Quakers in Old Wilmington: Part One

by Susan Taylor Block

A Quaker gathering, perhaps in New England.

“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





Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal house of worship. (American Institute of Architects)





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.[1]

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 Graingers

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.[2]

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.[3]

The Bradleys

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.

William Penn. (Sons of the South)

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6]

Sara Elizabeth Wright Cotten (Mrs. Leonidas Cotten) and her mother, Mary Hostler Green Wright. (From "The Great Book" by Ellen Davies-Rodgers)

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.

The Rev. Mr. Thomas Wright

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.

Bishop William Mercer Green (Courtesy of Elizabeth Brown King)


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….

Part Two:  http://susantaylorblock.com/2011/11/01/quakers-in-old-wilmington-part-two/

(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.




[1] Lee, Lawrence. The Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days. Chapel Hill, 1965.

[2] Hicks, E. C. Hicks, Ward, Wright, Yonge and 7,812 Descendants. Wilmington, 1982. New Hanover County Register of Deeds.

[3] St. James Parish Collection. Special Collections. Randall Library, UNCW.

[4] Hicks.

[5] Author’s interview with Anne Russell, Ph.D., October 26, 2011.

[6] Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear Archives. Davies-Rodgers, Ellen. The Great Book. (Memphis, 1973)


About Susan Taylor Block

Susan Taylor Block is a writer who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.
This entry was posted in Wilmington and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Quakers in Old Wilmington: Part One

  1. Bob says:

    Interesting stuff I never knew! Will the next installment include anything about the local (and small) community of Friends? I was involved, for a while, with local Friends School, but never went down this particular road of exploring the relationship between local Episcopalians and the Friends. I look forward to the next posting.

  2. Anne Russell says:

    Susan, thank you so much for educating me further about my Bradley family. Now I better understand the values of hard work, frugality, and spirituality which have persisted down through the generations. My great-grandmother Eliza Yonge Jewett, a Bradley, married an Episcopal minister, the Rev. Edward Wootten, and lived with their children Mary, Amoret, Lucy, Bradley, and Edward, at 11 South Third Street, next to St. James Episcopal Church. Their venerable four-story home, torn down in the early 1950s, is the frontispiece of my book Wilmington, A Pictorial History, and my first play, The Porch, was set in this house.

  3. Donna Williams Durfos says:

    Susan, thank you for posting about the Quaker/Anglican connections. I really enjoy reading your blogs about my hometown, Wilmington.

    I have been involved in ancestry research for about 8 years and found that my family has roots in NC since the 1700’s through all of my 4 grandparents. Although you know my family as Baptists, my Dad’s family from Brunswick County is Episcopal. My granddaddy, Lorenzo Williams, was a very poor farmer and what I found about his family line really amazed me. Research of his Scull family line has been the most fun part of my family research and has taken me to Norfolk, Virginia, Nassau in the Bahamas, and Philadelphia.

    Although the Scull family is relatively unknown in New Hanover County today, they had significance in the early years of the county. The following is a summary of my Scull line as related to Quaker/Anglican connections:

    Nicholas Scull arrived in Philadelphia on the Bristol Merchant in November of 1685. He made the voyage with his relative, Major Jaspar Farmar, who died at sea. Major Farmar of Ireland was one of the original land purchasers from William Penn, and Nicholas was to purchase from Jaspar’s “overpluss”. After Jaspar’s death, Nicholas had to go before the commissioners to obtain his 100 acres since the purchase was based on a verbal grant. Scull purchased additional land from Penn after he came to Philadelphia.

    Nicholas Scull’s will of 1703 states ” It is further my will and testament, that if my said wife Mary Scull during the time of her widowhood or otherwise, be not in a capacity to bring up the said my children, that then she shall apply herself to our Monthly Meeting of Friends, whom I desire to take due care of them.”

    I am descended from Nicholas Scull’s youngest son, Joseph, and Joseph’s oldest son, Cantwell Scull who were identified as signers to the Quaker Certificate of Marriage of Joseph Dubre and Hannah Bissell. (Friends Records Book A p. 177, year 1744.) The signers were identified as Mary Scull, Eleanor Scull, Joseph Scull, Cantwell Scull.

    Marriage, baptism and death records of Christ Church in Philadelphia reveal that, by the 1730’s, Joseph Scull and other Scull family members were members of the Anglican church. Research has not yet revealed how or when the change occurred.

    My ancestor Cantwell Scull became a mariner and later died in Nassau, Bahamas where he served in the House of Assembly, served as Clerk of Court and at one time was the coroner. His children were all baptized in Christ Church in Nassau. After Cantwell’s death in 1758, at age 32, his wife Mary remarried George Palmer, a privateer. By 1768 George and Mary owned property in Bladen County and records also show that they lived in Wilmington. Cantwell and Mary Scull’s son John Gambier Scull was an officer in the Revolutionary War. He represented New Hanover County at the North Carolina Constitutional Convention 1789 and also represented New Hanover County and later Brunswick County in the North Carolina House of the Assembly.

    I am a descendent of John Gambier’s sister Eleanor who married William Vernon, son of Ephraim Vernon. Their daughter, Ann, married William Williams and thus my Williams surname.

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