The ministries of Quaker women who notably served the Religious Society of Friends have received well-deserved attention. In most cases, however, the attention has been focused on those women prepared for martyrdom as they witnessed for their faith. In North America we think particularly of Mary Dyer, who defied death three times to carry her truth to Puritan Massachusetts, and on the third occasion forfeited her life.
We honor less often those female Friends who have devoted their lives to service in less confrontational settings, sometimes indeed without their own meetings taking notice. Such a woman was Anne Parrish (1760-1800), who ignored convention to reach out to Philadelphia’s poor, regardless of race, gender, or nationality. Her ministry effectively began on November 9, 1795, when 23 young Quaker women gathered under her clerkship at a private home to form the nation’s earliest women’s benevolent association: the Female Society for the Relief of the Distressed. The first action recorded in their minutes was the adoption of a manifesto:
A number of young Women having been induced to believe from the Observations they have made, that they could afford some assistance to their suffering fellow Creatures, particularly Widows and Orphans; by entering into a Subscription for their relief, visiting them in their solatary [sic] Dwellings without distinction of Nation or Colour, sympathizing in their afflictions and as far as their Ability extends alleviating them.
Philadelphia Quakers, like other religious bodies, had long provided relief for the poor among their own members—a Friends almshouse in Philadelphia dated to 1709, a Joint Committee for the Care of the Poor in 1773—and Friends had collaborated with others to establish Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751 and other charitable institutions for the general population. But this was different. According to her companion Catharine Morris, Parrish was motivated to start the female society by her parents’ close escape from death, probably during a yellow fever epidemic: "her soul . . . covenanted with God, that if He would be graciously pleased to spare her beloved parents a little longer, her future Life should be dedicated to Him in any allotment He might be pleased to call her to labor in." Morris continued, in her Account of Anne Parrish, now in the Quaker Collection at Haverford College:
She was exemplary in fulfilling the Commands of her Saviour, in visiting the Sick; feeding the Hungry, and clothing the Naked— and many were the Hours she passed in seeking out the Habitation of the disconsolate Widow, and wiping the artless Tear of sorrow from the Eye of the innocent Orphan.
Morris was chosen as the society’s treasurer, and she was at Parrish’s side as the enterprise grew and diversified. She would later serve as clerk of the Philadelphia women’s yearly meeting for many years.
The Female Society for the Relief of the Distressed would set a number of precedents within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and thrive for many years. It seemed Quaker in almost every way: all the women were required to be members of the Society of Friends; they called themselves informally "the Friendly Band"; they divided their efforts among the then three districts of Philadelphia Monthly Meeting (Northern, Middle, and Southern); and they kept careful records of their charitable work. The minutes of their meetings show a focus on who visited whom in which district and dispensed which benefice.
Moreover, as evidenced by their early nondiscrimination clause, they proposed to reach out to all who were needy without trying to impose Quaker values. Their first reported "cases" were listed as a widow with two children, an elderly woman apparently of West Indian extraction, a young Frenchwoman with two children, and a black man with rheumatism. Finally, unlike most of their Philadelphia contemporaries (including other Friends), they drew minimal connections between a client’s poverty and his or her supposed moral failings, such as laziness or irresponsibility, and did not withhold aid out of moral scruples.
Neither the men’s nor the women’s yearly meeting made any acknowledgment of the Female Society for several years. Some men proved supportive, but others disapproved of the contact between single young women and a "promiscuous" (mixed) audience of men, non-Quakers, and persons of color. A physician, John Marsillac, who supported their efforts, wrote a double-edged letter to the band that they preserved in their minute book:
I have admired and thanked the Lord in that it has pleased him to penetrate your Hearts with that kind Charity which induces you to assist in secret so many Families in distress. This zeal is laudable provided you do not in assisting your Neighbour seek to please your natural inclinations [but it is] important to examine seriously whether you can succor all the unhappy or only a part of these unfortunate families. . . . It is my desire that you may, in submission to the divine Will, individually consider whether it would not be more beneficial to your estimable Labours if you limit yourselves to distressed Women particularly Widows and Orphans.
The women thanked Marsillac but continued unchanged. Notably, they had not taken their ambitions to or through the Quaker hierarchy, which ultimately would have meant controls and limits imposed by men.
Marsillac was correct in thinking the mission needed limiting: the task of reaching out to all the sick, homeless, and hungry (the majority of them women) was endless. Society members met and walked abroad weekly, and added new recruits to the fold, but found themselves overwhelmed. Moreover, yellow fever and the fear it induced caused some of the Society’s meetings to be canceled. Maintaining individual records on each visit constituted a further burden, and the women’s own funds could no longer cover the needs, even as augmented by contributions from sympathetic male Friends.
The solution was to provide a central place where the needy could come and find opportunities to generate income. Like most of their compatriots, Quakers of the late 18th century expected the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but the typical home the Friendly Band visited had no space or conveniences for a cottage industry. In February 1798, the Band agreed to set up a House of Employ (later, House of Industry), where women could come to weave rugs and clothes; later there would be shoemaking for the men. Their products were sold to cover wages and expenses.
Young women could bring their children with them to the House of Employ, where the elderly and disabled might babysit and cook meals. Volunteer doctors (Marsillac among them) could visit to examine the ill. A small library was established. House management meant setting up and enforcing rules of conduct, but now members of the Friendly Band could take turns supervising the work, rather than trudging through Philadelphia’s poor neighborhoods in a labor-intensive manner, and they needn’t meet so often.
Meanwhile, Anne Parrish had diversified her activities, founding in 1796 the Female Society for the Free Instruction of Female Children, which she managed out of her home, of necessity. Morris, who wrote a memorial in her Account of Anne Parrish, explained:
Declining Health preventing her from going much abroad and Her Concern increasing for the right Education of young and tender plants, whose Minds are susceptible of receiving lasting impressions of Good, and convinced of the Necessity of early instilling into them Sentiments of Piety and Virtue, she was induced under a sense of Religious Duty to open a School in her Father’s House for the instruction of a few Children, in the discharge of which, although many discouragements arose, she was enabled to feel a portion of Divine Consolation and at seasons favored with the Incomes of Soul-enriching Peace.
In 1807 Parrish’s classroom became the foundation for Quakers’ Aimwell School, which would endure until 1935. In time, the Quaker establishment would also offer its support to the House of Industry, help it incorporate, and build a sturdy workhouse for its efforts; it, too, would last well into the 20th century.
Anne Parrish did not live long enough to sense the permanence of her creations. She resigned from the Female Association on November 25, 1800, in ill health, and died at age 40 on December 26, in the company of her mother and Morris. Her associates wrote a memorial that included the words, "The wanderer who had strayed from the path of rectitude and become the outcast of society, in her found an affectionate mentor." She lies somewhere near the great yearly meetinghouse that would be built in the Fourth and Arch Street burial ground a few years later.