George Keith and the Growth of Quakerism

Authored by Kellie-Ann Ford

Image of George Keith’s Published Sermons, Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who has a copy on micro-film. An original can be viewed at the New York Historical Society

During the 17th century the Religious Society of Friends, better known today as Quakers, was founded. Unlike the Protestants, Quakers believed each person contained within them Divine Light meaning “all people, regardless of their familiarity with the Bible, might have access to grace” (Plank 2016, 523). For this reason, women could speak up, publish their writings and take part if they felt moved to do so (Tarter 1993), though, eventually the Meetings would become separated (Adams 2001, 660). Slavery and the treatment of Natives were issues taken up by early Quakers. While preaching in Barbados, Quakers were forced to take a moderate stance on slavery, after being accused of inciting rebellion and causing suspicion among the slave holders (Plank 2016, 517).

These differences led to Quaker persecution. Imprisonment was common. In Maryland in 1658, Quakers that housed Josiah Coale and Thomas Thurston, missionaries from England, were fined and whipped (Plank 2016, 508). Mary Dyer, who had been banished, twice, from Massachusetts “on pain of death for confronting Puritan anti-Quaker laws” was hung in 1660 in Boston (Winsser 2016, 22). She would not be the only Quaker to face death for her beliefs.   

Not all Quakers would face death in a literal sense. One such person was George Keith. While at first a devoted Quaker, converting in 1664, he saw issues with American Quakers and their lack of Scripture adherence (Plank 2016, 523). By 1690. These issues brought about the Keithian controversy; which went from dealing with the question of was Christ spiritual or physical in form after the resurrection, to mudslinging between Keith and prominent Quakers (Frost 1975, 33). By 1700, Keith was Anglican and part of the Society for the Promotions of Christian Knowledge (Frost 1975, 35). Keith then spoke out against the Quakers and the ideas he once defended. While in New York during 1703, he delivered two sermons that he published as

The Notes of the True Church With the Application of them to the Church of England, And the great Sin of Seperation (sic) from Her. Delivered in A Sermon Preached at Trinity Church in New-York, Before the Administration of the holy Sacrament of the Lords Supper.

The sermons were a call for Quakers to come back to the Church of England. With lines like “…to establish such of my former Friends (in these American parts) who are lately come over to the Church…” and “…from the false and injurious Aspertions (sic) cast …by ignorant and prejudiced… Quakers”(Keith 1704) one can see how Keith loathed the group he was once apart of.

While Quakers were not well thought of in the early days of their founding, they were among the first to question European superiority and work toward a more unified civilization. Though they were met with limited success, one is able to see the Vincentian tradition that is followed today (St. John’s University 2019). The enduring spirit of the Quakers allowed them to withstand early persecution and find their place in American society.     

References

Adams, Beverly. 2001. “The ‘Durty Spirit’ at Hertford: A Falling Out of Friends.” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 52 (4) (10)(October): 647-674. https://jerome.stjohns.edu/login??url=https://search-proquest-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/docview/229776259?accountid=14068.

Frost, J. William. 1975. “Unlikely Controversialists: Caleb Pusey and George Keith.” Quaker History 64, no. 1 (Spring): 16-36. doi:10.1353/qkh.1975.0002.

Keith, George. 1704. “The Notes of the True Church with the Application of Them to the Church of England, and the Great Sin of Seperation from Her. Delivered in A Sermon Preached At Trinity Church in New-York, Before the Administration of the Holy Sacrament of the Lords Supper.” William Bradford and the Sign of the Bible. New-York Historical Society.

Plank, Geoffrey. 2016. “Discipline and Divinity: Colonial Quakerism, Christianity, and ‘Heathenism’ in the Seventeenth Century.” Church History 85 (3)(September): 502–28. doi:10.1017/S0009640716000457.  

St. John’s University. 2019. “Our Mission.” https://www.stjohns.edu/about/our-mission.

Tarter, Michele Lise. 1993. “Nursing the New Wor(l)d: The Writings of Quaker Women in Early America: WL WL.” Women and Language 16 (1)(Spring): 22. https://jerome.stjohns.edu/login??url=https://search-proquest-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/docview/198813254?accountid=14068.

Winsser, Johan. 2016. “Quieting Mary Dyer: Edward Burrough and Dyer’s Letter to the Massachusetts General Court, 26 October 1659.” Quaker History 105, no. 1(Spring): 22-47. doi:10.1353/qkh.2016.0005.

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