Quaker Values and Culture

The American penitentiary system was born in Philadelphia and New York in the 1790s. Though the penal reform movement of the late 18th and early 19th century consisted of actors from all over the United States, the main architects were devout men belonging to the Society of Friends, men such as Thomas Eddy.[i] In addition to penal reform, the Quakers were the heads of philanthropic projects ranging from hospital reform and the creation of asylums to canal building and the reform of Native Americans.[ii] The Quakers conducted their lives and all their pursuits directly in relation to their faith. As a result, the societal systems that they so tremendously influenced bore a form and function derived from Quaker ideology.

From the massive record of correspondence between the Friends and the Six Nation tribes, one can see noteworthy similarities in the way in which the Friends sought to “save” both prisoners and Native Americans. These letters in addition to the founding of the first New York penitentiary at Newgate demonstrates the remarkable scope of Thomas Eddy’s vision of complete societal reform based on Quaker values.


Figure 1: George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends.

The Quaker religions was founded in 1653 in northwest England by George Fox (Figure 1).[iii] Fox’s desire to break away from the Anglican Church emerged in a tumultuous period, the English Civil War (1642-1651) when the Church was undergoing fragmentation and radicalization from a  discontent population.[iv] Only 19 years old, Fox visited army camps with his uncle and was exposed the radical religious views of men in the Parliamentary army.[v] He was disillusioned with the Church, but was not convinced that radicalism was the answer. At this theological crossroads in Fox’s life, the key Quaker doctrine of turning inward to hear God:

As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all  that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh the, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.[vi]

The first fundamental tenet of Quaker belief: direct revelation. God did not reach a person through an intermediary such as scripture or a priest as in the Anglican and Catholic Church.Everyone had the potential to undergo this transformation experience, called convicement which occurs in six phases and is facilitated by complete silence. God is said to break inward into a person whereby the sinner realizes how far they have fallen from His grace and repents; complete reformation occurs in the individual and they are compelled to speak of their transformation and urge others to seek convicement.[vii]

An important difference between the Quakers and other Christians at the time was their interpretation of the Second Coming. Catholics and Anglicans viewed their time spent on earth as waiting time, waiting for Christ’s return and the fulfillment of the Revelation. As a result, their practices and sacraments revolved around commemorating the life of Jesus and patiently anticipating his rebirth. Quakers, on the other hand, believed that the Second Coming would be a global, inward revelation that touched all of humanity.[viii]

As a result, God could be praised and revealed to an individual anywhere without the need for cathedrals, priests, vestments, and gold-encrusted incense dispensers. The Quaker Meetings, as they were called, were held in plain, existing structures such as barns or large rooms in a residence (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Sparse interior of a Friends meeting house. 

The lack of hierarchy, pomp, and an elevated intermediary (e.g. a priest) that persisted among the Friends engendered an egalitarian, tolerant environment among worshipers. Even utilizing the term “meeting” to describe Quaker services suggests the unstructured convocation of equals rather than a hierarchical, rigidity connoted by “mass.” Thus, they maintained that anyone could experience revelation and salvation, the concept of ‘the priesthood of all believers,’ under the right circumstances.[ix]

Another important belief in Quakerism is pacifism. The internal moral and spiritual reformation experienced through convicement only amplified the sinfulness and destruction of the violent external world. In fact, war was categorized as a carnal indulgence. The roots of the pacifist testimony, as it is called, comes from George Fox’s time in prison in 1650. Fox was offered a captaincy in the army in exchange for his freedom; he declined, asserting that he “fought with spiritual weapons not outward ones.”[x] As a testament to this principle, Fox sent a pamphlet to the King in 1660 denying claims that Quakers were plotting a rebellion against the Crown (Figure 3).


Figure 3: Treatise sent King Charles II by George Fox, denying accusations of sedition.

The consequences of these testimonies held by the Quakers manifested in particular behavior and traditions that distinguished them from other members of society. Due to the tenet that all humans were equally afforded salvation by God, the Friends did not recognize cultural divisions in rank and esteem. For instance they refused to bow or salute superiors. Their plain manner of dress additionally reflected their disgust with the vanity and adornment in society. Due to their indifference of common etiquette and abrupt, frank manner, the Quakers’ gained a reputation for honesty and integrity which caused them to extremely successful in the beginnings of the banking industry. Their success in the business world of the 19th century was buttressed by the English legislature. Laws were put in place by the Crown to prohibit any non-Anglicans from participating in politics because non-conformists were harder to control.[xi] For example, the Society of Friends founded Cadbury, the now internationally renowned chocolate company in 1824 in London (Figure 4).


Figure 4: Early advertisement for the Quaker company, Cadbury.

The fundamental values and practices associated with Quakerism distinguished the Friends from other members of society. Convicement, the possibility for all humans to experience direct revelation, and pacifism heavily affected the ways in which the Friends conducted themselves in all aspects of life, in business, in behavior, in dress. The Friends took these ideals and put them into action. For, they believed that waiting for salvation in a broken society was pointless and against God’s will. Instead, the Friends were compelled to reshape the world around them according to the internal voice of God. This sense of faith-driven expedience manifested in a host of reform movements at the turn of the 19th century in healthcare, education, urban construction, the “betterment” of indigenous groups, slave emancipation, and the penal system.

Philanthropic movements did not occur in New York by happenstance. The swift urbanization of New York created new social problems that could be addressed by the city’s large, wealthy middle class. Financial security permitted socially conscientious individuals to join forces to ameliorate the laws and institutions of  New York City that steeped its citizens in poverty, sickness, and alcoholism.[xii] The Society of Friends was one such group whose benevolence was fueled by faith. Particularly in Eddy’s attempt enact penal reform at Newgate, one can see the influences of Quaker theology in its architecture, management, and purpose: to ensure that the deplorable members of society attain salvation. Moreover, the reformative origins of the penitentiary system debunks the notion that these facilities were purposefully designed to be cruel to the inmates; yet by the end of its operation Newgate was infamous for chaos and the maltreatment of inmates. This disparity between theory and reality question the efficacy of the penitentiary in spurring the moral rejuvenation of inmates; even when fashioned with the best intentions, the system went awry.

-Fiona V. Whalen

[i] Jennifer Graber, “‘”When Friends Had the Management It Was Entirely Different”: Quakers and Calvinists in the Making of New York Prison Discipline,” Quaker History 97, no. 2 (2008): 1, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41947656.

[ii] Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence with Many Distinguished Philosophers and Philanthropists of This and Other Countries (New York: Conner and Cooke, 1834).

[iii] Pink Dandelion, The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 2.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid., 3.

[vi] George Fox, Journal, 1647.

[vii] Dandelion, The Quakers, 2-10.

[viii] Ibid., 9.

[ix] Ibid., 2-10.

[x] Ibid., 14.

[xi] Ibid., 14-24.

[xii] M. J. Heale, “Humanitarianism in the Early Republic: The Moral Reformers of New York, 1776-1825,” Journal of American Studies 2, no. 2, (1968): 161, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27552838.

Works Cited

Dandelion, Pink. The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Fox, George. Journal. 1647.

Graber, Jennifer. “”When Friends Had the Management It Was Entirely Different:” Quakers and Calvinists in the Making of New York Prison Discipline.” Quaker History 97, no. 2 (2008): 19-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41947656.

Heale, M. J. “Humanitarianism in the Early Republic: The Moral Reformers of New York, 1776-1825.” Journal of American Studies 2, no. 2 (1968): 161-75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27552838.

Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo. The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence with Many Distinguished Philosophers and Philanthropists of This and Other Countries. New York: Conner and Cooke, 1834.


Fig. 1. ClipArt ETC. George Fox. Digital image. ClipArt ETC. 2016. Accessed November 14, 2016. http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/55600/55678/55678_fox_george.htm.

Fig. 2. Jacob F. Wieners. ca. 1898. Interior, Quaker Meeting House. Unknown material on plate glass; safety film; gelatin silver print. http://digitalarchives.queenslibrary.org/browse/interior-quaker-meeting-house

Fig. 3. Fox, George. “A Declaration from the Harmless & Innocent People of God Called Quakers [microform].” Digital image. New York Historical Society Museum & Library. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/77/8d/01/778d01f2a7dc23a6b513a8e14ea8e865.jpg.

Fig. 4. Cadbury Co. Early Cadbury’s advertisement. Digital image. Buzz. https://mnorth52.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/cadbury-s-cocoa.jpg?w=788.