OLD DARTMOUTH HISTORICAL SKETCH
Being the proceedings of the Quarterly Meeting of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, Water Street, New Bedford, Massachusetts, on January 12, 1912.
COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE OF YE OLD TIME QUAKERS
by Mary E. Austin
[Note—”The Old Dartmouth Historical Sketches” will be published by the Society quarterly and may be purchased for ten cents each, on application to the Secretary and also at Hutchinson’s Book Store.]
New Bedford, Massachusetts
January 12, 1912
President Wood addressed the meeting. Perhaps the most important mission of a society like this is a study of the habits and customs of our ancestors. The sources of our information are public, private and religious records. Many of the records were perishable, and whenever anything of importance happened our ancestors were pretty sure to jot it down. We have to go largely to the records for our information but it is known that records of our local history are perishable, but the research members of our society are given publicity and whatever we do now is embalmed forever for future generations. Our records of our own research and the modern publicity make the records practically imperishable. What we rescue becomes so disseminated as to be indestructible and immortal. Our research committee should be encouraged to preserve any and all records of local history and more of our members should be interested and stimulated in the gradual study of some phase of the past. A great many of our members are interested in studying back into the past of their own families and other subjects as a recreation and pastime. If only the members would jot down their research the material will gradually accumulate until a valuable paper is the result.
The life our ancestors lived here was simple compared to the present day, yet a life full of passion and love, full of complex bearing, full of jealousies and loyalty, gaiety and sorrow, yearning and striving. The records that come down from the old time were only fair. The records were often only the barest facts, records of births, marriages and deaths, the acquirement and sales of land—that is all.
And still those lives were full, not just like ours of the present day. Living then was more even, and perhaps monotonous at times. There was no telephone and no quick transportation. Later in our colonial history life became more complex with the thicker settlements along the Acushnet River and the growth of commerce and the relations of a larger world. The returning mariner brought the element of romance, and the suspicion of other views of life which seemed heretical.
The public vital records contain little to help us in the realization of this intimate social life. We get more from private papers, letters and diaries of the old time. Here we have vivid pictures, sketched upon the spot, opinions from a contemporaneous point of view. Then in many localities we have the religious records. Wherever the Quakers abounded there we find their help more abundant than elsewhere. Their records are the more valuable from the fact that the Quakers have been particular, more so than almost any other sect. We find records of very frequent meetings and the doings faithfully recorded. The presiding officer was always the clerk. The Quakers didn’t believe that a chairman was essential as the spirit was the guiding matter. The record was made by some designated person. Importance was given to the women Friends and in no other society will you find a dual record. It is well known that the most important records are those of the Friends of this locality. It is interesting to know when a member of our society confesses she has been interested for years in research, and has prepared a paper from such research.
Courtship and Marriage of Ye Old Time Quakers
By Mary E. Austin
George Fox had just reached his majority, when the great battle of Naseby was fought.
Green writes in his History of English people: “The shock of war had broken the bands of custom and given a violent impulse to the freest thought.
Into this age of swift changes, step men who were resolved to seek God after their own fashion, and who were as hostile to the despotism of the national church as to the despotism of the king.
Among these men stands the Quaker founder. This was the age when Roundhead and Cavalier stand with drawn swords, and fill England with throes of war. Accepting a captain’s commission would have released Fox from Derby prison. But he believes war is unlawful, and he will not accept his release through any method that will compromise conscience.
He who followed in the footsteps of Fox must abjure theatre, card playing, races, bull-baiting, cockfighting, dancing, Christmas decorations and festivities. Quakerism was a protest against the times, against manners, and customs, speech and literature, societies and religion.
The girls of the seventeenth century enjoyed but a brief childhood. Then even in the nursery, worldly parents were selecting for them husbands, and were sometimes in so much of a hurry to secure great advantages of family and fortune, that little girls found themselves saddled with the responsibilities of marriage before they had hardly time to put away their dolls.
Such marriages often productive of the greatest unhappiness, gave serious offence to the Quaker leader, and very early, in his journal, he treats upon marriage.
Within ten years of Fox’s first appearance as a preacher, meetings of the Friends were established in most parts of England. From the first, they had repudiated the marriage ceremonies of the church, and married in their own fashion, without priest, altar or ring. Very early, the legality of these marriages was called in question, and the children sneered at as bastards.
A suit was begun, by a kinsman of a Quaker, who had died, to prove that his child was illegitimate and could not heir the property. “The Quakers go together like brute beasts,” said the plaintiff’s counsel. But the judge held that marriage was constituted by mutual consent, and remarked: “That was a true marriage when Adam took Eve and Eve took Adam.” Thus the Quakers were saved from the curse that threatened to blight their hearthstones.
In view of the public and private charges made against the Quaker home, the monthly meetings were charged to attend very carefully, to keeping a record of marriages and births, and to see that all persons “walked orderly according to their professions.”
“Walked orderly according to profession” was an “elastic clause,” that developed finally into hard and fast customs, hardly compatible with the doctrine that life, conscience and worship must be guided by the spirit and not by man.
Birthright membership made a vast amount of trouble. At first one had to be a believer before he could he a member of a Quaker meeting. But when the children of accepted Friends were counted as members of the “Faith,” the meetings had to deal with numbers of young people, who had no real interest in the Quaker doctrines, who wanted to follow worldly fashions in dress, which they did in spite of the meeting, and who insisted in marrying outside of the society, if they pleased.
Hence the ruling of the Discipline, “Children must be disowned if they marry not Friends—unless they make an acknowledgment that they have done wrong.”
Items of the records of the Nantucket, and Dartmouth Monthly Meetings bear full evidence that the Friends in our vicinity were not lax in enforcing the rules.
“1768—Our visitors inform this meeting that they have treated with S___ D____ respecting her marrying with a man of different persuasion, but do not find in her any disposition to condemn her fault. It is the judgment of the meeting that she be set aside as one with whom Friends had no unity.”
“1724—A___ N____ signed an acknowledgment that among other things ‘she had gone out from and against the mind, will and allowance of my tender parents in performing her marriage.”
“1762—N___ R___ acknowledged that for want of keeping close to the divine light, having married contrary to the advice of Friends, I am sincerely sorry and hope for the time to come to be more careful.”
“1800-L___ S___ disowned for keeping company with a man not a member and for attending a marriage out of the order of Friends.”
“1804—B___ C___ had married a member of our society sooner after the decease of his former wife than the Discipline advises and contrary to our order notwithstanding he was precautioned against it.”
I will read a copy of a certificate dated August 9, 1764, furnished by Mrs. Clement Nye Swift, a certificate of her ancestors.
“Whereas, Stephen Hathaway, son of Jethro Hathaway and Hannah, his wife, of Dartmouth, in the county of Bristol, in the province of the Massachusetts Bay, in New England; and Abigail Smith, a daughter of Humphry Smith and Mary, his deceased wife, of Dartmouth, in the County and Province aforesaid, Having Declared their intentions of taking each other in Marriage, before Several Monthly Meetings, of the people called Quakers, in Dartmouth, According to the Good Order Used among them, Whose Proceedings Therein, after a Deliberate Consideration thereof, with Regard to the Righteous Law of God and Example of His People Recorded in the Scriptures of Truth; in that case were allowed by the said meetings.
They appearing clear of all others and having the Consent of Parents and others concerned. Now these are to certify all whom it may Concern, that for the full accomplishing of their said intentions this Ninth day of the Eighth month, called August, and in the year of our Lord, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-four, then the said Stephen Hathaway and Abigail Smith appeared in a Publick Assembly of the aforesaid People met together in the Publick Meeting House in Dartmouth, and in solemn manner, he the said Stephen Hathaway taking the said Abigail Smith by the hand did openly declare as followeth:
‘Friends, I desire you to be my witnesses, that I take this my friend Abigail Smith to be my wife. Promising with the Lord’s assistance to be her loving husband till death shall separate us’: Or words to that effect; and then in the said Assembly the said Abigail Smith did in Like manner Declare as follows this: ‘Friends, I desire you to be my witnesses, that I take this my friend Stephen Hathaway to be my husband, Promising with the Lord’s assistance to be to him a loving wife until Death shall separate us’. Or words to that effect.
Then the said Stephen Hathaway and Abigail Smith, as a further confirmation thereof then and there in these Presents set their Hands, she according to the custom of marriage Assuming her Husband’s name.
and we whose names are hereunto subscribed, being present at the solemnizing of the said Marriage and Subscriptions as Witnesses, have hereunto Subscribed our names this day and year above Written.
John Russell Humphry Smith
Thomas Smith Peleg Smith
Robert Willis Henry Smith
Joseph Tucker Benjamin Smith
Deborah Russell Samuel Smith
Elizabeth Gidley William Anthony
Prince Allen Phebe Tucker
Benjamin Howland Deborah Wilbur
Christopher Slocum Alice Smith
Antiphas Hathaway Mary Howland
Daniel Russell Rebeckah Slocum
Thomas Briggs Alice Anthony
Joseph Russell Penellope Howland
Jim Davis Rebecah Smith
Hephzibah Davis Susanne West
Clark Hathaway Hephzibah Hussey
George Smith Ann Coffin
Unlike the rest of the world, the Friends long held tenaciously to the old custom of keeping the bride and bridegroom throughout the whole day, which is one of great social enjoyment.
The chief feature of the entertainment was a fine repast, which was prolonged with many a sober jest and quaint rejoinder.
One of the “jests” has come down, to us. A prim old Quaker spinster one day attended the marriage of her grand-nephew, a young person who had in the course of his twenty-one years received much needed discipline at her hands. The old lady was at her best on this festive occasion, and at a pause in the breakfast her young relative looked over at her with a beguiling smile.
Tell us why thee never married, Aunt Patience, he said teasingly?
That is soon told, William, said the old Quakeress, calmly. It was because I was not so easily pleased as thy wife.
After the marriage feast, a walk on a sideway may be the programme of the day. Wherever the party goes, the overseers must follow and note well that all present “do take care at the houses or places where they go—that all behave with becoming sobriety.”
At the next monthly meeting, the committee must give report and if unfavorable the first duty of the meeting will be to instruct the overseers to secure an expression of “sincere repentance of such transgressions, manifested by a conduct circumspect and consistent without religious profession.”
If the transgressors are refractory, their cases are again reported to the monthly meeting, which may then disown them.
To one outside the fellowship of Quakerisms, it is the most simple and natural thing in the world, that two people mutually pleased with one another should enter into the closest and [most tender] relations of life.
Only those within the fellowship could comprehend the opposition with which the step would be regarded by family, friend and meeting, if a Quaker youth should desire to marry out of the meeting, or the consultations, concern, the absolute distress that had to be gone through with.
When it becomes known that such a marriage is contemplated, it is reported to the monthly meeting, and in accordance with the rules, members of the ministry and oversight are appointed to visit the parents and make an inquiry “If an infirmity of purpose has led them to sanction such a disgraceful departure of the rules, as to permit a birthright member to make an unholy alliance—a disorderly marriage?
A long sitting follows this question —composed of long silence and frequent quotations from the Scriptures, which deal with the prophetical denunciations of the chosen people for making alliances with the heathen tribes.
If the purpose of the visit of the overseers was not accomplished, the meeting after hearing the report, appoints two or more persons to visit and deal with the “delinquent.”
This grave and official visitation was conducted with much gentleness and love, but was none the less dreaded and formidable.
After the usual silence, and perhaps a prayer, a motherly voice might commence her pleading with: “Beloved, I have not hitherto found thee charged with levity, nor setting up thy own will in opposition to the witness within. I hope thou hast inquired there.”
If after all the prayers and persuasions, the youth persisted in the worldly companionship, the case would be again duly reported and recorded at the next Monthly Meeting with all the details of the visit.
If marriage follows with a “worldling” and no repentant word is secured by a second appointed visit, the youth is disowned.
The Acoaxet Monthly Meeting records furnish this account of a disownment: “1800, 7mo. 19th.
We are informed by Acoaxet Preparative Meeting that N___ S___ has much neglected the attendance of Religious Meetings and gone into many of the vain modes and fashions of the times in his apparel, for which he has been repeatedly labored with by the Overseers. He also has kept company on account of marriage with a woman not a member of our society and has married the same out of the unity of Friends notwithstanding his being precautioned before marriage.
After considering thereon, and thinking there has been sufficient labor bestowed, we therefore deny unity with him as a Member of our Religious Society until he condemns his misconduct to the satisfaction of Friends.
The Women’s Meeting concurs with us herein.
We appoint Lovel Tripp and Wm. Gifford, son of William, to inform him of his being disowned and draft a testimony of his denial and bring to next Monthly Meeting.”
The same records furnish a copy of a Denial:
“Whereas, J___ F___, who had a birthright and his education among Friends, hath so far disregarded our advice as to Neglect the due attendance of Religious Meetings and gone into some of the vain fashions of the world and also kept company with and married a woman out of the unity of Friends; altho he was labored with and precautioned, but our advice hath not had its desired effect: Therefore, for the clearing of the truth, we do disown the said J___ F___ from being any longer a member of our society, until he shall condemn the above transgressions to Friends’ satisfaction. Given forth at our Monthly Meeting, held at Acoaxet the 13th of the 3rd mo., 1802.
Signed in and on behalf of our above said meeting,
by John Mosher, Clerk.”
One alternative remained to the “delinquents.” They might of their own free will resign their membership, in which case there would be the same appointments, visits, condemnations, records and publicity.
Some Monthly Meetings at one time were so rigorous that parents were required to disinherit their children who had made worldly or “disorderly marriages,” and not receive them into their homes, nor be familiar with them.
In the enforcement of the Discipline, the Nantucket Quakers exceeded in severity all meetings in New England. Although the island settlers had sought to escape from the restrictive interference of the Winthrops and Endicott, yet they retained many of the characteristics of the people of Massachusetts Bay.
In Dartmouth, the situation was not homogeneous. It was composed of persons who were liberal at the start. The Tucker family came from Milton; the Kirbys, Allens, Giffords, Wings, came from Cape Cod; while the great majority that constituted the Dartmouth Meeting, had been residents of Rhode Island, the refuge for every form of liberal and eccentric theology.
From this it naturally followed that the Discipline among the Dartmouth Quakers was much less rigorous than at Nantucket. While firm in essentials, they overlooked trivial shortcomings, and hence their records disclose a much smaller number of disownments for minor offences.
When the crisis of 1845 came, and the Yearly Meeting stood at the parting of the ways, one section under the lead of the Nantucket Meeting urging the acceptance of the Puritan views and methods, it was the power and influence of the New Bedford Quarterly and Rhode Island meetings that swung the New England Yearly Meeting toward the more liberal direction.
In spite of the liberal tendencies of the New England Yearly Meeting, the regulations concerning marriage remained nearly the same down to 1872.
A committee of the Five Year Meeting of 1897 prepared a new Discipline, which has been accepted by eleven out of the thirteen Yearly Meetings.
In the last edition of the Discipline, the rules concerning marriage are very simple.
The public bethrothal is omitted; also disownment for marriage with a non-member.
The Overseers still listen to reasonable objections concerning a proposed marriage, and the committee of four reports to the Monthly Meeting concerning the ceremony.
The Discipline advises carefully to observe the Laws of the State.
In these days of home-making and, alas! home-breaking, the wise supervision of marriage by a Quaker Monthly Meeting would be an important public benefaction.