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Elisha Dawson: From Nicholite to Hicksite Kenneth L. Carroll* From time to time over the past three centuries there has arisen a number of small, independent religious groups or movements that bear a strong resemblance to Quakers. After a time of independent existence many of them (such as the Edisto group in South Carolina) chose to merge with the Society of Friends. Perhaps the most intriguing of all of these has been the Nicholites or "New Quakers." The Nicholites originated as a religious body along the MarylandDelaware border in the 1760s.1 Joseph Nichols, a farmer living near Dover, Delaware, was the charismatic figure who gave birth to the group that ultimately took his name (first given to them in scorn). As he moved along on his own religious pilgrimage Nichols was able to carry many of his friends andneighbors alongwithhim—much ashadSt. BernardofClairvaux many centuries before. Those who gathered at his home on weekends and holidays as afun-lovingbody (caughtup in song, dance, horse-racing, storytelling , etc.) slowly, quietly, and almost imperceptibly changed into a serious and "sober-minded" people, just as Nichols himself was becoming. This development was precipitated by the sudden, unexpected death of one ofNichols' closest friends—leading him to suggest that they mightbe more serious, have a reading from the Bible, and then enter into a time of silence thinking about the passage read. Nichols, himself, soon appeared as a wandering minister throughout much of the upper half of the Delmarva Peninsula. As the process by which the Nicholites became a religious body continued to develop, John Woolman made his way through the area, during the first of his three "foot-journeys" into the South. His anti-slavery message and his striking attire of undyed clothes made such an impression on the Nicholites that they rejected slave-holding even before the neighboring Quakers (who had been the primary objects of Woolman's testimony). Likewise, they adopted the undyed clothes of Woolman as their own garb, a sign that they, like Woolman, had rejected slave-holding, war, and luxury. Simplicity in houses, furniture, and life came to mark them. Nichols, himself, died in 1770, leaving a void in the leadership and an uncertainty as to what direction the Nicholites would go. By 1774 it become clear to them that they should organize as a separate religious society. Soon, in addition ?Kenneth L. Carroll, Professor Emeritus in Religious Studies, Southern Methodist University, is President of the Friends Historical Association (USA) and former President of the Friends Historical Society (U. K.). 18Quaker History to their meetings for worship based on "Quiet waiting," they developed queries oftheir own, a monthly meeting for business, and even arecognition of James Harris having a gift in the ministry. The largest concentration of Nicholites was in the Caroline-Dorchester area of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in the Kent-Sussex section of Delaware, from which a number ofNicholites migrated, at the beginning of the American Revolution, to the Deep River area of North Carolina and to the Little PeeDee region of South Carolina. Ultimately, before 1 800, some of those from the Deep Riverneighborhood crossed over the mountains and settled around Maryville in Tennessee. It was in this Nicholite environment that Elisha Dawson grew up and spent almost half ofhis whole life. He was born in 1766, the son ofWilliam and Isabella Dawson of Caroline County (still, at that time, a part of Dorchester), Maryland.2 William Dawson (d. 1795), a craftsman who made carts and spinning wheels, was one of the seventeen Nicholites who signed (for themselves and others) the December 5, 1774, decision to organize the Nicholite Society. This step came four years after the death of Joseph Nichols, when it became clear to his followers that they needed to have a monthly meeting for business as well as to collect copies of their marriage certificates. William Dawson was one ofthe firstto free his slaves (in March 1768), following Woolman's 1766 visit. This he did in spite of much discouragement from local authorities who first told him there was no provision for such an act and then suggested that he free them for a "period" until he might see...


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