Quakers to Know: Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader and George Fox White

Carol Faulkner

In my post for this month and next, I will highlight the careers of some nineteenth- and twentieth-century Quakers. My hope is to inspire readers to include more Quakers on their American and religious history syllabi and expand the historical perspective beyond a few famous Quakers like John Woolman, Elias Hicks, and Lucretia Mott (though Mott should be everywhere!).

In some ways, this post might be considered a follow-up to Laura Leibman's on the impact of scholarly articles. The two Quakers for today, Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader and George Fox White, are both courtesy of the scholarship of Tom Hamm, Professor of History at Earlham College, and author of The Transformation of American Quakerism. Hamm's article on Cadwalader appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic (Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall 2008), and his essay on White is in the recent collection Quakers and Abolition, edited by Brycchan Carey and Geoffrey Plank. Both Cadwalader and White were allies of Elias Hicks, and Hamm's essays illuminate the complex personal and political dynamics of the Hicksite split and its aftermath.

After she became a minister in 1817, Priscilla Coffin Hunt's career, like Lucretia Mott's, was bound up in the schism. During the 1820s, Quakers divided over the abusive power of the elders, their reliance of the Bible instead of the inward light, and their attachment to worldly wealth and influence, including that produced by slavery. Elias Hicks called on Quakers to return to the principle of the inward light. In many ways, Priscilla was the female Hicks, traveling from her home meeting in Indiana around the country to criticize the Orthodox (or evangelical) Quaker leaders. Hamm quotes from one of her Philadelphia sermons:

Oh, I am weary, the spirit within me is weary of high profession. For religion, is substituted opinion. Hence contentions, divisions and subdivisions; and in blind zeal and self-will the blessed Truth and its advocates are judged down, and the feet of the messengers are turned another way.

Hunt's supporters called her "sublime, chaste, accurate and clear." Her opponents declared "those are not the Doctrines which this society professes." Unlike in Philadelphia and other parts of the country,  most Indiana Quakers joined the Orthodox. Hunt's Blue River meeting was one of the exceptions.

Hamm's article is interested not only in Hunt's ministry, but her second marriage and, more scandalously, her divorce. In 1827, the same year as the Hicksite schism, she married a minister named Joseph Cadwalader. The marriage was not a happy one, and other Quakers whispered rumors of abuse and infidelity. Two years after her marriage, Priscilla left on an eight-year ministerial journey. In 1837, Joseph sued for divorce on grounds of desertion (Indiana was then on its way to becoming the capital of quickie divorces). He got his divorce, but lost his membership in the Society of Friends for selling liquor. Hamm argues that the Society of Friends did not have any mechanisms for dealing with unhappy marriages. He also suggests that knowledge of Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader's marital woes influenced the perspectives of the Quaker women, including Amy Post and Lucretia Mott, who attended the Seneca Falls convention in 1848.

George F. White, a New York Hicksite minister, was Lucretia Mott's arch enemy.  Hamm's article considers White's opposition to the anti-slavery movement in the context of the Hicksite split. In other words, how could two Hicksites (White and Mott) have such contradictory positions on abolition? Hamm explains that many Hicksites opposed the Orthodox in part due to their growing similarity to evangelical ministers. As Hamm writes, "Hicksites saw in the aggressive proselytizing and reforming fervor of the Second Great Awakening a threat to religious liberty." White perceived participation in the anti-slavery movement, especially the American Anti-Slavery Society, as another manifestation of religious orthodoxy, bringing Quakers together with "hireling" ministers (those professionally trained and paid, unlike Quakers). As White argued in one 1840 sermon,

I believe the most powerful weapon, and which has been most destructive to the temporal happiness of man, is the usurped prerogative to designate sinners. O! how often, in the hands of a corrupt hierarchy, it has fattened the land with blood! The power and influence of hirelings the world over, and throughout all ages, have produced more suffering to the human race, than the aggregate from war, famine, pestilence, and slavery. 

In retrospect, such views of the relative problems of hireling ministers and slavery seem, at best, unrealistic. Yet many Hicksites praised White's sermons, and his views threatened to further split Society of Friends. Even as White associated abolitionists with Orthodox Quakers, his opponents, including Lucretia Mott, compared White's methods to those of the Orthodox elders, suppressing the views of anti-slavery Friends. Despite their history of opposing slavery, radical abolition divided Friends. Hamm's article is a useful reminder that not all Quakers were abolitionists.

In these two articles, the Hicksite split is more than a theological dispute. By investigating these individual lives, Hamm traces its ramifications within and beyond the Society of Friends, showing its impact on the way Quakers thought about women, marriage, religion, and reform.


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