted the call for a return to stricter observation of Friends’ traditional faith and practice. In answer to their opposition, she felt called to "testify against an unruly separate spirit." In reply to a letter from John Pemberton, a prominent Philadelphia Quaker and supporter of reformation, she wrote:
I have not the least intention to derogate from the real worth of these honourable sons of the morning [Isaiah 14:12], who were made instrumental, in a great degree, to break down the partition wall, which carnal selfish men had erected, between the people and the Sun of Righteousness [Malachi 4:2]; yet I am not afraid to say, and give it under my hand, that it was and is the design of God, that his people in future ages should make an improvement on their labours, and carry the reformation even further than they did. And notwithstanding a night of apostacy has come over us as a people.
In other words, the work of the early Friends had been to restore Christianity to the purity of the first century by breaking down the barriers between God and humanity. But, she says, this work is not finished. In fact, it will never be finished. In each generation, the work of reforming needs to be continued and extended. What she sees instead is a generation that is spiritually comfortable and morally indulgent. She knows that Pemberton will recognize that in Isaiah, it is Lucifer who is described as "son of the morning." Even so, she writes, there are glimmerings of a new stage of growth:
That day has begun to dawn [2 Peter 1:19],
in which the Sun of Righteousness will rise higher and higher, with greater lustre than heretofore.
Unfortunately, she also believed that the "high pretenders to revelation" would continue in their opposition and even seek to reverse this new day of reformation:
Therefore let them take heed that they limit not the Holy One of Israel, nor circumscribe the leadings of His blessed unerring Spirit, by looking too much at the example of others; for this has been a means of stopping the gradual progression of many glorious well-begun reformations. Instead of going forward, they have looked back, and even sunk below the standard of the first reformers. Such as will be the happy instruments to labour for a reformation in this degenerate age, must differ in their trials from the sons of the former morning, and will find them to be of a more severe and piercing kind: —theirs were from the world, and such as they might justly expect therefrom, —not exempt from false brethren; ours will chiefly arise from those under the same profession, clothed with the disguised spirit of the world [1 Corinthians 2:12], and that amongst some of the foremost rank (so called) in Society.
Which is to say, while early Friends were persecuted by outsiders (people "from the world"), her generation of reformers faced internal opposition from "false brethren." These were people who called themselves Quakers, but were guided by the "spirit of the world." This was a house divided against itself and many saw in her next lines the future separations foretold:
And what if I say, (though my natural eyes may not see it,) that God will divide in Jacob and scatter in Israel [Genesis 49:7] before that reformation which He designs is brought about, in His Church.
Even as Mary Peisley was writing, the American yearly meetings were beginning to tighten enforcement of the discipline. During the second half of the 18th century, thousands were disowned (many for marrying out) in an attempt to recover the purity of the early Quaker movement. This, however, did not bring unity to those who remained. The "hedge" was not proof against new ideas entering the Religious Society. On one hand, these came from the evangelical movement sweeping through U.S. Protestantism. On the other, the enlightenment and rationalism brought new ways of thinking about religious truth. Each of these views was to gain adherents among Friends.
Mary Peisley’s "prophecy" was remembered and frequently quoted in the 1820s —especially among those who were to become "Hicksite" Quakers in Philadelphia (the forerunners of many current Friends General Conference meetings).
In their eyes, the leaders of the yearly meeting had adulterated true Quakerism with evangelical ideas. To them, these were "false brethren . . . amongst some of the foremost rank . . . in the society." When they were unable to change that leadership, they saw separation as their only recourse.
As she predicted, Mary Peisley would live to see neither the reformation nor the separations. In 1756 she returned to Ireland. A year later she married Samuel Neale, a Friend prominent in his own right. On her wedding night she fell ill and, three days later, died.
The irony in this story is that the very acts intended to strengthen the Religious Society may have planted the seeds for its fragmentation. The 18th century reformation that Mary Peisley and her compatriots advanced greatly increased the power of the elders and the overseers. It was a short step from judging whether a person’s behavior was sufficiently Quakerly to deciding whether their beliefs were satisfactory. Once it became acceptable for a meeting to disown those who failed to measure up to behavioral standards, it was reasonable to apply the same course of action to those with whom the meeting disagreed on theological issues. The lack of an explicit creed left these decisions largely up to the judgment of each meeting and allowed this process to be abused. The result was periodic attempts to purge the society—ridding it of unruly minorities—by those on both ends of the spectrum.
The Hicksite-Orthodox separation was only the first in a long cascade of splits and divisions within each of the resulting branches of Friends. With each division, new animosities were sown and still finer distinctions made. The quest for purity is unending.
The scars from these schisms are with us today.
Quotations in this article are from Mary Neale, Some Account of the Life and Religious Exercises of Mary Neale, Formerly Mary Peisley. Principally Compiled from her own Writings (Philadelphia: Friends Book Store, 1860).