Taken from Philadelphia: T. Ellwood Chapman, 1851.

This Document is on The Quaker Writings Home page

Best Viewed in Any Browser. Lynx Tested.

Chapter 1: Containing an account of his early life, up to his sixteenth year.

My parents' names were William and Hannah Kersey, and I was born in Yorktown, Pennsylvania, on the 5th day of the 8th month in the year 1768. Growing up in a considerable town, I early had an opportunity of mixing in company of various kinds. But by the watchful care of my parents I was preserved out of some of the evils that were common among the children of the 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.

I have frequently looked back with gratitude and wonder, that I should have wholly escaped the crime of using profane language,--notwithstanding it was common among my play-fellows. This preservation, I am aware, was without any merit in me. Still I cannot reflect on it without a real satisfaction; and I fully believe, that those who have children under their care, cannot be too watchful in keeping them from that hardihood of mind and manners which is always attendant when an early habit of using wicked words is allowed or acquired.

Among the first circumstances which I recollect, that gave me dissatisfaction, was the prohibition of my parents against wandering about on the first day of the week. I could not imagine why they denied me a practice which was general. My acquaintance would often call for me on that day, and seem disappointed when they found I could not go with them. At some few times I stole away and mixed with them through the afternoon: but in every instance such indulgence rendered me very unhappy afterwards.

By an early and proper attention to this subject, children and young people might be induced to prefer spending the afternoon of first day in reading and quietness: and the heads of families being separated from their worldly concerns,--would find a pleasing entertainment in mingling with the children, and giving them useful information. If we were to combine with those opportunities of private family improvement, the frequent reading of the Scriptures, it might very much tend to fix an early attachment to their valuable contents. On this subject, the example and practice of the parents of John Woolman, are worthy of consideration.

In one instance of my wandering from home on first day afternoon, I was followed by my mother, who found me on the commons amongst a number of boys. I well recollect, that the instant I saw her my mind was filled with shame and confusion; and in this state I followed her home. She made no remarks to me on the way, except putting the question to me, "How could thee do so?" My heart was filled with sorrow, so that I could make no reply. When we get home, and sat down, I noticed the tears rolling down her cheeks. This made a very deep impression upon me, and I desired her not to be grieved about me; promising I would not do so any more.

But I have since thought that those impressions and feelings resulted more from the affection I felt for her, than from any clear conviction which I then had of the evil of the practice. I cannot, however, look back to the circumstance without also remembering, that my mother's tears were not soon forgotten; nor could I think, for a considerable time afterward, of attempting to commit the same kind of trespass upon her feelings. Still the love of play, and frequent opportunities of company during my waking hours,--often drew me into sports and amusements, and particularly into company which was objectionable to my parents. As they checked and reasoned with me, I would frequently think that their restrictions were hard to bear, and would therefore trespass their orders; in doing which, sometimes they would detect me,--and at others, ! would escape.

In one instance, I had an irresistable 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 them 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 principal 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 firmness sufficient to resist the temptation. But when I was asked by I would not ride, it seemed to try me considerably. The answer I gave was, that it 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 an honest answer, and hoped they would excuse me, as I did not think I should ever wish to go again. I also told hem 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 after 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 occasions, are very unfit company or innocent young persons to be exposed to,--and that among the professors of Christianity, it cannot be countenanced, without departing from the purity of the principles inculcated by Jesus Christ.

It was customary in the town of York, for apprentice lads and others, frequently to be in the streets in companies after dark; but my parents would not permit me to be with them. This restriction I often thought a hard case; and sometimes I would get out without their knowledge. This gave me an opportunity to notice, that there was more bad language and fighting under the cover of night, than was common in the day. And I now believe that the morals of many boys who are permitted to run the streets at night, have been much injured by it; and that they prompt one another to many evils which they would be both afraid and ashamed to commit in open day.

It would no doubt be much better, if those who have the charge of children were more attentive to this point. By a little care, they might be introduced to the practice of spending the evenings in the improvement of their learning: and as they become interested in their studies and in reading, they would become satisfied at home. I have often regretted that so much liberty is given to the youth,--particularly to bound children in our cities, and that they are so much neglected by those who have the care of them. The quarreling and tumult among them, so common under cover of the night, is conclusive evidence that many who have the charge of boys, care very little about them, more than to see that they perform their portion of labor; and when this is accomplished, they may run at large, and do as they please.

About the fourteenth year of my age, I frequently had convictions for my follies, which induced me often to think it was necessary to be more watchful and guarded in my conduct; and sometimes I would resolve to quit the sports in which I had indulged. But when fresh temptations presented, I was soon led away.--Again I would resolve to be more firm, and act the part which should keep my mind easy. But month after month passed away, and instead of making any valuable stand, I continued to join with my acquaintances in their various diversions;--until, at length, those feelings of conviction seemed to be much worn off.

My father's house was frequently resorted to by Fiends. But their manners were so different from what I observed among the gay people of the place that I could not think it desirable to grow up a Friend. I imagined that there must be an error in the habits and ideas of a people who seemed to me to have scarcely any cheerfulness about them. I observed, that some of our visitors differed from others. They were not all equally gloomy. A degree of sociability and. pleasantry was practiced by some, whilst others seemed to me to be almost under the dominion of melancholy. Among our visitors, there were some instances of men who differed from the Society of Friends in our parts generally. Their hats were white, and their clothes of the natural color, it was not easy for me at that time, to account for such singularity. If my parents, or Friends of the town, had given no extraordinary attention to these men, I believed I should have taken little notice of the circumstance. But as those persons seemed to me to be held in higher estimation, I was ready to suppose that in order to become the complete Friend, and pass among strangers as such,--if I grew up a member of the Society, I must get the white hat, and. adopt this general singularity of appearance.

The impression upon my mind, which arose from those cases of singularity, was, about this time, very unfavorable to Friends, as a religious Society. I would reflect on the liberty other boys had, and upon the gay and cheerful conduct of their parents. I would contrast this with the restrictions I was under, and with the gloomy manners of Friends; and frequently thought to myself that I never would be like them.(1) One thing however, I could not avoid noticing, and that was, the conduct and conversation of Friends were innocent. I heard no swearing or rough language in their company. But among the other inhabitants of the town, I frequently heard bad language. They called their children rough names. This I could not approve of.

By contrasting the mild. language of the Society with the language of other people, I believe it will be seen that the youthful mind, among the former, will be kept much more free from the moral taint, almost inseparable from those who are daily within hearing of the profane language of the latter.

By degrees, my taste for cheerful company had so fully worn off the love of serious subjects, that I could have little relish for either books or society, that were serious. Still, my parents kept me carefully to meetings, and frequently in the afternoons of first days, to reading the Scriptures. In meetings, I would sometimes feel sensible that my folly and loose state of mind, were condemnable: but more frequently, after being among my giddy companions, condemnation would attend me when my head was laid on my pillow.

Thus the time passed on, without my gaining any firm stand against that lightness and folly to which I was prone. At length, it became necessary for me to leave my parents, in order to learn a trade. In this prospect, I comforted myself with the idea that I should probably be removed from my old acquaintances; and that, in forming new ones, I would look out for those who were more serious and circumspect, than the companions I should leave. The impressions made on my mind in moments of retirement, that if I expected to be happy, it was necessary for me to be more thoughtful and serious, I now flattered myself could be attended to without the difficulty of making the change in the midst of my present associates, and without becoming the subject of their ridicule.


1. It is believed that this reference was made to a company of young men who undertook to imitate John Woolman in their manner of dress. They thus rendered themselves conspicuous for a time, and were esteemed sincere. But, "not having root in themselves," they became formal, and their zeal for external appearance soon "withered away." <-Back.