Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part I

Historical Narrative






A Retrospect of Fifty Years


            Over fifty years have passed since the first Yearly Meeting of Friends in Iowa was held, and there are now few survivors among all those who attended that gathering.(127) Almost within the life of a single generation there have been reproduced in Iowa the salient features of two hundred years of Quaker history on the American continent. Religious upheaval, sufferings from war, the issue of slavery, contact with the Indians, and the problems of education, schisms, migration, and decline—all of these form a part of the annals of Iowa Quakerism.

            The future appeared hopeful as the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends began its labors under the direction of a group of the strongest men that this Yearly Meeting has produced, and with a membership made up of sturdy, restless emigrants from the East and South. But there came a time when the incoming migration from the East ceased to exceed or even to equal the continued movement of the Quakers to the farther West, and the effect on the Iowa Yearly Meeting was disheartening. Stretching from the Mississippi to California there are long chains of isolated and disconnected communities of Friends, the founders of which may be traced back to the now depleted Iowa centers. In Iowa numerous Quaker communities, once strong and flourishing, have entirely disappeared; and in fact, it may be said that with but few exceptions the communities of Friends from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast are engaged in a struggle for existence.

            The effect of this draining force on Iowa Quakerism during the last half-century is well illustrated in the case of the Spring Creek settlement, the birthplace of the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends. Thomas Stafford was the first of the Quakers to settle in this fertile region, and close upon his heels came numerous other Friends, who quickly built up one of the strongest Quaker centers in the State. The after a number of years of prosperity came a turn of events.

            As early as 1847, in his reconnoitering expeditions in the Des Moines valley, D. D. Owen had discovered the fact that Mahaska County was underlaid with large quantities of excellent coal.(128) This knowledge was put to little use, however, until about 1875 or 1876 when “the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad Co. opened up a mine…about three miles south of Oskaloosa”, under the name of the Excelsior Coal Company, which soon developed its output to 1500 or 1600 tons per day.(129) Mahaska County became the largest coal producing county in Iowa, and with the constantly rising prices of land in their neighborhood many of the Friends became restless, sold their lands, and moved away. The climax came in 1890. The Excelsior Coal Company, which had exhausted its earlier mines, moved its plant to the very heart of the Quaker community and opened the Carbonado mines. Soon the erection of shacks was begun and a turbulent mining element came to Carbonado. The few remaining Friends could endure no longer the worldliness and profanity encountered on every side, and as soon as possible they departed. Five years passed by; the church property was sold; the meeting-house was moved away; and to-day the crumbling ruins of an abandoned railway, great heaps of waste slate, fields made dangerous by unsightly sink-holes, and a few dilapidated miners’ shacks have taken the place of this once thriving Quaker community. An early resident of the Spring Creek neighborhood has said:


            At this writing (1912) not a stone or fragment of either building of the school house or old meeting house can be found or identified. The little old grave yard, with many of the lost or unmarked graves, remains as a reminiscence of a once quaker settlement. The nice grove has all disappeared, and even the very ground where the two or three buildings stood is cultivated in growing crops.(130)


            Within the State of Iowa there are many such localities where only desolate burying grounds, with their half-covered gravestones, now mark the sites of once thriving Quaker meetings; and there are also in Iowa many other communities of Friends which are now on the verge of extinction.

            A brief survey of the field of Iowa Quakerism as it exists to-day reveals a few striking facts. First of all it may safely be said that after a period of three quarters of a century there are not now in Iowa more than ten thousand Friends, including the members of all branches of the Society. There are in Iowa the Hicksites, the Wilburites, the Conservative, and the Orthodox Friends, each almost as separate and distinct in their outward affiliations (except the Wilbur and Conservative Friends) as are the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Indeed, the members of hese various branches have very curious ideas concerning each other’s beliefs and manner of life. Again, it may be said that in this western field there has been in progress one of the most interesting experiments in Quakerism in the history of the Society.

            A superficial glance at the Orthodox body of Friends in Iowa to-day would convey the impression that it has had a remarkable period of growth; for when the Yearly Meeting first convened in 1863 there were but five constituent Quarterly Meetings, while there were in 1912 some sixteen such meetings. But a more careful examination of the facts reveals a situation which is alarming to the members of the Society. In the first report on the membership of the Iowa Yearly Meeting, made in 1866, there were on record 1284 families, and 502 parts of families, with 3855 males and 3797 females, or a total of 7652 members; while at the same time there were reported 1938 Quaker children from five to twenty-one years of age.(131) In 1912 the records of the Yearly Meeting show a total membership of but 8383 persons, 2176 of whom are non-resident and largely non-supporting members, while 1130 are associate members, most of whom are under ten years of age.(132) This leaves but 5077 as the active, adult membership of the Yearly Meting in 1912 and, as is always true in religious orders, the interest of many these is merely nominal.

            One other fact must be borne in mind in this connection. In the early period the constituent membership of the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends was confined to a much smaller area than it is to-day and was strongly distinctive in character; while of recent years, with weakened and more numerous centers, its members have come more intimately into contact with the outside world, and have all but lost what might be termed distinctive Quakerism.

            The reasons for this retrogression are not hard to find. One of the heaviest contributing causes is, without question, the marked decrease in the birth-rate among the Friends in this State,(133) together with the struggle which the Society has had to hold its young people. A second reason for the depleted membership of the Iowa Yearly Meeting is the tendency on the part of those who have in later years migrated to the westward from the Quaker centers in Iowa to either enter the fold of other religious denominations or to drop their membership entirely. Thus their names no longer appear on the rolls of the parent Society.

            A third powerful factor contributing largely in producing the present condition has been the movement of the rural population to the towns. The Friends have always been a rural people in the West, and their churches country churches. In this shifting, therefore, large numbers of Friends who have gone to the towns and cities have been absorbed by those denominations to which they felt most inclined.(134) The extent to which this factor has operated is now beginning to be appreciated. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that to a large degree the backbone of many of the evangelical churches in the West is made up of people who are Quaker either in ancestry or in training or both; and herein lies one of the greatest contributions of this sect to modern religious thought. At a recent ministerial meeting in one of the cities of Iowa a prominent Methodist pastor said: “Gentlemen, there is no longer any real need for the Friends’ Church—we are all Quakers at heart.”

            A deeper investigation into the present condition of the Society of Friends in Iowa and the West reveals what is believed to be the true source of all its troubles, namely, its inability to early adapt itself to new and changed environment. As has been see, the Friends who first came to Iowa came form both the East and the South, and they brought with them all of the inherited conservatism of the past. Thus, when thrown into contact with the broad spirit of the West, Quakerism received a great shock. In the mould of this new environment racial differences, political ideas, religious creeds, and institutions of every kind were recast, and out of the process there came forth that broad liberalism which characterizes the West. When the pressure of such surroundings began to be felt by the Society of Friends and some of its members were caught in the current instead of attempting to adjust themselves to their new environment the leaders undertook to purge the Society by frequent disownments. In one Monthly Meeting alone there were no less than one hundred and thirty-seven of such disownments between the years 1842-1875. This is but an illustration of the destructive work wrought by this short-sighted policy among the Friends in Iowa.

            Combining, therefore the influences of the decreasing birth-rate, the westward migrations, the heavy flow into towns and cities where there are no Friends meetings, the absorption into other more progressive denominations, and the wide-spread disownment of members, with the internal dissensions which arose in 1877 and split the Society into two irreconcilable factions, the real causes for the present dormant condition of the Society of Friends in Iowa are apparent.

            To gain a true perspective of what the past half-century has meant to the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, that organization must be viewed through the medium of its western appendages. As was previously state, the membership of the Yearly Meeting in 1863 was about seven thousand, chiefly located about strong centers within the State of Iowa. By the end of the succeeding quarter-century, however, this number had increased to 10,234(135) and was scattered over the vast expanse of the entire West, far out to the Pacific coast. Then began the lopping-off process. In 1893 the two Quarterly Meetings of Newberg and Salem in the State of Oregon were set off as an independent Yearly Meeting with a membership of 955 persons.(136) In 1895 the California Yearly Meeting of Friends, with a membership of 1166 and two Quarterly Meetings, was likewise set off.(137) In 1908 the field was again curtailed by the establishment of the Nebraska Yearly Meeting of Friends, composed of Denver, Hiawatha, Mt. Vernon, Platte Valley, Spring Bank, and Union Quarterly Meetings, and with a membership of 1679 persons.(138) Not that the Society in Iowa has dwindled in numbers under these circumstances but that it has been able to maintain and, in fact, increase its activities is the marvel.

            The history of Iowa Quakerism during the last fifty years is indeed checkered. Among the older members to-day there is a wide-spread uncertainty as to what the future holds in store. The decay of so many of the early Quaker centers in this State; the present scattered condition of the constituent meetings; the lack of sympathy and coherence among the various sects of the Society in Iowa; and the general breaking down not only of denominational but even of church ties in general—all of these facts are disquieting to the Quaker mind. Nevertheless, for more than a generation there have been forces at work within the Society of Friends in Iowa tending toward the modernization of its ancient teachings and the construction of a religious organization adapted to the spirit of the times.


Notes and References


127- In the new thirty thousand dollar yearly meeting-house at Oskaloosa the Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on September 5 and 6, 1913. A full account of the proceedings may be found in the Oskaloosa Herald, September 5 and 6, 1913.


128- Iowa Geological Survey, Vol. II, pp. 37, 38, 340.


129- Iowa Geological Survey, Vo. XIX, p. 559.


130- Acknowledgments should here be made of the kindness of Dr. J. W. Morgan of Oskaloosa, Iowa, who made a special trip to this locality with which he was once so familiar, in order that he might correctly write this sketch.


131- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1866, pp. 12, 26.


132-Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1912. See statistical table attached.


133- Between the five-year periods, 1876 to 1880 and 1906 to 1910, the additions in membership by births to the Orthodox Friends in Iowa fell from about 2 1/10 per cent to 1 1/20 percent of the total membership, respectively. Though this is not the actual rate of birth, it is strongly indicative of what has been suggested. The same fact for the earlier years is even more markedly true, as is shown by the hundred of biographical sketches of pioneer Quaker families in this State which the writer has collected.


134- It is a noticeable fact that the Orthodox and Conservative Friends usually unite with such denominations as the Methodist, Presbyterian, or Congregational, while the Hicksite an Wilbur Friends generally affiliate with the Unitarian and Universalist bodies.


135- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1888, p. 9.


136- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1893, p. 8. The number of members is based on the statistical report of 1892, which gives Newberg 791 members and Salem 164 members.


137- The two Quarterly Meetings originally composing the California Yearly Meeting of Friends were Whittier and Pasadena. See the Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1894, pp. 11, 20, and 1895, p. 7.


138- For a statistical report of the Quarterly Meeting composing the Nebraska Yearly Meeting see Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1907, pp. 47.

            For the report of the committee which aided in establishing the new Yearly Meeting see the Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1908, pp. 6, 7.



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