- The Quaker Cunning Folk: The Astrology, Magic, and Divination of Philip Roman and Sons in Colonial Chester County, Pennsylvania
For nearly one hundred years, academia has paid considerable attention to those travesties of justice that took place in and around Salem, Massachusetts, in the seventeenth century. Although New England’s witch-hunts were decidedly horrific, they alone do not solely demonstrate the complexity of colonial America’s love-hate relationship with esoteric ideology. In fact, similar crises of justice and faith were occurring at roughly the same time in colonial Pennsylvania. For whatever reason, the birthplace of liberty has been shamefully overlooked in this decidedly peculiar area of judicial and religious history. Although popular culture has awarded Massachusetts the distinction of being recognized as America’s “witchcraft capital,” it was Pennsylvania’s earliest practitioners of the mystical arts who quietly fostered the archetype of the American “cunning man.” Much like their European brethren, these hybrid practitioners of the occult arts often paired the esoteric worldview of the Renaissance magus with the practicality of the traditional sorcerer. [End Page 479]
Such a philosophical synthesis was well known to Philip Roman (~1645–January 11, 1730). It was even better known to his two sons, Robert and Philip Jr., who became embroiled in a controversy that would ultimately test the faith of an early Quaker province. As the Christian eschatology of the Society of Friends collided with the importation of various esoteric techniques, the brothers would come to find themselves with a definite reputation of possessing forbidden knowledge. With such gossip reaching a fever pitch, tongues began to wag about Robert’s disruption of fellow colonist Henry Hastings’s marriage, possibly with the perception of magical interference playing some role. By proxy (at least by Quaker reckoning) all of this led to their father’s assumption of a certain, if indirect, guilt. Consequently, both secular and Quaker authorities in colonial Chester County joined forces for a full-fledged inquest.
That inquest began on November 11, 1695. The Friends’ Monthly Meeting Minutes record “some friends haveing a concern upon them” in regards to some “young men” who “came amongst friends to their meetings” who stand accused of “following some arts which friends thought not fit for such as profest truth to follow.” The concern, in particular, calls attention to matters such as “astroligy,” geomancy, chiromancy, and necromancy. As a whole, the practices were said to bring “a vaile over the understanding and a death upon the Life.”1 Though “astroligy” perhaps requires little explanation, it is noted that the other offenses (real or imagined) run the spectrum of divination—with geomancy being something loosely akin to a Western version of the I Ching—palm reading, and holding an audience with spirits. At this time, both common parlance and Quaker philosophy would have equated “necromancy” with something quite close to black magic; indeed, later court records pertaining to the controversy substitute one of the word’s well-known variants, negromancy, which translates more literally to such.2 It should be pointed out that the creation of a link between magic and blasphemy is a recurring theme in certain similar cases during the colonial period, at times those in neighboring states.3
If these accusations seem unusual, then their context might only be described as extraordinary. Lying just beneath the surface of this mystically tinged drama, which was now only beginning to unfold, we find a number of oddly synchronistic circumstances paired with a small sampling of a “who’swho” in early Pennsylvania. In truth, the accusations may owe most of their substance to the identities of the individuals involved, many of whom were [End Page 480] wealthy and well educated. At least some of these names will undoubtedly prove familiar to scholars, but their context here must be considered unique.
Mapping these curiosities requires some background on the elder Roman himself, who, before finding himself entangled amidst accusations of magic, divination, and necromancy in the New World, hailed from Lyneham, Wiltshire (England). Roman was a first-purchaser in colonial Pennsylvania, obtaining 250 acres from William Penn in April of 1681, which was finally surveyed on February 23, 1683.4 The land purchased...