Records of 359 Years of Quakerism in New England Donated to UMass Amherst Libraries

Declaration of faith (remonstrance) by three Quakers imprisoned by Massachusetts Bay, Aug. 1, 1657.
Declaration of faith (remonstrance) by three Quakers imprisoned by Massachusetts Bay, Aug. 1, 1657.

The UMass Amherst Libraries have received a gift of records covering 359 years of Quakerism in New England from the New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM), an organization of the Religious Society of Friends, which created and maintained the records.

The Libraries’ department of Special Collections and University Archives will partner with the Archives Committee of NEYM in ongoing documentation of the meeting and its constituent bodies, preserving the meeting’s distinguished past as well as its present and future activities.

The Libraries will host a public exhibit of the NEYM records in January.

The New England Yearly Meeting Collection contains the official records of NEYM from its founding in the 17th century to the present, along with records of most of its constituent quarterly, monthly and preparative meetings; records of Quaker schools and trusts; and the papers of several individual Quakers involved in the meeting. Dating to 1657, just one year after the first Quakers arrived in New England, the records are as varied as the practices they document, ranging from minutes of meetings for business tocommittee records, newsletters, financial records, some personal papers, and an assortment of photographs, audiovisual materials, microfilm and electronic records.

Robert S. Cox, head of special collections and university archives, said, “The gift from the New England Friends is one of the most exciting collections to arrive at UMass Amherst in many years. It’s rare for an archive to receive so much material at one time, much less material of such extraordinary historical importance. It’s a thrill to be able to handle records of Quaker Meetings from the 17th century when Friends were challenging the Puritan authorities for an equal place in the colony, but there is something here for almost any researcher, from genealogists and local historians to scholars interested in the rise of abolitionism, peace and opposition to war, women and gender, education and of the conduct of spiritual lives.”

Among many other things of interest, the collection contains a wealth of vital statistics recorded by the monthly meetings, including general information on births, deaths, marriages, membership, and obituaries, and specifically Quaker information on removals (formal letters written as members moved from one meeting to another), denials, testimonies (beliefs and convictions), and sufferings (the Quaker response to persecution and hope for redress).

The NEYM collection also includes several thousand Quaker books and pamphlets, including portions of the libraries of Moses and Obadiah Brown, father and son industrialists and abolitionists in 18th- and early 19th-century Rhode Island, and ofseveral individual monthly meetings.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have a long and dynamic history in New England. When they first arrived in the region in the 1650s, Quakers presented both a radical alternative and a significant challenge to Puritan orthodoxy. As a relatively small but distinctive community, Quakers have espoused an egalitarian ethos rooted in the Quaker concept of inward light, which has led Friends into passionate advocacy for the abolition of slavery, gender and racial equality, social justice and opposition to all war.

One of approximately two dozen yearly meetings in the United States, the NEYM currently comprises eight quarterly meetings and approximately 85 monthly meetings, which are the basic units of organization for the Society of Friends. Monthly meetings actually meet for worship weekly and for business monthly.

Like other yearly meetings, the NEYM has been diverse in spiritual practice, reflected in a history of separations and reunions. Most famously, New England Friends divided over doctrinal issues in the 1840s into separate meetings known as Gurneyite and Wilburite, remainingapart for a century before the rifts were healed.