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The First Quaker State

ISSUE:  Spring 1995
The Friendly Virginians. By Jay Worrall, Jr. Iberian Publishing Co. $29.95.

Bishop William Meade’s expansive history of the Established Church in the Colony and the Commonwealth of Virginia pays little attention to the dissenters who took exception to a governmentally imposed religion. Presumably, his intention was to demonstrate the value of requiring the adherence of every member of society to a single set of beliefs so that the community would be a solidly cohesive one.

But much the same dynamic that led to the separation of the Anglican Church from Rome in the 16th Century migrated with the English settlers who came to the Colony of Virginia. As the primary foothold of the British establishment in the New World, it followed that the Old Dominion would be founded on the bedrock of the legal, social, and religious practices of the Mother Country.

Though the Quaker State, Pennsylvania, merits its proud history, it was not where Quakerism first established itself in British North America. This was in Virginia, in 1655.

That part of the dissenting movement that developed into Quakerism, concurrently along with Ranterism, Seekers, Fifth Monarchy Men, and so on, had its origins in Northern England in 1647, 40 years after the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in North America. Within a half-dozen years of the movement’s inception, its founder, George Fox, had convinced a considerable number of men and women of his perception of “the Truth.” In less than a generation the Religious Society of Friends, its members called Quakers because of their often trembling testimony when on trial for their behavior, had become a major movement in Restoration England.

One convert to Quakerism was 26-year-old Elizabeth Harris of London who felt called to share her new vision with her fellow countrymen who had settled in the Colony of Virginia. Her missionary efforts soon resulted in the establishment of meetings in the Norfolk area and then on the Eastern Shore. From those initiatives in the mid-1650’s to the present time the Commonwealth of Virginia has had a persistent component of Quakerism among its faith communities.

Jay Worrall’s great, great, great grandfather was “read out” of his Friends Meeting in Pennsylvania for participating in the American Revolution in violation of Friends’ testimony against taking up arms. Though removed by four generations from his Quaker roots, the author was sensitive to his inheritance, and discovered that the history of Quakerism in his adopted state, Virginia, had never been fully chronicled. Prior to his professional retirement he had returned to the faith of his Pennsylvania ancestors, and after retiring began persistently researching the story of his résuméd faith as it took root and spread in the Old Dominion. In his retirement he mingled this research with a typically Quaker involvement in social activism, like founding the Offender Aid and Restoration organization and initiating a study of the need to manage the dislocations which would ensue as a consequence of the end of the Cold War.

In The Friendly Virginians then, Jay Worrall has drawn together pertinent details of personalities and events touching upon Quakerly activity in the Old Dominion from 1655 to the 1990’s. He properly includes the manner in which Virginia Quakers participated in, and indeed led, much of the movement to end slavery, and for the extension of political and social rights to women and minorities. He points out that by the time of the American Revolution very few Quakers still held slaves, and many were vocal in calling for, and active in working towards, an end to that institution.

The increasingly harsh State legislation bearing upon slaves, like that of 1808 which mandated that a manumitted slave had one year to leave the State or face re-enslavement, and that in response to Nat Turner’s Rebellion, was responsible for a growing discomfiture among Quakers. One consequence was the removal of Quaker families and even entire meetings to the Northwest Territories from which slavery had been banned by the Ordinance of 1787, a provision included at least in part because of Quaker pressure. As difficult as it is to measure, this outflow of an influential element of the population was noticeable by the beginning of the nineteenth century and lasted until the Civil War. This draining effect inevitably weakened the movement among those remaining at home.

In addition to recounting developments and portraying personalities of the Quaker movement, the Worrall study provides a valuable inventory of individual meeting sites and their local histories. In its comprehensiveness, Jay Worrall’s presentation subtly, perhaps even unintentionally, sets forth the underlying principles and motivations of the Quaker approach to life.

Not to dodge blemishes, in this account is included the fact that Friends are not always friendly with each other. The splintering of sects and denominations that came with the rise of the evangelical movements of the 19th century resulted in divisions in the Religious Society of Friends as well. In consequence, as in the rest of the United States, there are those in Virginia who call themselves Quakers and whose practices are indistinguishable from those of many evangelical congregations.

Jay Worrall’s style is fittingly Quakerly in its simplicity and directness. One might wish that there had been room for some of the quaint expressions and humor that burst forth even among those known in history as a “peculiar people.”


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