Rebel Quakers: The Struggle Between Faith and Liberty

Last week, I began researching Richard Besswick, a private in the First Maryland Regiment and a member of the Maryland 400. In the course of my search for information about his life, I came across the will of Nathan Besswick from 1778. I had a hunch that this could possibly be Richard’s father, so I went to the stacks and pulled the record to find out. Sure enough, Nathan Besswick mentioned a son named Richard who was about the same age as the Richard Besswick I was looking for. More interesting, however, was something I found at the end of the will. I almost didn’t read it, since I had already gathered all of the information that can typically be found in a will. Luckily, I did decide to read it, and what I found deepened Richard Besswick’s story significantly.

Nathan Besswick gives his “solemn affirmation” at the close of his final will and testament and is described as “one of the people called Quakers”.[1] This surprised me for a multitude of reasons. Just seconds before finding out that the Besswicks were Quakers, I had read in Nathan’s will that they had at least five slaves. My limited knowledge of Quakers had always held that Quakers were opposed to slavery on moral grounds. Why, then, did the Besswicks have so many slaves? I also knew Quakers to be notorious pacifists. How could Richard Besswick, a Quaker, take up arms in rebellion against the British? To learn more about the Besswicks as Quakers, I turned to the minutes of their monthly meeting, where I found answers to both of my above questions.

First, I discovered that in the late eighteenth century, Quakers had mixed opinions about slavery. In their minutes, I found some mentions of the possible immorality of the institution, but no solid stances against it. In some minutes, manumissions were encouraged, but it is unclear how many Quakers actually put the suggestion into practice. Members of the meeting appointed to investigate the sentiments of Quakers who were slaveholders most often reported back that opinions were split. Some seemed willing to give their enslaved persons their freedom, while others seemed adamantly opposed to such a notion.[2] Besswick’s slave holdings, therefore, didn’t necessarily clash with his faith yet. It would be a few years before Quakers fully took on the title of abolitionists.

I could not, however, reconcile Besswick’s enlistment into the Continental Army with Quaker pacifism. It seems that the Quakers struggled to do so as well. In the meeting minutes of 1776 and 1777, I found multiple complaints against men “for their neglecting the attendance of meetings and bearing arms to learn the art of war contrary to rules of Friends.”[3] More often than not, these men were disowned by their meeting. I did not find evidence of any such complaint lodged against Richard Besswick. How Richard avoided controversy with his enlistment is a mystery. Perhaps the Besswicks were not involved in meeting enough for someone to acknowledge Richard’s absence and enlistment or perhaps Richard had chosen to leave the Society of Friends prior to the war.

Although he wasn’t formally investigated by his meeting, joining the Patriot cause still must have been a difficult choice for Richard Besswick. Fighting for freedom meant violating one of the central tenets of the faith he was raised in. The call of liberty, though, overpowered his love of peace and transformed the son of a Quaker farmer into a rebel soldier.       

Notes:

1. Will of Nathan Beswick, 1778, Kent County Register of Wills, Wills, No. 6, p. 65 [C1107-8, 1/15/1/26].

2. Church Records, Society of Friends, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Minutes 1771-1797 [MSA SC 2394-1-6, 00/08/07/30]. 

3. Church Records.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Maryland 400. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Rebel Quakers: The Struggle Between Faith and Liberty

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent article. For many the belief that Quakers did not serve is a misconception. Some did. They removed themselves from the meeting or it was done so for them. There are numerous companies on the Eastern shore were you find full of Quakers names, who upon the end of war returned back to their faith and regular attendance without admonition from their elders. Some never returned back to the faith. I also believe there are likely missing records of those who were excluded in the Third Meeting because military service. I have seen references to those names being recorded in a separate record but I have never found the other book referenced. Due to the climate and laws being passed, they may have felt it better to not record these in the regular minutes. In the SAR we have a number of descendants of Quaker fighters. We however don’t know if they took up arms or filled other roles in the army such as cooks, fifers, drummers, etc.

    It is not a subject I have dug into but there are likely many stories of this nature.

    Like

    • jilliancurran28 says:

      Thank you! You are absolutely right. I found lots of examples of the Quakers’ willingness to forgive someone and readmit them into the meeting. Almost every entry in which someone is being disowned ends in an expression of hope that they will change their ways and an eagerness to accept them if they do. I had never really dug into this subject before either, but it was very interesting to research and consider the difficult position that Quakers often found themselves in during the Revolutionary War.

      Like

  2. Emily H. says:

    What a great find and a great bio you’ve written for him! I believe that in the years after the Revolution many Meetings decided to readmit those who went to war and wanted to return. General Nathanael Greene was also raised Quaker and did not return to it, ending his life on a plantation in Georgia. The idea of “fighting for freedom” is a complicated one during the American Revolution. In many ways remaining a Friend and eschewing war and (later) slavery was also a sacrifice; many Quakers faced hostility from neighbors, lost their property, and were removed from positions of power and influence in their communities. Depending on the climate where he lived, it was likely easier for Besswick not to return to the Society of Friends.

    Like

    • jilliancurran28 says:

      Thank you so much! I did not know that General Greene was raised a Quaker, that’s very interesting. Yes, Quakers were definitely put in a difficult situation during the Revolutionary Era. Joining the Patriot cause meant violating the principles of their faith, but protesting the war or even just remaining neutral towards it could invite resentment from their Patriot communities. I had never seriously considered this dilemma until researching Richard Besswick, but now I find it fascinating.

      Like

Comments are closed.