Copyright (c) 2003 by Peter D. Sippel
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Described as "a picturesque personality" and as "one of Chester Counties most dynamic, versatile, and gifted citizens,"1 Jesse Kersey, though little known today, seems to me to be one of the most fascinating figures among the 19th Century Philadelphia Quakers. Part of this fascination (though not necessarily sympathy!) comes from the fact that his seems to have been an atypical life: unlike what tends to appear in the lives of other Friends of the period his career was marked with repeated business failures, disastrous financial decisions, bankruptcies, devastating personal losses and personal demons. His life and numerous writings present the historian with opportunities for several different kinds of studies; this first of what I anticipate will eventually be several different essays is designed to present a fairly detailed biographical sketch.
In the course of his long life he worked variously as a potter, teacher, merchant, pipefitter, farmer, surveyor, real estate developer (there is still a "Kersey Street" in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, named after him,) and postmaster. He was also, at various times, owner or part owner of a woolens mill, an iron foundry ("The Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory," better known today under its later name, "Lukens Steel Company,") and a coffee and tea shop. When he was not involved in the ministry, in writing, or in trying to earn a living his favorite pastime was fishing.2
His principle writings--unlike some, he was kind enough to leave a clearly dated paper trail behind him--include:
The European Journal, kept 1804-1805 during his visit to England and Ireland. Long thought lost, it was eventually recovered and was printed for the first time in serial form in the Hicksite periodical The Journal over the course of February 1874--January 1875.
A Treatise on the Fundamental Doctrines of the Christian Religion, (affectionately known as "Kersey's Treatise") first published with the approval of the Yearly Meeting in 1815.
Five sermons from 1827 (on the Quaker Homiletics Online Anthology, under the 19th Century Hicksites) transcribed by Marcus T. C. Gould and printed in Volumes II and III of The Quaker.
The Lectures on Agriculture, published 1828, a non-religious work looking at the present state of the scientific aspects of agriculture. It appears he was better at giving lectures about agriculture than in actually doing it: as will be documented later, his own farm failed.
A Narrative of the Early Life, Travels, and Gospel Labors of Jesse Kersey, Late of Chester County, Pennsylvania. His Journal, (affectionately known as "Kersey's Narrative," which appeared posthumously. Chapters 1-3 of this work appear to be a unified whole; the fourth and longest chapter appears to have been assembled from multiple manuscripts by a later editor after his death. The title is something of a misnomer, as it goes almost up to the time of his death.
Numerous Essays and Letters, appended to the end of the Narrative.
A large assortment of letters, most of which have yet to be collected or published, from throughout his life.
He was born 8th month 8th, 1768 to William and Hannah Kersey in Yorktown,3 Pennsylvania; from his Narrative it appears he has the typical experience of being grateful for his guarded upbringing while simultaneously rebelling against it. For example: "But by the watchful care of my parents I was preserved out of some of the evils that were common among the children of that place. My fondness for diversion increased with my years; and at an early period I felt inclinations to seek entertainment from sports that were forbidden by my parents,--to whose watchful care over me I am indebted, under Providence, for preservation from many evils common to youthful years."4 Or, "As they checked and reasoned with me, I would frequently think that their restrictions were had to bear, and would therefore trespass their orders; in doing which, sometimes they would detect me,--at and others, I would escape.5
In the next paragraph he gives a more detailed account of one such episode, and his later reflections on it:6
In one instance I had an irresistible choice to go to a horse-race; about which I knew it would be in vain to consult my parents, and therefore stole away without their knowledge. The races were what were called "the four mile heats." I recollect, that when the poor animals had run what was called "the first heat," I felt sorry to see then panting for breath, and wet with sweat; and some thoughts on the subject of a serious character were presented to my mind: but I found the longer I stayed, the more I was entertained with the scene. After the first and principle races were run,there were several others: and in one instance I was asked to ride. At first I felt some ambition to undertake it;--but suddenly a thought struck me, that if my parents knew that I had rode, it would grieve them; and I was favored with a firmness sufficient to resist the temptation. But when I was asked why I would not ride,--it seemed to try me considerably. The answer i gave was, that I should offend my parents if I did. And having got clear of them, I soon went home, where my anxious parents were glad to see me. They inquired whether I had been to see the races? To which I gave them and honest answer, and hoped they would excuse me, as I did not think I should ever wish to go again. I also told them How I had managed an application which was made to me to ride, and the answer I had given why I would not do it. With my conduct in that case, they were satisfied. After commending my firmness, and making some remarks upon the evil tendency of horse-racing, they hoped I would never wish to see another.
My age at this time I do not recollect; but I never went to see another horse-race. Whatever may be said in defence of this evil, I believe it is associated with cruelty,--that it generates a love of gambling,--and that the crowds of loose and disorderly people who assemble on those occasion, are very unfit company for innocent young people to be exposed to,--and that among the professors of Christianity, it cannot be countenanced, without departing from the purity of the principle inculcated by Jesus Christ.
As was the common practice of the time he was apprenticed at the age of 16, in his case to a Quaker potter, John Thomson, of Philadelphia.7 From what can be gathered from the admittedly biased Narrative Thomson was better at teaching his apprentices how to throw pots than in running a potting business, and seemed to be more interested in extracting the maximum amount of productivity out of them than in their moral or spiritual welfare. For a while Kersey tried to fit in with both his master's family and his fellow apprentices, without much succeeding in either; the critical turning point came when one of his fellow apprentices took him to the theater and he saw a near riot outside of it. According to the Narrative,8
When my feelings of distress were almost insupportable, I went with one of my shop-mates to attend a sale of books. He told me the place was pleasant and entertaining. When we arrived at the book store, we found it shut. My companion said, the auctioneer was a play-actor, and that he must have gone to the play. I was now for turning back, but he urged me to go on, and said we would be home time enough. I consented, and we went on. But I had no sooner got in sight of the play-house, than I was astonished at the terrible tumult which surrounded it. Those who were without, with clubs and stones were swearing and threatening to break their way into the house;--while those within were threatening vengeance on them if they did not desist. During the few minutes that I stood looking on, I thought that if ever a spot upon the earth was sufficiently vicious and wicked for the ground to give way under it, and swallow up the company, this was so; and I felt afraid to trust myself near. But my shop-mate rushed into the throng, and I left him. After looking on the dreadful scene a few minutes, I went solitarily along the streets home.
This appears to have become the prompt he needed to make the lasting decision to become serious. After this he became diligent in attending Meeting and began cultivating friendships with other Friends of his own age. He appears to have developed quickly, first appearing in the ministry while still an apprentice, and on at least one occasion is supposed to have successfully controverted an older, weighty Friend in a business Meeting, who later referred to him as "that potter boy."9
He finished his apprenticeship on his twenty-first birthday and, rather than returning home immediately, took a position as a school master in East Caln Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania. We do not know how successful he was in this position, but he was very successful in another venture: in the spring of the next year (specifically, 5th month 26th, 1790) he married Elizabeth Coates, daughter of Moses Coates, from whom the present town of Coatesville (which also contains a "Kersey Street," named after Jesse Kersey) is named.
He returned to York after his marriage to try to establish himself as a potter, but failed. In 1794, after meeting with no success in York he moved with his wife and first two children (there would ultimately be 11, only two of whom would survive him10) to East Caln Township where he started another potting business, which also failed. It would during this time--ca. 1795--that one of the most disastrous of his many misfortunes befell him: during a period of major illness his doctor (who was also his brother-in-law, Jesse Coates) prescribed a mixture of laudanum11 and brandy. While Kersey recovered from the illness he did not recover as readily from the treatment, and was plauged with chronic alcoholism (which he kept under varying degrees of control) for at least the next thirty years.
While this is jumping somewhat out of chronological sequence, and a quite long extract from the Narrative, this is a sufficiently important issue that I think it is worth looking at Kersey's own account of it, which is not entirely straightforward:12
From the time of my commencing in the world, there has been no object of a temporal character more desirable to me than that of having it in my power to render to every man his due. Hence I toiled with industry equal to my strength. I endeavored to avoid expenses; but when I had a family to provide for, this was impossible. Sickness subjected me to doctor's bills, and children were to be clothed, fed, and educated. After I went on the farm, my crops often failed, and I was never able to make any clear money by that business. Under these and other discouraging circumstances, my health gave way; and at length under the pressure of various kinds of trial, my constitution seemed to fail, and I was overtaken with the typhus fever. This disease appeared to prostrate my physical strength, and desolate the remaining powers of the nervous system. In order to raise me above the fever, recourse was had to powerful stimulants. Hence, when I felt the returns of weakness, stimulants were the only remedy within my reach; I could get hold of no other thing that would relieve me. The paroxysms of nervous disease that frequently occurred, would deprive me of the exercise of my rational understanding, and the remedy unavoidably taken was sometimes, by those who knew not the case, declared to be the disease. Hence, my moral character was called in question. Reports were spread abroad that I was become the victim of intemperance. A consequence of which was, that when I came to Philadelphia to attend the Yearly Meeting in the year 1823, a number of Friends at the close of the Meeting for sufferings on sixth day, desired me to stop with them. I did so; and they informed me that reports very unfavorable to my character, were in circulation;--and therefore in their opinion I had better not attend the Yearly Meeting, but for the present return to my family.
On this afflicting occasion, the energies of my mind became prostrated, and my strength so gone from me that I returned home under deep discouragement, reflecting on my situation, and thinking I had none to look to, or to lean upon. A horror of great darkness fell upon me, and it seemed as if the lion of the forest was let loose to roar against me, and even to destroy me utterly. For a time my mind was almost distracted; and I frequently thought of putting off all dependence upon the Society of Friends, and of standing separate and alone. But when I thought of leaving the Society, this objection was always present with me: that as certainly as the children of Israel were to dwell alone, and not to mix with the surrounding nations,--so was the Society of Friends; for they were called out from among the various classes of men, and they were to stand separate, in order that the force of their example might have a proper effect upon the surrounding inhabitants. I could not therefore leave the Society; although I could feel little or no support to the mind, either inward or outward. Sometimes there Would be a short interval of light and hope, but soon I would again feel lost, and left to myself.
Thus for several years, I endured a state of much suffering and various deep trials, among which was the removal of several of my children by death. I was also under the necessity of selling the farm as before noted, and thus was turned out upon the world poor, and penniless. But the most trying of all was, that my character among Friends had become so far blasted, that it was thought proper by some to deny me the standing of a minister in the Society. I was accordingly removed from a seat in the meeting of ministers and elders. Under those circumstances, my poor soul was so far cast down, that all prospect of recovery was frequently lost: and that which gave the greatest power and force to those feelings was a consciousness that I had not kept my place, but had frequently given way to an excessive use of stimulants, in order to conquer or soothe the horror of my situation. But among all the remedies for distress, there is none more dreadful than that of intemperance. It not only fails to relieve, but it adds an incalculable amount to the affliction. No one can conceive the horror and anguish that I felt and passed through. It was a state of suffering that baffles all description; and when once a poor creature is landed in it, every step taken on that ground is making his way out more difficult.
I cannot look back to the period when my standing was called in question, without feeling the most poignant remorse, that I should have been in any degree the cause of reproach to the ever blessed Principle of Truth, of which I have made profession. But from having been brought down by an attack of typhus fever, as before mentioned, to a very low and weak state, in which for several days I had no prospect of recovery, my physician gave me both laudanum and brandy; and recommended the frequent use of the latter in my case, as indispensable to my recovery. It was during this time of weakness, and under the pressure of my difficulties and trials, that I fell into the habit of drinking brandy, and thought my condition required it. Yet I never indulged in a course of excess, because of a disposition to rebel against my good and merciful Creator; but it was occasioned by reason of an overwhelming weight of weakness, and incapacity to stand my ground.
During this time of close trial, it was vain to look for any human aid; and what added to the mass of mournful feelings and views, was the disordered state of the Society of Friends. Many of the members with whom I had formerly associated, had in my opinion departed from the principles of Friends, and taken up a determination to rule the body of the Society in their own way--even though it should prostrate the character and standing of faithful Friends who could not unite with their measures. Consequently, as I was already proscribed, I sought for no strength or comfort among this class,--and stood for a time alone. Being thus weakened, broken down and discouraged, and no associates in the Society to mingle with, I do not marvel at (though I do not approve) of some of the weaknesses into which I unhappily fell. But, adored forever be the great Shepherd and Bishop of souls;--his arm is not shortened that it can not save, nor his ear grown heavy that it cannot hear. By the blessed interference of his adorable goodness, wisdom, and power, deliverance was miraculously furnished, and a way made for me to rise again into the glorious liberty of the ever blessed Truth. This I acknowledge with gratitude to have been nothing short of a Divine work. And having witnessed that my God is indeed a God of mercy and long-suffering kindness, I am humbly bound to speak well of his excellent name, and to magnify the arm of his power. Oh! how wonderful is his loving-kindness to the children of men! When, by his Spirit my mind is opened to take a view of his marvelous kindness, long-suffering, and forbearance with transgressing mortals,--no language is sufficient to do the great subject justice. Sometimes the query arises, How is it, that he permits transgressing mortals to go on year after year, in a state of rebellion against the clear impressions of his Spirit, and lengthens out the opportunity for such to return to him, and enjoy his favor? Thus he even extends his call to the eleventh hour of the day; evidently not willing that any should perish in their sins, but that all should return, repent, and live.
In my reflections upon some of the most trying and discouraging circumstances of my life, I have been convinced that a principal cause was occasioned by my accepting of a proposal made by a liberal and wealthy friend of Philadelphia. In the preceding part of my journal, I have adverted to my being accommodated with a farm in the neighborhood of Downingtown in the year 1797. I had reason to believe that this offer was made me from the motives of kindness and good-will. But I have since believed that it would have been better for me, if I had then declined to accept it, and informed the friend, that although I was poor in the world, yet I could not doubt that if I kept faithful to my good Guide, there would be a way made for me to get along.
I now see, that, being taken from a state of poverty and placed in a condition having the appearance of wealth, I was exposed to many expenses that seemed almost unavoidably connected with my changed situation. In endeavoring to fulfil the various duties that seemed to be required of me, much of my time was occupied. I was held under appointments of society, in some of which I might not have been placed, had Friends supposed I had no time to spare; but considering my circumstances as now being easy in the world, they were influenced thereby.
From my sad experience, I am convinced that it is often dangerous or of great disadvantage, for a man to be suddenly changed from a condition of poverty to one of wealth, or even the appearance of it. Some may think by placing a religious man who is poor, in easy circumstances, that he will have the power to be more useful, and can spend more of his time and property in religious services. But, by removing him suddenly from the station in which he has been placed by Divine Providence, he may be induced by the change of his circumstances, not so deeply to feel those baptisms necessary to give his mind a full acquaintance with himself, but in some measure secretly relying on the influence of his wealth and standing in society, the perfection of his spiritual qualifications may be much injured.
Now, although from a serious recurrence to my own experience, I have been led to make these remarks, yet I have no doubt there may be many cases wherein it would be altogether right and proper for the wealthy to help the poor. We are all but stewards of the good things of this life, and there is a faithfulness in the unrighteous mammon as well as in the true and spiritual riches. See this subject treated on in Luke 15.
In tracing over my own case, I have seriously believed that I should have escaped many a sorrowful hour, and many a mournful reflection, had I found my own way through life, and been left to struggle with the affairs of this world under the circumstances in which Providence had placed me. In the event of the loss of my apparent property, I found my standing and influence in society was greatly diminished--I was forsaken also by many who had professed to be my warm friends. But none of these things would have done me any real harm, if through all I had kept my place in the Truth.
Despite this the early 1800's seem to have been his best years: he emerged as an eloquent and powerful preacher, particularly popular among young Friends who appreciated his decision to speak in a natural instead of affected voice, and he made a number of travels in the ministry. He travelled in England and Ireland, as already noted; he had a meeting with James Madison, then President of the United States, in which he discussed war and slavery; bought a farm (which failed in 1824) and began developing real estate, and produced the Treatise.
The 1820's were particularly hard years for Jesse Kersey. As has already been noted from the lengthy extract from the Narrative, his alcoholism escalated out of control during this period, and he began to appear in Meeting drunk, preaching under the influence of a liquid rather than a Holy Spirit. This reached a climax in 1823, when he was invited to leave the sessions of the Yearly Meeting and he lost his standing as a recorded minister. I have not been able to determine when, or how, he finally came to be free of this affliction, though I suspect (but cannot prove) that he remained an active alcoholic up through the time of the separations. This is based partly on unpublished accounts of meetings with him, which make mention of sometimes erratic behavior, and on unpublished letters from the period, which are sometimes completely lucid and at other times border on the incoherent. See, for example, the previously unpublished Account of his Meeting with George and Ann Jones, the Letter to an Unknown Recipient, and the two letters to Halliday Jackson, dated 22nd of 6th mont, 1827 and 29th of 6th month, 1827.
As early as 1817 he was going into deep debt on his farm. An 1820 record quoted by Arthur E. James in his classic The Potters and Potteries of Chester County, Pennsylvania13 shows a capital investment of $2,500, expenses (material, labor, etc.) $1,694, and an annual production of only $1,300, but with a note that demand for his manufactured goods was increasing.
Perhaps in an effort to diversify his business he went beyond the normal work of a potter, and produced other items as well as the standard pots and dishes, with an advertisement in 1820 announcing that he had a new store of earthenware pipes for conveying water underground: "It is presumed that they will obtain a general preference, as their durability is greater than can be expected from bored logs; and the water passing through them is more pure."14 From what I have been able to determine, Kersey was on the right track, but seemed to have made a detour on it: prior to this time, people had indeed used hollowed out logs to convey water from the source to the desired destination, with obviously unsatisfactory results, and were already switching to other alternatives; unfortunately for him, the alternative that was turned to was pipes made out of cast iron, not earthenware.
The farm was ultimately sold in 1824, apparently at a loss after all of the creditors were paid, and it appears he never had a home of his own or steady work after that. He briefly owned a coffee and tea shop, which failed, and served for a year as Postmaster of West Chester but never seemed to have re- established himself. He lived as a non-paying boarder with several Friends and at his daughter Hannah's house. It would seem that about the only successful venture from the 1820's was his presentation and publication of the Lectures on Agriculture in 1828, the same year that his wife died.
Jesse Kersey, as we have already observed, took the Hicksite side during the separation of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1827. While I have not, at least as of yet, been able to determine how great or extensive his role in it may have been, it appears to me he was emphatically on the Hicksite side though not a prominent figure in either bringing the split about or in the organization of the new Hicksite Yearly Meeting. It does appear that he was aware that a separation was in the works (this was not much of a secret, of course: John Comly had been travelling about the Yearly Meeting laying plans for just such a contingency15) and seems to have been present at several of the more important meetings. He did re-emerge as an accepted minister, however.
Although he never left the Hicksite fold, he did come to realize that the separations did not achieve what he hoped they would. In an undated essay he wrote, in part16,
Considering those facts, it has been to me an instructive, as well as humbling experience, to witness the simultaneous and awful shaking which has taken place in all parts of the society; and I have been ready to conclude it was just such a shaking and overturning as we stood in need of. And it may even yet be that a still more awful and solemn overthrow is to follow. For what can we say has been the effect of the shaking and agitation we have had? Has it been the means of humbling us, and bringing us back to the original ground and fundamental principle of our profession? Or rather is it not obvious that too much formality, indifference, and self-importance remain, and have even increased among us?
Instead of being humbled, and recurring to first principles, and our first love, are we not building again those very things which are to be taken down--joining hands with formal professors, and saying, "See how they are coming over to us; witness their zeal in forming temperance societies, and in our testimony against slavery."17 But did the will and contrivance of the natural man ever work the righteousness of God? Verily nay; it never did, and never will.
In his summary biography in The Potters and Potteries of Chester County, Pennsylvania18 James wrote that Kersey "still retained much of his former eloquence and power" in his final years. My own still incomplete research leads me to a slightly different conclusion: while there were certainly moments when the old Jesse Kersey re-emerged, he seems to me to have become not much more than a shadow and shell of his former self, who went from Meeting to Meeting preaching the same sermon, and writings letters lamenting the loss of the old days, and how he was left behind in a world that had changed. One notes a certain note of harshness in his later essays, as the man who was wrote of the injustice of the mass disownments after the separations advocated disowning those who did not take their hats off when someone appeared in prayer.
Jesse Kersey undertook his final journey in 10th month, 1845. He was then a member of Kennett Meeting, and was engaged in a concern to visit the families of the different branches of it (the first time he had ever been involved in such a work.) He began, but never completed this project: his remaining health and strength gave out on the 18th of the 10th month and he had to return home and be put to bed; he died quietly on the morning of the 28th, at the age of 78.
Two days before then he had told two Friends who had come to visit him of his life long concern to serve his master, and said "I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith.--and now have the consoling evidence, that there is laid up for me a Crown, which God, the righteous Judge, will give me in his own time."19 I believe that despite his many flaws, his sometimes very poor judgments, the instances of vindictiveness and harshness apparent during the separation and in his later years that Jesse Kersey does wear this crown.
1. James, Arthur E. The Potters and Potteries of Chester County, Pennsylvania (Second Edition.) Exton, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1978, pages 107, 112. <Back.
2. Clippings Files, Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pennsylvania. <Back
3. Now simply "York." <Back
4. A Narrative of the Early Life, Travels, and Gospel Labors of Jesse Kersey, Late of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: T. Ellwood Chapman, 1851, page 17. <Back
5. Narrative, page 19. <Back
6. Narrative, 19-20. <Back
7. James, page 107. Thomson's name does not appear in the Narrative. <Back
8. Narrative, pages 28-29. <Back
9. James, page 108. <Back
10. An account of his children:
Hannah Kersey, born 3rd month 29th, 1791, died 4th month 2nd,1877.
Lydia Kersey, born 11th month 24th, 1791, died 12th month 24th, 1836.
Mary Kersey, born 5th month 19th, 1792, died 10th month 28th, 1816.
Joseph Kersey, born 6th month 14th, 1797, died 9th month 9th, 1827.
Rachel Kersey, born 1st month 29th, 1800, died 11th month 11th, 1851.
Sarah Kersey, born 11th month 13th, 1802, died 9th month 23rd, 1814.
Jesse Kersey, Jr., born 1st month 21st, 1805, died 1st month 23rd, 1827.
William Kersey, born 9th month 9th, 1807, died 1st month 7th, 1829.
Elizabeth R. Kersey, born 11th month 1st, 1809, died 8th month 12th, 1820.
Ann Kersey, born 4th month 22nd, 1812, died 8th month 19th, 1820.
Esther E. Kersey, born 9th month 3rd, 1815, died 3rd month 4th, 1818. <Back
11. Opium. <Back
12. Narrative, pages 83-89. <Back
13. Page 111. <Back
14. Clippings File, Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pennsylvania; also quoted in James, page 111. <Back
15. See A Journal of the Life and Religious Labors of John Comly, Late of Byberry, Pennsylvania, Published by his Children. Philadelphia: T. Ellwood Chapman, 1853, particularly chapters 10-12. <Back
16. Narrative, pages 192-193. <Back
17. Kersey was opposed to joining forces with members of other societies, which position he consistently maintained both before and after the separations. <Back
18. Page 112. <Back
19. Narrative, 13-14. This is obviously a nearly direct, though incomplete, quote from II Timothy 4:7-8: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." <Back