Quaker disownment fascinates me. In the genealogical research I’ve done for my writing, I’ve found a couple of rule-breakers in my family tree. For example, I came upon Thomas Worth’s son, briefly disowned for–and I feel embarrassed saying this because it sounds way worse than I, in 2021, perceive it to be– “fornicating” with his fiancée. Years ago, the Quakers, famous for their openness, had a fair number of rules and rule- breakers.
Here are five you might try (or be accused of) if you were a member of Pennsylvania Meetings between 1680 and 1776.
1. Find a fiancé outside your faith
The biggie. Between 1680 and 1776 in Pennsylvania Monthly Meetings, nearly 5,000 Meeting members were disowned for “Marrying contrary to discipline.” Among them were Betsy Ross and four of her sisters who left the Quaker fold for those outside the faith, leading to their discipline and the prospect of disownment. Betsy left to join the Free Quakers, famous for not observing the Peace Testimony. My research pointed out, though, that the majority of those who joined the splinter sect did so because of intermarriage and their objection to the idea of disownment, in and of itself.
2. Get pregnant out of wedlock (or get someone pregnant)
Another biggie. 1311 disowned for this. I guess you could say you’re sorry but then what? “Fornication with fiancée” is 1311 but “other fornication” is 727. Early readers of my WIP keep asking “where were the parents?” Frankly, I don’t know! Did the Friends decide young people could chaperone themselves? Maybe. Also, I’m going to throw this in, because it may have led to the above: Drunkenness: 613
3. Disagree about something important
Slavery: 123 disowned. Not surprising since it was one of the tenets of Quaker doctrine not to enslave after 1776 (there were a number of Quaker enslavers before that time including William Penn.) A bigger number is 504 for military attendance, including fighters in the American Revolution like Bevan and John James Pearson. Both were kicked out of Darby Monthly Meeting. John James was wounded at Brandywine.
4. Raise a big theological stink
Schism: 54. John Bartram did not ascribe to Trinitarianism, the belief that God is “three in one: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Darby Meeting did. Farewell, John. World-famous botanist Bartram ended up retreating to his estate on the banks of the Schuylkill, including words of protest/theology in the stonework above his greenhouse.
5. Disagree about something unimportant
Fiddling and dancing in your home: 1. I’ve cheated a bit here. This number is from Disownment in Hopewell, NM 1760-1809.
I learned from this 1991 article that Quakers did not“excommunicate” members in the same sense that other Christian churches did throughout history. The article states that Quakers have sought a way to both disown their Friends, while at the same time loving them. “Excommunication was aimed at the offender, whereas disownment was aimed at the world.” While no one was ever really prohibited from attending Meeting for Worship after being disowned, disownment precluded participation in the Meeting’s business. But still, many left Worship as well, whether to marry their sweethearts, enjoy fiddle music, or more chillingly, continue to enslave people.
Disownment provides tension in many of the Quaker novels I read. In Dash Shaw’s Discipline, Charles Cox faces disownment when he enlists in the Union Army during the Civil War. In Lilli DeJong by Janet Benton, Lilli’s father is disowned for “beginning to drink to excess” as well as marrying his cousin (who wasn’t a Friend, and marrying her two months after his late wife’s death, rather than waiting a year.) In Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, Honor Bright fears disownment for her “silent protest” of slavery in 1850’s Ohio. In Lars Hedbor’s The Light, Robert Harris is read out of Meeting for crafting Revolutionary War weapons in his forge.
What better way to raise dramatic tension than to have a person’s faults read out loud during what we think of as a silent sect’s Meeting? Or to have that person rise in the middle of Meeting to defend themselves and call out others? I’m totally using disownment as a great scene-setter in at least two novels I’m writing. Do you have a story about disownment? Share it below or write me.
P.S. Enjoy your December! Whether you’re celebrating a holiday or believe “all days are holy,” I hope you have a peaceful month.
7 thoughts on ““Membership Discontinued” or the 5 Best Ways to Get Kicked out of Quaker Meeting”
My mother is a Quaker historian/genealogist. I might have research that you could use
Very cool! I am mostly writing rather than researching right now but let’s keep in touch.
In New England “baby born too soon after the wedding” is pretty common (consistent with Puritan records also showing average time from wedding to birth = 6 months). Bundling was a thing, and often seems to have been bypassed by the young people. . . .When I looked at why two Quakers would get married by a justice in RI, the two common threads were baby already on the way, which disqualified you from Quaker wedding if found out but the justice or nearby Baptist/Congregational minister thought was an ideal reason to get married this very afternoon, and first cousin marriages, which were legal but contrary to discipline. Another common reason for disownments: attending some other form of worship, such as Great Awakening revivals, but even if it’s your own child’s wedding, or the preaching of your sibling the Public Universal Friend.
I knew about the first cousin thing. I believe this was an issue in the relatively small Quaker community. Interesting about attending other forms of worship!
Reading about John Tawell, the Quaker murderer hung in his Quaker garb in 1845 (and the man who financed the building of the first Quaker meetinghouse in Australia), I was struck by how patient his meetings were with his dodgy reputation, and that a Quaker elder sat with him through the night before his execution. Forgiving the sinner indeed !