The Keithian Quakers

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The Keithian Quaker Schism

George Keith, a Scottish Quaker,[1] provoked the first major schism among American Quakers, which began in the early 1690s. He was condemned for schism by Philadelphia Quaker Yearly Meeting, Pennsylvania in 1692. Attempts to establish support and Keithian meetings in England were unsuccessful. Keith was finally disowned by London Quaker Yearly Meeting in 1695. (See his profile for more detail.)

A significant minority of Quakers in North America followed him in breaking away from mainstream Quakers, mostly in Pennsylvania, but also in East and West Jersey and, to a much lesser extent, elsewhere.

In Philadelphia, Keith and his supporters built a gallery in the Quaker Meeting House for their use but this was torn down. Separate Keithian Meetings were established. The mainstream Quakers disowned those who switched to these meetings, Quaker records describing them as going "into separation".

George Keith himself joined the Church of England in 1700. The schism continued up to the 1720s

Causes of Disagreement

The disagreement was initially about the relationship between the two natures of Jesus Christ (divine and human) and the emphasis Quakers placed on the Inner Light - the belief that everyone was given Inner Light by God - as opposed to formal traditional faith in Jesus Christ.

Keith went on to raise a number of other doctrinal issues. In addition he proposed a reorganization of Quaker discipline, including compulsory doctrinal tests about belief in Christ for Quaker membership, the removal of automatic birthright membership, and a new system of elders. His proposals ignored the existing hierarchy of Quaker ministers and monthly, quarterly, and annual meetings, which were generally dominated by the rich and powerful of colonial Pennsylvania who often held dual roles as church leaders and civil magistrates. Slightly later, Keith argued explicitly that no Quaker minister had a right to sit as a civil magistrate. A large element in the dispute became questions of authority, discipline and organisation.[2]

Keithian Meetings

Keithian congregations, sometimes called "Christian Quakers", formed meetings in Oxford (now the Old Oxford Trinity Church), Philadelphia, and Upper Providence Township, Delaware County. The latter group called themselves the Thomas Powell Meeting or Seventh Day Baptists.[3]

A meeting also formed in Concord, Pennsylvania, which we know from reading the account of William Brinton's involvement. There were gatherings elsewhere.

The Keithians developed their own splits over doctrine and religious practice. Some groups adopted baptism, contrary to mainstream Quaker rejection of the traditional Christian sacraments.

End of the Keithian Movement

In the early 1700s the Keithian movement dwindled, though small Keithian groups persisted until the 1720s. Some Keithians sought to rejoin mainstream Quakers, and formally acknowledged they had been at fault for going "into separation". Others migrated to other denominations, mainly the Anglicans and the Baptists.


  1. George Keith on Wikipedia
  2. Jon Butler. Into Pennsylvania's Spiritual Abyss: The Rise and Fall of the Later Keithians, 1693-1703, 'The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography', Vol. 101, No. 2, 1977, pp. 151-170 and 450
  3. Inventory of Church Archives, Society of Friends in Pennsylvania, 1941, pp. 198-201

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