UB Archivist Co-Authors First History of State's Quakers

Release Date: July 17, 1995 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Librarians, collectors and preservers of the written word since Aristotle have their own obsessions, even as they serve ours -- papyrus scrolls, 18th-century pleasure parks, penny dreadfuls. The list is endless.

Christopher Densmore of Getzville, associate archivist at the University at Buffalo, has a principle research interest, too. It is the early history of New York's Quakers, who, though nominal in number, have had enormous influence on American life and polity.

Syracuse University Press recently published "Quaker Crosscurrents," a book by Densmore and several other historians and archivists that offers the first comprehensive history of the Quaker community in New York State. Densmore, who has published widely on the subject, wrote and edited three of the book's 17 chapters and contributed to seven others.

The authors made extensive use of the archives of New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, which celebrates its 300th anniversary next year. The "meeting" is the Quaker form of spiritual contemplation and religious worship, as well as the means of conducting congregational business.

New York Yearly Meeting, formalized in 1697, is an association of many local Quaker meetings in New York State, northern New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont. In the 19th century, New York Meeting also included meetings in Ontario and Michigan and a few in the very northern part of Pennsylvania and in Quebec.

The book also reflects contemporaneous periodicals, journals, letters and manuscripts, oral-history interviews with modern Quakers and the recollections of participants, and includes maps of Quaker settlements, photos of Quaker architecture and many of the group's leading figures.

By focusing on the Quakers of the New York region, the book illuminates American Quaker life and thought from its first appearance in the 1650s in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands to the present.

It describes aspects of Quaker architecture, philanthropy and political and religious views, and documents the group's ideas regarding a wide range of subjects from the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans to the role of women in public and religious life -- attitudes that were peculiar to very few in the early days of the nation.

The New York Friends' involvement in the broader society is further demonstrated by their three centuries of work as abolitionists and educational reformers; as advocates for troubled children, the insane and the indigent, and as civil-rights and peace activists.

Documented are the scores of Quaker-founded schools, hospitals and asylums for the mentally ill and homeless in the state, and their "invention" of arbitration and other methods of non-violent conflict resolution. The Quaker-originated Alternatives to Violence Program, for instance, is now used in prisons and schools used throughout the U.S. and Canada. These activities also have mobilized many non-Quakers and exemplify the interaction between Quaker conscience and the wider world.

The book also examines Quaker architecture, whose deliberately plain facades and "meeting-house" style marry design to function as a metaphor for the Quaker approach to community, dress and spiritual life.

Since Quakerism focuses on "inward light" (the seed of God the Quakers believe is within each person) and spiritual communion, the meeting houses have no steeples, pulpits or outward sacraments. Meetings might be entirely silent, although ministry can and does come from anyone in the congregation.

Quaker churches, which co-exist with the meeting houses, on the other hand, reflect the influence of traditional Protestant practice and more closely resemble the Protestant congregation in ritual and structure.

The authors also explore how various currents in American religious thought have influenced Quaker belief and practice. They discuss the division that developed in the early 19th century between Orthodox and Hicksite Quakers and the role it played in their religious experience. They also examine how the evangelical and holiness movements affected Quakers and indicate that Quakers, like other Americans, have faced choices between modernism and fundamentalism.

Densmore said that in most of his published work, he's tried to bring unknown or underutilized primary source material to the attention of the scholarly community and this book is consistent with that goal.

Although there were reams of fascinating primary sources about the state's Quakers -- letters, journals, photos, accounts of meetings -- until now there were few secondary sources on New York Quakerism to which a researcher could refer and no books on the history of New York Yearly Meeting.

Densmore, an honors history graduate of Oberlin College, holds a master's degree in history from the University of Wisconsin. An archivist at UB since 1974, he received the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Librarianship in 1990.

He has contributed to many books, including the upcoming "American National Biography" from Oxford University Press. Densmore is the author of several articles on the Quakers of New York State and Canada in such refereed journals as Quaker History, Midwestern Archivist, New York History, New York Folklore, Man in the Northeast and the Journal of Long Island History.

He has presented papers and conducted archival workshops throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Ontario, and is very active in the Society of American Archivists, as well as in local and regional professional groups.

In addition to Densmore, the principal authors and editors of "Quaker Crosscurrents" are Hugh Barbour, professor emeritus of Quaker History at Earlham College and the author of several books and numerous articles on American Quakers; Elizabeth H. Moger, keeper of the records at the Haviland Records Room, Archives of the New York Yearly Meeting; Alson D. Van Wagner of New York Yearly Meeting, and Arthur J. Worrall of the Department of History at Colorado State University.

Contributing authors and editors include Mary Finn of Buffalo Friends Meeting, Thomas D. Hamm of the Department of History at Earlham College, and Nancy A. Hewitt of the Department of History at Duke University.

-- One of the first Protestant groups to recognize women as the spiritual equals of men, The Quakers brought their beliefs to the colonies by the mid-1600s. Their members contributed heavily to the country's first and continuing wave of political activism on behalf of women's rights. Of the five women who organized the groundbreaking Convention on the Rights of Women in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, four, including Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann M'Clintock and Jane Hunt, were, or had been, Quakers.

-- In 1964, UB philosophy professor Newton Garver, a Quaker, supported by New York Yearly Meeting, refused to sign the loyalty oath required by the state's Feinberg Law when UB became part of the State University of New York system. He claimed the oath would violate the principals of his religion. Along with other UB faculty, he filed a class action suit in this regard, which resulted in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared the law unconstitutional.

-- Quaker pacifism and anti-draft activity during America's wars has been well-known, but not universal. The Civil War and World War II, in particular, challenged Quakers to examine their pacifist tenants. While the Society of Friends remained pacifist, some individual Quakers joined the military in these and other conflicts.

-- During the Vietnam War, the Buffalo Quaker Meeting House on North Parade Street was the site of the city's very active draft counseling activities. Densmore noted the controversy that arose during that period when American Quakers, prohibited from sending medical supplies to North Vietnamese victims of American bombing, sent the materials to the Canadian Quaker Service Committee for distribution to both North and South Vietnamese war victims.

-- One of the book chapters contributed by Densmore records the long-term involvement of New York Quakers in the anti-slavery movement. He noted that slave-owning by members of the New York Yearly Meeting ended around the time of the American Revolution and that 12 of the 18 founders of the influential New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves were Quakers. The Friends were also among the first conductors on the Underground Railroad in New York State.

-- Quaker architecture, with its deliberately plain facade and "meeting-house" style (as opposed to that of the traditional Protestant church), is one that marries form to function to describe the Quaker approach to community and spiritual life. Meeting houses have no steeples or pulpits, and the Friends have no outward sacraments. Quakerism focuses on spiritual communion and the "inward light," the seed of God they believe to be within each person. The meeting houses are designed to physically suggest their practice and the belief that the ministry can come from anywhere in the congregation and is not the sole purview of the ministers.

The Orchard Park Meeting House celebrates its 175th anniversary this year.

The North Collins Meeting House on Route 62 was the site of an 1857 debate among reformers about the ethical basis of woman's rights. Among the debaters were Susan B. Anthony of Rochester and William Wells Brown, the first major African American novelist and a former fugitive slave who took his name from a Quaker agent of the Underground Railroad. Reformer/spiritualists Andrew Jackson Davis and Mary Fenn Davis were also among the debaters.

-- Among other of the state's historically important extant Quaker meeting houses is the Nine Partners Meeting House and boarding school in Dutchess County. Here, the pioneering American reformers John Mott and Lucretia Coffin Mott met and taught before embarking on their careers as two of the 19th centuries most consistently effective reformers in the fields of women's rights and civil rights.

-- Besides the well-known Quaker Vietnam War projects, women's rights activities and programs for nonviolent conflict resolution, some of the more recent and notorious New York Quaker contributions to American polity include three decades of peace testimony and nuclear protests that have taken the form of on-site demonstrations, vigils in major American cities, opposition to Pacific atoll testing, involvement with UN programs, sanctuary programs for Latin American refugees; anti-apartheid programs in South Africa, and much activity on behalf of human rights and civil rights here and abroad.

Media Contact Information

Patricia Donovan has retired from University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, call 716-645-6969 or visit our list of current university media contacts. Sorry for the inconvenience.