Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Early Quakers in Northeastern North Carolina


"Benjamin Mendinghall came a travelling fom Pensillvaney along with Samuel Hopwood and was taken sick and died 5-13-1743."[1] This notice appeared in the records of the Pasquotank County, North Carolina Quaker Monthly Meeting.

 Quakerism arrived in North Carolina about 1665 when Henry Phillips (Phelps) and his wife Hannah arrived from Salem, Massachusetts and settled in what was then Albemarle. They made their home at a place that was probably near what is now Hertford in Perquimans County, North Carolina.

William Edmundson, an Irish Quaker missionary, traveled to eastern North Carolina in 1672. He kept a diary in which he described a worship service at the home of Henry Phillips (Phelps) for settlers in the wilderness area south of the Great Dismal Swamp:

 “... having not seen a Friend for seven years before, they [Henry and Hannah Phelps] wept for joy to see us; yet it being on a First day morning when we got there, I was weary and faint, and my cloths all wet. I desire them to send to the people there-away to come to a meeting about the middle of the day, and I would lye down upon a bed, and if I slept too long, that they should awake me. Now about the hour appointed 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, and received the testimony. After meeting they desire me to stay with them, and let them have more meetings....”[2]

  “Among the early settlers who attended that first meeting were Francis Toms, Joseph Scott, Nathaniel Batts, and Hugh Smith.”[3]   Edmundson must have made an impression on those who attended the first meeting because he held a second meeting at the home of Francis Toms.

George Fox, Englishman and founder of the Religious Society of Friends— or Quakers— arrived in North Carolina a few months after Edmundson’s visit. He held several meetings around the area and established a Quarterly Meeting, the first structured religious body in North Carolina. The Society of Friends spread throughout the northeast corner of North Carolina, particularly in Pasquotank and Perquimans Counties. Rev. Joseph Blount Cheshire wrote in the North Carolina Booklet of April, 1906, page 261: “Quakerism was the only organized form of religion in the colony, with no rival worship among the people for the rest of the seventeenth century (1672-1700).”

George Fox



The Society of Friends was based on Fox’s belief “that to every man God was speaking in the depth of his own soul, if only he would listen and obey.” [4]  There was no need for clergy to interpret God. All people are connected and that to hurt someone was to hurt God. This meant that Quakers were pacifists. The Friends also practiced plainness—in dress and in speech.

A Quaker Meeting was a time for quiet and contemplation, listening rather than talking. If a member felt a need to share his thoughts, he was free to stand up and express himself. It was often the case that no one felt the need to speak for long periods of time.

The origin of the name Quaker is disputed. However, George Fox recorded this account in his Journal. In 1650, Fox was brought before Justice Bennet of Derby in England on a charge of blasphemy. According to Fox's Journal, Bennet "called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God." 

Below is a map showing the early Quaker Meetings in northeastern North Carolina.

Map of Albemarle. Early sites of Quaker meetings in Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties are shown.[5]

Many records of early Quaker Meetings—Quarterly and Annual—have survived. They provide an interesting portrait of early events in the lives of northeastern North Carolina Friends. For example, at the Annual Meeting of 1708, the following: "The judgment of this meeting, considering the indecency of Friends in not keeping of their places in meeting—that Friends keep their places as much as possible, and not run in and out in times of worship and likewise in meetings of business." In other words, stay in your seat! At the same meeting, it was decided that the Annual Meeting was too large if everyone was allowed to come. Instead, twelve men were named to make up the Meeting. No women were included.

In 1709 the only business before the Yearly Meeting was the settlement of a difficulty between Francis Toms and his son in-law, Gabriel Newby. Among other things, Newby accused Toms of: “…contrary to good order used amongst us, set with his hat on when Gabriel was at prayer, and when he was preaching turned his back to him as a dislike to his testimony."

Quakers were active in the politics of colonial North Carolina. In fact, John Archdale, a Quaker, was once governor. In 1711, one of the twelve members of the Annual Meeting, Emanual Lowe, son-in-law of former governor Archdale, was not allowed to take part in the Meeting because he had “acted divers things contrary to our ways and privileges." His error was "in stirring up a parcel of men in arms, and going to Pamlico, and from thence to Chowan in a barkentine with men and force of arms contrary to our holy principles."[6] The event that precipitated Lowe’s un-Friend-like actions was the Cary Rebellion, a political and religious disagreement in which Quaker governor Thomas Cary refused to turn the governorship over to Edward Hyde.

In 1715, there is a complaint that might be familiar to modern ears:  "Meetings for worship and discipline are not so well attended."  In 1716 there was concern about "superfluity of apparel," and the next year, it was directed that no “victuals or drink be provided except as the case may require” at funerals. By 1740 there was complaint about sleeping in meeting. After all, it was quiet and peaceful.

One final admonition: “No Friend can wear a wig without the consent of his Monthly Meeting."[7] It is worthy of mention that the Perquimans Friends did not grant a request for a wig. A few years later, permission was granted, but the person who requested permission was advised “to wear a plain one.”

Although the Annual Meeting was held at various locations, mostly in Perquimans County, North Carolina, from 1698 to 1787 they were all held in the Eastern Quarter, or northeastern North Carolina. As migration increased from places like Pennsylvania, New England and other northern areas, the fellowship of Quakers mushroomed in western areas of the state. Beginning in 1787 and continuing to 1812, the Annual Meeting alternated between the Eastern Quarter (Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties) and the Western Quarter (Guilford County). After that, the center of influence moved to the Western Quarter. Below is a picture of the first Meeting House, which was in Guilford Co.[8]

NOTE: It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss Quaker view on the issues of education, slavery and war. However, the reader can easily find information on these topics.


[1] Hinshaw's N. C. Quaker Records, Vol. 1, Page 102 of the Pasquotank Monthly Meeting.
[2] Life, Travels, Sufferings, and Labour of Love in the Work of the Ministry … by William Edmundson:1829, Page 61. A Google Book
[4]Quaker Thought & History, George Fox and Christian Theology” by Edward Grubb: http://www.strecorsoc.org/grubb/qth01.html
[5] http://www.carolana.com/NC/Counties/pasquotank_county_nc.html
[6] Julia S. White , “History of North Carolina Meeting,”  Bulletin of Friends Historical Society of Philadelphia (February 1909): p4
[7] White 9
[8] White Facing III, I

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