Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part IV


Benevolent and Educational Enterprises





Missionary Activities of the Iowa Friends


            Closely allied with their efforts in behalf of the freedmen and the American Indians are the activities of the Iowa Friends along other philanthropic lines, particularly their missionary work in the island of Jamaica. After the first appearance of missionary zeal among the early Friends in England it will be remembered that a strange apathy seemed to pervade the new religious order. This decline in zeal continued until the Quakers, in the new world at least, “actually came to find a satisfaction in the thought that they were not a proselyting people”(338) and so withdrew from all evangelistic or missionary effort. But there came a reawakening. The progressive or orthodox branch of the Society throughout America heard the call to world-wide evangelization, and arose to meet the call under the direction of the American Friends’ Board of Foreign Missions, in the work of which the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Orthodox Friends has borne a prominent part both with men and means.

            Before the Separation of 1877 took place in the Iowa Yearly Meeting, a so-called “Missionary Association” had been organized among the membership, with a president at its head and vice presidents in each of the several Quarterly Meetings. The work of the association seems, for a time, to have been purely local, consisting of “tract reading, temperance and Sabbath school work, visiting the families of the poor”(339) and such like; but it was not long until its activities were extended to the founding of “mission school”, the “assisting to reform and find homes for the outcast and destitute”, and the holding of open air meetings in county jails—a work similar to that carried on at present by the Salvation Army.(340) This organization proved successful and led to the establishment of what was called the “Home and Foreign Missionary Board.”

            Provided with a minute for religious service from the Stuart Monthly Meeting and the Bear Creek Quarterly Meeting, a minister named Evi Sharpless laid before the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, in 1881, “a concern that had been resting on his mind for some years, to visit in gospel love some of the West India Islands, and to labor there as an evangelist”. The request was heard in a joint session, men and women sitting together, and after “prayerful deliberation” on this new departure Sharpless was liberated for the service.(341)

            Those who were acquainted with the early history of Quakerism were well aware of the role which the founders of the faith had played in those western seas: as early as 1662 two Quaker ministers, Ann Robinson and Oswell Heritage, had preached the Quaker message on the island of Jamaica, and nine years later George Fox himself was there. By the beginning of the eighteenth century it is said that on this island alone there were nearly ten thousand followers of the Quaker faith. But long before Sharpless or the Iowa Friends had ever dreamed of these fields for personal service almost every trace of the Quakers on the island had been obliterated.(342)

            Accompanied by William Marshall of Bangor, Sharpless sailed from New York early in November, 1881, and after a six days’ voyage landed in Jamaica. Marshall soon returned, but Sharpless remained and itinerated from place to place, preaching and working in company with the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Wesleyan missionaries on the island. In the spring of 1883, however, he launched out for himself, and high up among the mountains in a temporary booth covered with green banana leaves as a shield from sun and rain he established his first Quaker mission at Cedar Valley.

            While Sharpless labored thus, Marshall, at the Iowa Yearly Meeting in 1883, told in such forceful language of the Jamaica field that his hearers were deeply stirred. The following resolution, first unanimously adopted by the Missionary Association”, was in turn approved by the Yearly Meeting, thus bringing the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends into definite relations with the work of foreign missions:

            Resolved, That in view of the demand for missionary work I Jamaica we feel that the time has come for Friends to establish and support a Mission Station on that island, and we recommend that Friends of Iowa Yearly Meeting consider it their special field.(343)

            Among the listeners on this occasion were Jesse and Elizabeth R. Townsend, two Friends living at Iowa City, who had long meditated on a religious call to labor, as they thought, among the Indians; but learning of this open door, they volunteered for the work in Jamaica. The Yearly Meeting sent them forth, and on December 14, 1883, they arrived at their chosen field of labor. Sharpless gladly received them at Cedar Valley and turned over to them his mission station, while he set out again on an evangelistic tour.

            In the forepart of January, 1885, Sharpless, for a second time, entered the home of his friend Dr. Waldron at the extreme end of the island; and on the following Sunday morning, with hymn book and Bible in hand, and with two of the Waldron boys at his side, he marched down the long street of the village announcing his intended service at the other end of the town. A crowd soon gathered out of the huts and from over the palm-clad hills. Then, with a “high moss covered rock” for a pulpit, he preached his sermon, and within two weeks thereafter, it is said, the people had built a meeting-house of “sticks from the mountains” and “a roof of cocoanut leaves”, and called it Happy Grove.(344)

            During these years a missionary spirit, no doubt largely aroused by the evangelistic movement at home, seemed to be developing among the Iowa Friends. Side by side with the Missionary Association, the women of the Yearly Meeting organized a Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, on identically the same plan, for aggressive missionary work. The Sunday schools, also, caught the spirit, and by 1884 out of a total of eighty-two such schools in the Yearly Meeting fifty were contributing monthly to the missionary fund, which collections for the year amounted to $969.93.(345) The Christian Endeavor also took up the work, and with the combined strength of all these agencies the funds raised for the Jamaica field rose from $2381.63(346) in 1887 to over $14,000(347) in 1906. For the entire period from 1883 to 1913 the Yearly Meeting through all of its agencies has expended over $143,000 in the work.

            In 1893 the Iowa Yearly Meeting sent Gilbert L. Farr of Oskaloosa to Jamaica to superintend the Friends’ mission stations and to extend the work. Fortunately, some months before, Arthur H. Swift of Worcester, Massachusetts, then a young man of power and deep devotion, arrived on the island to take charge of the Seaside School and mission. Hand in hand these two men worked, aided by the other missionaries. Meeting-houses and schools were built and out-stations located at advantageous points. Moreover, valuable properties were bought as investments to  provide a means of future support.(348) Through persistent effort the ignorance and immorality prevailing on every hand(349) gradually gave way and scores of natives came into the Quaker fold.

            Worn with ceaseless toil and anxious to educate their boys, Gilbert L. Farr and his wife returned to Iowa in 1903, leaving in the island Arthur Swift, who had earlier taken over the superintendency. In that same fall the Mission Board gave to the Yearly Meeting the following statement of the work:

            We thankfully report a year of great blessing in the Jamaica work. There are now 569 members in the three Monthly Meetings [Glen Haven, Amity Hall and Seaside]—a net increase of 39 the past year. There are 1040 scholars enrolled in the Sabbath Schools, about 200 members, including Juniors, or the Christian Endeavor societies, and over 500 scholars in the days of schools.

            Furthermore, the funds raised in the island itself for the work during the year amounted to $1,950.(350)

            With the zeal which marks the true missionary Swift grappled with his problems, inspiring those about him to increased effort through his own example. In order to bring about more united and more efficient work, a weekly council of all the workers, both American and native, was held at Seaside, where reports from the various stations were read and discussed.

            On Saturday, June 26, 1909, Swift responded to a call to address a large union missionary gathering at Morant Bay, some twenty miles from his home. For many days he had been under a nervous strain, and in his address that day those present seemed to perceive a peculiar touch of pathos.(351) When descending from the pulpit as the sermon closed, his sight seemed to fail, a strange malady came upon him, and with all speed he was taken to the nearby parsonage, where medical assistance was summoned. The word dispatched to his wife brought her to his side but two hours before he passed away. “The bell tolling in the night”, says one writer, “was the first intimation to many of his illness. A company of Seaside Friends started immediately to walk to Morant Bay. Four miles from Seaside they met Mrs. Swift and a company of Friends from Amity Hall and Golden Grove who had already joined her, returning with the corpse. Reaching Hector’s River just after day light the people thronged out of their houses and wept aloud as the company passed, many following to the mission yard which was already filled with the sorrowing ones. All day crowds of people came from far and near to express their sorrow and sympathy.” “His death”, says the writer, “has produced a wonderful effect upon people and many lives have been consecrated to God’s service as a result.”(352) The news was received with dismay by the Iowa Friends.

            It was a sad council meeting of the missionaries on the island of Jamaica on July 5th. With rare courage, however, “H. Alma Swift supplied the vacant place”;(353) and by unanimous consent has continued to fill it, crowning the work of her husband with complete success. Under her immediate direction as Superintendent the following missionaries are at work at present in the Jamaica field, in addition to Alsina M. Andrews, Matron of the Happy Grove School for girls: Mary E. White, Sada M. Stanley, Alice Kennedy, Jefferson W. and Helen F. Ford, Lizzie Allen, Anna Sherman, and Charles and Anna Kurtzholz. The field itself, and the various centers with their respective memberships in 1912 stood as follows: “Seaside, 711; Amity Hall, 278; Orange Bay, 73; Glen Haven, 126; Annotto Bay, 68; Middle Quarter, 83; St. Maria, 21; total, 1360.”(354)

            While the Orthodox Friends of Iowa had thus for years been working out their foreign missionary problem,(355) other Yearly Meetings had developed fields in Asia, Africa, and in many islands of the sea.(356) Owing to their earlier experience with the advantages of cooperation in the negro and Indian work, the consciousness gradually grew that here, too, a union would give added strength. To that end a move was made in 1879;(357) but not until 1894 was the “American Friends’ Board of Foreign Missions” established.(358) By this means the mission work of the Friends was brought into harmonious unity and into touch with the greater world movements of the day. In 1911 the Iowa Yearly Meeting authorized the transference of its Jamaica charge to the management of the American Board.(359) According to the present plan the Iowa Friends, still responsible for the maintenance of the Jamaica field, work through a “Foreign Missionary Committee” appointed by them,(360) which committee is subordinate to the directions of the American Board.




338- Pumphrey’s Missionary Work in Connection with the Society of Friends (Philadelphia, 1880), p. 13.


339- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1879, p. 21.


340- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends,1880, p. 17.


341- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1881, p. 9.


342- Bowles’s Jamaica and Friends’ Missions, pp. 49-51.


343- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1884, pp. 30, 32.


344- Bowles’s Jamaica and Friends’ Missions, pp. 56, 57.


345- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1887, p. 32.


346- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1906, p. 26.


347- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1906, p. 26.


348- In 1889 the “Happy Grove Estate”, consisting of about 150 acres, was purchased by the Yearly Meeting for $2,100. See Bowles’s Jamaica and Friends’ Missions, p. 116. In 1903 the Haining estate of 866 acres and 60 head of cattle was also purchased for about $8,000. See Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1903, p. 58.


349- Relative to the immorality on the island of Jamaica Jesse George, an Iowa Missionary, says of the Hordley and Amity Hall districts: “I should think 95 percent of the adult population were living together indiscriminately, regardless of the marriage tie.”—Bowles’s Jamaica and Friends’ Missions, p. 82. Gilbert L. Farr also observes “that more than sixty per cent. of births are out of wedlock.” This was one of the most difficult problems which the Christian missionaries in Jamaica had to meet. See Farr’s Friends’ Mission in Jamaica, p. 1.


350-Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1903, p. 54.


351- Western Work, Vol. XIII, August, 1909, p. 21.


352- Letter of Alsina Andrews to Josepha Hambleton, July 5, 1909.


353-Minutes of the Jamaica Mission Council, July 5, 1909.


354- Farr’s Friends’ Mission in Jamaica, pp. 23, 24.


355- With the rise in the interest of the Iowa Friends in foreign missions came a corresponding decline in the work of home missions until at the present time there is almost no real organized home mission work being done among the Orthodox or other bodies of Friends in Iowa.


356- The various American Yearly Meetings of Orthodox Friends now maintain missions in Japan, East and West China, India, Palestine, Africa, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, and Alaska. See Minutes of the Five Years Meeting of the Friends in America, 1912, p. 42.


357- Pumphrey’s Missionary Work in Connection with the Society of Friends, 1894, p. 38.


358- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1894, p. 38.


359- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1911, p. 69.


360- The “Foreign Mission Committee” now consists of “three members of the American Friends’ Board of Foreign Missions appointed by the Yearly Meeting for five years, seven members appointed by the Yearly Meeting for one year to be nominated as follows: five by the Yearly Meeting Nominating Committee, one by the W. F. M. S., one by the C. E. Union”.—Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1912, p. 18.



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