(Go here for Part 1)
George Keith was a highly educated Scottish schoolmaster…
…who left the Presbyterians for the Quakers in the 1660s. He endured the persecution being laid on the Quakers at the time, but the persecution didn’t stop him from taking part in debates with his former Presbyterian coreligionists and going on a European mission trip in the 1670s with other big-shot Quakers: George Fox, William Penn, and Robert Barclay (fellow Scot and author of Quaker apologetics). It was Barclay who helped get Keith a job in North America, surveying the boundary line between the then-colonies of West Jersey and East Jersey.
Around 1689 Keith went to the Quaker-run colony of Pennsylvania (named after William Penn’s father, Admiral William Penn). Keith served for a year as headmaster of a Quaker school. Educator by vocation and educator by nature, Keith thought that both younger and older Quakers in the colony were in need of religious instruction. Too many Quakers seemed ignorant of the basics of the Christian faith, relying on inspiration and vague spiritual ideas, and sometimes lapsing into heresy. Keith wrote a catechism to help get Quakers up to speed.
Keith also waded into polemics with members of the Quaker establishment. Rufus Jones, Quaker historian wrote: “It was quite as much the spirit as the doctrine of George Keith to which the Friends objected. He loved controversy, and in the days when he was in favour used the severe language of his time against the opponents of Quakerism.” In other words, Keith was much like other Quakers in that period, who were accustomed to using strong language against their adversaries within and without the Quaker movement.
For example, one of George Fox’s early pamphlets was called The vials of the wrath of God: poured forth upon the seat of the man of sin, and upon all professors of the world, who denieth the light of Christ which he hath enlightned every one withal, and walk contrary to it, with it they are condemned: and a warning from the Lord to all who are walking headlong to destruction in the lusts of the flesh, and deceits of the world, that they may repent and turn to the Lord, lest the overflowing scourge sweep them all into the pit.
And Jones himself notes the vituperative tone Keith’s opponents took.
Much of the impassioned debate was over theological points which we need not consider now. But part of Keith’s beef was with the Quaker elite in Pennsylvania, such as deputy governor Thomas Lloyd (Penn was in England), who ran the colony as well as serving as leading ministers in the Quaker meetings. These elites had grown lax, Keith thought, embracing wealth and worldly government responsibilities at the expense of Quakers’ pacifist principles.
A man named Babbitt, a smuggler turned pirate, stole a ship from the wharves in Philadelphia and began sailing around robbing other ships in that port city.
The magistrates, who were leading Quakers, sent a party of armed men to deal with Babbit. Apparently they chased Babbit and his men off their stolen ship. None of the pirates were killed, but apparently some were wounded. A Baptist preacher, John Holmes, wrote a satirical poem about this seeming violation of Quaker peace principles – a charge to which of course any Quaker government official was open.
The Babbitt affair soon became central to the clash between Keith and his followers, on the one hand, and the Quaker establishment, on the other. The Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting was split between a majority which supported the Quaker governing establishment, and a minority which backed Keith and his “Christian Quakers.” Keith’s supporters often had pre-existing grievances about the domineering behavior of the leading Quakers in the colony, seeing them as a bunch of rich SOBs who took power into their own hands without regard for Quaker principles. The bitter dispute between the Quaker establishment and the Keithians culminated in the establishment of rival Meetings. At one point during an argument, each group took axes to the galleries from where the other side wanted to sit.
Twenty-eight prominent Quaker leaders in the religious and political life of the colony wrote a condemnation of Keith, calling him divisive and turbulent. Keith and some of his supporters published a pamphlet in refutation called An Appeal from the Twenty Eight Judges to the Spirit of Truth and had it printed by one of Keith’s supporters, William Bradford, who happened to be the colony’s only printer and a Keith supporter. Bradford had lost his printing contract with the mainstream Quakers for supporting Keith, and though he offered, in the spirit of fairness, to print the anti-Keithians’ pamphlets, they didn’t take Bradford up on it.
While much of An Appeal went over theological issues unconnected to the Pennsylvania government, there was also a challenge to the Quaker establishment’s behavior in the Babbitt affair, posed in the form of a rhetorical question:
9. Whether the said 28 Persons had not done much better to have passed Judgment against som of their Brethren at Philadelphia (some of themselves being guilty) for countenancing & allowing some call’d Quakers, and owning them in so doing, to hire men to fight (& giving them a Commission so to do, signed by 3 Justices of the Peace, one whereof being a Preacher among them) as accordingly they did, and recover’d a Sloop, & took some Privateers by Force of Arms?
…not to mention that Quaker government officials had set a demoralizing example by giving arms to allied Indians and compromising the pacifist testimony which other Quakers were persecuted for upholding. Plus, Quaker judges administered justice, which by definition involved using violence against alleged offenders.
To Keith and his supporters, Quakers participating in violence was like…
In short, Keith didn’t believe Quakers should be government officials, since a government official’s duties included the use of force, which was contrary to the best Quaker principles. What made the mainstream Quaker establishment particularly sensitive on this point was that this sort of logic would drive Quaker officials out of office, leaving them to be replaced by non-Quaker officials in their own colony. It was a politically turbulent era (see below), and the danger of the Quakers losing control of Pennsylvania was a real source of concern. A renegade Quaker saying that Quaker magistrates had a duty to resign would not help matters.
The Pennsylvania establishment had Bradford arrested and his printing press seized, and revoked the tailor’s and victualer’s licenses of Bradford’s codefendant, one McComb, a businessman who had helped distribute the pamphlet.
Keith and some other associates were also charged, while a government proclamation denounced the “sedition” of the Keithians.
The prosecution portrayed Keith and the others as disturbers of the government because they had criticized Quaker officeholders. Keith and his codefendants, on the other hand, said that they had said nothing against the government qua government, but had denounced Quaker officials as part of a religious dispute within Quakerism (The non-Quaker officials in the government seemed to agree, since they didn’t sign on to the prosecution). The distinction was important because the right to criticize the government was not as well developed in Pennsylvania as the right to engage in religious controversy. As far as the latter was concerned, Pennsylvania had been founded based on religious-freedom principles, so the prosecution insisted that of course it wasn’t prosecuting Keith and the others for alleged theological error – that was what the Quakers’ persecutors did, and of course the Quaker establishment weren’t persecutors. They were simply clamping down on political dissent and insults to government officials.
Keith and a codefendant were convicted and fined five pounds each. Bradford had a hung jury and wasn’t retried, perhaps because Bradford hightailed it out of Pennsylvania, becoming the public printer in the colony of New York.
Keith publicized his trial in England, accusing the Quaker establishment in Pennsylvania of imitating the theocrats of Massachusetts and practicing religious persecution. Soon Keith went to England in person to set up headquarters for his “schismatic” brand of Quakerism.
Meanwhile, Keith and other Christian Quaker leaders denounced African slavery – which was itself a nasty kind of piracy where kidnapped human beings were transported by ship to the New World: “as we are not to buy stollen Goods…no more are we to buy stollen Slaves; neither should such as have them keep them and their Posterity in perpetual Bondage and Slavery, as is usually done, to the great scandal of the Christian Profession.”
The Keithites were not the first Quakers to issue such a protest against slavery – that honor belonged to some German Quakers in Germantown, PA. The Germantown antislavery memorial of 1688 was bureaucratically sidelined by English-speaking Quaker authorities.
(The Holy Office (Inquisition) beat the Germantown Friends by two years, issuing a denunciation of the African slave trade in 1686. Illustrating the limits of the Inquisition’s power, the decree was pretty much ignored.)
Quakers were numerous in the 17th-century Caribbean, especially in Barbados and Jamaica, and they defied Barbadian ordinances by having their slaves attend worship meetings with them. This, along with refusal of militia service and tithes, led to persecution of the Caribbean Quakers, but they did not challenge the underlying legitimacy of slavery itself. Quakerism would wait until the mid-18th century before disavowing slavery and forbidding Quakers from owning slaves.
Meanwhile, what was William Penn doing about the Keithian crisis in his colony? Actually, it appeared that Pennsylvania might not be Penn’s colony any longer.
You see, back in England, Ireland and Scotland there’d been a spot of bother. King James II, the guy who’d given Penn his colony,
had been driven out of England in 1688
and replaced by William of Orange and his wife, James’ daughter Mary.
(William of Orange was also the son of James’ sister. James’s second wife, Mary of Modena, was close in age to James’ daughter Mary, and back when the two Marys were teenagers James had told his daughter that she and her new stepmother would make great “playfellow[s].”)
But Penn probably wasn’t brooding over inbreeding and kinky stuff in the royal houses of Europe. While others celebrated the “Glorious Revolution,” Penn was on the lam, facing treason prosecutions in England and Ireland. Treason in this case meant adhering to the losing side of the Revolution – Penn had not only gotten a province from James, he had supported some of that monarch’s controversial policies, leading to rumors that Penn was a secret Jesuit abetting the schemes of the Catholic James.
Penn kept in touch with James after the latter’s overthrow despite the fact that James was living in exile in France, with which England was now at war. To avoid arrest, Penn hid out in various places in England, surfacing briefly to attend the funeral of George Fox, founder of Quakerism, and surfacing again to give a private interview to a government official, explaining how he was totally innocent. In 1692, the new government in England took Penn’s province away from him. All this was why Penn hadn’t been able to step in and deal with the whole schism/persecution situation in Pennsylvania.
Penn was no Vicar of Bray – he didn’t pretend that he was thrilled at the change of government. But he managed to persuade the new government that he had accepted the new political situation and wasn’t conspiring with ex-King James. Or at least the government pretended to believe Penn’s story. By 1694 the treason charges had been dropped and Penn had gotten Pennsylvania back.
But now, with George Keith in England and making trouble, Quakerism itself was in danger.
As head of his own branch of Quakerism, Keith denouncing Penn for his supposed Jacobite (pro-James) sympathies. Later in the 1690s, Keith left Quakerism altogether and joined the Church of England, becoming an Anglican clergyman who focused his energy on opposing the Quakers. Apparently, it wasn’t a dealbreaker for Keith that the Anglicans were part of the proslavery establishment in the English Empire. The Keithian Quakers either drifted back into the Quaker mainstream or joined other religions.
As a newly-minted Anglican, Keith joined the high-church party, which was frustrated at the wishy-washy Anglicanism promoted by King William. Keith and the high church crowd turned their attention to cracking down on radical religious dissent. The new government had extended a limited degree of toleration to non-Anglican Protestants so long as they accepted certain basic doctrines, particularly the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. But religious troublemakers known as Socinians (Unitarians) and Deists were beginning to come out of the closet, denying basic Christian beliefs and prompting calls for their repression. Parliament would respond in 1698 with a new Blasphemy Act targeting anti-Trinitarians.
Keith and other anti-Quaker activists tried to paint the Quakers as blasphemous enemies of Trinitarianism and other basic Christian doctrines, petitioning for Quakers to be denied their rights under the Revolutionary settlement. Penn and other Quaker leaders fought off these attacks, and in fact managed to get some relief from some (not all) of the repressive laws which oppressed their coreligionists. It was helpful that the Quakers reaffirmed their loyalty by condemning a Jacobite assassination plot against William.
The actions of the pirate Babbitt had achieved quite a ripple effect throughout the Quaker world.
William C. Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism. London: MacMillan and Company, 1919.
Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh, No Peace Beyond the Line: The English in the Caribbean 1624-1690. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Douglas R. Burgess, Jr., The Politics of Piracy: Crime and Civil Disobedience in Colonial America. ForeEdge, 2014.
Jon Butler, “Into Pennsylvania’s Spiritual Abyss: The Rise and Fall of the Later Keithians, 1693-1703,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 101, No. 2 (Apr., 1977), pp. 151-170.
J. William Frost (ed.), The Keithian Controversy in Early Pennsylvania. Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1980.
Mary K. Geiter, “Affirmation, Assassination, and Association: The Quakers, Parliament and the Court in 1696,” Parliamentary History, Vol. 16, pt. 3 (1997), pp. 277-288.
__________, “William Penn and Jacobitism: A Smoking Gun?” Historical Research, vol. 73, no. 181 (June 2000), pp. 213-18.
David E. W. Holden, Friends Divided: Conflict and Division in the Society of Friends. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1988.
“Introducing: George Keith’s An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Keeping of Negroes (New York, 1693),” https://roses.communicatingbydesign.com/history/ePubs/Keith-Exhortation_2Wintro.html
Rufus M. Jones, The Quakers in the American Colonies. London: MacMillan and Company, 1911.
Ethyn Williams Kirby, George Keith. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1942.
_______________, “The Quakers’ Efforts to Secure Civil and Religious Liberty, 1660-96,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Dec., 1935), pp. 401-421.
Leonard Levy, Blasphemy: Verbal Offenses Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie. New York: Knopf, 1993.
David Manning, “Accusations of Blasphemy in English anti-Quaker Polemic, 1660-1701,” Quaker Studies 14/1 (2009), pp. 27-56.
John A. Moretta, William Penn and the Quaker Legacy. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Andrew R. Murphy, Liberty, Conscience and Toleration: The Political Thought of William Penn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Kenneth Andrew Shelton, “The way cast up: the Keithian schism in an English Enlightenment context.” PhD. Dissertation, Boston College, 2009. Online at https://dlib.bc.edu/islandora/object/bc-ir:101194/datastream/PDF/view
C. B. Vulliamy, William Penn. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.
Maureen Waller, Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father’s Crown. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.
David L. Wykes, “The Norfolk Controversy: Quakers, Parliament and the Church of England in the 1690s,Parliamentary History 24(1) (2005), 27-40.”