Tidbits of History: 340 Years of Quaking in the Carolinas

In 1998 North Carolina Yearly Meeting, which maintained its unity until 1903, celebrated its 300-year anniversary.

The earliest Friends in the Carolinas apparently moved into the northeast corner via the Great Dismal Swamp of southeast Virginia. Convinced of the Truth in Massachusetts—not a Friendly place for Quakers at the time—Henry Phillips and his wife moved down to the Duke of Albemarle’s land in 1665, where the charter issued by the restored Charles II provided for freedom of worship according to conscience. In April 1672, "having not seen a Friend for seven years before, they wept for joy to see us," William Edmundson reported in his journal. After a wet arrival (the swamp), he agreed to lead a meeting that day, and the Phillipses rounded up folks from all around; "many people came, but they had little or no religion, for they came and sat down in the meeting smoking their pipes; but in a little time, the Lord’s testimony arose in the authority of His power, and their hearts being reached with it, several of them were tendered."

Many more souls were convinced when Edmundson escorted George Fox to Edenton later that year. A wet arrival again, as their borrowed boat could not make the shallows to the shore. Fox reported "I was fain to put off my shoes and stockings and wade through the water a pretty way to the governor’s house, who with his wife received us lovingly." Fox soon got into a dispute with a certain doctor there who doubted the existence of the Light in everyone, so Fox called over an Indian and asked him if something inside did reprove him if "he did lie and do that to another which he would not have them do the same to him." The man confirmed that there was such a thing in him and "So we made the doctor ashamed in the sight of the governor and the people."

Amazingly, Quakerism became the first organized religion in the Carolinas. The proprietors professed the traditional views of the Church of England, but the Anglican Church was yet to be established. Meanwhile the Friends met mostly in homes and spread from the Albemarle area westward and southward to west of Wilmington. Just 26 years after Fox’s visit, North Carolina Yearly Meeting (NCYM) was formed rather humbly: "it is unanimus agreed by friends that the last seventh day of the 7th month in Every yere be the yerely meeting for this Cuntree at the house of francis tooms the Elder."

Friends became very influential in the Carolinas for about 50 years. One traditionalist wrote from the colony to the Lord Bishop of London complaining that "over one half of the burgesses are Quakers. . . . If your Lordship out of good and pious care for us doth not put a stop to their growth, we shall for the most part—especially the children born here—become heathen." Convinced by Fox, John Archdale was appointed governor of both colonies in 1695-96. In one example of his peaceful and strong leadership—supported by many Quakers elected to the assembly—guarantees were made to Native Americans that they would not be enslaved and that they would serve in equal numbers with whites on juries when their rights were in question.

Problems for all dissenters increased when the Church of England finally established itself in the early 1700s. Many Friends, Moravians, Presbyterians, and Baptists moved farther inland. Quaker migrations into the piedmont area also came in midcentury from Pennsylvania and in the 1770s from Nantucket Island. Soon New Garden, especially, became the center of southern Quakerism. Among these immigrants were the parents of Dolley Payne, born at New Garden in 1768, who lost her first husband and then married James Madison in 1794. These Friends continued to work for just, peaceful relations with Native Americans; following visits by John Woolman in midcentury, they developed a strong abolitionist movement in the 1770s. In 1776, North Carolina, New York, and Philadelphia yearly meetings all made it a disownable offense to buy, sell, or hold slaves, and Baltimore and Virginia yearly meetings soon followed.

Carolina Quakers as a rule stuck hard by the Peace Testimony; their refusal to bear arms was honored to some degree, at least during more peaceful times. As tensions rose between colonists and the Crown over exploitation of resources and taxes, Quakers and other peace church people in the Carolinas—Mennonites, Brethren, and Moravians—suffered disproportionately. For instance, in 1780 they were assessed a threefold amount for requisition of supplies for the army. The Advice issued by Western Quarterly Meeting was to refuse compliance, and many did so; many property seizures ensued. Others suffered also, as many agents of the Colonial government were corrupt and were pocketing much of their collections; seized property was often sold for small sums to friends and relatives of these agents.

In response, the Regulator movement arose in central North Carolina to "regulate" the affairs of the colony with some degree of justice. Many piedmont Quakers were involved in this protest movement, but then withdrew as many Regulators took an oath to "leave the plow and take up the gun." The movement was put down by Governor Tryon’s troops at the Battle of Alamance in 1771.

When conscription was reinstated in 1776, NCYM advised Friends not to take an oath nor affirm allegiance to either side of the warring factions. The few Friends who did take up arms in the Carolinas were very likely to suffer disownment. As battles raged across the territory, it was often the Quakers who were left with caring for the wounded and burying the dead, especially at Spring Meeting in Snow Camp and at New Garden following the Battle of Guilford Court House. Some 150 soldiers from both sides were buried in the New Garden cemetery and about 100 were nursed and fed in the meetinghouse. Ironically, the American general fighting Cornwallis, Nathanael Greene, had been raised a Quaker; the city of Greensboro was named after him.

While NCYM Friends no longer owned slaves after 1788, they could not ignore the evil and injustices around them and often took great risks by establishing Negro schools, sheltering runaway slaves, or speaking out against slavery. In 1816 New Garden became the center of the North Carolina Manumission Society, which eventually numbered 1,600 members. But when non-Friends insisted that a prime goal should be resettlement of freed slaves in Haiti or Liberia, the Quakers, who believed in freedom of choice, withdrew.

Ironically, when the state passed a law forbidding individuals to free slaves, NCYM itself became a corporate slave owner—in theory, at least. By 1824, some 700 blacks were held "in trust by the Society of Friends in North Carolina." This was quite burdensome to the yearly meeting. As more and more Quaker families and sometimes even whole communities picked up and left for the "free territory" of Ohio and Indiana, very often they were asked to take temporary "ownership" of these individuals or family units and transport them out of the South. In a few cases, as with the Mendenhall family, they made multiple trips and stayed with the ex-slaves until they could develop some sustaining occupation.

As defense of slavery laws became ever more onerous and the scent of war was in the air, most Quakers left. Practically none were left in South Carolina, which had ten meetings around 1800, and Virginia Yearly Meeting ceased to exist.

As the Civil War approached, Quakers opposed secession, and, generally, sentiments in central North Carolina were mixed—some townships apparently furnished as many men to the Union army as to the Confederate. After the first shots were fired, "war fever" spread among other congregations that officially opposed slavery, except for the Quakers, who were distressed to see so many Christian ministers supporting the war and even taking up arms. A yearly meeting Advice in 1864 bewailed this departure from Christian teachings: "We verily believe that the great distress in which our country is now plunged, is in a large degree traceable to the hireling ministry of the present day." The remaining Friends suffered terribly like most everyone else, and some were even in the path of Sherman’s army with its scorched earth policy. In addition, they often suffered heavy taxes for not bearing arms, which left many impoverished, and some even suffered torture and other hostility from their neighbors for refusing to fight.

Following the war, recovery from the devastation and economic collapse might have been very tenuous except for the assistance rendered by the Baltimore Association, under the leadership of Francis King and supervision of Allen Jay. Funds were raised from northern and western yearly meetings, even from London, Dublin, and Iowa, to help North Carolina Friends rebuild their schools and their lives. A Model Farm introduced much-needed soil improvement methods for depleted lands. By the time this program closed in 1872, Friends had 38 schools for themselves and nearly 60 day schools or Sunday schools for freedmen.

Friends schools laid the foundation for public schools in this state. The New Garden Boarding School, which opened its doors to 25 boys and 25 girls in 1837, was the first coeducational school in the South. It nearly closed during the war but was strengthened by the Baltimore Association program and became Guilford College in 1869. Friends established several historically black colleges, and they even collaborated with the Methodists to establish Trinity College in Durham, which eventually became Duke University.

Probably the first Quaker Sabbath or First-day schools were established in North Carolina; one was the 1818 Little Brick Schoolhouse, which once stood at the corner of the New Garden Friends cemetery, where also in 1821 Levi Coffin "taught Negro slaves to read the Bible." Other teachers there included Horace Cannon, father of the Speaker of the House Joseph Gurney Cannon.

The 1837 visit of John Joseph Gurney, brother of Elizabeth Fry, introduced more advanced and more serious Bible study into the yearly meeting, but there was more resistance to his evangelistic style here than in the Midwest. The revival movement inevitably filtered in after the Civil War, even, ironically, in connection with the work of the Baltimore Association at Springfield Meeting (near High Point). The youth of the meeting were so taken by a nearby Methodist revival that, fearing losing them, the Ministry and Oversight Committee were persuaded by Allen Jay, a strong traditional Friend, to have their own ten-day revival; it resulted in 30 new members.

This and subsequent "successes" had a tremendous impact on disheartened North Carolina Friends, who had seen their numbers diminish to less than 2,000 after the war. A powerful and persuasive Friends minister from Indiana, Mary Moon, was invited to the yearly meeting in 1877 and "stirred North Carolina as never before," attracting crowds as large as 5,000. Her evangelistic work spurred huge controversy, much of it over the very idea of women preachers. She preached for the Methodists as well, reportedly adding 1,000 new members for them, while she and other evangelists increased Friends memberships by thousands.

However, many of the new members wanted singing and preaching, and this drift towards pastoral religion disturbed many Friends, especially older ones, while many younger ones, including students at New Garden Boarding School, felt much joy at this "awakening" of North Carolina Quakerism. Seth Hinshaw reports that some of these evangelists spoke judgmentally against those who differed with their doctrines and interpretations of Scripture, and "the essential element of charity was sometimes lost."

The eventual adoption of the Discipline of the Five Years Meeting, which became Friends United Meeting, resulted in a split in NCYM in 1903. Friends in the Eastern Quarter were not happy with the trend towards pastoral Protestantism and were also very concerned about preserving the autonomy of monthly meetings. Thus, NCYM-Conservative was formed.

Relations between these two yearly meetings have generally remained friendly, with many joint projects between them. Later on, Ohio Yearly Meeting (Evangelical), now EFI, extended itself into the Virginia and North Carolina piedmont with about ten churches north and east of Greensboro. A comparable number of meetings and worship groups affiliated with FGC developed in western North Carolina and South Carolina; these are part of SAYMA, Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association.

In preparing this essay, I have been able to make good use of the pamphlet Friends in the Carolinas, by J. Floyd Moore; the book The Carolina Quaker Experience, by Seth J. Hinshaw; and an address by Max Carter on the FGC website, "Friends for Three Hundred Years: It’s a Good Life!" I must pass over later developments: the founding of Carolina, New Garden, and Wilmington Friends schools; Quaker House outside of Fort Bragg in Fayetteville; AFSC work here; the North Carolina Friends Disaster Service; Quaker Lake; Piedmont Friends Fellowship; and the wonderful events that have taken place at Guilford College. Suffice it to say that Quakers are still very much Quaking in the Carolinas.

Gary Briggs

Gary Briggs, a retired scientist, is a member of Durham (N.C.) Meeting and now attends Asheville (N.C.) Meeting. This article was previously published in the Winter 2006-2007 issue of the FLGBTQC Newsletter for the benefit of those planning to attend the FLGBTQC Midwinter Gathering in Brown Summit, N.C.