Monday, July 05, 2010

Quaker story

Independence Day in the U.S. is a bellicose holiday. It's ironic that it comes only a few days after the anniversary of the day on which Britain, peaceably, declared Canada to be an independent nation. Many Canadians trace their ancestry to families that were harried out of the lower colonies because they would not join in the rebellion.

I've lots of relatives, near and distant, who shouldered weapons on North American battlefields of the Revolutionary era (or who directed others who did so). And lots, too, whose religious beliefs kept them at home.

These recalcitrants belonged to the Society of Friends and could be disowned by their fellow Quakers for taking arms, signing oaths of loyalty (even under duress), paying taxes to support defense or insurgency, or paying fines to obtain exemption from military service. Those disowned were shunned; they were not welcome in Meetings, they could not call on the fellowship for support in time of need.

This makes sense when you think about it. All religions need to make it clear to believers and outsiders alike just what it is that distinguishes them from all the other faiths. And, as purveyors of beliefs that were not only unpopular, but also seen as dangerously subversive, Quakers had special reason for wanting to insure that they were united and could draw unquestioning and loving nurturance from one another. The most common reason for being disowned was "marrying out" which could mean marrying a person who was not a Quaker, being married by a priest or minister, or lying about one's suitability as potential spouse.[1]

Not so many Quakers were disowned for associating themselves with a military cause in some way. Their small numbers probably show that the great majority were staunch in their beliefs even under gross provocation (their self-righteous neighbors might tar them and feather the tar, and ride them out of the village on a rail just because they would not sign an oath of loyalty). But it's also possible that Meetings recognized that members could be forgiven for caving in under such duress. And it's quite possible too, that members left Meeting when they decided they must fight for one side or the other.[2]

Most of the many near and remote members of my family who were Quakers were in the Thorne branch. Quite a few of these Thornes were named Thomas, and one of these, a Thomas H. Thorne, was said to have gained notice in the following ways: "This Thomas Thorne was disowned from the Religious Society of Friends for participation in the Revolutionary War. He was an Aide to George Washington & led the forces across the Delaware River & destroyed the Hessian Army."[3]

This is a juicy story, but it isn't a factual one. First off, it's wildly implausible. This Thomas H. was definitely born on July 10, 1766, and would have been but 10 at the time he was supposedly a high-ranked army officer. Second, there was no Thomas Thorne among Washington's aides that anyone can now find. And third, he might have served in the war, but, if so, his name isn't be found on rosters that have survived so far as I can tell. There was some discussion of these points on a Thorne family discussion list a while back.[4] The story apparently took root at a reunion of the Thorn family of West Virginia in 1940 where someone told it to a reporter covering the event. These things happen. It's since been repeated here, here, and here.

There's a lesson for me in this little account — one about applying basic common sense before repeating family stories and seeking verification when there's reason to doubt their accuracy. It's actually a somewhat more encompassing reminder to cast a skeptical eye on the fascinating stuff that appears all over the internet.


{This is an imaginative reconstruction of Betsy Ross & company; source: U. S. National Archives, image 148-GW-1210 via; Betsy Ross was a Philadelphia Quaker who was disowned for marrying out. She ran an upholstery business and is thought to have made flags for the Revolutionary rebels.[5]}

{Canada Day cartoon by K. Beaton}


Some sources:

Betsy Ross, Quaker Rebel

Thomas H. Thorn by John Coutant Thorn

Michelle's Family: Thorn, Thomas (1766 - 1835) - male b. 10 JUL 1766 in Crosswicks, Burlington, NJ
d. 1835 in WV father: Thorn, John (1730 - 1807) mother: Ivins, Diadamia (1734 - 1813)

The Cox family in America by Henry Miller Cox, George William Cocks, and John Cox (Printed by the Unionist gazette association, 1912)

Early Church Records of Burlington County, New Jersey, Volume 2. by Charlotte D. Meldrum (Heritage Books, 2007)

Liberty and conscience: a documentary history of the experiences of conscientious objectors in America through the Civil War by Peter Brock (Oxford University Press US, 2002)

God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule, The Onion, September 26, 2001 | ISSUE 37•34 "Humans don't need religion or God as an excuse to kill each other — you've been doing that without any help from Me since you were freaking apes!" God said. "The whole point of believing in God is to have a higher standard of behavior. How obvious can you get?"

Early Quaker History

book review in the Daily Beast: The Secret Founding Fathers by T.H. Breen



[1] Quaker records often give a catch-all accusation of "disunity" when disowning a member of the society. In addition to marrying out and failing in peace testimony, Friends were made unwelcome for ill-behaviour, for going out with a man under pretence of being married, for not complying with advice to emancipate a Negro, for joining another society, and for joining the Regulators (vigilante groups of the Revolutionary period and before).

[2] Some of the few who were disowned for not living up to the Peace Testimony formed a schismatic Society of Free Quakers.

[3] My common ancestor with this Thomas H. Thorne is William Thorne (born 1616 in England). Thus (from

Descendancy from William Thorne (born before 1617) to Thomas H. Thorne:

1. William Thorne b: Bef. 1617 in England d: Bet. 1657 - 1664 in Flushing, Long Island, NY
.. +Susannah Boothe b: Abt. 1630 d: Abt. 1675 in Flushing, Long Island, NY
... 2 John Sr Thorne b: 1643 in probably in Lynn, MA d: Aft. 1707 in Flushing
.... +Mary Parsell b: 1643 m: March 09, 1663/64 in Flushing, Long Island, NY
..... 3 John Thorn Jr. b: Abt. 1665 in Chesterfield, NJ d: Bef. August 13, 1737 in Bordertown, NJ
...... +Catherine Oakley? b: Abt. 1668 d: 1766 m: 1688
....... 4 Joseph Thorn b: November 1700 in NJ d: 1774
........ +Sarah Foulke b: September 25, 1702 in NJ d: Bef. 1774 m: 1723
......... 5 John Thorn b: 1729 in Camden, NJ d: 1807 in Camden
.......... +Diadamia Ivins b: 1733 in NJ d: 1813 in NJ m: 1753
........... 6 Thomas H Thorn b: July 10, 1766 in Burlington Co, NJ d: 1813
............ +Rebecca Steward b: 1765 m: 1785 in Crossneck, NJ

[4] From: J.C. Thorn's Family Forum - ARCHIVES
Posted by Brandon Wolf on Tuesday, 4 May 2004, at 11:21 a.m.

Just wondering about the Thomas H. Thorn in the 6th Generation of the William Thorne line (b.10 Jul 1766) The page states:

This Thomas Thorne was disowned from the Religous Society of Friends for participation in the Revolutionary War. He was an Aide to George Washington & led the forces across the Delaware River & destroyed the Hessian Army.

Who is credited with this research? I cannot find anything to confirm this. In fact, the famous Crossing of the Delwaware happened December 26, 1776. Which would have made Thomas H. Thorn 10 years old. I could see him being an Aide, but leading forces across and destroying the Hessian Army? Just curious if anyone can confirm this at all?


Posted by Roger Templeton on Wednesday, 16 June 2004, at 11:51 a.m., in response to Thomas H. Thorn - George Washington's Aide?, posted by Brandon Wolf on Tuesday, 4 May 2004, at 11:21 a.m.
Brandon - I have almost the same language in my files, an article copied on typewritten onion-skin by my aunt many years ago:

"The SENTINEL, Parkersburg, West Virginia, Aug. 1940 --
[...] "In the sixth generation of record is found Thomas Thorn, born July 10, 1766. He was disowned from the Society of Friends for participating in the Revolutionary War. He was personal aide to General Washington and led the forces who crossed the Deleware."

Pretty heady, for a 10-year old, eh?

Posted by Betty Renick on Wednesday, 16 June 2004, at 1:58 p.m., in response to Thomas H. Thorn - George Washington's Aide?, posted by Brandon Wolf on Tuesday, 4 May 2004, at 11:21 a.m.
I've heard this 'story' over the years and also seen it questioned. I have found no documentation. I have this information on his grandfather Joseph Thorne:

Joseph THORNE. was born about 1700 probably in New Jersey. He probably died in 1774 in New Jersey (Will executed 7/15/1774 & proved 3/25/1775). According to Anthony T. Thorn (descendant) this Joseph Thorn received cuts & swords wounds from Hessian soldiers, who attempted to invade his home.

It has been suggested that because he used force to defend his home, he might have been the one to have been disowned by the Society of Friends. In my line from William, I also show Thomas born 1766 which, if correct, would make him too young for Rev War. His father John could have participated (born 4 May 1730) but I have no record of any Rev War service for my Thorn(e) ancestors.
[5] Betsy Ross - Brief Bio:
Elizabeth Griscom (later known as Betsy Ross) was born in 1752, the eighth of seventeen children. When she was three, her family moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia. By the time she was a young woman, Betsy (a Quaker) was a trained upholsterer.

Her first husband, John Ross, was an Anglican (which meant that Betsy’s family opposed the marriage). The young couple started their own upholstery business on Mulberry Street (now Arch Street) in today’s Old City of Philadelphia.

A bit more than two years after their wedding, John was guarding munitions near the Delaware River. He was killed when gunpowder exploded. Betsy became a widow at 24.

In addition to running her upholstery business, which she continued to work after John’s death, Betsy earned extra money by mending uniforms (and other similar items) for members of the Continental Army. She married again in June of 1777.

Joseph Ashburn, her second husband, was a mariner often away at sea. In 1780, when Betsy was expecting the couple’s second child (a daughter, Eliza), the British captured Ashburn’s ship and charged the whole crew with treason.

Jailed at the Old Mill Prison (in Plymouth, England), Joseph died before Britain released their American prisoners in 1782. So did Zilla Ashburn, the couple’s older daughter. She had lived just nine months.

A widow again (this time at age 30), Betsy renewed her friendship with John Claypoole. They married, in May of 1783, and were together thirty-four years.

Betsy, herself, lived a long life. She died in her sleep, on the 30th of January, 1836. By that time, she was 84 years old and totally blind.

U. S. National Archives, image 148-GW-1210.

No comments: