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The Watkins Family and the Society of Friends

This narrative consists of three sections each of which is found on a separate page:

  1. Background about Quakers in Virginia (continues on this page),
  2. Early Virginia Quakers with the Watkins Surname [more], and
  3. James and Anne Watkins, Surry/Sussex County Quakers[more].

Background about Quakers in Virginia

During most of my life my knowledge of the Society of Friends or Quakers, as they were called, was distorted. I previously associated three things to the term “Quakers:” (1) the colony of Quakers headed by William Penn who settled in Pennsylvania, (2) Roger Williams being expelled from Massachusetts to resettle in Rhode Island, and (3) the iconic picture of the Quaker printed on packages of “Quaker Oats.” Never did it occur to me to think that Quakers might have lived in places other than Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and I never would have dreamt that any of my forebearers were themselves Quakers. However, after I became involved in my family genealogy, I learned that, indeed, many of my ancestors on my father’s side were members of the Society of Friends. Later, when I worked on a project to complete my requirements for a Masters degree in American and New England Studies, I learned more about the history of Quakers in New England including the role Quakers played in the settlement of Nantucket and of Western Maine. The narrative that follows tells a bit about the history of the Society of Friends and a little about how being a Quaker affected the lives of my ancestors.

The Religious Society of Friends, as the Quakers were more commonly known, evolved in the 1640’s and 50’s out of a European movement known in England as Seekers, disaffected Protestants who had stopped attending conventional religious services amid the excesses of the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime that followed it. The early Seekers in England came largely from the Midlands and the north, where class structure had traditionally been less of a force than in other parts of the nation, and its doctrines stressed egalitarian principles and individual faith. George Fox, a strongly original thinker, had become the acknowledged leader of the new group, espousing such radical doctrines as the spiritual equality of men and women. In Fox’s view, both sexes could move from being Seekers to being Finders who would “Quake before the Power of the Lord.” The term “Quaker” originally used as an insult, was eventually taken up by Fox and his followers.

Fox and his fellow Seekers focused their faith not on an omnipotent God nor on Jesus Christ, but rather on the Holy Spirit, which they understood to be the Spirit of Truth. Those early Quakers described themselves as ‘Friends of one another, Friends of Truth, and Friends of God’ – hence, the Society of Friends. Further distancing themselves from the received practice of seventeenth-century Protestantism, the Quakers denied the authority not only of the clergy but also the primacy of scripture as the sole expression of God’s will. Instead, Quakers read the Bible as a manifestation of the Spirit of Truth. They believed that any individual could access the spirit without resort to liturgy, ceremony, doctrine, and sacrament.

A head-on collision between mainstream Protestants and Quakers was inevitable. When two Quakers appeared in Boston in 1656, Governor Endicott ordered them searched for signs of witchcraft and deported. Immediately, new laws were passed providing for the “whipping-out” of first time Quaker visitors; those making a second incursion were to be hanged. Colonists showing any kindness to the heretics were threatened with stiff fines. (Ref.1)

However, it should not be concluded that the persecution of Quakers was isolated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony or even to New England itself. Apparently a similar attitude existed in the colony of Virginia.

In 1607 Jamestown was settled by Anglicans from England and their minister, Robert Hunt, held daily "Common Prayer." The King's charter read that the colony's purpose included "the conversion ... of the people in those parts unto the true worship of God and Christian religion, in which respect we should be loath, that any person should be permitted to pass, that we suspected to effect the superstitions of the church of Rome" and "that none be permitted to pass in any voyage ... but such, as first shall have taken the oath of supremacy" to the Church of England.

Following are a few rules and laws that prevailed during Virginia’s first 150 years. (To learn more read here.):

1609 -- Instructions from the Council. Indian medicine men were to be seized in order to destroy their heathen ceremonies.

1619 -- Act of the Assembly (colonial legislature). "All ministers shall duely read divine service and exercise their ministerial function according to the Ecclesiastical lawes and orders of the churche of Englande."

1642 -- Act of the Assembly. "All nonconformists upon notice of them shall be compelled to depart the collony with all conveniencie." "No ministers shall be admitted to officiate in this country, but such as shall produce to the governor a testimonial that he hath received his ordination from some bishop in England, and shall then subscribe, to be conformable to the orders and constitutions of the church of England, and the laws there established."

1660 -- Act of the Assembly. The captain of any ship bringing Quakers into the colony was fined 100 pounds, and all Quakers who did enter were to be expelled. (Ref. 2)


Read more:

Early Virginia Quakers with the Watkins surname

My early Virginia Quaker ancestors


1. Leach, Robert J. and Peter Gow. The Religious Community Behind the Whaling Empire. Nantucket, Ma.: Mill Hill Press, 1997

2. Garman, Gene. Founding Principles Rejected: Colonial Virginia. <> 17 July, 2007.

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