by Susan Taylor Block
“Uniting the Pilgrim, the Quaker, the old Cape Fear stock, the North and the South, produced our wonderful Mother and Father.” – Augusta Moore Gibble, wife of the Rev. John Gibble, and a 7th generation native of the Lower Cape Fear, to her siblings, about 1930.
Of the many good things that defy quantitative analysis, religion might be tops on the list. How would anyone compute the proverbial mountaintop experience, and the actual difference it might have made, or keep on making? It would be like trying to measure the long-term effects of having had a gifted teacher, or a set of remarkably good, loving parents. It’s all as incalculable as trying to figure out how many adults today owe what percentage of their sense of self-worth to “Mr. Rogers.”
It’s equally impossible to quantify the effects of Quaker influence in the minds and hearts of some of Wilmington’s oldest and most notable Anglican and Episcopal families. At the very least, marriages of Quakers and Anglicans or Episcopalians produced many notable churchmen and women whose surnames happen to be prominent on local maps. There seems to be more, though.
Anglicans and Episcopalians
The differences in these two groups and Quakers are pronounced. Anglican and Episcopal churches have the strength of their lengthy history; dignity; order; scripture reading, and beautiful litanies – particularly the older ones. They attempt to address needs within and about them, and to question thoughtfully the politics and practices of current society. These churches also have the corner on beautiful, inspiring buildings full of verticality and colored glass.
Anglican and Episcopal services allow the worshipper to be either mentally active or passive. He or she may read from the prayer book and sing from the hymnbook mechanically, or they might transform the familiar words and tunes from within through meditation and prayer. Except in unusual occurrences or sometimes in the delivery of a homily, there would be no way anyone else in the church would know what was going on within the mind or heart of another parishioner.
In 1737, Quakers, along with Anglicans and Presbyterians, outnumbered other Christian denominations. A Quaker cemetery existed in Newton as early as 1738. In 1739, Newton was renamed Wilmington. Joshua Grainger, a Quaker from Charleston, was the town’s most prominent one at that time. He’s considered one of Wilmington’s founders because of his vast land holdings and development activities. Joshua Grainger also owned a shipbuilding business at the foot of Church Street.
The Quakers of old Wilmington had little or no order of worship. Members sat quietly until one, then another and another, shared some spiritual insight they learned since their last assembly. Quakers took seriously the phrase, “priesthood of believers,” and understood the significance on the Holy of Holies veil having been rend from top to bottom. Their contribution, even if it was just a short statement, was active.
Unlike the common view, but much like the Episcopal church, many Quakers were very successful in business, however their economic achievements didn’t alter their church architecture. They usually met in very plain buildings or in people’s homes.
Quakers encouraged diligent home Bible study, with an emphasis on digesting the words and seeking the deeper meaning. Rather than spot reading, they tended to study chapter by chapter. Some of them read the entire Bible through many times over a lifetime, giving them a good sense of the many connections between the Old and New Testaments.
Most saw the Bible as being alive, and held Hebrews 4:12 as a favorite verse: “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
Like Episcopalians, prayer was a regular feature of Quaker gatherings, but “Friends'” prayers were usually spontaneous, or something they composed during their daily devotions. They spoke of the “Inner Light,” an illuminating presence that was also undefinable because it was of the spirit.
True to their general emphasis in everything, ‘Substance, not Show,’ they treasured plain and direct speech. With such an approach, North Carolina truly was a natural home for Quakers. The state motto wasn’t adopted until 1893, but it summed up the state’s past: Esse Quam Videri – “To be, rather than to seem.” Typical Quaker dress reflected this attitude, too, and crops up in vintage portraits from some of Wilmington’s old families.
The aforementioned Quaker, Joshua Grainger, was born in 1702. He married Elizabeth Toomer, and they had three children: Joshua (Jr.), Caleb, and Ann. Joshua (Jr.) married a woman known only as Catherine, and they had four daughters: Ann, Mary, Elizabeth, and Catherine. About 1758, young Ann married Captain Thomas Wright, who was a privateer during the French and Indian War. Between Ann’s share of Grainger land holdings and Thomas’s pieces-of-eight, they had no money worries.
By the time Ann became Mrs. Wright, the Grainger family was firmly entrenched in Wilmington’s St. James (Anglican) Parish. The Wrights co-owned a pew next to the Governor’s, and Ann’s extended family owned pews scattered throughout the little church. Even though Capt. Thomas Wright’s in-laws abandoned their Quaker ways, the daughter of more impassioned Quakers, Elizabeth and Richard Bradley, would marry his youngest child, Joshua Grainger Wright.
Richard Bradley ( and his wife, Elizabeth Sharpless Bradley moved to Wilmington about 1756. Both were raised in the strongest Quaker fashion. Richard, from Bradley’s Hall in Kendal, Cumbria, England, moved to America, where he married Elizabeth Ashbridge Sharpless in 1755. She was a resident of Chester, Pennsylvania, and her family had strong ties to Philadelphia. The Sharpless’ were distinguished, well-known Quakers who traveled with William Penn when he was settling Pennsylvania.
At first, things went well for the Bradleys in Cape Fear. Colonial government smiled on Richard. He was Collector of the Port of Wilmington, and had a large house, plenty of help, and good income. As time passed, though, Richard became more sympathetic to the cause for American independence. As a result, he was forced to leave his house, and thieves stole their help. The Bradleys’ oldest son was away at school at the time. The parents and their other six children slept in a two-room house and used a shed as their dining room and den.
According to Anne Russell, a Bradley descendant, Elizabeth Bradley had begun teaching her daughters to sew and do fine handwork at an early age. As soon as the family’s economic challenges arose, Elizabeth and her girls turned their pastime into a profession. They did beautiful stitchery and worked from at least dawn until dusk. Not only did they earn money, they won much respect from the community.
No matter what adversity they faced, the Bradley family stayed true to their Quaker practices and loyalty. They raised their children in the mystic tradition of being ever mindful of the unseen world, while remaining engaged in the physical world. While other Quakers continued to “fall away” and join St. James and other churches, they held tight to their training.
However, the men their daughters married had something else in mind. As if they had an invisible shepherd’s crook, they pulled their women straight away from Quakerism into St. James Episcopal Church. It was a good mix, but, one after the other, the daughters broke their mother’s heart. Her anguish was so great that her sons hesitated to follow, and it was said that one of them died a Quaker.
The Bradley daughters married some of Cape Fear’s favorite sons. Lucy Bradley married Gen. Thomas Brown; and Elizabeth married John Quince Lord. Mary married William Green. Susan married Judge Joshua Grainger Wright, that youngest son of Ann Grainger Wright whose parents and grandparents were Quakers.
These couples had many notable descendants, but those who did much church work are the most interesting when considering their Quaker roots. Mary Bradley and William Green were the parents of James Severin Green, Mary Hostler Green Wright, and the Rt. Rev. William Mercer Green. All three were grandchildren of Dr. Samuel Green who owned Greenfields, known today as Greenfield Lake. Greenville Sound is named for the family.
Businessman James Severin Green was a devoted layman at St. James Church and at Mount Lebanon Chapel. After years of church service, he died a martyr’s death. When warned that he would surely catch the disease if he continued to visit victims of Wilmington’s Yellow Fever epidemic in 1862, he continued to visit, comfort, and pray with the sick. He died September 28, 1862.
Mary Hostler Green Wright, supported her husband, Thomas Wright, when he made the decision to exit the business world to enter the ministry. She cheered him on throughout his career. He wrote to her, “…pray for me morning and evening and whenever your thoughts ascend to God…probably on Sunday next, I will be set apart to the ministry.”
The Rev. Thomas Wright was the son of Thomas Wright, the older son of Capt. Thomas Wright and Ann Grainger. He served as rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Salisbury before transferring to the newly formed Diocese of Tennessee. There he founded Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church in Memphis, in 1835. it is still a thriving church.
Bishop William Mercer Green, born in1798, was ordained deacon in Raleigh’s Christ Chapel Church, then ordained priest before family and childhood friends at St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington. He served as rector of St. John’s in Williamsboro, and then moved to Hillsboro. He founded St. Matthew’s Church there in 1825 and was rector for 12 years.
After spending two years as chaplain and professor of belles-lettres and rhetoric at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, William Mercer Green was elected the first Episcopal bishop of Mississippi. He was consecrated in 1850 and held the office until 1883. It was said that the Quaker influence of his upbringing influenced the refreshing simplicity with which he presented himself – a trait he shared with cousins in later generations, Bishop Robert Strange and Bishop Thomas Henry Wright.
To be continued….
(To learn more about the Rev. Thomas Wright, see http://susantaylorblock.com/2010/03/18/the-wrights-of-wilmington-the-rev-mr-thomas-wright/ )
Additional source: The Wrights of Wilmington by Susan Block.
 Lee, Lawrence. The Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days. Chapel Hill, 1965.
 Hicks, E. C. Hicks, Ward, Wright, Yonge and 7,812 Descendants. Wilmington, 1982. New Hanover County Register of Deeds.
 St. James Parish Collection. Special Collections. Randall Library, UNCW.
 Author’s interview with Anne Russell, Ph.D., October 26, 2011.
 Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear Archives. Davies-Rodgers, Ellen. The Great Book. (Memphis, 1973)