Quakers in Alabama

Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends, have been a presence in Alabama since the 1850s. Prior to Emancipation, Quakers in Alabama worked against the slave system by buying more expensive cotton from non-slave sources. More recently, Friends communities in Alabama, most of which occur in the northern part of the state, have been active in opposing the death penalty, promoting education, and helping the poor. Quakers in Alabama still gather for regular weekly worship. They also gather to conduct business in “monthly meetings” that represent local areas and “yearly meetings” that encompass entire regions.

The Religious Society of Friends, popularly known as Quakers and among themselves as Friends, began as a movement in England in 1652, under the leadership of George Fox. The society was established soon after the end of the English Civil War in 1651, with the goals of religious reform and holiness. Quakers live by four main “Testimonies:” equality, honesty, peace, and simplicity; these principles have led their stands against war and slavery. There are various threads of the Quaker tradition, including Conservative Friends who hold “unprogrammed” (mostly silent) meetings in Christian-centered groups, and Liberal Friends who come from various religious backgrounds and who also worship in unprogrammed meetings. Evangelical Friends (not currently represented in Alabama) hold “pastoral” meetings with sermons and music. In the United States, historically, the main Quaker presence in the South was in the Carolinas and Georgia, where they were active in the Underground Railroad. Between 1799 and 1809, however, almost all Quakers in South Carolina and Georgia left to settle the slave-free territories in the Midwest.

Few mentions of Quakers exist in Alabama prior to the 1850s. Several early Alabamians, such as John Dabney Terrell (a signer of Alabama’s first constitution), are noted in History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography to be descended from Quakers. The first significant Quaker activity in Alabama occurred on December 15, 1853, during a series of antislavery meetings with U.S. governors. Friend William Forster of Dorset, England, visited Alabama governor Henry W. Collier in Montgomery. He was warmly received by Collier, who admitted to owning inherited slaves but took no action with regard to Forster’s urgings to end the slave system.

Esther G. and Nathan T. Frame, former Methodists who had joined the Friends in 1867 so that Esther could become a minister, made significant contributions to Quaker work in Alabama. They began by visiting Theodocia and William Wooton (an Orthodox Quaker minister from Terre Haute, Indiana) in Lawrence County, where the Wootons had recently purchased a dilapidated antebellum academy. The Wootons worked there in the community of Mountain Home, establishing an industrial school, an evangelistic center, and a college. In 1884, Mountain Home became officially recognized as a Friends meeting by the Western Yearly Meeting, based in Indiana. In 1889, Mountain Home Friends became formally associated with the Westfield (Indiana) Monthly Meeting as well.

The Frames arrived in Mountain Home on August 24, 1884, and held their first southern revival meeting on the following Sunday at the “Big Spring.” Large crowds gathered out of curiosity to see the Quaker woman preacher from the North, and on September 10, ministers and people of all classes in Hillsboro, Lawrence County, sent an invitation with 120 signatures to the Frames, imploring them to come. They did so and then returned to Indiana to help strengthen the support for this and other Appalachian missions. The Frames left for Alabama again on July 20, 1886, to hold meetings at the Southern Methodist Church (a denomination also known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South) in Cherokee, Colbert County. As before, crowds streamed in to see the Quakers, whose meeting happened to coincide with a congressional campaign in this Democratic area. The political climate had an effect upon at least one meeting, when one inspired attendee was said to have declared that even a Republican could be saved there.

The Frames travelled to Florence, where they met with another Southern Methodist congregation, as well as an African American gathering that included Baptists and Methodists. They continued to nearby Tuscumbia, before heading north to Des Moines, Iowa; Ft. Wayne and Evansville, Indiana; and Greenville, Ohio, before returning to Alabama in 1887. The Frames travelled to the South annually for several years, holding revivals with throngs of people arriving on foot or by oxen, in Gadsden, Attalla, Springville, Athens, Elkmont, and Moulton, as well as in various Tennessee towns. These meetings were commonly held with Methodist or Southern Methodist congregations, upon invitation by their pastors.

The Frames returned to Alabama on October 20, 1890, at the invitation of Rev. F. J. Tyler, to hold meetings at Tyler’s First Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. Preaching twice a day until November 13, they drew crowds so large that some had to listen at the windows and as many as 300 were turned away at each service, according to the Birmingham Age-Herald.

The Fairhope Friends Meeting, a long-thriving Conservative meeting, was formed in 1915 in association with the Stillwater Monthly Meeting, of the Ohio Yearly Meeting, and was authorized as a monthly meeting in 1919. In 1948, four young male Friends and conscientious objectors were imprisoned until 1950 for refusing to register for the draft. After the end of their parole, about half of the Fairhope Monthly Meeting emigrated to Costa Rica beginning on November 4, 1950. Costa Rica was an attractive destination because it had dissolved its army in 1948. The Friends settled upon 3,000 acres of mountain cloud forest, which they and a few other settlers (44 in all) named Monteverde (Green Mountain) in 1951. The following year they formally separated from the Fairhope Monthly Meeting and founded the independent Monteverde Monthly Meeting. Monteverde remains active and cooperates with the Ohio Yearly Meeting. The Fairhope Friends Meeting, weakened by the emigrants’ departure, was “laid down,” or disbanded, by the Ohio Yearly Meeting in 1967, but there remains an independent meeting in Fairhope, which is affiliated with the Friends General Conference.

Additional Quaker meetings in Alabama began during the second half of the twentieth century. Quaker communities in Birmingham, Huntsville, and Auburn continue to gather in monthly meetings affiliated with the Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association and the Friends General Conference, and in Royal (near Blountsville). A small worship group associated with the Birmingham Friends Meeting has met since 1973. This congregation has helped survivors of Hurricane Katrina via direct aid and interviewed them for the Listening Project (which conducts interviews to promote nonviolent social change) in partnership with the National Conference for Community and Justice and Greater Birmingham Ministries. The Birmingham Friends Meeting also actively opposes the death penalty by hanging a mourning banner on execution days, works with Alabama Arise in advocating for low-income people, and annually contributes the amount of its property tax exemption to the Avondale Parent Teacher Association.

Huntsville Friends sponsor the North Alabama Friends School, which supports home schools. Friends in Royal have met since the early 1990s and are members of the Common Ground Community, an alternative farming village in Blount County. The Associated Committee of Friends on Indian Affairs (a Quaker educational mission for American Indians) established the MOWA Choctaw Friends Center in Sanktown near McIntosh, Washington County, in 1984, adding a tribal academy in 1985. The North Carolina Yearly Meeting accepted ownership of the center in August 2006. In 1996, Washington Quaker Workcamps (now Quaker Workcamps International) coordinated international interfaith volunteer teams to help rebuild four African American churches in Boligee, Greene County, which were burned in a series of arsons.

Historically, Quaker gatherings and projects in the Deep South have not been well known beyond the localities involved, except among Friends meetings in other states that have supported the work. However, Friends in Alabama continue to demonstrate the movement’s commitment to equality, honesty, peace, and simplicity, which has lasted more than 350 years. This has been a radical approach to society, particularly during times of slavery, discrimination, war, and excess.

Additional Resources

Forster, William. Memoirs of William Forster. Vol. 2. London: A. W. Bennett, 1865. Digital Quaker Collection.

Frame, Nathan T. Reminiscences of Nathan T. Frame and Esther G. Frame. Cleveland: Britton Printing, 1907. Digital Quaker Collection.

Weeks, Stephen B. Southern Quakers and Slavery. Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science XV. New York: Bergman Publishers, 1968.

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