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Reflections  >  Witchcraft and Quakerism  >  Chapter Five

Witchcraft and Quakerism:

A Study in Social History

By Amelia Mott Gummere


Letter N with sailing shipOT until 1723 is there any notice of proceedings against witchcraft in the records of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Then occurs the following: "It is the sense and judgment of this meeting that if any professing Truth shall apply to such persons as, by color of any art or skill whatever, do or shall pretend knowledge to discover things hiddenly transacted, or tell where things lost or stolen may be found; or if any, under our profession, do or pretend to any such Art or Skill, we do hereby, in just abhorrence of such doings, direct that the offender be speedily dealt with and brought under censure." The wording of the paragraph just quoted occurs also in the Book of Discipline for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1806, when it was ordered that those who pretended to occult knowledge or proceedings, should be "testified against."


    The warning of 1723 was sent to New England, and may be found upon the records of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in the same year. It is not safe, however, to assert that sorcery or witchcraft had come to an end, even among the Quakers, except officially, although the mild forms in which it still survived gave little cause for notice. Solid Pennsylvania Quakers who lived near the limits of Philadelphia, -- at that period the most cosmopolitan town on the continent -- had no liking for witchcraft or its allied methods, and in their atmosphere of sanity and hard common-sense, the art failed to thrive. But the young Quakers, even of that sober town, still enjoyed an occasional delicious thrill from a mysterious tale, even if they did not actually believe its circumstances, and in the absence of novels, a good ghost story was a real boon! Ann Warder, that vivacious and observant English Quakeress, who took up her abode among her husband's American relatives in Philadelphia in 1786, notes in her journal in the autumn of that year, "Next day, dining at Ann Giles', with some Friends, the ladies went from the table, leaving the men to their Pipes, and went upstairs to our chat, in which I readily discovered their great love for talking about Aparitions, Visions, and such strange things ;" and she adds several unlikely stories of no consequence, as illustrations. About the same time, the more intellectual of the younger London Friends were having a great craze over what they called "animal magnetism," and the Frys, Robinsons, Molly Knowles (Dr. Johnson's friend), and others were meeting about at each other's houses to have what might be called "hypnotizing parties," to experiment upon each other.


    The more isolated Quakers in the central tracts of what was then the wilderness of Pennsylvania, and particularly those in the neighborhood of the ordinary German settlers, who were proverbially superstitious, continued to cherish the idea in some form or other, but in nothing that rose to the dignity of an official notice. Charms were sold -- and Quakers were often the purchasers -- to ward off lightnings or disease, dry up streams or the well of an enemy, to reconcile a pair of quarrelsome lovers, or force the cow to give bloody milk. It is probable that the most superstitious among the Quakers in the whole course of their history, not excepting those who were closest to the witchcraft epidemic of Salem, were to be found among the country Quakers who were the least educated, and who dwelt in the neighborhood of the Germans of Pennsylvania.

Person wearing dark robe in upright arm chair by table with open book on it.

"Hermit of the Wissahickon."
From an old print.

Those in the more southern colony far outnumbered the others, whose tendency would rather be toward disgust, than any feeling of imitation. The presence also of certain learned scientific men among the various mystical sects that soon followed Penn into his colony, and who were attracted by the liberty of thought there made possible, had more influence upon Pennsylvania than has yet been admitted. There is here a whole field of historical investigation.[1]

    The Roscicrucians, and the mystical society of "The Woman in the Wilderness," on the banks of the Wissahickon, through their leader, Koster, were in sympathy with the followers of George Keith, and opposed to the Orthodox Quakers. Kelpius and Zimmerman, their astronomers, were mediaeval scholars who combined astronomy and theology after a system even then antiquated. How easy it was, in the nightly vigils in the old observatory of their "Tabernacle," to calculate a horoscope along with an eclipse, or to observe the celestial phenomena with an eye to the future of a newborn infant! There is no doubt that in the chemical laboratories below, their brethren "labored to discover the Elixir Vitae, and the Lapis Philosophorum. On the walls hung the divining-rod by which might be discovered precious metals, and subterranean springs."[2]


    To these scientific astrologers -- for they were nothing more or less -- resorted certain highly respected English Quakers, who, cut off from the study of the fine arts, theology, and the more liberal branches of learning, allowed their minds free course in those scientific studies toward which the early Pennsylvania Quaker seems naturally to have tended -- for this very reason.

Almanac for the Year of Christian Account 1694

Title page of Daniel Leeds' Almanac for 1694. Original owned by Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

A slight admixture of sorcery no doubt seemed to their minds far less dangerous than a study of literature, music or the classics; indeed, was probably regarded as a part of all science. Among the most frequent of these visitors was the Quaker astronomer, Daniel Leeds, who, for some years before the arrival of Kelpius, and his co-religionists, had published an "ALLmanack." The earliest specimens of this curious publication are preserved in the rooms of the Pennsylvania Historical Society. In his edition of 1694, Leeds naively apologizes thus for his prognostications of the weather, disarming all criticism by saying: "As to what I have spoken of the Weather is in general, and respects all Kingdoms and Courts (for no otherways can we well do). Therefore, if it happen not to be such Weather in this particular of Ground, and yet be such in General, I hope you will not blame me for being so universally minded." Leeds, a prominent Quaker colonist in the early days, quarrelled with Friends in 1688 about his almanac, and left the society. He had all along been a sympathizer with Keith, and joined that leader when his controversy became conspicuous. The theosophical and occult philosophy that found expression in this almanac was doubtless a direct result of his intercourse with the German mystics of the Wissahickon, and the cause that led to his expulsion from the Quakers who were Orthodox. Among these was his opponent, Francis

II Month, Zif, Dripping April

Specimen page of Daniel Leeds' Almanac for 1694. Original owned by Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Daniel Pastorius, who, although a German immigrant himself, had no sympathy with the mystics or Roscicrucians. His name is to be found frequently upon the books of Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, although he was never an actual member, and was buried after the rites of his early faith.

    The case of the Rev. Joseph Morgan, of the "Old Scots" Church at Freehold, New Jersey, about the same time, is interesting in this connection. The neighborhood was that from which George Keith came, and while there is no evidence of any relations between the two, they were both of that type of unusually scientific and well educated men, whose investigations tended, like the Germantown philosophers, to surprise and confound their unlearned neighbors, who had no other explanation for the products of scientific discovery than that they were aided by the Evil One himself. Mr. Morgan was of an inventive turn of mind, which, in the early days of his ministry, caused a charge against him of astrological practices. This was renewed when (1712-1714) he produced a sort of prophecy of the steamboat, as a result of his interest in the study of navigation. He was born in Connecticut, in 1674, and confessed to Cotton Mather, "I have no leisure for reading or writing discourses for the church, and often know not my text before the Sabbath." To the Puritans at this period, extempore speaking was in itself heretical. The Philadelphia Synod, in dismissing Mr. Morgan, who sympathized with Jonathan Dickinson in dissent from the supremacy of that body, said, "We cannot find Mr. Morgan clear from imprudence and misconduct in making the two alleged experiments of that kind, if the reports be true, were his ends never so good and laudable!" What the "two alleged experiments" were, we are unfortunately not informed.


    The irrepressible Benjamin Franklin made use of the still-existent witchcraft idea to mystify his readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette in the issue of October 22, 1730, by writing an account of a supposed witchcraft trial near Mount Holly, New Jersey -- an account which has been solemnly quoted by various subsequent historians. In Franklin's usual plausible fashion was described the trial of a man and a woman accused of making sheep dance, hogs sing or speak, etc. The accused, in the presence of the Governor, were weighed against the Bible, "and their lumps of mortality were severally too heavy for Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles!" This not being satisfactory, trial by water was resorted to. When the accused swam, there was a diversity of opinion, the accused themselves wondering why they did not sink! This account was received in London with solemnity, and published in the Gentleman's Magazine, for January, 1731 (Vol. I, 29), while Dr. Franklin was all the time laughing in his sleeve at the success of his joke. This picturesque incident is elsewhere described as occurring about "skie-setting." Franklin purposely placed the affair in the heart of a thickly settled Quaker community.[3]

    The same Quakers at Burlington had had in circulation among themselves the following petition, which was by no means an unusual thing. This copy is made from the original paper, which is known to be of an earlier date than 1730:

    "Please your Worships, gentlemen. Pray doe have some Charety for me, a poor Distrest man that is become old and scars able to Mentain my Famely at the best, and now sum Peopel has raised a Reporte that my Wife is a Witch, by which I and my famely must sartinly suffer if she cant be clear'd of the thing and a Stop Poot to the Reporte for Peopel will not have no Delings with me on the acount Pray Gentlemen I beg the favor of you that one or more of you would free her for she is Desirous that she may be tried by all Maner of Ways that ever a Woman was tried so that she can get Cleare of the Report from your poor and Humble Servant, Jeames Moore."

    At the same town, there is still standing the "witch tree," which may have been that referred to in London[4]: "A tree observed at Burlington, in New Jersey, which had been split and the parts rejoined, was believed to have been used for the purpose of curing disease. This was done by passing the person afflicted (usually a child) through the cleft, whereby the disease was lost in transmission, departing with the renewed growth of the tree. It was necessary that the child's body touch the inner surface to transfer the disease direct."

    White, in his "Natural History of Selborne," describes minutely the removal of several such trees from his own garden, in 1776. The idea of human life bound up in that of a tree will occur to every one who has seen the Caernarvon Yew. That the horned cattle uttered prayers upon their knees at midnight on Christmas Eve, was believed very generally so late as 1850. The churn was often said to be "bewitched" when the butter would not "come," and many an one would

"Chase evil spirits away by dint
  Of sickle, horse-shoe, hollow flint."[5]


    To the present day, many good Friends have their little pet superstitions. I have myself been besought by a Friend of long Quaker lineage not to move into a new house on "Sixth-day" (Friday). The same good lady carried a horse-chestnut in her pocket for years, to cure her rheumatism. In the early eighteenth century, there was a great prejudice against beginning any transaction on Friday. A Friend of Wilmington, Delaware, intending to build a brig, determined to combat the superstition by entering into all his contracts on that day, which he did, even naming his vessel the "Friday." They began to load her on that day, although the sailors had to be bribed from that time until they set sail. On that unlucky day, a week later "in the midst of a most awful gale, the crew of a homewardbound vessel saw this brig, with her men cutting away the masts." "From that hour, neither brig nor crew was ever heard of, and as there was no insurance, there was great loss." The wife had opposed the design of her husband from the first, and when the loss of the brig was certain, she walked the floor in despair, saying, "Isaac, this is all thy Sixth-day's doing. I warned thee of the consequences!"[6]

    The early objection of Quakerism to the use of the "Heathen" days of the month and week is well known. Yet the Moral Almanac, an ancient and much respected official publication of Philadelphia Quakerism, uses to-day the old astrological signs for the aspect and names of the heavenly bodies, and prefers the Dominical letter of the Roman Church to the numeral, to signify the first day of the week.

    An old writer on witchcraft says that a person meeting with a mischance will do well to consider whether he put not on his shirt wrong side outwards, or his left shoe on his right foot. The petticoat was usually demanded first of any victim of sorcery, this garment seeming to possess great efficacy. The good old Chester County Quaker farmer to-day has a horse-shoe nailed to his barn door, although he could not tell exactly why, and plants his crops according to the condition of the moon; with rather more certainty in his own mind that this custom, at least, must have some scientific foundation! Within the past two years I have known a Friend in New Jersey who used the services of a neighbor and her staff to locate the position of a future well.


    Women were reckoned the chief witches in the early days, because to them the practice of domestic medicine was principally confined. The "wise woman," understanding the use of herbs and a simple sort of botany, having more insight and more brains than her ignorant neighbors, wrought what seemed miracles to them, by simple means, to-day well understood. Witchcraft, as we understand it, was unknown in England before the twelfth century. "Women," said the old Puritans, "were created for the trial and temptation of man!"

    Bishop Grandisson's Register for 1348 mentions many complaints against one Margery Kytel, who "exercised magic arts and was a witch." She refused to appear when he cited her, and he therefore pronounced against her, from the parish pulpit, the Major Excommunication.[7]

    The Commissary who examined Joan of Arc, said to her, "Did your godmother, who saw the fairies, pass as a Wise Woman?" Joan answered, "She was held and considered a good and honest woman, neither divineress nor sorceress."[8] In 1599, James the First's "Daemonology" has the following dialogue between Philomathes and Epistemon:

    Phi. "What can be the cause that there are twentie women given to that craft" (ie., sorcery) "where there is one man?"

    Epis. "The reason is easie, for as that sexe is frailer than man is, so is it easier to be entrapped in those grosse snares of the divell as was overwel proved to be trew by the serpent's deceiving of Eva at the beginning, which makes him the homelier with that sexe sensine!"[9]


    Little superstitions connected with the practice of medicine among the people were often employed without the smallest notion of their origin. Van Helmont's system of medicine was a book familiar to the educated Quakers, the author only having died in 1664. Indeed, so impressed was George Fox himself with the value of medicine, that he seriously thought, when a young man, of taking up the profession. He tells us "the virtues of the creatures were also opened to me, so that I began to deliberate whether I should practice physic for the good of mankind." [10]

figures of Zodiac surrounding figure of man, with lines to parts of his body

Chapter Six ...>>

Notes and Links

[1] The works of Pennypacker, Sachse, Diffenderfer, Brumbaugh and others touch very inadequately upon the relation of these German immigrants to the Quaker settlements.

[2] Dr. Sachse. "The Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania." p. 85.

[3] The text of this squib is quoted in full in the edition of the "Life and Works" of Benjamin Franklin by Albert H. Smyth. Vol. II, 170.

[4] Notes and Queries. London. 6th series. Vol. I, p. 10.

[5] Hudibras. II Canto, III.

[6] The Era for May, 1901.

[7] F. A. Gasquet. "Parish Life in Mediaeval England," p. 230.

[8] T. Douglass Murray. "Jeanne d'Arc, Maid of Orleans," etc., p. 87.

[9] R. S. Rait. "A Royal Rhetorician." XXIII. 1601.

Chapter Six ...>>