Manuscript Journal of a Transatlantic Quaker Mission, 1796-97

Manuscript Journal of a Transatlantic Quaker Mission, 1796-97

Farrer, William (1738-1826) A Journal of a Religious Visit to Germany & Holland by William Farrer as Companion to David Sands in Company with William Savery & Benjamin Johnson & Also George Dillwyn & Wife as far as Pyrmont. Manuscript, 1796-1797. 160 pages; 19 cm. Original calf covers tooled in blind, recently rebacked, with original marbled endpapers. Some soiling to pages, but the text is complete with no losses to the pages, and the ink though slightly faded is easily legible.

Farrer was a member of the party of Friends who toured Germany and Holland from August 1796 to February 1797, a period of tremendous political turmoil. The party included David Sands of Cornwall, NY; William Savery and Benjamin Johnson of Philadelphia, PA; and George and Sarah Dillwyn of Burlington, NJ. Representing an important moment in the transatlantic ministry that such scholars as Frederick B. Tolles, Sarah Crabtree, Naomi Pullin, and Jordan Landes have identified as vital both to Quaker identity and influence, the mission was widely reported at the time and interpreted since. Accounts by two of the participants were published in the 1840s (cf. Savery, 112-185, and Sands, 96-172), and the manuscript of a third, housed at Winterthur, was prepared later (Hickman). Unpublished, Farrer’s richly detailed memoir offers a fresh perspective on the voyage, presenting previously unrecorded incidents and illuminating some significant divergences among the missionaries worthy of further study.

The traveling party made for an interesting group. William Savery (1750-1804) was a highly active preacher, and a passionate abolitionist and Indian rights activist who lobbied George Washington to stop the wars against native groups and worked hard to negotiate the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. He left for England in 1796. As a preacher, David Sands (1745-1818) inclined towards the prophetic, drawing upon his Presbyterian background to emphasize human depravity. As Rufus Jones notes, he was “swept by sudden incursions, possessed of inspirational openings, and enabled in some mysterious way to reveal the states and conditions of minds of persons unknown to him” (Jones, I: 282). Shortly before the yellow fever epidemic struck, he prophesied doom to the residents of Philadelphia: “The people are too many – I will thin them --- I will thin them – I will thin them.” (Hull, 46). Shortly afterwards, Sands toured the south, admonishing slaveowners to atone. Traveling through England and Ireland, Sands attacked Deism and Hannah Barnard. Born into a prominent Quaker family, George Dillwyn (1738-1820), a close colleague of Anthony Benezet, married Sarah Hill (1738-1826) in 1759. The two forged a durable partnership. When George proposed to the Meeting that he minister in Europe, Sarah asked whether she should accompany him: “I am resigned to go or to stay, but I believe I am most resigned to go.” (Quaker Biographies, 3:146). Benjamin Johnson (1766-1822) was a successful printer and bookseller whose publications included works by Benjamin Franklin and William Penn. He would name his third son (b. 1805) after Savery. The sole Englishman in the party, William Farrer (1738-1826) was an Elder of Liverpool Meeting, and had earlier guided Sands and other American Quakers through the British Isles. It is characteristic of his modesty that he describes himself in the title of his journal only as the “companion to David Sands.”

The six Friends departed from Gravesend on 4 August 1796 to board the vessel Victoria, casting anchor on 9 August, and arriving by a smaller boat in Bremen on 11 August. Over the next six months, Farrer and his companions would travel 1226 miles by his calculation through Germany and Holland, visiting Bremen, Hamburg, Bergen, Hanover, Bad Pyrmont, Hildesheim, Brunswick, Helmstedt, Magdeburg, Brandenburg, Potsdam, Berlin, Minden, Osnabruck, Deventer, Amsterdam, Haarlem, Leyden, the Hague, Rotterdam, and other towns. They did not always travel together. When Farrer, Sands, Savery and Johnson left Pyrmont, the center of the Society of Friends in Germany, on 29 September, the Dillwyns remained. They were replaced by “Lewis” (Ludwig) Seebohm (1757-1835). A printer and papermaker, Seebohm was the guiding spirit of early German Quakerism, and the progenitor of what would be a distinguished British dynasty, whose direct descendants included a notable historian and an English baron.

In February 1797, the band prepared to continue their mission in France, having obtained permission to travel from the Comité de Surveillance and John Quincy Adams, then serving as American Minister in the Hague. But Adams could not do anything for an Englishman, and the French minister declined to give a letter of conduct to the citizen of a country with which France was at war. Recognizing that “any attempt to pass the Frontiers of France without [a pass], would be in vain,” Farrer booked passage on the Fortuna, returning to England on the 16th. “My going on my present journey has been attended with many exercises,” Sands lamented shortly afterwards, “as I have parted with my kind companion William Farrer, who has borne me company nearly sixteen months” (Sands, 172).

During their long peregrinations, Farrer and his companions held meetings, offered public testimony and private counsel, and met with influential local leaders. Theologically, the Friends held the contradictory impulses that Elias Hicks would later break asunder. They advocated the importance to the Inner Light to such a degree that they were accused of denying the divinity of Christ. But they all were all fired by the evangelical spirit of Orthodoxy and spent a great deal of time seeking to heal rifts and correct errors in the communities they visited. This active tendency is much more pronounced in the memoir of Sands than Savery, and comes across clearly in Farrar’s manuscript as well. He writes for example, of his extended efforts to convince a bookbinder who “tho’ he profess’d religion in a way of Separation yet did not approve of the principles of the Pyrmont Friends.” After organizing a meeting, Farrer writes:

It seemed very difficult to get them into silence, nevertheless our ministers had an opp[ortuni]ty of declaring to them the doctrine of the Gospel as held by us, to which one of them acknowledged to W[illiam] S[avery] that they must come to … they seem fully convinced of a Divine principle in them, but the Cross seems in the way to the maintaining [of] a public testimony for it, in almost any respect by the voice of Conduct.

Farrer attributes setbacks in spreading Quaker principles to the machinations of the devil. He writes of members of one community who

appear to have been some time ago convinced of Friends principles, & attempted to hold meetings but the Enemy got in amongst them, sowed the seeds of dissension; whereby they got into disputations one with another & were scattered.

To settle such tensions, Farrer and his companions offered pragmatic solutions: “they were not recommended to adopt the whole of Friends discipline in England and America, as their present state did not either require, [n]or could they bear[?] it.”

In addition to settling internal divisions, the group contended with hostile critics. In one notable instance, a schoolmaster from Magdeburg who had written them a letter of recommendation to present in Berlin had send by post a letter offering very different opinions. “He accused us of denying the Scriptures to be the word of God, & also that we denied Baptism & the Lord’s supper,” and returned the books they had given him.

Balancing their frosty welcome were the many convivial moments Farrer recounts with the locals whom they met, whether for impromptu meetings or “a dish of coffee.” He recounts meeting with Moravians and priests “of the Reformed Religion.” Sometimes the welcome they received was too warm. After one dinner, he complains, the hosts “were very talkative about religion, which is common among the Germans, which gave occasion for one of our company once to observe that they talked religion to death.” Traveling through Catholic regions made them distinctly uncomfortable. Farrer describes Halbertstadt as “a dark place as to religion, there being many of the old fashioned worship houses which appear to have been built in the times of Popish Darkness; which appears not altogether dispersed.”

Farrer offers extensive details about the Quaker communities he visited. In a lengthy appendix he lists the names and occupations of “sundry people we obtain’d some acquaintance with” in each town, including silk weavers, butchers, schoolmasters, cobblers, maids, shopkeepers, spinsters, soldiers, and clergymen. There are many accounts of formal meetings, some with only a handful of attendants, others with upwards of 30 people, where “many hearts were tendered.” In Holland they visited a town with a large British expat community and spoke at a meeting of 200 people. In one instance Farrer relates the story of a scoffer who was inclined towards conviction in a narrative pattern echoing testimonies of the Great Awakening:

A man came into the meeting. Supposed he came rather for evil than good; perhaps to make his remarks thereon to his companions after the meeting; who at the breaking up of the meeting, enquired if any there had any thing against him; he was answered by several: no. but he said he had not been what he ought; he appeared like a man deranged; all his building as to religion was totally pulled down & the way opened in such a manner as he had never heard: next day he called upon us two or three times, seemed later settled down in calmness, & appeared very friendly, in which state he remained while we staid at Hanover.

Farrer also recounts encounters with innkeepers and other locals, sometimes in humorous terms. “Having called for wine, I asked for a little white bread, but all I got from the girl was a sour Look.” He describes an unscrupulous priest in one town attempted to block their meetings by claiming falsely that public gatherings meetings were forbidden by royal edict.

Despite covering the same ground as the published memoirs of Savery and Sands and the manuscript account of Johnson, Farrer offers a fresh perspective, one no doubt tinted by his identity as the only Englishman in the party of Friends. For example, all three wrote about their audience with Princess Augusta Frederica, the Duchess of Brunswick, and the elder sister of George III, which Farrer notes lasted 20 minutes. What Sands remembered were her questions about the extent of Quakerism in Germany. Savery recalled her inquiry after the meaning of the title of the book they offered her, a copy of Penn’s No Cross, No Crown. Farrer was struck by her “sundry questions respecting America, which WS ans[were]d I believe to her satisfaction.” His account is rich with detail that the others omitted, though they also noticed things that Farrer disregarded. For example, the Americans recounted their meetings with John Quincy Adams and James Monroe (who stayed at the same inn at which the Friends lodged in the Hague); Farrer did not regard these personalities worthy of notice. The multiple narratives complement and augment one another.

In addition to his testimony, Farrer’s journal offers additional primary resources for the historian that the other accounts do not. Appendices to his journal offer a list of contacts and a summary of the Friends’ complex itinerary, which often involved doubling back to towns they had passed through earlier, with calculations of the mileage between each leg of their journey. Like Sands, Farrar presents a copy of the gracious and sympathetic response they received from the official who sought to arrange an audience with the King of Prussia, “Major Marconnay” (probably Louis-Olivier de Marconnay). But Farrer alone records the letter the missionaries wrote to Frederick William II. He copies also a letter the company sent to Ludwig Seebohm’s father-in-law, a member of the patrician von Borries family whose seat was the Prussian town of Minden. Von Borries hosted the visitors graciously but expressed concerns over his daughter’s new religion that they sought to allay. Most interesting is a long missive that Sands and Farrer sent to the Pyrmont meeting in December 1796. Occupying ten pages of the journal, it includes instructions for the German Quaker community under five headings: On Public Worship, On Discipline, On Religious Education, On Care of the Poor, and On the Ministry.

Unlike other travelogues that pad out the narrative with long passages descriptive of landscapes and towns, Farrer relegates his general observations to a separate section at the end of the journal. Here he offers some lyrical praise for the beauties of Pyrmont, and some harsh words for the Jewish ghetto of Amsterdam, whose resident “exhibit a scene of wretched poverty in the Street.” Farrer and his companions had come of age as Friends during a period of almost continuous global conflict – the American Revolution had ended in 1789, and the War of the First Coalition, which pitted Great Britain and the monarchies of Europe against France, had begun in 1792. Farrer frequently encounters military men and veterans of earlier conflicts, whom he generally regards with suspicion, expressing surprise when they do not interrupt meetings. Witnessing broad militarization in Prussia, where “the soldiers appear an oppression to the People,” moves Farrer to offer a utopian prayer:

If universal peace were established & all these Soldiers disbanded & dispersed … then might each one enjoy the Fruit of his own Labour & something to spare … the occasion for taxes would be much less were War abolished & the King as Father of his people would be much more happy in seeing the prosperity of his subjects than seeing thousands & tens of thousands of his choicest young men laid in cold blood by an untimely death --- O Peace! When will thou visit the earth & take up thy abode therein and men learn war no more. What ever prince sets the first example herein, it will be a more illustrious diamond in his crown than any Warring Monarch ever obtained thro' war.

Although Farrar was not able to join the others on the final leg of their journey through France, he had traveled with Sands for months before embarking for Germany and was looking forward to returning to Liverpool after an absence of over 15 months. He concludes his journal by expressing gratification over the fruits of his long pilgrimage:

Besides labouring under a very disagreeable discouragement, the want of the German Language, yet after all I have cause to be thankful for Divine favour & preservation not without some degree of satisfaction in having given up to the small service tho’ I might be compar’d but as handing a Cup of cold water to a disciple, yet not without a reward from him who promised it.

An important memoir offering rich resources for the study of transnational networks within the Society of Friends, theological currents before the Hicksite schism, and the growth of Quakerism in Germany and Holland.


Works Cited

  • Hickman, Ellen C. Benjamin Johnson travel diary, 1796-7 (M.A. Thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2006)
  • Hull, Henry. Memoir of the Life and Religious Labours of Henry Hull (Philadelphia, 1858)
  • Jones, Rufus M. The Later Periods of Quakerism (London, 1921)
  • Quaker Biographies: A Series of Sketches, Chiefly Biographical ... (Philadelphia, 1909-1914)
  • Sands, David. Journal of the life and gospel labors of David Sands: with extracts from his correspondence (London, 1848)
  • Savery, William. A journal of the life, travels, and religious labours, of William Savery, late of Philadelphia, a minister of the gospel of Christ, in the Society of Friends / compiled from his original memoranda by Jonathan Evans (London, 1844).


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    Manuscript Journal of a Transatlantic Quaker Mission, 1796-97