As the Religious Society of Friends emerged out of the chaos of the English Civil War in the 1650s, Quakers’ actions and words challenged their society. Their speaking and writing used gender language in flexible and surprising ways. Women preached, taking on the persona of Old Testament prophets. Men described themselves "crying like a woman in travail." Both sexes sought nurturance from the "breasts of God."
With their radical message, the first Friends sought the support of those who shared their beliefs. The Quaker community developed like a large extended family. In the 1660s, however, Friends sought to establish order for their community while continuing to honor "that of God" within each person. The practices and testimonies they developed helped unify Friends throughout the next century. Establishing procedures for marriage were among their earliest priorities, and families were essential to the order they created.
George Fox espoused radical ideas about marriage and gender roles. He proclaimed that those living in the Light had no need for the domination of husbands over wives. Once perfected by Christ, husband and wife could be equal "helpmeets," he proclaimed in his writings and practiced in his marriage to Margaret Fell. Not all Friends agreed, and Quakers debated the issue in their pamphlets. In the surrounding world, male leadership was assumed, and some Quaker men advocated conventionally hierarchical marriages. To varying degrees, however, Quaker family life was tempered by the belief in the spiritual equality of all. More importantly, mothers, daughters, aunts, and grandmothers could gain the approval of their meetings to embark on long journeys of ministry. In response, the families they left behind changed and adapted to their absences.
Friends insisted that marriage existed in the context of Quaker meetings and was not something to engage in lightly or quickly. Men and women chose their own spouses, and parents could not force children into unions. Nonetheless, a man and woman were required to have the approval of parents and their meetings to marry. Couples might spend months corresponding and visiting before committing themselves to marriage. Companionship and friendship were viewed as the base of a marriage. Romance and pleasure could have a role, but only in the context of shared devotion to God. Friends believed that the wife and husband should be supportive of the other’s spiritual growth. Both partners were also expected to be capable of doing their part to contribute to their household and to raise their children as Quakers.
Having decided to wed, a couple first appeared before women’s meetings for approval. The meeting sought to insure that neither of the applicants were already married, were non-Quakers, or were otherwise unsuitable spouses. Men unknown to the meeting were under special scrutiny as the Women’s meetings required character references from their home meetings. Some prospective husbands complained about women’s meetings having the power to stop or delay a man’s ability to wed. Meetings also required that when a widow wed, the children of a previous marriage would receive their due inheritance. Only if the women’s meeting approved did the men’s meeting make the final decision for a marriage to go forward.
Converts to Quakerism sometimes had non-Quaker spouses, but Friends married only within their own religious community. As the Religious Society of Friends turned inward in the 1700s, disownments over marrying out of meeting were frequent. Couples who were disowned could continue to worship with Friends and, with repentance, regain membership.
Early Friends did not believe that a priest or magistrate, or even a Quaker meeting, could perform a marriage. Only God could do that. As today, marriages took place in a silent meeting where the man and woman rose and affirmed their commitment to each other before God. Those present signed a certificate witnessing that the marriage had actually taken place. Careful records of witnesses were kept in hope that courts would recognize the marriage and the legitimacy of the children in it, thus avoiding challenges to inheritance.
The meeting’s involvement in a marriage placed couples under its care. Women’s meetings heard, and sometimes sympathized with, the problems a wife might be having with a husband’s behavior. Elders might visit couples, resolving differences and exhorting changes in behavior. Drunkenness or bankruptcy could lead a meeting to disown a spouse.
The testimonies of Friends and a sense of God’s presence permeated Quaker families. Families attempted to live their lives in daily obedience of God. Simplicity, honesty, and order were valued. Card-playing, dancing, and liquor were forbidden, and anger often repressed. Emphasis on humility and pacifism helped prevent domination and use of violence. Quakers never preached sexual abstinence, but spouses were warned they must not put earthly love for a partner above their love of God. Participation in meetings for business taught husbands and wives to listen and achieve agreements in a Friendly manner that addressed the needs of both spouses. The process that led to and supported Quaker marriages promoted the geniality between married Friends noted by outsiders.
Except for a few gentry like Margaret Fell and William Penn, Quaker families were usually of the "middling sort," differing little in some respects from their non-Quaker neighbors. In the 1600s and 1700s such families often worked together on farms or in artisan households and shops. Relatives and non-relatives lived within households, receiving familial care or helping with the workload. Gender roles tended to be less restrictive than they would become after 1800. Both spouses had to substitute for their partners as needed. While husbands were accepted as heads of households, wives had the authority to act in their absence. What was unique about Quaker families was that women had power to act in their own right, not simply as delegated by husbands. Quaker women had authority from God, but power did not translate into personal autonomy.
Historians disagree about the relationships between early Quaker husbands and wives. A careful examination of writings by male Friends leads J. William Frost to depict conventionally male- dominated families among Friends in the American colonies. Looking primarily at the women who preached, Phyllis Mack and Rebecca Larson describe families in which women had expanded roles. Margaret Bacon notes both the opportunities and limitations for women inside and outside of their families. Actual families varied and experienced both male and female authority.
As conversion to the Religious Society of Friends slowed, some believed that the religion’s survival depended on the children raised in Quaker families, schools, and meetings. Mothers and fathers were to teach by example. Quaker children were taught strict obedience. Punishment could be harsh, although parents were urged not to engage in whippings until their own anger had cooled. Self-control was a key value. Regular attendance at long silent meetings was seen as teaching even young children the value of patience and restraint. Maintaining households was hard work, and even children had jobs to perform. In the process, they learned values like industry, honesty, and thrift. Children were instructed from an early age that the good of the group, not their own personal preference, must always come first.
Despite its importance, child-rearing took place amidst the other work of the household. Motherhood shaped women’s lives with an almost constant pattern of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, not because intimate bonds developed between mother and child. Wives typically gave birth about every other year from marriage until their childbearing ability ended. Eight or nine children were not unusual. Before the availability of industrially produced goods, women were also responsible for making the products that a family used. Quaker families cared about their children, but not in the sentimental manner that would later become fashionable in the 19th century.
Young children, and sometimes older ones, were taught basic reading and writing at home. Children’s education was to be "guarded," protecting them from non-Quaker influences. Fathers, grandfathers, and uncles often played a role. In the late 1700s, meetings began to establish schools where their children could learn practical skills while continuing their religious training. Children left home to board at these schools, where girls and boys studied many of the same subjects, but separately. One typical exception was that boys studied Latin while girls learned embroidery.
The first Quakers had sometimes been expelled from their own extended families due to their religious belief, but as the Religious Society developed, extended kinship networks came to be valued. Families intermarried, forming dense, overlapping networks of kinship. Bonds among relatives were nurtured by letter writing. Family visiting spanned the Atlantic. Sisters might live with brothers, serving as their housekeeper and hostess, and they might join sisters to help at times of childbirth or illness. Aunts and nieces seem to have had special bonds reaching from assistance in a girl’s education to her care for the elderly aunt. Extended families, like meetings, were also expected to contribute as needed to the welfare of relatives. Parents could not count on living until all their children were grown, and they expected relatives to be willing to help raise them if necessary. Those who lived into old age could hope that a son or daughter, niece or nephew, would care for them. If a family was slipping into poverty, more prosperous brothers and sisters would help. As some Quakers acquired wealth in the 1700s, relatives might loan money or invest in new business ventures together.
Singleness was unusually acceptable among Friends. Demographers point out that singleness and late marriages for women first appeared among Quakers in England and North America in the 1700s. Young women and widows found that singleness offered expanded opportunities to teach or to travel as ministers. Whatever their age, however, single women were never free from duties to others within their family networks. Some single women found fulfillment in lifelong commitment to other women. Never defining people in terms of their sexuality, Friends accepted those engaged in such relationships and their calls to ministry.
The fact that women and men left family and friends to travel and preach was the most unique and disruptive feature of Quaker families. After receiving the approval of a meeting, individuals embarked on journeys that could be long and dangerous. Atlantic voyages took months, and the risks were high. Those who crossed the ocean often spent a year or more on the other side. Travelers in the North American colonies crossed long stretches of unsettled country where they were not always welcome. For men to leave home and travel was exceptional; for women to do so challenged conventionality outside of the world of Quakers.
Single women were most likely to undertake a traveling ministry. Young women could follow their leadings for a time before marriage, as part of lifelong singleness, or when widowed. Single ministers sometimes journeyed with longtime partners and friends. Older women, widowed or married, traveled and preached after their child-rearing years were over. Adult daughters accompanied their mothers in their travels. Young women who married after a period of traveling and preaching were highly regarded and generally married easily and well. Sometimes they chose men who were also ministers; the couple alternated which spouse traveled and which stayed at home.
Wives and mothers also traveled in significant numbers as ministers, forcing families to cope. Spiritual equality had to translate into material support. Meetings sought the approval of a husband for a woman to travel, but they could override him if he was reluctant for his wife to follow her leading. In return, the meeting assisted in maintaining a household and raising children while a wife and mother was away. Some mothers left infants and small children behind. They traveled abroad throughout their childbearing years, and some still averaged the same number and spacing of children as their contemporaries. At a time when men were leaving their household workplaces to take jobs outside the home, Quaker men were called upon to be the chief nurturer of their children.
Women often viewed a religious journey as a sacrifice of the comforts of home and the love of family. Only submission to God was enough to cause a woman to put down her responsibility to those closest to her. Leaving small children to the care of others was agonizing for some traveling ministers, but Quakers did not admonish women to stay home with their children. God’s call took priority over motherly attention to a child, at least until "domesticity" became popular in the 19th century. As Rebecca Larson states, "In Quaker culture, the service of a woman as a divinely chosen ‘instrument’ resulted not in the abdication of marital and maternal roles, but a striking redefinition of them."
Motherhood was honored among Quakers and expanded beyond a woman’s biological children. Margaret Fell and others were known for the supportive roles they played during the Religious Society’s early years. They had ensured that traveling ministers and those they left at home had the resources they needed. Later, Women’s meetings would fill this need. In addition women welcomed ministers in their homes, held meetings there, and wrote letters to hold the community together. Sometimes called Mothers in Israel or "nursing mothers" they expanded their maternal roles into the public arena where they nurtured the larger community while leaving their own children behind to be cared for by others.
By the 19th century, middle-class people in the United States began to emphasize the ideals of the modern nuclear family. A husband, wife, and children were considered the basic unit of society. Without assistance from the outside world, they were responsible for retaining sharply defined gender roles, solving their own problems, and raising perfect children. Eventually our public policies tried to fit everyone into this mold. Early Quakers knew better. For them, a family was never expected to be autonomous or to exist outside the context of relatives and meetings. When individuals took on responsibility outside the individual family, others stepped in and assumed the daily chores left behind.
Few of us want to recreate all the family patterns of early Quakers, but we can learn from them. Like them, we can value our ties to kin, even when our lives differ from theirs. Our meetings, like meetings in the past, can be vital centers for family-like relationships and support. Like early Quakers, we can respect the fact that families take different forms, and we can foster commitment and love among those living alone or in same-sex unions, as well as for those in more conventional families. Like early Friends we can also acknowledge that women, like men, have their own callings, and we can find ways to ensure that a parent’s absence from home does not leave children without nurturing. Finally, we can work for a society where no family, of any description, is expected to stand alone without the support of others.