The Society of Friends (known as “Quakers”) was a prominent religion in colonial Pennsylvania and the “testimonies” of peace, simplicity, integrity, equality, community, and non-violence are core to its beliefs. Unfortunately, during times of war and social change, adherence to faith can sometimes be challenged in unexpected ways, as evidenced by the histories of two men named Ennion Williams.
The Question of Slavery
The first Ennion (b. 1697) was involved in shipping and estate settlement near Bristol, PA. He was affluent, and heavily involved in the Falls Meeting in Bucks County. He was also a slave owner—a fact that placed him in a moral dilemma.
In 1688, the Germantown Protest signaled the first Quaker stand against slavery. Throughout the 18th century, the Society of Friends strengthened its stance against the institution of slavery and its members who enslaved people. The issue came to a head when the group directed members at the 1776 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to disown any member who owned slaves.
According to the Bucks County Manumissions book, Williams released his slaves at this time, but the decision wasn’t made easily. Though he was involved in the church, followed its teachings, and held office for many years in Bristol, Williams continued to own slaves even as his faith recognized it as a sin. It took the prospect of disownment for him to acquiesce.
For the Love of Liberty
The other Ennion Williams (b. 1752) was from Philadelphia, and also a Quaker. His father was a prominent merchant, property owner, early shareholder in the Library Company of Philadelphia with Benjamin Franklin, and a signer of the non-importation act of 1765. Williams was raised in circles that supported the patriot cause, so it’s no surprise that he and his brother served in the Revolutionary War. But war and violence were in direct violation of the Quaker tenets.
Williams was a Major in the Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment. His regiment encamped at the Thompson-Neely House, in December 1776 before crossing the Delaware on Christmas night. Letters written by Williams during the encampment provide a clear picture of the poor conditions for the army at the time.
Unfortunately, because of his participation in the war, Major Williams was expelled from the Society of Friends. His conviction to his faith led him to write a letter of acknowledgement in 1817 requesting acceptance back into the meeting.
Williams’ request was granted, but the return was short-lived. In 1827, a philosophical fracture occurred within the Society of Friends known as the Hicksite Separation. Williams fell on the Hicksite side of the fracture and was once again removed from his regular meeting.
Join Washington Crossing Historic Park curator Kimberly McCarty on Sunday, November 7 at 1:30 PM for a free lecture on the lives of the two Ennion Williams, and their personal struggle with issues of faith during America’s fight for independence and the early Republic.
This program will be held in-person, however it may be changed to virtual if COVID safety restrictions are required. Registrants will be notified by email of any changes.
Registration is required Lecture – The Quaker Conundrum in Revolutionary Pennsylvania – DCNR Calendar of Events (pa.gov)