Wow! What was that all about?
Joshua Jacob and Abigail Beale were the founders of a Quaker splinter group that came to be known as “White Quakers” — from their undyed clothing, not from any sort of racial thing. In addition to eschewing dyed clothing and ornamentation in general, they also practiced vegetarianism, communal ownership of all property, and open-door hospitality which included feeding the poor daily at their commune. (Undyed clothing was also a peculiarity that had been adopted by John Woolman in the American colonies, and it occasionally turned up in other Quakers, so sometimes you’ll hear people referred to as “White Quakers” who were not a part of this sect.)
There isn’t much about the doctrines of the sect available on-line from those who were part of it or sympathetic to it. Most of what I’ve found comes from people who thought Jacob was a lunatic and his scruples ridiculous, and who seemed inclined to exaggerate idiosyncracies and pass along tall tales — for instance, this Catholic commentary:
The grand fundamental principle of White Quakerism seems to be confusion or disorder. They abhor all goverments, magistrates, lawyers, and men dressed in wigs, whom the world calls counsellors and judges; they despise all priests, clergymen, ministers with gowns, cassocks, surplices, or bands; they hate all organs, flutes, fiddles, gamuts, and music of every description; they abominate dancing, as devilish and heathenish, Jewish and anti-Christian. They hate all clocks, watches, sun-dials, and time-pieces or chronometers, for measuring time, declaring it sinful and human, and dishonourable to God, to measure it at all. They sicken at the sight of coloured garments; and some of the women record it in their periodical, called The Progress of the Truth as it is in Jesus, that they sometimes dream that they have been persuaded to put on a coloured gown or shawl, but they feel such a heaviness of heart, that it is, indeed, a blessed and a glorious deliverance to awake, and to know that it is only a dream. They are led entirely by what they call the Spirit, which, certainly, plays most fantastic tricks with them, being perfectly independent of all rule and government. Though Joshua Jacob is professedly the leader and head of the party, he exercises no perceptible authority, and there is no appearance of any regular system of government amongst them.
The author of that piece observed that it is “No wonder that [Jacob] has found lodgings at last in a public prison. A world of magistrates and police-officers is not worthy that such a man should walk at large in it.” (He’d been summoned to court to explain something about the communal property arrangement, refused to appear, and was imprisoned for several years for contempt — anyway, that’s the best guess I can make by averaging together several conflicting stories.)
Other lurid rumors worth repeating about the sect were reported in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round many years after the White Quakers were no more:
As Jacob was believed to be inspired, no command he gave was too ridiculous to be implicitly obeyed… An aged woman, who had lived in luxury all her life, was directed to clohe herself in a single thin cotton gown, and early one winter’s morning to take a basin of porridge, and eat the contents on the steps o the Bank of Ireland, as a sign unto the people. Another delicate woman who had offended him, he ordered to do all the washing for the establishment (consisting of more than a hundred people), and this she did till her health broke down, when he permitted her to die uncared-for and alone. An account of her death, which still exists, is not pleasant reading.
That report also says the sect kept silence (though if there’s one thing the other writers agree on, it’s that the White Quakers were anything but quiet) and practiced polygamy: “One favorite text [of theirs] was, ‘to the pure all things are pure,’ and, as they deemed themselves the ‘pure,’ this text was used to cover the most mostrous licentiousness.” It claims that some orthodox Quakers enlisted the police to help them rescue their wives from the fantatical cult. Another source insists that in , six members of the group “both men and women, attempted to parade Waterford arm-in-arm, in a condition of entire nudity.”
The All the Year Round piece is a thoroughly hostile and not very reliable-sounding article, but it does include this paragraph, which may shine a little light on the specific beef that Beale and Jacob were complaining about in the broadside reproduced above:
In … The society was deeply in debt, and its leader was in prison. Acting under the direction of the Court of Chancery, the meeting-house in William Street, Dublin, was broken open by a body of soldiers, who thoroughly searched the place, and then, under a distress warrant, commenced a packed auction. According to a White Quaker broadside, the soldiers so hurried the auctioneer from room to room that the whole furniture fetched a mere nothing, and they also accuse them of having kept away all the people who appeared able to pay a fair price. A sister named Elizabeth Pim threatened everybody who purchased anything in a manner blasphemously grotesque, though doubtless intended to be solemn and prophetic, but when she heard that the auctioneer had set for the police, Mrs. Pim was “moved” to be quiet.
When the house was completely stripped, for everything, even to the very Bible, was sold, the few White Quakers who still remained got some straw and lay down on it, “rejoicing that they were thought worthy to suffer for their religion.”
A better description of the sect comes from a report in The Living Age. It describes the sect as a group of about 30 people living on a 130-acre farm outside of Dublin (“it was at one time still more extensive, but the increasing strictness of their rules has caused the lukewarm and unworthy to fall away”).
The author (or one of the authors; the typography is a little confusing) describes them as working communally on crafts, farming, and gardening. “They appear to live very happily together, and are extremely kind and charitable to the poor in their neighborhood.” Jacob is portrayed as someone who became increasingly fanatical in his strict adherence to Quakerish principles and his eagerness to preach about them, to the extent that he was disowned from his meeting and he even left his wife in the dust (for a while) when she was unable to keep up with his doctrinal changes. The White Quakers shunned the orthodox (Black) Quakers, in such a way that this kept former friends and even family members from being on speaking terms.
Another writer complained that before Jacob had been disowned, he had succeeded in convincing the meeting to add a number of strict new rules to the discipline — banning mourning dress, musical instruments, and visits to competing church buildings — and that now Quakers referred to any of the items of discipline that were shown as having been added in as “Jacob’s Rules” that stayed on the books despite the discrediting of the enthusiastic movement that put them there. (But I checked books of discipline published in and by the Dublin Yearly Meeting and found little evidence of this. There were a few entries that had been added in : one recommending abstinence from alcohol, one warning about the love of money and the danger of speculative investments, one cautioning Friends to be careful about taking “civil offices” that might require unchristian conduct, a second warning about wealth and luxury, and a generic urging to take “the upright maintenance of our Christian discipline” more seriously. There is a joyless anti-music piece of advice, but it is dated , two years after Jacob was disowned.)
Howitt’s Journal of Literature and Popular Progress published a sympathetic article about the sect (which seems to have been partially-lifted for the Living Age article). It describes Abigail Beale as hospitable and appearing to be “of deep conviction, and a soul at peace with itself” and Joshua Jacob as not “a gloomy fanatic of the Puritan school” but “a handsome middle-aged man, of agreeable manners, who could indulge in a harmless jest, without considering that it merited the punishment of the Deity.”
When conversing with him on this subject afterwards, he said, that it was one of the effects of true religion to make us cheerful and happy; and that it was the bigot or the fanatic alone who would convert this glorious earth, given by God to his creatures, into a hell, and make man’s happiness only to commence on the other side of the grave.
The author concluded by saying that the White Quakers “possess, in my opinion, two of the best attributes of true religion, namely, that expansive charity which embraces within its arms the distressed of all sects — and that Christian humility which teaches self-abasement, and the forgiveness of injuries.”
The article also mentions “white and polished” furniture, “wicker flower-stands, painted in the favourite colour of the society,” “a conservatory filled with the rarest exotics,” “a magnificent chimney-piece of white marble, exquisitely inlaid with vine-leaves” (that “[w]e were informed… cost upwards of three hundred pounds”), and a meal served “tastefully garnished with laurel leaves,” so the anti-ornamentation part of the White Quaker doctrine can’t have been quite as strict as other writers claimed.
Note also that this report comes from , three years after, according to All the Year Round, all the group’s possessions, “even to the very Bible” had been sold at auction and “the society had received its death-blow.” So, in short: some very conflicting reports on what Jacob, Beale, and the White Quakers were all about.
You can find some of their writings at the Tryptych Collections. These perhaps are not representative, but strike me as being good evidence for the “somewhat unhinged fanatics” interpretation of the White Quaker phenomenon. One of the less-apocalyptic bits, of particular note here, is this letter:
Thomas Field Collector, and all whom it may concern.
The house No 64 William St is not held as the property of any individual; nor is it used or occupied by any individual holding or possessing any private property of any nature or kind whatsoever.
It has been registered by the Clerk of the Peace, so called, as a Place of Worship of the People called Quakers, and is solely and only used and devoted to the service of the Church.
A notice being left for payment of Police Tax at said house, we are concerned to return the same; informing thee, and all whom it may concern, that we cannot conscientiously continue to pay that Tax, having received a command from God not to do it; which is imperative and binding on us under any circumstances and at all hazards.
Cursed is the man who trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm; and whose heart departeth from the Lord.