Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On a cool, pleasant early autumn morn­ing in the year 1834, John Price Wetherill made his way hastily down the vacant streets of Philadelphia towards the city’s western edge. Most of the respectable people were already seated in their churches, listening to the angelic sound of a choir or the piercing exhortation of a min­ister. Little did Wetherill care on this Sunday morning about respectability. After all, he had descended from a long line of rebels. Instead, this Quaker was more concerned with the fact that he was late for what would prove to be the most important meeting of his life­time. In the process, he had kept a fellow Quaker waiting, locked outside the small, plain brick meetinghouse at the corner of Fifth and Mulberry streets. As he approached the building Wetherill noticed, much to his relief, that Eliza­beth Claypoole still awaited his arrival.

“Greetings Friend! How is thee on this fine First Day morning?” she inquired. Catching his breath, Wetherill managed an apology. “Eliza­beth, I am sorry to have kept thee waiting. Please come, let us begin the meeting.” Fum­bling through his coat pockets, the anxious Quaker found the key and unlocked the door to the meetinghouse. The two Friends entered and took their seats on the facing benches. The Meeting for Worship had begun with a congregation of two. True to their rebellious nature, these two Quakers continued the practice of meet­ing in silent worship each Sunday for nearly a decade. It was difficult to believe that John Wetherill and Elizabeth Claypoole, better known as Betsy Ross, were the only surviving members of a reli­gious body that, at one time, numbered more than two hundred and stirred some of the greatest controversy in the City of Philadelphia.

Known as the Free Quak­ers, they were disowned by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the main administrative body of the Society of Friends, for their participation in the Revo­lutionary War. Claiming to be “free from every species of ecclesiastical tyranny” and, therefore, more “respectful of the principles of the Early Friends,” this splinter group formally established itself as an independent religious body in 1781. Their example, how­ever, brought into question the neutral position maintained by most Quakers during the American Revolution.

As the two worshippers settled into silence, Wetherill sensed Elizabeth’s uneasiness. He knew her well, well enough to understand that this gathering was more than a religious observance for Eliza­beth Claypoole; it was, in a very real sense, a testimony to the labors of her life. Never­theless, he could not begin to appreciate the sacrifice she had made over the years not only for her country, but also to the spiritual existence of the Free Quaker Society. Wetherill’s great-grandfather Samuel, the founder of the dissident group, had always spoken admiringly of her, the last of the revolutionary generation of Fighting Friends. Despite her fearless reputation, however, Elizabeth could not muster the courage to tell her fellow Quaker what he already knew: that she had decided to leave the city in order to spend the rest of her life with her chil­dren.

When the clock struck noon, Elizabeth Claypoole offered her hand to John Wetherill and, in doing so, she not only closed the Meeting for Worship but put an end to the Religious Society of Free Quakers.

The outbreak of the Ameri­can Revolution in the 1770s presented a major dilemma for the Religious Society of Friends: Was it possible to balance an allegiance to the Commonwealth without devi­ating from the pacifist princi­ples of the Society? Despite their withdrawal from the colonial assembly in 1756, the Friends – as founders of Pennsylvania and its constitution­ – still exercised considerable influence over the colony’s political life and, naturally, had difficulty divorcing themselves from a strong commitment to their version of William Penn’s Holy Experiment. At the same time, though, as professors of a testimony on peace in a time of war, the Friends found themselves floundering be­tween competing loyalties. Complicating matters even more was the fact that the Society’s discipline on the issue of non-compliance in military affairs had not been clearly defined in the past.

To be certain, there was a broad spectrum of compliance and non-compliance among Quakers during the Revolu­tionary War. While some Friends entertained pro-British sympathies and opposed the use of force against the mother country, the majority remained neutral, in strict observance of the Peace Testimony, and re­gardless of their political pref­erences. On the other hand, there were those Quakers who willingly affirmed allegiance to the revolutionary cause when Pennsylvania’s legislature in 1777 demanded such an action as the price of full citizenship. Others actively supported the American effort by paying taxes, helping to collect revenues to finance the war and serving on committees for defense. There were still oth­ers who joined the Continental Army as a sign of their dedica­tion to political freedom. These patriotic Friends inevita­bly bore the consequences for their actions as 1,276 members were disowned from the Soci­ety of Friends: 758 for military deviations, 239 for paying taxes and fines, 125 for sub­scribing loyalty tests, 69 for assisting the war effort, 32 for accepting public office and 42 for miscellaneous deviations, inducting watching military drills and celebrating indepen­dence. Among these were many Free Quakers.

Little research has been done on the Free Quakers, but existing interpretations ques­tion the genuineness of the group’s commitment to Quaker values. While some historians maintain that the Free Quaker “attachment to the general principles of the Society was sincere as they did not care to be unchurched and they wanted the simple un­clerical worship of Friends,” others identify the Free Quak­ers as “nominal Friends” who had “little interest in the main­tenance of the Society’s testi­monies.” An examination of the Free Quaker leadership, though, reveals that its most politically and religiously influential members believed their participation in the American Revolution to be consistent with early Quaker values and they sought to recapture the spirit of that earlier movement in their establishment of a Free Quaker body.

Instrumental in the found­ing of the Free Quaker Meet­ing were Samuel Wetherill, Elizabeth Claypoole, Chris­topher Marshall and Timothy Matlack. All four were known for their rebelliousness and for their active support of the revolutionary movement in Philadelphia. However, only Wetherill’s disownment can be traced to his involvement in the cause. Although his com­patriots were also engaged in rebel activities, they had been disowned by the Society of Friends prior to the outbreak of hostilities with Great Britain.

Samuel Wetherill, a re­corded minister from the Fourth Street Monthly Meet­ing, descended from a long line of Quaker dissenters. His ancestors moved to Burlington, New Jersey, in 1681 after refusing “to refrain from attending religious meetings in Yorkshire.” John Price Wetherill inherited this rebel­lious spirit. As a Philadelphia weaver, and one of the man­agers of the United Company of Pennsylvania Manufactur­ers, he supported the non­importation agreement in 1765 in order to defeat the Stamp Act. When the Revolutionary War erupted, the Quaker min­ister’s textile factory furnished the Continental Army with cloth for uniforms. Later, in 1779, Wetherill affirmed alle­giance to Pennsylvania, thereby renouncing any loyalty to Great Britain. As a result, he was disowned by the Society for “deviating from the ancient testimony and peace­able principles by manifesting himself a party in the public commotions prevailing.”

Wetherill’s disownment was especially felt by the Fourth Street Meeting as he was “well respected among the member­ship.” In fact, fellow Quaker Anthony Benezet attempted to save Wetherill from disown­ment by trying to convince him of his wrong-doing. Bene­zet hoped that the matter “would be easier to settle by a tacit acknowledgement of Wetherill’s mistake:’ However, the plan failed and the minis­ter went on to initiate the Free Quaker movement, serving as its recording clerk.

The disownments of Clay­poole, Marshall and Matlack were much less reputable than that of Wetherill’s. Elizabeth Claypoole, the legendary flagmaker, was disowned in 1774 “for marrying a person of another religious persuasion:’ The fact that she eloped with this, her first husband John Ross, was not only intolerable for Quakers but was considered immoral in the Protestant-­dominated society of Philadelphia. The Quaker seamstress lost her first and her second husband, John Ashburn (also a non-Friend), in the Revolutionary War. At the time she joined the Free Quakers, Elizabeth was mar­ried to an Episcopalian, John Claypoole, a lieutenant in the Pennsylvania militia. It would appear that this patriotic Friend had little regretted her separation from the Society of Friends, but was personally motivated to further the Amer­ican war effort. Not only did Betsy Ross furnish the Conti­nental Army with ammunition and uniforms, turning her house into a factory for that purpose, but she also provided the high command with intelli­gence reports on the British Army which occupied the City of Philadelphia during the winter of 1777-1778.

Christopher Marshall and Timothy Matlack, the most dissident of the Free Quakers, belonged to the radical wing of Philadelphia’s revolutionary movement. Strongly opposed to the conservative leadership of John Dickinson and the Pennsylvania Assembly, the radical Whigs “resolved to replace the Assembly, includ­ing the constitution of the province – the whole regime­ – with a new, more liberal sys­tem.” Both men commanded the political influence to achieve these goals. While they both served on the Coun­cil of Public Safety, Matlack held posts, at various times, as the clerk of the Continental Congress and as Secretary of the Supreme Executive Coun­cil of Pennsylvania, a body which assumed the executive functions of the state after the adoption of Pennsylvania’s new constitution of 1776.

Although Marshall and Matlack maintained highly responsible offices, their ethi­cal behavior was suspect. Marshall, who has been called a “profoundly religious indi­vidual;’ was disowned by the Society in 1751 for “associating with men suspected of engag­ing in counterfeiting and the passing of false currency.” If this allegation was correct it would be easy to understand how Marshall was able to retire from his apothecary business a wealthy man by the time of the American Revolu­tion. Matlack’s conduct was even more infamous. Dis­owned by the Society of Friends in 1765 for “failing to pay the debts” incurred in his hardware business and for “frequenting the wrong kind of company,” this Free Quak­er’s greatest claim to notoriety before the war was his insatia­ble penchant for gambling, horse-racing and the lower class sport of cock-fighting. His hedonistic attitudes, com­bined with his Whiggish poli­tics, frequently earned him the wrath of the wealthier class. Jn fact, Matlack’s tendency to offer his unsolicited political opinions resulted in a public fist fight in 1781, when he attempted to heckle one of the most affluent Philadelphians and a fierce opponent of the radicals, Whitehead Hum­phreys. The vengeful Hum­phreys, who received the worst end of the fight, wrote and distributed a poetic broad­side which reflected some of the upper class contempt for Matlack.

“Altho’ dear Tim you’ve rose so great,
From trimming cocks to trim the state;
Yet to a brother, lend an ear,
A moment – tho’ in humble sphere …
Did you forget in days of yore
When you, like Price, was wretched poor?
But all at once you’ve raised so high,
Quakers can’t safely pass you by!

Essentially, the leaders of the Free Quaker movement would appear to be uncon­cerned with the religious disci­pline of the Society. Their compliance in the war effort may be construed as simply another offense in an estab­lished pattern of deviant be­havior, with Wetherill’s case the exception. However, it would be misleading to dis­miss these dissident Friends as irresponsible in their practice of Quakerism. In fact, the Free Quaker leaders could not only justify their behavior as con­sistent with the tenets of Quakerism, but believed their interpretation to be based on the spirit of the Early Friends.

For the Free Quakers, the practice of disownment itself contradicted the fundamental values of Quakerism. Samuel Wetherill maintained that “disowning necessarily implies exclusion from Heaven” and, according to “the ancient prin­ciples laid down by Robert Barclay,” an early Quaker theo­logian, man is “accountable to the Lord only.” The Free Quak­ers believed their separation was “forced upon (them) by the pride and folly of Meetings attempting to abridge the rights of conscience.” There­fore, the discipline of the Free Quaker Meeting eliminated “all cause for disownment,” rather if a Friend erred, the Meeting “must labor to restore him.”

Involvement in civil and military matters was viewed as moral obligation by the Free Quakers. Upon hearing of his disownment from the Society of Friends, Wetherill ex­claimed: “We Friends should be as watchman on the wall as there is something due from us to the cause of indepen­dence as well as to the Lord.” Matlack, who served in the Continental Army at the battle of Princeton, agreed, viewing all governments as “essentially a defensive war for the protec­tion of public peace,” and when threatened by domestic treason or foreign invasion, “it then becomes the plain duty of every man to join in the public defense by all means possible.” If war was the consequence, participation “in such in­stances is not merely justifiable but right and proper.” Simi­larly, Christopher Marshall was firmly convinced of the righteousness of his ethical position as a participant in the revolutionary movement. His confidence was reinforced by the fact that “many of the stiff Quakers who maintained the testimony on peace were ashamed of their position since the engagement in New England,” such as the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. In other words, the Free Quakers had every intention of paying “regard to the princi­ples of Quaker forefathers and to their rules” – but only inso­far as “they applied to (their) own circumstances.” Participa­tion in the Revolutionary War, then, was a matter dictated by the leading of one’s own Inner Light or moral conscience. To ignore that leading, as the Society was doing with its Testimony on Peace, was to ignore the fundamental doc­trine of Quakerism itself. Nat­urally, the Free Quakers encouraged freedom of con­science and action in their attempt to respect the leading of the Inner Light.

Basically, the aim of the Free Quaker movement was to revive the spirit of the Early Friends but to do so by adapt­ing that spirit to the changing circumstance of time. In this sense, the Free Quaker leader­ship was very devout in their profession of faith. They ac­knowledged their “depen­dence upon a Supreme Being and the duty of public worship owed to Him”; they admittedly had “no new doctrine to teach, nor any design of promoting a schism among Friends”; and they lamented the “loss of those advantages which arose from religious communion” with the larger Society of Friends, fearing a greater loss “to children and families.” Simply put, the Free Quakers viewed themselves as genuine Quakers.

Like the Early Friends, the Free Quakers demonstrated an evangelical spirit. Christopher Marshall, whose politics were strongly laced with the millen­nial spirit of the earlier move­ment, frequently accused the wealthy Philadelphia Quakers of “covetousness, grasping, worldliness, extreme pride, loftiness and luxury,” and believed that some were advo­cates of a British government that was “inspired by the Prince of Darkness.” Their intention, he claimed, was the “destruction of the liberties and freedom of this new world,” subjecting it to “papal power.” In their hope to con­vince others of these ideas – as well as to promote the righ­teousness of their movement and to increase their membership – Timothy Matlack and Samuel Wetherill made missionary efforts to New England, where they had hoped to achieve a fellowship with the like-minded separa­tist Friends of Dartmouth Monthly Meeting in Massa­chusetts. Not only was this attempt at proselytizing remi­niscent of the self­-righteousness of the Early Friends, but it was also con­ducted in the same biblical tone.

We are weak now having been scattered abroad and lived solitary from our kindred … yet we feel that fraternal affection toward you which causes Esau to weep on the neck of Jacob and Jacob to weep on the neck of Esau. We feel ourselves your brethren.

We cherish a hope that there may be found among you, young men, undismayed by the chariot of fire who may have caught hold on the mantle of Elijah and drawn down a double portion of the spirit of the Great prophet upon them … We hope that you will adopt the name Free Quakers so we might be outwardly one people in name and practice.

When the Philadelphia Yearly meeting criticized the Free Quakers for their evangel­izing, Samuel Wetherill re­minded that body of “the liberty which their forefathers took in going into the place of worship of other societies and speaking among them.” He accused the Society of Friends of hypocrisy, as it would have condoned the evangelism of Early Friends but refused to recognize “the duty of a per­son of another society to come and preach to Friends.” Rela­tions between the two bodies continued to deteriorate. Phila­delphia Yearly refused to per­mit the Free Quakers the use of a meetinghouse for worship or the right of burial on prop­erty under the care of the Society. Having made these appeals, with little success, Wetherill and the others began to gather for silent worship at his own residence. Finally, in 1782, Wetherill purchased a lot at Fifth and Mulberry (pres­ently Arch) streets for the construction of a Free Quaker meetinghouse. When com­pleted in 1783, a stone was placed high in the northern gable with an inscription which testifies not only to the Free Quakers’ pride in the new nation, which had been pro­claimed in 1776, but also to their uncertainty about the form of government actually existing at that time under the Articles of Confederation.

The first Meeting for Wor­ship was held in the Free Quaker meetinghouse on June 13, 1784, with two hundred attending. Thereafter, the usual attendance fluctuated between thirty and fifty. Al­though the Free Quaker move­ment attempt to broaden its fellowship with the dissident New England Friends failed, its leadership continued to improve the spiritual life of its Philadelphia-based member­ship. During the 1780s and 1790s, Elizabeth Claypoole and Timothy Matlack headed a committee which implemented a Bible study program among Free Quakers. These “weighty,” or more respected Friends, also began the prac­tice of reading the discipline of the Free Quaker Society each Sunday after Meeting for Wor­ship. These efforts were made out of a genuine interest to retain the spirit and structure of the earliest Friends meetings.

The significance of the Free Quaker movement, however, rests with the challenge it presented to the larger Society of Friends. This splinter group forced the Society to come to terms with their identity as a truly Quaker body. By taking the fundamental doctrine of the Early Friends – the Inner Light – and pitting it against a secondary testimony on peace, the Free Quakers illustrated the blatant contradiction of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in an attempt to elevate pacifism over personal experience, the very basis upon which George Fox had founded the Quaker religion.

The Society of Free Quakers would survive until 1834 when declining membership compel­led the group to disband as a religious body. However, the organization was continued, by the descendants of the original members, as a philan­thropic committee to distribute funds that had been left to the Meeting over the years. This philanthropic organization still exists today, headed by Reeves Wetherill, the great-great-great grandson of the founder Sa­muel Wetherill. The organiza­tion’s work, as well as its meetinghouse, which still stands on Independence Mall, serves as silent testimony to the Quaker contribution to the American Revolution.


For Further Reading

Frost, J. William. The Quaker Family in Colonial America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Jones, Rufus. The Quakers in the American Colonies. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1911.

Marietta, Jack D. The Reforma­tion of American Quakerism, 1748-1783. Philadelphia: Univer­sity of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.

Mekeel, Arthur J. The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution. Washington, D.C. : University Press of America, 1979.

Moore, John M., ed. Friends in the Delaware Valley. Haverford, Pa.: Friends Historical Associa­tion, 1981.

Wetherill, Charles. History of the Religious Society of Friends Called by Some the Free Quakers. Philadelphia: N.P., 1894.


William C. Kashatus III, Philadel­phia, is a regular contributor to this magazine; his most recent article, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land,” ap­peared in the winter 1990 edition. A teacher at Episcopal Academy, he has been employed by the National Park Service at Indepen­dence National Historical Park and at Valley Forge National Historical Park. His articles have appeared in numerous publica­tions. He received his bachelor of arts degree from Earlham College and his master of arts degree from Brown University in 1984.