Quaker Marriage Records

1736 marriage of Joseph Brownell and Leah Lawton (1)

The upcoming summer issue of the Mayflower Descendant includes an interesting article by Mark Wentling entitled “Joseph Brownell (1699-ca. 1773) of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and Little Compton, Rhode Island: Corrections to the Identities of His Wives and Children.” The article examines conflicting claims in past genealogical literature and goes through numerous contemporary sources to show that one Joseph Brownell, a fifth-generation descendant of Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke, was married five times and had eight children by his first three wives.

Of particular usefulness for Mark’s article were Quaker records from Dartmouth, which are now digitally available through the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society, including the record shown here of Joseph Brownell’s second marriage in 1736 to Leah Lawton. This marriage is also included in our three-volume database Dartmouth Vital Records to the year 1850, but the abstract therein lacks much of the above information. While Quaker records are a great genealogical resource, when I began my research in the early 1990s, they were largely not available at NEHGS. Instead, I’d rely on William Wade Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy.

I do not have many Quaker ancestors in the colonial period—my mother, who was raised Methodist, has some seventeenth century Quaker ancestors in Burlington County, New Jersey, who later went south to Virginia, west to Indiana, and finally to my mother’s native Kansas. However, whenever I encounter Quaker marriage records, I’m always reminded of my parents, who had a Quaker wedding in Wichita, Kansas in 1979. Their marriage record hung framed above our family’s fireplace in my youth and looks very similar to earlier Quaker marriage records—like the marriage of Joseph Brownell and Leah Lawton, recorded over 200 years earlier.

My parents’ framed Quaker marriage record

My father was born in Philadelphia, where most of his mother’s ancestors had lived for several generations. They were mostly of German ancestry, as well as Irish and small amounts of other nationalities. While Philadelphia is well known for the Quaker settlement of William Penn in the late seventeenth century, my father’s own Quaker connections are much more recent. His maternal grandparents, Gilbert Wayne Helman (1882-1945) and Mazy Nelson Kelly (1883-1943) were both born in Philadelphia. Gilbert was baptized in the Union Methodist Episcopal Church, though his father was originally Lutheran. Mazy was raised Baptist—her mother was also originally Lutheran, and her father was an Episcopalian. Gilbert and Mazy initially raised their children Baptist, living from city to city for many years before settling in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. In 1925, Gilbert, Mazy, and their six children—including my then ten-year-old grandmother—applied to join the nearby Gwynedd Friends Monthly Meeting.

My father and his sister were raised Quaker when they lived in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They attended meeting in Burlington County, New Jersey, where my mother’s ancestors attended in the 17th century! However, when my father was five, he moved with his parents and sister to Florida, and they largely stopped attending services.

After high school my father went to Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, a Quaker college where he met my mother, though they did not marry at that time. My mother married her first husband at her home Methodist church in Sedgwick, Kansas. Then, after my mother divorced her first husband, she reconnected with my father, and they chose to marry at the University Friends Meeting at the college where they had met. I much prefer this record to their civil marriage license, which is of limited genealogical value—it lists their names, ages, and residences, and nothing more. The Quaker record, however, also notes both the parents of each of the parties and where they lived, as well as noting that my father’s parents were deceased, followed by the signatures of all witnesses in attendance.

In my childhood, my father would occasionally take me to Gwynedd Friends Meeting in Pennsylvania, where a few members of his mother’s family still attended. There is a noticeable difference between services there—which essentially consist of an hour of silence—and at University Friends Meeting in Wichita, which includes music and singing influenced by other faiths of the region. Still, whether we are looking at Quaker marriages in 18th century Massachusetts or 20th century Kansas, the format of a Quaker marriage record has largely remained the same!



1 Found on p. 41 of 51 https://www.dartmouthhas.org/uploads/1/0/0/2/100287044/bmd_1699-1880_p_201-301_signed.pdf

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

18 thoughts on “Quaker Marriage Records

  1. Chris, The article was very good & informative, I learned a lot! As far as I know, my only Quaker Ancestor was Henry John Howland from the Mayflower! Be well, Jack

  2. Chris,
    I am always happy to hear a story about Quaker ancestors and elated that NEHGS has presented on the topic of Quakers. I find it fascinating that Quakers were once the third largest denomination after Episcopals and Congregationalists, circa 1750. Many people do not realize how prevalent Quakers were on Aquidneck Island, across southeastern Massachusetts and on the Cape. While Quakers were leaders in woman’s rights to preach and abolition their tendency toward pacifism during the Revolutionary War and tendency towards being loyalists appeared to have lead to their decline.

  3. I also have ancestors who were members of a meeting in Burlington, NJ. My gggrandmother was “removed” for “marriage outside the discipline.”

  4. I enjoyed reading your article. I have extensive Quaker ancestry on my fathers’ side, also many from Burlington Co. NJ. One thing that confuses me is that I see marriages listed on ancestry in Methodist records when I know the family was Quaker. Yes, I also see the Quaker meeting Record marriages on Ancestry.

  5. A very enjoyable article, Chris. I have many Quaker ancestors who lived in South Jersey, mostly Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland counties. I attended Friends Meeting while in college at Penn State. I wish the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore and Haverford colleges would digitize more of their holdings – I often find that I have to be on campus to get the records I want. One of these days, I’ll extend my usual South Jersey genealogical trip itinerary to include Swarthmore and Haverford!

  6. I started dabbling in genealogy this past March and got serious in July. Not only did I discover I had Quaker ancestors, but the number of direct lines surprised me from Frederick Va., to Hunterdon NJ, to Western PA, the WV panhandle & Eastern Ohio. I’m grateful they left records that have stood the test of time for us.

  7. I enjoyed your article. I especially liked seeing the marriage record. My Quaker ancestors go back to those who came with William Penn. Although they were pacifists, some meetings allowed their men to fight in the civil war in order to end slavery. I have a 2nd grand uncle who fought for the north and is buried in the Valley Friends Burying Ground in Wayne. PA. next to his parents and 2 of his unmarried sisters.

    1. Thanks Carol. Interestingly, only my Quaker relatives served in World War II (the other parts of my family were farmers with agricultural leave). My grandmother’s brother and nephew both served in the Navy aboard minesweepers in the Pacific as they considered removing mines consistent with their Quaker faith.

  8. Chris, I was visiting with a friend and he was going through a box of letters that his grandfather had received over the years. 2 letters were from William Wade Hinshaw, with whom he had been friends. Mr Hindshaw had the most beautiful penmanship and one of the letters even addressed the grandfather’s illegitimacy. Mr Hindshaw expressed his view that in the future no one would be considered illegitimate. At some point should my friend donate the letters to the Historical Society in Iowa, where he lived or to another institution?

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