Reflections on the 1770’s: Diaries of New Jersey Quakers

Reflections on the 1770’s: Diaries of New Jersey Quakers

Robert Ciarletta

It is thrilling to go back in time and encounter writing from a few hundred years ago. I love uncovering the stories, experiences, and feelings embedded there. For those of us who love language, we can also use these texts to observe how the language we use changes just as human life evolves. For my research, I read the diaries of two New Jersey Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends). The writers are John Hunt, a farmer who regularly partook in meetings with other friends in Evesham, now part of Moorestown; the other is Margaret Hill Morris, a nurse practitioner and widow who had four children and lived in Burlington. When reading these diaries, I had to adjust to the different spellings, sounds, diction, and structure, since it is so different from how we write today. To fully appreciate these diaries, you must also recognize that the Quakers wrote in a sort of language of faith. Faith encompassed their lives so much so that it became a central theme in their diaries, arguably just as much as the American Revolution itself. No matter what subject these people wrote about, they constantly alluded to passages from the Bible and looked up to God as a way to make sense of their world.

As you dive in, the language reveals that New Jerseyans used to have a lot of daily items and objects that are so unfamiliar to a reader today. Many of us buy our food pre-packaged at the grocery store, or we order items through online marketplaces like Amazon. Though all of this is convenient, we tend to know little about the processes that go into creating our necessities. On the other hand, early Americans like Hunt must have been quite skilled since they produced numerous things for themselves. For instance, he wrote about tools like a sider press (another way to write cider), a cheespress, silk reel, and others. It is beneficial to expose students to texts like this because it adds a level of dignity to another way of living, and may spark students’ interest in old tools and artifacts.

It is also fun to pick up on the patterns that differentiate someone else’s English from our own. One common quirk is that Hunt used the letter ‘d’ as an inflectional suffix to signal the past tense of verbs, whereas we use ‘e’d. For instance, prayed, composed, and stayed were written as prayd, composd, and stayd in Hunt’s diary. What great, local proof to our students that our language is dynamic! His diary also proves that the names of our places have changed in history; he spelled Moorestown as Mourstown.

These diaries also show that sometimes life can seem ordinary until the moment when it suddenly is not so, anymore. After the French and Indian war, the Friends promoted pacifism with new vigor[1], intending to be a light to the world. But peace did not last, and they felt helpless when the war reached a point of no return. It was impossible to feel safe; their beliefs could only remove them from the war so much. And if you choose to help neither side, does that create zero enemies for you? Or does it possibly create two? There is danger in a decision to declare yourself neutral, and Hunt and Morris had to navigate the war this way.

The Quakers were appalled at the effects of the war on their communities and lives. When John Hunt entered the Evesham meeting house on January 1, 1777, he found soldiers lying in filth, comparing them to animals in a stable. He also writes about the tense situations a year later in 1778, when people around him are dying from a smallpox epidemic, and British soldiers are plundering neighboring homes. It was dismal –the townspeople dying around him, and always on edge anticipating the soldiers coming. He kept these entries brief, not wanting to give the bad all of his focus. The next day he would be back to normal again, and write about farming or attending a meeting.

Hunt’s diary reveals his industry too. A single task occupied him for days on end. For example, he wrote 2-4 mowing to signify that mowing dominated the second through fourth days of the month. And he not only labored physically but also in thought. William Penn said that Quakers should write at least one line in a journal daily[2], and this inspired Hunt. I would get bored writing the same things every day, but Hunt wrote continually to keep track of his days and gain wisdom from a holistic view of his life. He wrote for the sake of writing, and I find that beautiful.

And, you can find duality in Margaret Morris’ diary if you choose to read it. At first, she was overwhelmed by the war, but writing her diary helped her to think clearly and grasp this reality. As you read her diary, you see her use words like ‘terrible and horrid’ to describe the war, and she seems scared. She also writes about seeing soldiers march past her town on their way to meet death, and this suggests an emotional, fearful side of Morris. And then as I read further, she had a similar moment to John Hunt that caught my interest. On January 3, 1777, Morris sneaks into a house next door at night and finds soldiers sprawled on the floor, “like animals”. Yes, one part of her pitied these men. But this was also the moment when I knew Morris was not the kind of woman to just sit home scared during a war, but she also wanted to make sense of things for herself. A light bulb went off in her mind that the soldiers were deserters since she realized that they shouldn’t have been around. Morris does not shy away from what she sees but keeps it to herself in her diary, a form of secret knowledge. 

By the end of the war, Morris gained boldness and found herself. While her neighbors were able to leave for the countryside, she had to stay with her family. She survived cannon fire, evaded a hunt for Tories, and hid one of them in her home. Moreover, she followed her own convictions and gave generously to American troops, despite the mandate in 1776 that Quakers who gave to either side (non-civilians) would be disowned[3]. In chronicling extensive information daily about the war in her diary, she found a sense of confidence and purpose. Later, Morris opened her own medical and apothecary practice in Burlington, in 1779[4]. Morris was well-equipped to provide for her family and protect them. 

So, when people read your diary centuries later, are you still an ordinary person? And what if you provide insight about a time so critical to our nation’s story, like the American Revolution? Hunt and Morris’ slice of the human experience represents something greater, even if the impact of their writing seemed insignificant to themselves at the time. Their diaries tell us about the whole New Jersey revolution experience. And when one’s experiences are immortalized like this, you do in fact become a bit more than ordinary.

[1] Kashatus, William C. “Quakers’ painful choice during the american revolution.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jul. 5, 2015.

[2] “John Hunt Papers.” TriCollege Libraries,

[3] Mekeel, Arthur J. “The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution.” Quaker History, 65(1), pp. 3-18. Friends Historical Association.

[4] Brandt, Susan. “‘Getting into a Little Business’: Margaret Hill Morris and Women’s Medical Entrepreneurship during the American Revolution.”  Early American Studies, 13(4), pp. 774-807. University of Pennsylvania Press.

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