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  • “Being a Peaceable Man, I have Suffered Much Persecution”:The American Revolution and Its Effects on Quaker Religious Identity
  • Neva Jean Specht (bio)

On 25 August 1777, the Continental Congress received a letter from Colonial Major-General John Sullivan. In that letter, Sullivan reported that three days earlier while on Staten Island he completed a baggage search of one of his officers he believed had gone over to the enemy. That search revealed a “number of important papers.” Along with his letter to Congress, Sullivan enclosed copies of three documents for the Congress’ perusal. The documents he noted were signed “the Yearly Meeting of Spanktown” and were immediately assumed to belong to the Society of Friends. According to Sullivan, Quakers are “the most Dangerous Enemies America knows & such as have it in their power to Distress the Country more than all the Collected Force of Britain while they are themselves in no kind of Danger being always Covered with that Hypocritical Cloak of Religion…” 1 Obviously, Sullivan was no fan of the Society of Friends and to him and others who already were suspicious of the Quakers’ motives the seized documents did nothing to change their minds.

The first document enclosed listed a number of questions pertaining to the Continental army:

  1. 1. Where is Washington? What number of men and cannon?

  2. 2. Where is Sterling? What number of men or cannon?

  3. 3. Where is Sullivan? & c.

  4. 4. Where is Dayton and Ogden? What number?

  5. 5. Whether there be any troops passing or repassing?

  6. 6. Intelligence from Albany.

  7. 7. Intelligence from Philadelphia.

  8. 8. Be very particular about time and place.

The other two contained intelligence reports about the whereabouts of the Continental army and were also signed “Spanktown Yearly Meeting.” Within the week, Congress made the documents public and increased anti-Quaker sentiment in the colonies. 2

The interception of the documents and the subsequent revelation to Congress about possible treachery by the Society of Friends kicked off a series of events [End Page 37] that would eventually lead to the arrest and eight-month banishment of twelve Quakers to the Virginia frontier. 3 During the banishment, two of the twelve would die before the Colonials permitted their return to Philadelphia, and a broader discussion about personal liberties would take place. According to the pamphlet published by the detained Quakers, it mattered little to the Pennsylvania Council, which ultimately wrote the warrants to arrest and detain a number of well-known Philadelphia Quakers, that there was no such meeting as Spanktown and that the documents were forgeries, or that information in one of the reconnaissance documents could not have been written when it said because Washington had yet to make the movements it discusses. What mattered to the Council and the Congress was the Society of Friends had refused to support the Colonial efforts thus far in the war (nor had they supported Pennsylvania’s efforts in the Seven Years War). And to the Colonial officials fighting for liberty that could only mean the Society of Friends were supporting the Crown. The claims by the Quakers that they were pacifists and would not support either side in the war did little to lessen the suspicions against them.

Most studies of the Society of Friends and the American Revolution have focused on hardships during the war and whether members of the Society supported the British or American sides. This article focuses on the ways the war experience affected the Society of Friends and its members by looking at two long-term outcomes: the creation of a stronger religious community and western migration of Friends. While not combatants in the Revolution, most Quakers felt the effects of the war nonetheless and not just during the years of fighting but for decades later.

The Revolutionary war was a trying time for the Society of Friends. They faced struggles from without as pressure mounted for Friends to take up arms or at the very least pay taxes to support Liberty’s cause. And the Society faced struggles from within as Friends pressured each other to maintain their faith and not violate the Society’s peace testimony. Friends in Philadelphia distributed reprints of one of William...