The Marlborough Riot

Appreciation is deeply felt for the work of Christopher Densmore, without whose research this story could not be told.

What happens when Quakers riot?


In 1852 a disturbance known as the Marlborough Riot occurred at the Marlborough Quaker Meetinghouse. It precipitated the establishment of Progressive Friends, and so has an important place in the history of the Society of Friends.


We generally think of Quakers (Friends) as universally opposing slavery. There is more than a grain of truth to this. Quakers have been in the forefront of anti-slavery thought and action for most of its history. Starting in Philadelphia in 1758, one could not be a member of the Society of Friends and still hold slaves.   

However, Quakers are also human. Taking a deeper look, we find that things get complicated. While they universally disapproved of slavery, the response that some Friends had to abolitionism could be nuanced. In the middle of the 19th century much of Quakerism had retreated from popular culture. They had their own dress, habits and style of speech. Interaction in the “World” at large was suspect. Disownment for marrying a non-Quaker was common. Thus, involvement with a popular aggressive movement like abolitionism was frowned upon in some circles. When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850 it galvanized the anti-slavery movement. Yet, there existed Friends who were not so agitated. They were not quick to become caught up in actively opposing the government, remembering Paul’s admonition to obey authorities (Romans 13).

While there were Friends who hesitated to become involved, others were deeply moved by the plight of American slaves. This division was aggravated when abolitionist Quakers started using local Meetinghouses for public anti-slavery meetings (apparently without permission). The issue came to a head in June 1852 when it was announced at a Woman’s Rights Conference at West Chester that Oliver Johnson (a staunch Quaker abolitionist) would be speaking at Marlborough Meeting on a Sunday worship service* . To understand why this was a problem, it is best to understand some subtleties of Quaker “Unprogrammed Worship”.

No minister, pastor or preacher organizes a Quaker service. The participants gather in silence, praying, meditating or privately contemplating spiritual matters. At times, a Friend will be moved to stand up, break the silence and deliver a message. These messages are called “Vocal Ministry” and they are sometimes compared to sermons heard in other denominations. A crucial difference with sermons is that Quaker Vocal Ministry must not be pre-prepared. It is supposed to be divinely inspired by the immediate experience of Silent Worship. For this reason, participants are admonished not to come to Meeting for Worship with an intention to speak.

For some Quakers at Marlborough Meeting, it was bad enough that Oliver Johnson was involved in aggressive worldly abolitionism, but that he would come to Meeting for Worship prepared to give an address was clearly out of line. The idea that his speaking would be publicly announced was an affront to the essence of Quaker Worship. So, the Elders at Marlborough took steps to prevent this affront. They invited a constable to attend the Meeting. They felt that they had the authority to prevent Johnson’s address due to an 1847 law that protected religious gatherings from disturbances*. The stage was now set for the Marlborough Riot.

Meeting for Worship at Marlborough on June 6th 1852 began innocently enough. Oliver Johnson was sitting on the facing benches with recognized Ministers and Elders. Two Friends rose and delivered messages. After a time, Johnson stood up to speak, but was interrupted by an Elder who asked if Oliver Johnson was speaking. When this fact was confirmed, the Elder directed Johnson to sit down or leave. When he did not immediately comply, several other Friends stood up and echoed the request. Two Friends laid hands on Johnson in preparation to forcibly remove him. Johnson sat down. An Elder then called upon the constable to arrest Johnson. A number of Friends called out in protest of this action. At this point, two Friends on the facing benches shook hands. This is the traditional signal used to end Meeting. Normally it is followed by more shanking of hands as everyone greets their neighbors. However, in this case, only about half of those gathered followed the custom and left the meetinghouse. The other half remained and worship continued. Oliver Johnson eventually gave his message as did one other Friend*.

That was the Marlborough Riot.

 At one level this can seem comical. We typically think of riots as involving violence and destruction. Where was the violence? Where was the destruction? These Quakers don’t even know how to riot properly!

At another level, it was definitely a riot. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a riot as “A violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd”. Anyone who has experienced the peace of Silent Quaker Worship can understand how disturbing this event would be. In the context of divine worship, the exchange of angry words and threat of physical action would be violent indeed. The only question would be who broke the peace? Was it Oliver Johnson and his supporters or the Elders who would not let him speak? 

As is the case with so many riots, this was just a symptom of a deeper division. Legal action was taken. Oliver Johnson paid the smallest fine allowable under the 1847 law. Other were charged and refused to pay their fine, but they were paid anonymously. Those who supported Johnson soon left Marlborough to join the “Progressive Friends”*. The Progressive Friends eventually died out in 1940, but for a time they were an important branch of American Quakers and foreshadowed much of Liberal Quakerism today.

As with so many things in the Society of Friends, a Quaker riot is not what you might expect. 

* Be Ye Perfect: Slavery and the origins of the Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends in Chester County Pennsylvania by Christopher Densmore. Quaker History Volume 92, Number 2, Fall 2004. Page 39-40.