A few months ago, we received a small collection of letters from a woman named Barbara Cook. The letters had been found together in the Morris house in Adrmore. Two of the letters were very old and are now among the oldest documents at the Historical Society of Montgomery County.
They both date to 1683. One was written by Phineas Pemberton to Phoebe Pemberton and the other was from Ralph Pemberton to Phoebe Pemberton. I used the book Colonial Families of Philadelphia by John W. Jordan to learn more about the family.
Ralph and Phineas were father and son, and they came to North America together, along with Phineas’ wife Phoebe (nee Harrison). In their native Lancashire, Jordan tells us, the Pemberton’s were a prominent family in the parish of Wigan.
Ralph's letter to Phoebe
The third letter was a letter written to Phineas and Phoebe’s grandson, James Pemberton, author of a booklet defending pacificism called "An Apology for the People called Quakers." James lived in Philadelphia and was an organizer and later president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. James and his older brother, Israel Pemberton, Jr. were opposed to armed confrontation with the British. In 1777, both were banished to Virginia. His third wife, also named Phoebe, was left to take care of their property “The Plantation” (The land later became the US Naval Asylum in Philadelphia).
John Fothergill by Gilbert Stuart, author of the letter?
The letter in our collection was written to James during the revolution by John Fothergill of London. There was a prominent Quaker named John Fothergill in London at the time. He was a physician and botanist, but there is no saying if it is the same man. In the letter, he exhorted James to keep his mind on what really mattered:
"Your part is a clear one. Be quiet, mind your own proper business. If your kingdom is not of this world, mind that only which we look for, and are taught by the highest authority to seek."
Later he repeats the same idea:
"Be quiet, and mind your own business, promote every good work – show yourselves subject to that invisible overruling providence…"
James and Israel stayed in Virginia for eight months before returning to Philadelphia.
The final item donated with the letters was an account of Morris family during the American Revolution. The account is undated, but probably from the nineteenth century. A little more digging through Jordan, and I found that James’ daughter with his second wife (Sarah), Mary Smith Pemberton married Anthony Morris. The Morrises were also Quakers, but during the Revolution several members fought aginst the British. So, through the connection of Mary and Anthony Morris, the papers came to be in Ardmore. They were apparently forgotten for many years, and we are very happy Ms. Cook saved them and brought them to us.
A headline from the Norristown Times-Herald.
Lately, one of our tireless volunteers, Dick Mardi, has been processing our church collections. Among the church bulletins, anniversary booklets, and newspaper clippings, he came across a small green booklet called “The Plymouth Meeting Controversy.” I guessed it was some kind schism in the meeting house, but it was much more interesting. In 1954, McCarthyism came to Montgomery County.
First a little background. William Jeanes Memorial Library (now in Whitemarsh Township) was founded by Mrs. Mary Rich Jeanes Miller, who left $75,000 to Plymouth Monthly Meeting in her will for the founding of the library. She died in 1926. The library opened in a private home in 1933, and moved into its own building two years later. As time went on, the library committee (appointed by the Monthly Meeting) approached Plymouth and Whitemarsh Townships for support. Each township offered $500 annually, and Plymouth asked for and received two seats on the committee.
Now, in 1953, the librarian, Edith Sawyer, broke her hip and was unable to work for 3 months. So, the library board began to look for a replacement. They contacted the employment chairman was the Special Libraries Council of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and he suggested Mary Knowles who had just moved from Massachusetts to Wayne, Pa.
Mary Knowles in a photograph published by the Times-Herald on August 2, 1955.
In her first conversation with Lillian Tapley, chair of the library committee, Mary Knowles said that she had been fired by her previous employer, Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts, because she had invoked the Fifth Amendment while being questioned by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. As she explained to Morrill Memorial Library:
“This past week I appeared under subpoena before the Senate Sub-committee on Internal Security headed by Senator [William] Jenner in Washington, in both secret and open hearings. In both instances I answered only questions as to my name, address, and employment in the Library. Al other questions I declined under the privilege granted by the Fifth Amendment, which says: “that no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Lest this would seem not to apply, I would like to explain further. In the first place I have committed no crime… in the second place, the investigating committees no longer uphold the validity of the First Amendment, and recourse to that Amendment…could very easily lead to contempt of court citation and ensuing jail sentence. In the third place, if, under compulsion I testified concerning my religion and politics, but refused to answer questions about others, I would also be held in contempt of court…Fourth, if I refused to answer questions on moral or ethical grounds without invoking the Fifth Amendment, I would also be held in contempt of court and again face a jail sentence. Fifth, and last, I feel very strongly that these committees and their methods are highly unconstitutional; that they represent a deep threat not only to the strength of the United States, but also to the very form of government itself; that through such investigations lies indeed the path of the United States into totalitarianism and the police state.”
Why was Knowles questioned by the senate committee in the first place? She had worked at the Samuel Adams School in Boston, a school that was one of several operated by the American Communist Party.
The committee didn’t think Knowles’ past disqualified her for the position. They contacted her references and they all gave excellent reports. The committee hired her for a temporary, six month position. The two representatives from Plymouth Township were not at the meeting when the committee voted to hire her, but the booklet points out that they never voiced any opposition during that initial six month period.
Plymouth Meeting House in 1943.
At the time, loyalty oaths were a bit of a craze in America. Pennsylvania had a loyalty oath, and a Plymouth commissioner suggested Knowles take the oath, but she declined. She did sign a statement declaring her support of the United States, its founding documents, and stated that she had no connection to any left-wing groups since leaving the Samuel Adams School.
When Edith Sawyer’s hip healed, she returned to work briefly, but resigned in September of 1954. The committee looked around for a new librarian, but didn’t find one they liked as much as they had Mary Knowles. The booklet points out several times that attendance and circulation had increased when Mary Knowles took over. Since Knowles had not yet found another job, she was rehired.
This led to a standoff between the two representatives of Plymouth Township and the Monthly Meeting. The township demanded that Knowles had to sign the loyalty oath, and the Monthly Meeting decided that requiring the loyalty oath was counter to their Quaker beliefs.
Plymouth Township and its school board both withheld their annual contributions, and the local American Legion post and the Daughters of the American Revolution declared their opposition to Knowles’ employment without the oath. Plus, a new group, called Alerted Americans Group popped up to voice opposition to Knowles. According to “The Plymouth Meeting Controversy” the “group” was largely the effort of one person, Helen Payson Corson of Plymouth Meeting, Pa. A letter from the group read:
“Should we accept such a person of doubtful loyalty in a position of public trust and esteem when to do so requires us to repudiate the long, agonizing ordeal of a man like Herbert Philbrick? Should be thank God for dedicated patriots like him and vigorously support him in every way? Doesn’t he deserve our gratitude just as much as our men in uniform do? Let’s honor the F.B.I., not the F.A.U. (Fifth Amendment Users).”
Herbert Philbrick was an advertising executive who infiltrated the Communist Party in the 1940’s for the F. B. I.
Herbert Philbrick testifying about Communist recruitment in the United States.
The Monthly Meeting continued to support Knowles, stating “Should an accusation of association with the Communist Party eight years ago be disqualification for employment? We think it should not. Certainly, in a Christian and democratic nation, the individual has the right to be judged on the merits of his particular case.”
The following year, 1955, the Fund for the Republic, an organization interested in matters the concerning the Bill of Rights, awarded Plymouth Monthly Meeting $5000 for “courageous and effective defense of democratic principles.”
This more than offset what the library was losing from Plymouth Township, but it also brought even more attention to the case. Mary Knowles was again called before the Senate Internal Subcommittee. She again stated that she was not a Communist. At this hearing she did not invoke the Fifth Amendment “since any association that I had had with an organization on the Attorney General’s list was so far in the past, that I would no longer be privileged to claim the Fifth Amendment.” She still refused on answer questions about her association with both individuals and organizations. She was convicted of 58 counts of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a $500 fine and 120 days in jail. Her conviction was overturned in 1960.
In summer of 1956, a sub-committee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities opened hearings in Philadelphia. Lillian Tapley was subpoenaed along with the minutes of the Monthly Meeting. The Monthly Meeting refused to comply, citing the First Amendment, and the sub-committee backed off on the matter of the minutes. Tapley and several people opposed to the employment of Mary Knowles testified. Letters from members of the meeting, both supporting Knowles and in opposition to her, were also sent to the committee.
The booklet was written in 1957 and it summed up the controversy this way, “we have no black and white situation, rather gray, with sincere opinions expressed on both sides…Frequent silent periods have shown us that none of us is above censure or error, and have helped us to speak less hastily and less often.”
Mary Knowles continued to work for the William Jeanes Memorial Library until her retirement in 1979. Today, the library's technology fund is named in her honor.
Everyone in Pennsylvania knows that Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn. Penn was a member of a religious minority which called itself the Society of Friends, but was more commonly known as Quakers. When Penn founded his colony in 1681, he meant to create a haven for his fellow Friends where they could live out Quaker values in peace.
The Society of Friends was founded by George Fox in the early Seventeenth Century in England. As a young man he had become dissatisfied with the existing denominations and came to believe that all individuals had God within them, something he called the “Inner Light.” Fox became an itinerant preacher, encouraging others to find their Inner Light. He and his followers believed that all individuals were called to be ministers, and all people, men and women, slave and free, were equal. Friends lived simply, foregoing luxuries and committed themselves to non-violence.
Almost immediately, George Fox was at odds with the law (it was actually a judge who gave the group the nickname “Quakers”). The group refused to pay the tithe to the state church (the Church of England) and refused to take oaths. They also stood out in the dress and actions. Here’s a description of an early Quaker from a 1916 booklet called “The Quaker of the Future Time” by George Albalton:
“He dressed without ornament, used the language of common life to all, doffed the hat to no man, no matter how high his position, became scrupulously honest in worldly business, refused oaths, avoided military service, contributed money liberally to help Friends in need, and with his time, counsel and energy, sought to relieve human distress.”
Merion Monthly Meeting House in 1912
Reading this description, Quakers sound like a nice enough group. In fact, they were widely hated in England. And that’s why, William Penn, founder of our commonwealth, crossed the ocean to establish a place where Quakers could be free.
Many early settlers of Montgomery County were Quakers, who started meeting for worship in people’s homes before building early meeting houses in Plymouth, Abington, Gwynedd, and Merion. Those early Quakers did stand out from other settlers in how they spoke and how they dressed.
Quakers rejected ostentation in a very ostentatious time. Here is King Charles I by Van Dyck:
And here is his subject, George Fox:
Both these images and the one of William Penn at the beginning of the post are from Amelia M. Gummere’s book The Quaker: A Study in Costume.
Quakers did not wear wigs or lace or feathers in their hats. They wore plain wool and linen clothes in muted colors. The black, wide brimmed hat (think of the guy on your oatmeal) that characterized the male Quaker was never removed in the presence of his “superiors” because, to the Quaker, all people were equal. For the same reason, they did not use titles when addressing others.
In our modern times, men don’t wear hats and millionaires wear blue jeans, so these Quaker peculiarities don’t seem controversial to us. The Quaker “Plain Speech” no longer seems shocking either. If you ever read or watched Shakespeare, you’ve probably noticed that English used to have formal and informal forms of “you” as Spanish, French, and several other languages do. Quakers addressed everyone as “thou” instead of the more formal “ye.” Today, most Quakers speak like everyone else, but a modern person might wonder why this was ever considered a big deal.
But it was. In our collection at the Historical Society, we have an 1819 reprint of a letter originally written in 1710 by Henry Moore, a minister of the Church of England to William Penn. The letter is an excellent example of polite disagreement. He begins by praising Penn’s book No Cross, No Crown. The better part of the letter, which runs to 36 pages in printed booklet form, concerns the Quaker rejection of baptism and communion (the Lord’s Supper, as Moore calls it). In the last few pages, Moore addresses what he calls “Cap-honour and Titular respects.” He writes (I’ve retained his capitalization):
“If the apostles could comply with the Jews in some Mosiacal rites, that the coming of Christ had abrogated, that they may not give offence to the Jews,; how much more ought christians, for the avoiding of offence, comply with one another in such customs as no law, neither human nor divine has yet abrogated?”
Others were less respectful than Moore in their disagreements with Quakers. Even after the Toleration Act was passed in England in 1689, Quakers were widely disliked in England. The New World outside of Pennsylvania was not much kinder. Massachusetts Bay Colony imprisoned and banished Quakers as heretics. Roger Williams (founder of Rhode Island and champion of religious liberty) famously challenged George Fox to a debate. Fox did not respond to the challenge, though other prominent Quakers did. Williams also wrote a book titled, George Fox Digged out of His Burrowes attacking Fox’s idea of the Inner Light.
As the centuries went on, however, people came to admire Quaker honesty in business dealings and generosity in charity, and came to see their habits as merely quirky instead of heretical.
Today, few Quakers will address you as “thou” and fewer still wear the plain dress of their ancestors. Although you can still find a few who continue these traditions. You can check out this blog by Quaker Jane for more information.