Goose Creek Quakers and the audacity of peace and social justice

marble carved male head with beard
marble carved male head with beard
Pausanias (AD 110-C 180) was a Greek geographer, traveler and author. Stock photo.

Pausanias (AD 110- C 180) was a Greek geographer and author of travel books which included his observations about people and places. There is a well-known quote from Pausanias: “Audacity combined with weakness should be called madness.”

It is worth reflecting on this idea when studying the actions of 19th century southern Quakers, particularly those of Goose Creek meeting who acted against their own legal, social and financial interests in the decades leading up to Civil War. They were pacifist, refusing to fight in wars. They publically spoke and acted against slavery. Were these actions “audacious”? I’d say yes: Quakers were fined by the courts, and criticized for not enlisting to fight in wars. Perhaps their anti-slavery beliefs were even more divisive: time and again certain members of the Goose Creek Meeting community took great risks in their abolitionist efforts. Think of William Tate, shot at as he rode through Rappahannock county one dark night in 1845. Or Francis Ray, the young teacher threatened with being tarred and feathered in 1856, simply for voicing anti-slavery views. Samuel M. Janney, arrested for repeatedly publishing anti-slavery articles in Southern newspapers.

19th century American racist cartoon
1856 racist political cartoon showing President Millard Fillmore as a weak “goose.” James Buchanan would go on to win the 1856 presidential election over anti-slavery Republican candidate John Fremont, Millard Fillmore coming in a distant third.

Did Lincoln community Quakers have “audacity combined with weakness” resulting in madness? Their population was, indeed, numerically “weak” within Loudoun county and rest of Virginia. The U.S. Census for the year 1860 shows Quaker Friends in Loudon [Loudoun] County to have 4 churches [Meetings] with a total of 1,500 members. That equals approximately 10% of Loudoun County’s population at the time. The Virginia Quaker/Friends’ state wide population total in 1860 was 5,800. No Quaker would have considered their religious convictions a sign of weakness, but the Census does show them to be greatly out-numbered.

united states churches pre Civil War
U.S. 1860 federal census for the state of Virginia, with counties listed alphabetically. This census page counts membership of religious denominations. Loudon [Loudoun] is shown at the bottom of the right hand side Counties column. Friends is upper center of the page. Courtesy U.S. Census Bureau

Loudoun County had approximately 24% of the Quakers living in the entire state of Virginia.

list of churches and counties from U.S. census bureau
U.S. 1860 Census for the state of Virginia, divided by Counties. Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau

Quaker pacifism and anti-slavery beliefs left the sect open to suspicion and hostility from main stream Southern neighbors. When Civil War broke out on April 14, 1861, Quaker failure to officially support the Confederacy added to Goose Creek’s (not yet named “Lincoln”) isolationism.

In September, 1861, Goose Creek Meeting minutes addressed the worsening national conflict. A transcript of the carefully worded position on the war is below the image.

Goose Creek Meeting minutes 9 month 1861, addressing the topic of war. Courtesy ancestry.com
Continuing page of Goose Creek Meeting minutes addressing the war. Courtesy ancestry.com

9 Month 1861

“At Goose Creek Monthly Meeting, held the 10th of 9th mo, 1861, the representatives were present, except Eli J. Hoge for whose absence a satisfactory reason was given….

[bottom paragraph] “The subject of making a statement of our principles, in regard to the unhappy condition of our country, in order to correct any misapprehension that may exist respecting our views, being brought before the meeting, it was concluded to issue the following declaration, which was entered with by women friends and the clerk was directed to sign the same on behalf of the meeting, and Samuel M. Janney, Jesse Hoge, and Elisha Janney were appointed to lay the subject before Fairfax Monthly Meeting in order that, that meeting, may have an opportunity of acting on the same: to wit:

“1st The religious society of Friends, from the time of its rise, to the present date (a period of more than two hundred years) has always borne a testimony against war; its members abstaining from every kind of military service, and patiently suffering the penalties of the law for declining the same. This testimony we believe is in accordance with the example and precepts of Christ, and particularly his sermon on the mount.

“2nd In as much as a state of war now unhappily exists in this country, we deem it our religious duty to take no part in it; and to abstain from every act that would give aid in its prosecution.

“3rd Although laws might be passed, with which our principles and clear sense of religious duty would forbid our active compliance even though there was connected therewith the heaviest penalty; yet the religion we profess, and as we conceive, the true spirit of Christianity, forbid our doing any act in opposition to the laws of the government under which [we] live. In all cases, not obviously and exclusively between ourselves and our Maker, we believe it to be our solemn duty, faithfully to comply with the laws of the land, or remain entirely passive under them, suffering all penalties.” Then Concluded

19th century quakers standing outside meetinghouse
Goose Creek Meeting, Lincoln, Virginia photo from private collection

Much, even most, about the lives of Quakers in Lincoln, Virginia was routine and predictable. But in spite of that, these Quakers were a memorable group. Their lives were filled with steadfast, moral certainty amidst a growing drama of violence that led ultimately to war. Individual Quakers in the village of Lincoln exhibited acts of kindness and extreme courage, two characteristics that, under the circumstances of time and place, were extraordinary.

2nd century Greek georgrapher Pausanias lived many centuries before George Fox founded the Quaker faith in 1647. There is no way to know if the Greek would have considered Lincoln Quakers’ actions a sign of “Audacity combined with weakness should be called madness.” However, their September 1861 principles stake out a position to which, if implying “madness,” they would have said: so be it.

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