Monday, March 06, 2017

Quaker Women Series: Mary Morris Knowles

"There are good people of all denominations; it is not the name, or the outward profession of any religion that can make us good, but a steady adherence to that which is right in our own consciences. Thou mayst be a very good girl professing the religion of thy education, as long as thou canst be satisfied with it, But if thou cans't not, I would advise thee to have recourse to that inward light which will guide thee into all truth." (Mary Morris Knowles)

Mary Morris Knowles went head to head with a “big-wig” of the time: Samuel Johnson, English author and critic, and rubbed shoulders with royalty.  Third-generation Quaker, Mary was born in Staffordshire in 1733.  Mary was single until she was thirty-four years old.  Young Mary was fiercely independent and not afraid to voice her opinions and act on her beliefs.  There was no way she was going to allow someone else to choose her spouse; and she advocated for women’s right to choose their spouse.  You can imagine that this did not go over well during a time in Quaker history when overseers in Friends meetings were holding people to the notion that they must marry a Quaker. 

By the time Mary married Thomas Knowles in 1767, she was set in her ways and “she resolved not to become ‘a poor passive machine ...a mere smiling Wife.’”  She nearly died giving birth to their son in July, 1768.  They named the baby Morris, and he lived one day.  Shortly after this, her mother and sister died.  From my calculations, they had another son, George, in 1773.  Thomas died in 1786 when he was 52, Mary was 53, and George was 13.  Thomas’ death left Mary a wealthy widow.  She used her position and money to promote abolition. 

Mary was skilled in needle painting and did some prestigious portraits for the King and Queen.  Her position and affluence allowed her to rub shoulders with royalty and prominent political and religious men; namely Samuel Johnson and John Wilkes.

Mary refused to allow current Quaker civilities to dictate what she believed, similar to the early Friends!  Focusing on the inner Light “allowed her to advance contentious positions, such as her criticism of slavery and sympathy for the American and French revolutionaries, while simultaneously affirming her religious belief and dedication to the national interest (73). In doing so, Knowles became one of the foremost defenders of Quakers in a culture that increasingly questioned their patriotism and religious conviction.”

She was not afraid to “stir the pot” and in June of 1788, when asked to write a poem for the top of a tobacco box, she took the opportunity to write about abolition:

          Tho various tints the human face adorn
          To glorious Liberty Mankind are born;         
          O, May the hands which rais'd this fav'rite weed          
          Be loos'd in mercy and the slave be freed! 

“Knowles had defended women’s liberty in her debate with Johnson in 1778, and she now extended this principle to all humans. The arguments she expressed were rational, nonsectarian, and based on universal rights. For Knowles, religious liberty led to political and social freedom, and her brief poem reminded the owner of the tobacco box about the important political issue of freedom for African slaves and abolition of the slave trade.” 

Mary Knowles went against the grain, much like the radical Quakers before her.  I appreciated reading of her advocating for abolition, education for women, equality, and peace.  Her writings are not easily available but are in The Religious Society of Friends library in London

Most widely held works by Mary Knowles:

Resources used in the writing of this post:

Breuninger, S. (2009). Gender, religion, and radicalism in the long eighteenth century: the “ingenious quaker” and her connections - by Judith Jennings.  Historian, 71(1). Retrieved from
Jennings, J. (2007). Mary Morris Knowles: (1733-1807). Retrieved from
Mary Knowles - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (2014, August 1). Retrieved September 8, 2014, from
WorldCat Identities. (2010). Knowles, Mary 1733-1807. Retrieved September 8, 2014,

#QuakerWomen #WomensHistoryMonth #Quakers #Friends

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:13 AM

    Hi, Joy! I've enjoyed reading older posts. Good to meet another Friend.


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