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Quaker Reform and Evangelization in the Eighteenth Century

Geoffrey Plank

Pages 177 - 192


When they first arrived in England’s North American colonies, the Quakers enjoyed several competitive advantages over other Christian groups. Quaker Meetings were relatively inexpensive to run compared to more formal churches, and partly as a consequence Quakerism spread quickly. Things changed, however, in the mid-eighteenth century after Quaker reformers took control of the meetings’ disciplinary structures. They condemned intermarriage between Quakers and non-Quakers, made greater demands on the Friends, and in general adopted a stance that in retrospect appears to have hurt Quakerism’s ability to attract new adherents. Still, the reformers continued to proselytize even as they expelled the wayward from their meetings. Violence on the Pennsylvania frontier after 1763 made it politically and practically difficult for the Quakers to evangelize through conventional means. In response, the reformers redoubled their efforts to enforce severe disciplinary strictures against theater-going, horse-racing, excessive drinking, participation in warfare and slaveholding, always believing that moral purity would make Quakerism more attractive. Examining several leaders of the Quaker reform effort including Abraham Farrington, John Woolman, Israel and John Pemberton, and Anthony Benezet, this essay argues that these men never intended to abandon evangelization in the mid-eighteenth century, nor did they want the Quakers to become an insular, minority sect.


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