The Revolution’s Impact on Pennsylvania’s Pacifist Communities Part 1 of 2

Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, was a Quaker, and insisted on morality and fairness for his government: fair treatment of Native Americans and religious freedom for all citizens.

By the time of the Revolution the colony was 90 years old and a variety of religious groups found safe haven in the colony, including Huguenots, German Pietists, Amish, Mennonite, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans, Quakers, Anglicans, Protestants, Dutch Mennonites, Jewish, and Baptists.

Quakers are perhaps the best known religious group that thrived in Pennsylvania. The Society of Friends emerged in England in the mid-1600s, and were persecuted for their beliefs. William Penn, an aristocratic Quaker convert, received a land grant as payment for a debt from the crown, and made religious toleration a cornerstone of the colony. When armies invaded Pennsylvania in 1777, the state’s Quakers were impacted.  Refusing to be active participants, they did offer humanitarian aid to both sides.

British forces under General William Howe, intent on capturing Philadelphia, invaded from the Chesapeake Bay in August, 1777.  Blocking the British in southeastern Pennsylvania, General Washington, found himself defending an area that was home to many Quakers.  Locals did not offer much help to the Continental army and the American forces found themselves lacking good intelligence of the area’s roads. Thus, although defending home ground, it was not an advantage for Washington and the Continental Army. 

On September 11, 1777, General Howe set his army in motion to attack at Brandywine, near modern West Chester. Joseph Townsend, a twenty-one year old Quaker resident, saw the British marching by and followed them on their march, “possessed of curiosity.” 

After receiving permission to walk among the resting troops, Townsend moved freely among the British and German troops.  He and his brother stopped to talk to several of them.  Joseph recorded, “They inquired what sort of a man Mr. Washington was. My brother had a knowledge of him by being with him at his quarters at Chadd’s Ford, and replied that he was a stately, well proportioned, fine looking man, of great ability, active, firm, and resolute, of a social disposition, and was considered to be a good man. This he observed to check their ardour for a sight of him, and to bring forward some further observations from them respecting him, to which one of them answered “that he might be a good man, but he was most damnably misled to take up arms against his sovereign.”

As the British began their advance into battle, Townsend was near the front line.  He described the bars, or fences, that the British and German troops encountered:

“. . . I arrived at the aforementioned bars on the road, which opened into the field of Amos Davis, where I was met by several companies of soldiers, who were ordered into the field to form and prepare for the approaching engagement- the opening of the bars was not of sufficient width to admit them to pass . . . A German officer on horse back ordered the fence to be taken down, and as I was near to the spot, I had to be subject to his requirings as he flourished a drawn sword over my head with the others who stood by; on the removal of the second rail, I was forcibly struck with the impropriety of being active in assisting to take the lives of my fellow beings, and therefore desisted proceeding any further in obedience to his commands.” 

Fighting raged around the Quaker Birmingham Meeting House, and Virginia troops used the stone wall surrounding the cemetery for cover. Following the battle, in which the Continental Army suffered 577 casualties, the Meeting House was taken over for a hospital. It sat in the center of the battlefield, its stone walls struck by musket and cannon fire. As dead and wounded were all around it, it was a convenient place to gather and treat the casualties. For weeks afterwards, the farms of Chester County felt the impact of the armies.

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