Monday, August 28, 2017

Looking for Your Quaker Ancestors

Title page of the section of Chester
Monthly Meeting "Burialls" records
"Begun the 23rd Day of the 10th
Month 1682 to be Registered".
Quaker were (and still are) meticulous record-keepers of the actions taken by their meetings, and of individuals within those meetings. In the early days, careful record-keeping was a matter of self-preservation, since Quakers were barred from access to the government institutions that kept vital records for others. Friends' births, deaths, and marriages were not recorded anywhere but in the minutes of each meeting. As a safe-guard, this vital information was re-recorded by the quarterly meeting (a collection of meetings within one area), and by the yearly meeting (a gathering of representatives from the quarterly meetings).

Quaker records weren't confined to vital statistics, however. Quaker minutes recorded a meeting's response to local and national issues in light of Quaker beliefs and practices, and reminded Friends of their duty and obligation to conduct their personal, family, and civic lives in accordance with Quaker principles.

Most importantly for researchers, Quaker minutes often afford insight into the conduct of our individual ancestors. A Friend who was particularly devout and whose words and actions were inspirations to other Friends might be appointed to a "ministry". (Such an appointment was not an elevation in a Friend's position, as that would result in inequality; it was a formal recognition of an individual's gift for helping others in their spiritual journeys.) Minutes record both the issuing and the receipt of certificates of transfer which enable a researcher to trace the movement of ancestors, and also confirm an ancestor lived her life in accordance with Quaker principles.

Whenever a major life decision was made, or whenever a friend was found to be "out of discipline", the meeting appointed a committee of two to three exemplary Friends to "treat" with the Friend. When a couple announced their intention to marry under the care of the meeting, a committee met with them to offer guidance, and to ensure both were members in good-standing. (The latter examination was especially important when a prospective spouse was from another meeting.)

When a Friend behaved in ways that were contrary to Friends' teachings, a committee counseled the Friend. All committees reported back to the meeting, and those reports were included in the minutes. The meeting as a whole then decided on a course of action, which was, of course, entered into the minutes. (By the way, Friends did not/do not vote on any matter. There is discussion--but not debate. Friends are then asked if they approve an action, and there must be complete agreement; a single dissent means the action cannot be undertaken.)

Minutes of Friends' meetings are a treasure trove for the researcher, and locating this information is not difficult. One of the most complete published sources, available in most libraries, is William Wade Hinshaw's 6-volume Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy. The fully-indexed volumes consist of abridged vital and membership records, arranged by area and meeting. In addition to Hinshaw, others have compiled the records relating to just one meeting, such as Hopewell [Frederick County, Virginia] Friends History, 1734-1934.

Three years ago, Ancestry made available images of original records in the collection "U. S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935". About 80 percent of American Quaker records---11 million names!-- can be found in this collection. The early (17th and 18th centuries) records are sometimes challenging to read, but definitely worth the effort required.

The minutes of Abington Friends Monthly Meeting in Jenkintown, Montgomery Co., PA record the births
of three children of my 7th great-grandfather, William Carver: Sarah, born to William and Jane in 1690, and 
William, Jr. (my 6th great-grandfather) and Joseph, born to William and his second wife, Mary, in 1694 and 1696.

If you can travel, the archivists at these college libraries can be very helpful, plus you can see the actual records: Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA; Hege Friends Historical Library, Guilford College, Greensboro, NC; Earlham College Friends Collection, Richmond, IN; Quaker Meeting Records, Haverford College, Haverford, PA. But if you can't travel, you can contact these repositories by email or letter for research assistance.

A note of caution. There are two aspects of Quaker minutes that confuse the non-Quaker researcher and lead to misinterpretation: the copious use of abbreviations, and the particular way of recording dates. At Cyndi's List  ( you can get a list of abbreviations used in Quaker minutes. An excellent explanation of how to interpret the date recorded in minutes can be found at the "Quaker Dates" section of the Guildford County, NC GenWeb site (


  1. Alas, no Quaker ancestors for me. What a terrific resource for those who do!

  2. Me neither, Georgia, but I am learning more about Quaker History in general and it is fasinating.