When we left Part 1, Samuel Forrer had written a letter to his beloved Sarah’s father Horton Howard, asking permission to marry her and hoping that, if he objected, it would be “only on the ground that I am not a member of your society.” And by “society,” he meant the Society of Friends, or Quakers. This piqued my interest, so I decided to do a bit of searching into the marrying customs of Quakers.
The most useful resource that I found on the subject was The Quaker Family in Colonial America: A Portrait of the Society of Friends by J. William Frost (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973). Granted, I wasn’t interested in the colonial period, but the 1820s; however, Frost’s work was the most comprehensive scholarly book I could readily get my hands on—and after all, this was just an intellectual curiosity—and I figured that the colonial period would be close enough for general background on Quakers customs. I did a little investigating into Frost himself, finding that he was a well-credentialed Quaker scholar and historian, and was later a professor at Swarthmore College, a Quaker college in Pennsylvania (which incidentally has his Papers).
Frost’s book was very helpful, in particular Chapter 8 “Choosing a Wife.” I learned the following helpful bits of information from it:
- “The Quakers, who had no sacraments, agreed to register the event of a marriage ceremony with the government, but they insisted that since God alone could join people in holy wedlock the meeting should participate in all formalities” (p. 150). (The “meeting,” by the way, is the basic organizational unit of Quakers, like a congregation.) Quakers married each other; they were not married “by” someone. This was part of the objection to marrying outside of the Society “since a marriage involving a non-Friend entailed being wed by a cleric” (p. 158).
- “Parents had the right to consent to the marriage of a son or daughter no matter what their ages… If…the parents allowed or did not actively oppose a marriage out of unity, Friends might discipline them and the newlyweds” (p. 155). A “marriage out of unity” was a marriage someone who was not a Quaker.
- “The records of monthly meetings in America illustrate the great amount of time devoted to the problem of improper marriage. Throughout the colonial period marriage out of unity was the most frequent offense for which Quakers were disowned” (p. 159). Furthermore, Frost further states that by 1765, about 75% of Quaker marriages were “exogamous” (p. 159). From the sound of it, “marrying out” was rather common, at least in the colonial era. And I’m guessing that trend didn’t suddenly reverse itself as time went on.
- Anyone who was disowned for an offense, including “marriage out of unity” or “marriage contrary to discipline” (being married by a cleric), “who appeared to be sorry and was willing to confess his sin could in time gain readmission. … The admission of guilt was not…for marrying a particular person but for violating a tenet of the Society” (p. 160).
- And finally: “While there were no direct challenges to the endogamous pattern of marriage in meetings, both the frequency of marriage out of unity and the occasional comments show that some Quakers questioned this tenet” (p. 160).
A search for members of the Horton Howard family in the Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy by W. W. Hinshaw (Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1936+) yielded some interesting results and examples of the above. With a little help from this Glossary of Quaker Terms on Ancestry/RootsWeb, I was better able to understand the meanings of the abbreviations used in Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia.
I found the following entry in Hinshaw, Volume 4, page 1166, from the records of the Alum Creek Monthly Meeting:
- HOWARD. 1827, 5, 3 [May 3, 1827]. Sarah Forrer (form Howard) con mcd.
What did that mean? I already knew that Sarah Howard did marry Samuel Forrer on February 8, 1826. The Glossary of Quaker Terms helped me understand. It meant that Sarah (Howard) Forrer had “condemned” her own misbehavior, that misbehavior being “marriage contrary to discipline.” (They were married by a reverend.) [Incidentally, Sarah’s sister Mary was “disowned” the following year later for the same offense, a record on the same page indicated.] I found it a little strange that there was no mention of a “marriage out of unity” since Samuel Forrer himself stated that he was not a member of the Society of Friends. Perhaps he joined? However, Samuel Forrer is mentioned nowhere in Hinshaw’s compendium. Interesting.
Also interesting and a bit mysterious was the entry just below Mary (Howard) Little’s disownment:
- HOWARD. 1829, 1, 1 [January 1, 1829]. Horton &w, Hannah, &dt, Ann, dis jH.
In 1829, Horton and the rest of his family were disowned by the Alum Creek Monthly Meeting, for the apparent sin of “jH,” whatever that meant. I did have a hunch what “jH” might mean, based on the time frame and some other things I had read about Quakers, and as it turned out, I was right. Although Hinshaw failed to define the abbreviation “jH” in the front of Volume 4, a later supplement (online here) verified the answer: “joined Hicksites.”
More to come in Part 3.
The material discussed here is from the Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection (MS-018), which can be found at the Dayton Metro Library, Main Library, Local History Room, 215 E. Third St., Dayton, OH 45402. For more information on the collection, contact the library, or feel free to leave a comment on this blog.