Hannah Barnard — a Liberal Quaker Hero

Chuck Fager

Liberal Quakerism has both a distinguished history and a Distinctive religious message. But overall, liberal Quakers have not done well either at recalling this history or declaring the message. I believe the work of remembering our history and rethinking our faith is of continuing importance for liberal Friends. In a time of resurgent conservatism, religious as well as political, this effort may be of particular use to those who are dissenters from this new Establishment. It can provide us with a “cloud of witnesses” from whom we can draw support and strength.

The roll of liberal Quaker heroes and heroines is long and notable, but in my mind one name, that of Hannah Barnard, always seems to move to the front of the list. It is as if her spirit elbows her way past many another better-known figure and demands priority attention.

As I read the record, that’s how she was–not at all shrinking and deferential, but assertive and bold. An “uppity woman,” indeed, and the record suggests that it was her very female boldness that initially got her in trouble.

In 1797 Hannah Barnard was a respected woman minister of Hudson Meeting in New York, who felt a religious concern to travel among Friends and others in the British Isles. That year her meeting issued a certificate, a “travelling minute,” which was duly endorsed by the Quarter and New York Yearly Meeting. Arriving with a woman companion in 1798, Barnard spent ten months travelling more than 2000 miles, visiting and preaching. Particularly in Cornwall, she attracted many Methodists to her public meetings.

This ecumenical opening seemed worth pursuing, and at the 1799 session of London Yearly Meeting, Barnard and a delegation of women Friends urged the yearly meeting hierarchy to permit the occasional use of meetinghouses by ministers of other denominations in exchange for similar use of churches by Friends. When the (male) elders nixed the idea, Barnard defended it with what the clerk considered “uncommon tenacity,” to the point where she and her delegation were told to leave the session.

Some historians believe it was from this confrontation, over a seemingly minor item of practice, that her later troubles over doctrine sprang. The London Quaker establishment was then taking on an evangelical version of orthodoxy that would hold sway there for over half a century. This establishment did not welcome challenges to its dicta, on matters small or large, from anyone, and particularly from women. But having already taken the elders on in a matter of practice, Hannah Barnard was soon embroiled in controversy on matters of doctrine.

The new conflict emerged after Barnard moved on to visit Ireland. There she found Friends debating matters of war, peace and the Bible. Specifically, the question put to her was: Did God indeed command the ancient Israelites to make war (of a genocidal sort in several cases) on their enemies, as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures?

This way of posing the issue was probably not accidental. Just a year before there had been a peasant uprising against English overlords, which British troops had put down very brutally. Many Irish Friends, as people of substance, were likely on the side of this imperial form of “law and order,” and pointing to the scriptural massacres as justification for official violence was not a new form of rationalization.

But there were Irish Friends who saw matters differently. They were a group of incipient liberals who rejected such literalist readings of the Bible, especially where the texts contradicted such central Quaker convictions as the peace testimony. These internal dissenters–sometimes referred to as “New Lights”–also became increasingly persuaded that it was un-Quakerly to make such doctrinal correctness a central part of Quaker faith in the first place. They thereby challenged a key assumption of the new establishment, namely the importance of correct evangelical doctrine, especially regarding the Bible.

Hannah Barnard joined with the “New Lights,” and traveled among Irish Friends advocating their views in a spirited, articulate fashion, again meeting also with many non-Friends. When she finished her tour, Dublin Yearly Meeting gave her a certificate that said she had ministered “to general satisfaction,” and expressed the hope that she might be “favoured to continue” her religious labors.

In pursuit of this objective, Barnard returned to London and applied to the Meeting of Ministers and Elders for a certificate to continue her travels in Germany. But other reports, of her work and message, from alarmed evangelicals, had also made their way to London, and in May, 1800, the elders rejected her request. She was soon directed “desist from preaching” and to return home as soon as possible. They even offered to pay for her passage, which she indignantly refused.

The chief charge against her was that she denied the full truth and authority of scripture. Informally she was accused of all manner of heresies. Barnard fought the charges, insisting that her conclusions were in harmony with the original Quaker conviction that the leadings of the spirit within and not outward scripture, however interpreted, was the final measure of truth for Friends. “Nothing is revealed truth to me, as doctrine,” she declared, “until it is sealed as such in my mind, through the illumination of…the word of God, the divine light, and intelligence, to which the Scriptures…bear plentiful testimony.”

She spoke her convictions with great vigor. For instance, when asked about a verse in the First Epistle of John (“For there are three that bear record in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” 1John 5: 7), she recalled that, “I felt not the slightest hesitation in saying I believed it to be a corrupt interpolation, for the very purpose of establishing the absurd and pernicious doctrine of the Trinity in Unity, some ages after the first promulgation of the gospel.” (Incidentally, almost all modern biblical scholars agree that the verse is a late interpolation, and most recent translations omit it.)

Even one of her critics grudgingly admitted she was “remarkably voluble and eloquent in delivery.” But her appeals were rejected, and finally she boarded a ship for New York. The London elders were not finished, however. They sent copies of their indictment ahead of her, and by the time Barnard arrived home in Hudson, in late 1801, she found that disciplinary proceedings against her were underway there too.

Again she defended herself stoutly, and again her very assertiveness was added to the charges against her. When a weighty male Friend noted regretfully her willingness to challenge opponents of whatever stature, she replied that she was indeed ready “to meet any person, or even the whole world, while I felt conscious innocence.”

Again, though, she lost, and by mid-1802 had been disowned for showing a “a Caviling, contentious disposition of mind.” She remained unrepentant, writing to a British supporter that “under the present state of the Society I can with humble reverent thankfulness rejoice in the consideration that I was made the Instrument of bringing their Darkness to light.” Such banishment, however, did not bring an end to her ministry.

In the Society or out, she remained faithful to the Quaker Peace Testimony, later organizing a Peace Society whose meetings soon became larger than those at Hudson Friends Meeting. Asked once if the breach between her and the meeting were irreparable, Barnard replied, with a fine dig at Quaker process, that it was not, because when the meeting understood that it “had accused me wrongfully, they had only to confess it, and I could freely forgive them.”

Hannah Barnard’s case was famous among Quakers of her time, and for decades afterward; a spate of pamphlets and books appeared, arguing the issues one way or the other. The breach she exposed continued to widen: in Ireland, most of the “New Light” Friends either resigned or were disowned.

When Elias Hicks preached at the Hudson Meetinghouse almost twenty years later, in 1819, Barnard was reportedly in the audience, and Hicks was told that she said his message had greatly moved her, in part because his ideas were identical to those for which she had been disowned.

Hicks’s religious witness was in many ways similar to Barnard’s, not least in the fact that it was evoking the increasing opposition of the evangelical establishment, opposition that was to have fateful results for the Religious Society of Friends.

But that’s another story. Hicks visited Barnard in Hudson in 1824, and a year later she died peacefully at home.

In 1838, more than a decade after her death, Joseph John Gurney, the most famous British evangelical Quaker of his day, detoured from a trip down the Hudson River specifically to preach his gospel in Hudson, in the lair of “the heretical Hannah Barnard.”

I think I understand part of what moved him. There’s something seminal and memorable about Barnard’s story. For one thing, the version of Quakerism which she articulated and championed has persisted, and even flourished. For another, the repressive orthodox reactions to it have likewise become a depressingly familiar feature of our history.

Similarly, Barnard carried on her ministry decades before Lucretia Mott and other Quaker women activists helped invent what we know today as feminism. Yet her assertiveness and eloquence in stating her case, her tenacity in her own behalf, her refusal to bow to male authority, and her indomitability even in isolation and defeat have hardly been bettered by the self-conscious sisters who came later.

For some reason, however, Hannah Barnard’s story has received but scant attention from many of the more prominent Quaker histories. Elbert Russell’s “The History of Quakerism,” and John Punshon’s “Portrait in Grey” mention her only briefly in passing; Larry Ingle’s “Quakers in Conflict” says little more. Even Margaret Bacon’s “Mothers of Feminism” slights her, perhaps because Barnard was more of a “Grandmother” of the movement.

The most extensive treatments are in the first volume of Rufus Jones’s “The Later Periods of Quakerism”, and a 1989 study by David Maxey in Quaker History. Perhaps Rufus empathized with her; certainly he had taken his share of brickbats from a new generation of orthodox heresy-hunters.

Yet despite its obscurity, Hannah Barnard’s story is in many ways the prototype, or better the archetype of liberal Quakerism.

No wonder I imagine her elbowing her way to the front of the long line of liberal Quaker heroes. Joseph John Gurney wrote to his children that he believed he had done well in his preaching at Hudson, and perhaps he did.

But Hannah Barnard did pretty well herself.

Leave a comment