In the 1820s, North American Quakers were locked in disputes that divided the Religious Society of Friends in the Hicksite-Orthodox Separation of 1827–28. In the years preceding the separation, several influential English Quaker ministers—especially women—dedicated themselves to travelling throughout North America trying to correct what they saw as the flawed doctrine espoused by Friends known as Hicksites. The Hicksites were not followers of the Long Island Quaker minister Elias Hicks (1748–1830) who had traveled throughout the North American meetings in the early nineteenth century critiquing contemporary Quakerism and the “worldly spirit” that had grown among Friends. Hicksites were unified by their commitment to the ongoing revelation of the Inner Light instead of specific doctrine determined by an external source. Their detractors, the Orthodox, were committed to evangelical doctrines including the deity of Christ, the infallibility of scripture, and the atonement. Both sides claimed to represent genuine Quakerism and the disputes between the factions were extremely nasty. Orthodox English ministers crossed the Atlantic and stepped into this fray visiting individuals, families, and all levels of meetings trying to eradicate Hicksite doctrine.

Elizabeth Stephenson Robson (1771–1843) was prominent among these English ministers. She departed Liverpool on 16 August 1824 aboard the Montezuma arriving in Philadelphia on 30 September.[1] Four years later, on 27 July 1828, Robson began her return journey from Philadelphia to Liverpool on the same vessel.[2] Between 1824 and 1828 she logged over 18,000 miles of travel, attended 1,134 meetings, and recorded 3,592 family visits. It was a remarkable feat! Robson was fifty-three years old when she left England. She crossed the Atlantic alone. While her five older children were independent adults, her husband Thomas Robson (1768–1852) remained in Liverpool to care for their two younger daughters who were seven and eight years old respectively. Robson had no idea when, or if, she would see any of them again.

Robson meticulously recorded her travel and visitation itinerary, detailing the number of miles she travelled each day, the families or meetings she visited, and where she lodged. She also wrote lengthy letters to her family and journaled when she was able to do so. Her collected papers are extensive; they have been carefully curated by her descendants and are housed at the Library of the Society of Friends (LSF) in London, England.

Collage of Elizabeth Robson’s diaries at Friends House Library, London. Photo courtesy of FHL.

Some of her letters and related papers are also housed at Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College (FHLSC). Each of these two Quaker archives holds one of the two extant silhouettes of Robson. Despite the commentary accompanying the silhouette at the LSF in London, it seems unlikely that the LSF silhouette represents Robson at age seventy-two. Compare it to the silhouette at FHLSC, which is dated as circa 1835. It is possible that the FHLSC silhouette, which is together with a silhouette of her Robson’s husband Thomas, was created in 1838 when Robson had returned to the United States this time accompanied by her husband. If the FHLSC represents Elizabeth Robson in her mid-sixties, the FHL silhouette cannot be from 1843 since the FHL silhouette appears to represent a younger Robson than that captured in the FHLSC silhouette.

Silhouette of Elizabeth Stephenson Robson [1843] held by Friends House Library, London. Photo by Robynne Rogers Healey.

Silhouette of Elizabeth Robson c. 1835 held by Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. Photo courtesy of FHLSC.

After arriving in Philadelphia in 1824, one of Robson’s first destinations was Upper Canada. The first two weeks after her arrival may have included acclimatizing herself to Philadelphia, meeting with Orthodox Friends and acquainting herself with the situation in the North American meetings, and preparing for the extended journey north. On October 12 Robson recorded attending her first meetings in and around Philadelphia. Then, on October 16, accompanied by Jane Bettle, wife of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Clerk Samuel Bettle, Robson left Philadelphia on route to Upper Canada. Presumably, Robson and Bettle were accompanied for parts of their journey by at least one male Friend who would have driven the buggy or sleigh that transported the pair. Robson’s diary contains comments on the quality of the road in various places highlighting some of the challenges of travel. For instance, the road between Bethlehem and Nazareth, Pennsylvania was “middling” while the road on Wolfe Island south of Kingston was “extreme bad.”[3] Commentary on local roads also featured prominently in Robson’s letters to her family in England.

It took three weeks for Robson and Bettle to travel the 528.5 miles (850.5 kilometers) between Philadelphia and Kingston.[4] I have roughly plotted Robson’s route north based on points noted in her diary.

Elizabeth Robson’s journey from Philadelphia to Kingston, Upper Canada, 16 October – 8 November 1824.

 Because Robson visited as many Friends or Quaker meetings as possible, she did not track directly north. For instance, from Utica, New York, she went south to Bridgewater where she encountered her brother, Isaac Stephenson, another English minister travelling in North America. And from Le Ray, New York she travelled northeast to Indian River, also known as Philadelphia, New York before returning to Le Ray and continuing north where she crossed the St. Lawrence River and entered Upper Canada at Wolfe Island before being conveyed by boat into Kingston on November 8.

Robson was in Upper Canada for three months from 8 November 1824 until 10 February 1825 when she crossed back into the United States at Buffalo, New York. In those three months, she travelled through each of the three regions where Quakers had settled and monthly meetings had been established: Adolphustown/West Lake near Kingston on the Bay of Quinte; Yonge Street in the area around Newmarket and Uxbridge including Pickering east of York (Toronto) on Lake Ontario; and Pelham/Norwich on the Niagara Peninsula. In the Westlake and Yonge Street meetings especially, she participated in multiple family visitations each day; she attended every preparative meeting as she made her way across the colony; she attended monthly meetings and the Canada Half Years Meeting; and she held public meetings in Methodist or Presbyterian churches and school rooms. Robson’s list of families visited provides valuable insight into the make up of each preparative meeting in the colony. She also noted holding a public meeting at “the Mohawk Village” after which she commented that “Captain John Brant is the head counsel chief, [and] has nothing to do I understand with the war department.”[5]

At the end of the small journal that logged her travels through Upper Canada, Robson recorded “travelled 1226 miles [1973 kilometers] in Canada[,] had 70 meetings amongst Friends and others 26 of which were held from amongst Friends, paid 254 family visits.”[6] This note was made weeks after she departed the colony and may contain two errors. My own addition of Robson’s carefully itemized family visits among Upper Canadian Quakers is 245; it is possible that Robson came to the same calculation but transposed the last two numerals in recording them. Additionally, on 10 February—the day Robson entered Buffalo, New York—she inscribed the following up the side of her travel log: “attended 64 meetings in Upper Canada.” Even with the slightly smaller numbers of 245 family visits (instead of 254) and 64 meetings (instead of 70), Robson participated in 309 religious engagements in the space of ninety-four days. When one considers the added demands of winter travel between distant Upper Canadian meetings, it is apparent that Robson and her companion, Jane Bettle, kept a demanding pace that included few opportunities for rest.

Robson was clearly concerned about the state of the Upper Canadian meetings. She was particularly troubled by Pickering Preparative Meeting where Nicholas Brown had emerged as the leader of a strong Hicksite faction. Robson and Brown would cross paths a number of times in the years ahead, especially at New York Yearly Meeting sessions, but it was on her journey through Upper Canada that they first encountered one another. Robson’s efforts to impose doctrinal unity is reflected in the personal epistles she sent to both the Canada Half Years Meeting and the Pickering Preparative Meeting. Her epistle to the half years meeting reveals her discontent with the extent of Hicksite influence in Upper Canada:

it surely is for want of occupying faithfully with the gift of the Holy Spirit that blindness in part hath happened to Israel[.] When this individual and daily work is neglected, it produces weakness in the body at large and dimness of sight, hence wrong things creep in, the wine is mixed with water and the silver is become dross, this causes darkness which is to be felt in meetings for worship preventing the pure life from circulating as from vessel to vessel …  I feel a near and tender sympathy with those who are ready like one formerly to utter this plaintive language, “the strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much Rubbish,” permit me to remind you dear friends that in the first establishment of the wholesome discipline of our society it was said, that the power of Truth was to be the Authority of all our men’s and women’s meetings, as this power is waited for and above in Strength will be afforded to keep out wrong things by exercising the discipline duly and timely over disorderly walkers, thus out of weakness the Lord will make strong for his use[.][7]

In addressing Pickering Friends, she beseeched them to “dwell in love and true unity with each other as becometh the followers of Jesus Christ,” reminding them that “we should love one another with pure love, seeking not the hurt but the welfare of each other, then may all be concerned to look diligently least any root of bitterness springing up in any mind and therefore many be defiled.”[8] The actual separation was still years away but deep divisiveness was splitting meetings and communities.

Just before she left Upper Canada in February 1825, Robson also penned a private letter to a Canadian Friend. This letter may have been directed at Brown, although it could also have been sent to Peter Lossing from the Norwich Monthly Meeting. Robson began her missive, “I trust that in this thou wilt agree with me that it is right we should be honest with ourselves and with one another: this is what I desire to do.” She then reminded her letter’s recipient that “it was no small sacrifice for me to make, to leave my native country and tenderly beloved connexions in life to come to the Land to visit my brethren and sisters in religious membership, and being here and going from one meeting to another.”[9] Robson felt that her sacrifice entitled her to comment freely on the spiritual health of meetings and individuals and to assert her own Orthodox positions.

Ultimately, Robson and her British counterparts were unsuccessful in their efforts to stop the growing influence of the Hicksites. Nevertheless, the efforts of Robson and the other English ministers in Upper Canada in the years leading to the separation indicates how strongly integrated the Upper Canadian meetings were into North American Quakerism. Despite being located on the margins of both the North American and Transatlantic Quaker worlds, Upper Canadian Quakers were tightly connected and helped to shape the broader landscape in which they practiced their faith.

[1] Elizabeth Robson, Diary of Elizabeth Robson, Thomas and Elizabeth Robson Manuscripts, MS Vol S 131, LSF; Elizabeth Robson, American Diary 1824-1828, Thomas and Elizabeth Robson Manuscripts, MS Vol S 133, LSF.

[2] Diary of Elizabeth Robson, 1824–28, July 27, 1828, Thomas and Elizabeth Robson manuscripts, MS Vol S 133, LSF.

[3] Diary of Elizabeth Robson, MS Vol S 131, October 18, 1824, November 7, 1824.

[4] Elizabeth Robson, List of Meetings 10 Mo 12 1824 to 4 Mo 9 1825, Thomas and Elizabeth Robson Manuscripts, MS Vol S 132, LSF.

[5] Robson, List of Meetings 10 Mo 12 1824 to 4 Mo 9 1825, back cover.

[6] Robson, List of Meetings 10 Mo 12 1824 to 4 Mo 9 1825.

[7] Robson, To The Half Years Meeting held at West Lake in the Province of Upper Canada, Letters and Lists of Meetings, 1824-1828.

[8] Elizabeth Robson, To Friends of Pickering Preparative Meeting, Letters and Lists of Meetings, 1824-1828, Thomas and Elizabeth Robson Manuscripts, MS Vol S 134, LSF

[9] Robson, Letter to a Friend, Queenston, 7th 2 Mo 1825, Letters and Lists of Meetings, 1824-1828.

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