Iowa History Project


The Quakers of Iowa




Louis Thomas Jones


Part V


Religious and Social Life of the Quakers





Quaker Manners and Customs


             The true explanation of many of those Quaker manners and customs which have always been considered peculiar was expressed by Thomas Clarkson over a hundred years ago in these words:

             The reader should always bear in his mind, if the Quaker should differ from him on any particular subject, that they set themselves apart as a christian community, aiming at christian perfection: that it is their wish to educate their children, not as moralists or as philosophers, but as christians; and that therefore, in determining the propriety of a practice, they will frequently judge of it by an estimate, very different from that of the world. (424)

             Without question the chief outward feature which has always distinguished the Quaker from his fellows has been his manner of dress. The broad-brimmed hats or scuttle-shaped bonnets, and the plain grey clothes(425) of peculiar cut, were, at the outset, primarily a protest against the extravagance of the age of Elizabeth and James I, when “the dressing a fine lady was more complicated than rigging a ship of war”.(426) Before long the same concern for simplicity in dress found its way to America; and in the records of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends may be found the following direction to its members:

             That all men Friends, both old and young be careful not to Imatate the vain Fashions of the World in wearing their hatts set up on three sides (with Ribins broads or Bunched) nor powder the hair to be seen, nor are thee Neck cloath Long hanging down or twisted through the Button holes; nor bigg superfluous, or superfluity of holes, nor bigg Buttonholes, or places wrought in Imatation of holes, nor cross Pocketts, nor Capes on their Coates. Nor wide Laped Sleaves, nor gathered Skirts, drawn in Foulds like the vain practice of the world. Nor unsutable linings of Gaudy Coulors, nor the Breeches too Strait, nor bigg Unbecoming Shubauckles.(427)

             This antipathy toward showiness accompanied the Quaker on his westward migrations. Indeed, allowing for  the natural changes from generation to generation on grounds of “decency and comfort”, one could see in almost every Iowa Quaker community those who bore in nearly every detail, aside from silk stockings and knee breeches, the appearance of the Quakers was due, perhaps, more to the natural limitations attendant upon pioneer life than to matters of conscience or custom; but this is far from the truth. To the Quaker mind costume had a distinct significance and meaning. This was his badge which was both to distinguish him from other men and to protect him from the evil influences of the world; for, thought he, no Quaker wearing this well-known costume would sully it by appearing in questionable places of company, nor would evil men tempt such to do wrong. The wearing of the coat of peculiar cut, therefore, found its way into the Society’s discipline; and the children as well as the grown folks were required to don the garb, being carefully instructed as to its moral value and meaning.

             Again, the wearing of the Quaker hat had long been a puzzle to the outside world. Are its broad brim and high crown of really grave concern? Why would not the Quaker remove his hat in the presence of ladies or men of note, or in his own meetings for worship? As with other curious Quaker customs, this, too, had its meaning. To lift or doff the hat was once a sign of servile regard, or at least of personal respect. With his firm belief in the absolute equality of man, the Quaker continued to wear his hat, seeing no reason why he should remove it even during a sermon, for such came from the lips of a man; but when he addressed God in prayer, then all arose, removed their hats and stood uncovered before one supreme being.

             Another custom which marked the Quakers as peculiar was their use of the pronouns “thou” and “thee” instead of the pronoun “you”—which, it was said, came to be used on account of man’s desire to be flattered.(428) In England, “thou” was the form of address of a lord to a servant, of an equal to an equal, and likewise expressed companionship, love, permission, defiance, or scorn; while “ye” or “you” was the language of a servant to a lord and expressed compliance, honor, submission, or entreaty.(429) The Quakers insisted upon the use of the former terms in personal address; and they would not use the latter. Against this custom priests, and officers, and nobility stormed, and Quakers by the thousands were thrown into prison for insolence and contempt; but to maintain their convictions of human equality they willingly suffered in silence. Naturally, as the Quakers spread throughout the world they continued to use both at home and abroad this simple form of address, which to them is full of historic meaning.

             Following this use of terms of address came others, and for similar reasons. The term “Mister” was rejected on the ground that it was but “Mater” corrupted, and savored of servility; and instead the Quakers addressed people by their given name, as John or Mary—though they had no compunctions about using an official title such as President or Governor, since this usage was sanctioned by the scriptures. (430) Furthermore, the common salutations of “good morning” or “good-bye” were like-wise rejected; for, said the Quakers, “all times are good in the providence of God”. In place of such expressions they simply inquired after each other’s interests with such a query as “how art thou?”, or in parting they said “farewell”.

             Peculiar in these respects, the Quakers have been singular in others. At the time of the rise of the Society funerals were occasions for pageantry and worldly show in honor of dead. Against all this the Quaker sense of propriety naturally revolted, since to them a funeral seemed an occasion for deepest reflection. As time went on a general order or system for such occasions was adopted and became a fixed part of the Quaker discipline. In Iowa the procedure was very simple. The body of the dead was placed in a plain board coffin and borne from the home to the meeting-house in silence, the attending relatives and friends showing no outward signs of grief by means of crepe or “mourning habits” (clothing). When the coffin was placed before the assembled audience, a period of silence ensued, though this might be broken by anyone at any time with fitting exhortation or prayer. In due time the coffin was then borne to the open grave, where a pause was again observed—this time primarily to call the attention of all to “the uncertainty and short continuance of life, and the wisdom there would be in a preparation for death”.(431)

             In the beginnings of the order in England, the Quakers, refusing to accept the services of the established church, buried their dead “in their gardens, or orchards, or in the fields and premises of one another”.(432) But as time went on they secured their own burying grounds, in which members were interred without expense, the burials being made in regular rows in order of death irrespective of family ties. This system long prevailed, being followed, indeed, during the early years in Iowa. In the early days gravestones were not used—though a careful record was kept of all burials. But it appears that by the middle of the nineteenth century the Indiana Yearly Meeting had provided in its discipline that “if a plain stone [native to the country] should be set to the grave, it should not exceed twelve inches in height or width, and contain only the name, date of the decease, and age”.(433) Then came a more liberal provision in the discipline adopted by the Iowa Yearly Meeting in 1865, limiting the size of such gravestones to “not to exceed two feet in height’, and allowing “such slight additions as may be desired, simply to define the relation of the deceased”;(434) while now there are no restrictions imposed by the Iowa Orthodox Friends.

             The manner in which the Society of Friends long held its members to circumspection in temporal affairs and to communal harmony is also interesting. Once a year the following “Query”, as the basis of operations, was read in both the Preparative and Monthly Meetings and answered in writing:

Are Friends careful to live within the bounds of their circumstances, and to avoid involving themselves in business beyond their ability to manage; or in hazardous or speculative trade? Are they just in their dealings, and punctual in complying with their ability to manage; or in hazardous or speculative trade? Are they just in their dealings, and punctual in complying with their contracts and engagements; and in paying their debts seasonably?(435)

Furthermore, it was provided that where there existed any “reasonable grounds for fear I these respects”, the overseers were to deal with such persons “seasonably”, and proceed as conditions seemed to require. It was due largely to this oversight or supervision for generations that the “Quaker’s word was considered as good as his bond” in money matters.

In like manner, every precaution was used by the heads of the church to see that differences or misunderstandings among the membership did not find their way to the courts of law. When such difficulties did arise, the party who felt himself aggrieved was expected to “calmly and kindly, request the other to comply with the demand”; and if refused, he was to take with him one or more of the overseers and in their presence repeat to the offending party his demand. Then, if the difficulty still remained unsettled, the parties concerned were required to choose a number of impartial Friends as arbitrators, and mutually agree by bond or written agreement to abide by their decision. A full and fair hearing was then given to the parties in the presence of each other, whereupon the arbitrators after mutual consultation apart gave their united opinion. If either of the parties refused to abide by this opinion he was to be “complained of” and dealt with in the usual manner of procedure by that body, even to the extent of disownment.(436) In any case, to proceed at law a member was required to first secure the consent of the Monthly Meeting after a thorough investigation of the case; and t o do so without such consent, whether he was right or wrong, was in itself a disownable offense.

The attitude of the Quakers relative to music, dancing, the theater, and fiction, is also worth noting. It is a well known fact that until recent years (and then the change was only among the progressive sect the Quakers have been a songless people except in their homes. Not that the Friends have ever been insensible to music as an art, but hey opposed it because of the excessive amount of time consumed in acquiring proficiency in an art which administered to purely aesthetic pleasure. So far as music in their meetings for worship was concerned, the very thought was incompatible with their idea of waiting upon the Lord in silence for His divine direction.

             For far more serious reasons did the Quakers discard dancing, the theater, and fiction. To them, the gaiety of the ball room and the movement of men and women in close bodily contact seemed to be the most conducive means for awakening the human passions and evil desires. To this objection were added the unseemly hours usually kept by dancers, together with the physical exhaustion which followed, the vain attention given to attire, the jealousies and envy aroused in the bidding for personal attention, and the evil excesses which so frequently attended such occasions. These, one and all, they held to be ill calculated to foster and preserve the more sensitive promptings of the soul, or the purity of the mind; and in consequence dancing was early placed under the ban in their discipline. In like manner the Quakers from the time of George Fox to the present have held theater-going to be a diversion warranting disownment. The intrigue and trickery without due punishment so often portrayed, and the unnatural excitement and feeling aroused almost invariably disqualified the habitual attender, so the Quakers conceived, for the more substantial and particularly the religious attitude of mind, and so it could not be countenanced.

While not condemning all fiction, that of a light, worthless, and trashy character was among them scrupulously guarded against. All through the early years in Iowa each of the Monthly Meetings maintained a committee to inspect the books and papers that came into the homes, and to advise against any that might appear to be harmful. To encourage good reading, large numbers of books were sent to these western settlements by interested Friends in the East and in England, so that almost every Monthly Meeting had a library of the standard Quaker works, free for the use of all; and, as indicated by the records, they were widely read and appreciated.(437)

To be sure, most of the manners and customs once peculiar to the Quakers have almost disappeared among the Friends in Iowa, and the rigid application of the policy of disownment for trivial breaches of order has broken down. Still, to a large extent, “plainness in dress and address” is practiced among the Wilburites and Conservatives of this State. Among the Orthodox body, the plain Quaker costume and the “thou” and “thee” are the exceptions rather than the rule, and seldom are either observed among the young; while the matter of amusements, though still discussed,(438) is but little regulated by the church.




424- Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism Taken from a view of the Education and Discipline, Social Manners, Civil and Political Economy, Religious Principles and Character, of the Society of Friends (New York, 1806), Vol. I, p. 64.

425- The Quaker drab was made of the plain white wool, undyed; while the Quaker grey, of which the men’s clothes were almost always made, was composed of the white wool mixed with some black wool, undyed.

426- Rowntree’s Quakerism, Past and Present (Philadelphia, 1860), p. 141, quoted from Pictorial Histroy, Book VIII, p. 632.

427- Taken from notes by Clarence M. Case on the Minutes of New England Yearly Meeting, Vol. I, 1683-1789.

428- Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism, Vol. I, p. 280

429- Webster’s International Dictionary, see the work “thou”.

430- Matthew XXII: 21; Romans XIII: 7; I Peter II: 17.

431-The Discipline of the Society of Friends of Indiana Yearly Meeting, 1854, p. 30.

432- Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism, Vol. II, p. 27.

433- The Discipline of the Society of Friends of Indiana Yearly Meeting, 1854, p. 31.

434- The Discipline of the Society of Friends of Iowa Yearly Meeting, 1865, p. 80.

435- The Discipline of the Society of Friends of Indiana Yearly Meeting, 1854, p. 82.

436- The Discipline of the Society of Friends of Indiana Yearly Meeting, 1854, pp. 27-30. Also The Discipline of the Society of Friends of Iowa Yearly Meeting, 1865, pp. 86-89.

437- As early as 1839 the Salem Monthly Meeting received from the Cherry Grove Monthly Meeting, Indiana, eighty-eight volumes, including eighteen titles. Such gifts continued from time to time to such an extent that the Salem meeting divided its library in 1842 with the meetings at Cedar Creek and Pleasant Plain.

438- See the Report of Committee to Consider Question of Amusements I the Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Orthodox) Friends, 1912, pp. 71-73.




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