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  • "That Everyone Should Enjoy His Sentiments":Samuel Wetherill and the Renovation of Quaker Speech, 1780–1793"
  • S. Spencer Wells (bio)

"It is safest to hear what any sober man may have to say on all the important subject of Piety and Virtue."—Samuel Wetherill, 1793.1

Members of Philadelphia Monthly Meeting found "shopkeeper" Jehu Eldridge's religious jawing well-nigh intolerable. In recent months the young convert had "persist[ed] … in vindicating" his decision to attend meetings of Samuel Wetherill's recently established schismatic body, The Society of Free Quakers, a group of largely disowned Friends, many of whom insisted on their right to defend themselves during the late revolutionary contest. To make matters worse he also pretended to the calling of "minister," spreading his heterodox opinions throughout Friends' meetings across New England. This the Society of Friends could not abide. Though Eldridge had comported himself well over the years, marrying into the fold, and interring a newborn daughter in Friends' burial ground in 1778, by January 1783, the last of the meeting's patience had evaporated. Declaring that Eldridge's actions and speechifying gave "occasion" of great "uneasiness" to the body, they disowned him forthwith.2

Eldridge eventually found a comfortable home within the Society of Free Quakers. Understandably so. The movement's primary founder, Samuel Wetherill, once proclaimed that the grand "principle" which animated the religious association "was that every man should enjoy his sentiments without being censured at smote at." Eldridge flourished as he participated in the Society of Free Quaker's early meetings for business and worship. Indeed, in March 1781, two years before his disassociation from Friends, he began engaging in "solid conference" with its leaders, who received his "pious and friendly caution[s]" with respect. Months later he took to preaching in meeting on a near-weekly basis. During an excursion to Dartmouth, Massachusetts, with Massachusetts Free Quaker Timothy Davis the following year, he cultivated the respect of New [End Page 23] England's dissident Friends. They too declared themselves to be pleased with his "exemplary conversation" and carriage. In a nascent religious society, which continued to respect Quakerism's call for divine silence, Eldridge nonetheless relished his newfound ability to speak.3

The Society of Free Quakers inhabits an odd place in Quaker studies. Much of the historiography regarding the movement concerns itself with determining whether the body in general—and its members in particular—should be considered truly Quaker or not. When Samuel Wetherill's descendant Charles published his History of the Free Quakers in 1894, he went out of his way to argue that Free Quakerism should be seen as a natural outgrowth of Quakerism proper. What variances did exist—according members the right to defend their country while refusing to disown individuals for "any cause whatever," moral or theological—were "differences … not of [any] faith, but of practice." Updating Wetherill's earlier arguments, historian Arthur J. Mekeel described the ways in which Free Quakers saw themselves "following in the footsteps of the early 17th century English Quakers" who joined Oliver Cromwell's Army in an effort to bring God's society to a fractured world. More recently, William C. Kashatus III has focused on the ways in which Free Quakers sought to square their participation in the War of American Independence by linking their military engagement to the demands of the Inner Light.4

Friends residing in Philadelphia during the heyday of revolution, however, did not see matters in the same light as historians. By their reasoning, those who joined the Free Quaker movement were little better than religious rebels bent on joining a schismatic body. Those who insisted on separating themselves from the fold not only set Friends' "rules and orders" at naught, they argued, but propagated heretical doctrines among the faithful. After Friend David Cooper learned that Free Quakers refused to disown errant members he went so far as to accuse the society of creating "a religion to indulge the lusts of the flesh." Nor are modern scholars of the era always kinder in their judgments. Even though Jack Marietta avoided a discussion of Free Quaker theology in his magisterial work on the Quaker Reformation he nonetheless expressed...


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