Mary Kite: Mary and the Devil

By James Truitt, Archives Digitization Technician at the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, writing on behalf of the Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections

Quaker minister Mary Kite was not like most Friends you may have heard of. Kite was born only a few months before well-known Quaker minister Lucretia Mott (Kite in late 1792, Mott at the start of 1793), and like Mott she was an outspoken woman who traveled widely to spread her message. However, in many ways the two were strikingly different.

Mary Kite identified as a Wilburite Friend, a member of a minority group among U.S. Quakers who followed minister John Wilbur in opposing Orthodox Friends’ increasing evangelicalism in the 1840s and 1850s. Kite’s religious beliefs were somewhat unusual for a Quaker of her time period. She was very “fire and brimstone,” advocating the necessity of submitting to God’s will and walking the “narrow way” of righteousness despite the personal suffering it entailed. Atypically for a member of a pacifist religious society, she was in the habit of discussing “the Church militant” and “Christian warfare.” I have not seen these traits in any other Quaker whose writings we have catalogued for this project, and today I would like to bring attention to another of Kite’s peculiarities: her belief in the devil’s active role in the world. This unusual worldview raises a number of questions that it might be fruitful for researchers to explore.

Kite routinely discussed her personal struggles with the devil in her journals and correspondence. Most of these references involve his efforts to tempt someone or weaken someone’s faith. A letter from Kite to her brother from 1852 provides an example. Kite had just returned from a long journey visiting Quaker meetings in the South; reflecting on the trip, she wrote that

Mary Kite letter to Joseph Kite, March 7, 1852.
Mary Kite letter to Joseph Kite, March 7, 1852.

"though . . . I did endeavour to be faithful, yet the Enemy has been permitted to buffit and try me; calling in question the rectitude of my movement, But I can at times say, ‘Get the[e] hence, Satin; Thou wert a liar from the beginning.’ None need be alarmed at his whisperings, or the depth of discouragement they may be plunged into. Our compassionate Master tho he may see meet to hide his face for a season, and permit the Enemy to rage and storm against us . . . yet He cannot go beyond his chain, his power is limited."

This excerpt illustrates one of the devil’s attempts to tempt Kite or inspire doubt in her. By “calling into question the rectitude of my movement,” he caused Kite to doubt whether she had done the right thing in traveling south, a mission she believed was divinely inspired. The passage also shows the place of the devil in Kite’s theology: subservient to God, ultimately harmless, and only able to act through God’s permission.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Kite’s views on the devil is the role she believed he played in Quaker meetings for worship and in the schisms that wracked the Society of Friends in the mid-nineteenth century. Quakers practice silent worship at their meetings, waiting quietly until moved by God to speak. Kite’s writings suggest she believed the devil could also move someone to speak in meeting. In a diary entry from 1829 Kite wrote about being unsure whether what she had said was divinely or diabolically inspired. “This morning in Meeting,” she wrote,

Mary Kite diary entry, 1829.
Mary Kite diary entry, 1829.

"a subject spread before my mind and I thought I endeavourd to weigh it well, to ascertain from what source it came. . . . I believed it to be in obedience to [God’s] will that I arose, [but] after saying a little the way closed up, and the subject was left unfinished, and my poor mind introduced into great distress, the enemy busily spreading before my mind what might be said and what would be the consequence."

The passage presents a fascinating inside look at the process Kite went through before speaking in meeting. The text is highly aware of the possibility of diabolical inspiration; Kite was unsure of the source of the subject coming to her mind, and did her best to make sure it was divine before rising to speak. Having risen, the inspiration faded, and she thought she recognized “the enemy” (i.e., the devil) influencing her thoughts. Kite’s belief that both God and the devil could be active in a Friends’ meeting challenges common ideas about Quaker worship and suggests further questions about what Kite believed she was trying to do when she sat silently in the meetinghouse.

Quakerism in the United States went through a number of changes in the first half of the nineteenth century, and Mary Kite drew on her belief in diabolical inspiration and the devil’s activity in the world to explain the schisms that twice split the Society of Friends during her lifetime. In 1827 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society divided over the teachings of minister Elias Hicks, separating into “Orthodox” and “Hicksite” branches (Kite belonged to the former); other yearly meetings in the United States soon followed suit. The causes for the controversy are complicated but can be summarized as a disagreement over Hicks’s contention that Quakers should give more spiritual authority to the continuing revelation of the Inner Light than to scripture. In the decades after the schism many Orthodox Friends, seeking to distance themselves from these radical ideas, stressed the importance of scripture and deemphasized the Inner Light, thereby bringing themselves into greater conformity with the evangelical Protestant sects then dominant in the U.S. These Orthodox Quakers were called Gurneyites after British minister Joseph John Gurney, a leading proponent of their theology; the minority of Friends who opposed them were known as Wilburites. The friction between these two groups eventually led to a series of further schisms in the 1840s and 1850s.

It is clear from Kite’s correspondence that she fell within the Wilburite minority, and she attributed both the spread of Gurneyite ideas and the earlier Hicksite schism to the influence of the devil. Her writings from these periods are full of lamentation over the state of the Society of Friends and its members’ widespread desertion from what she saw as proper Quaker principles. In a journal entry from 1829, Kite explicitly blamed the Hicksite controversy on the devil:

"Mourning, lamentation and sorrow, may indeed be the clothing of the few that are left, when they behold the pealed, the stripd, the reduced state, of our once highly favourd society, which in the last few years has known confusion discord and contention, sown in her ranks by the enemy of all good, who has carried off very many with his baits, and some that stood as Fathers and Mothers in the church have been caught in the snare."

The “confusion, discord, and contention” in the Society of Friends which Kite referred to was almost certainly the Hicksite schism, which had come to a head just two years earlier. If this reading is correct, Kite believed the devil (“the enemy of all good”) had “carried off” many Quakers, using Elias Hicks’s teachings as “bait” to lure the devout into the “snare.” The schism, in Kite’s eyes, was no mere disagreement or misunderstanding among humans, but the result of the machinations of pure evil.

Mary Kite letter to "Benjamin," May 9, 1845.
Mary Kite letter to "Benjamin," May 9, 1845.

Kite applied the same lens of satanic activity to the Gurneyite-Wilburite controversy two decades later. “Many deep conflicts and discouragements abound in our poor Society,” she wrote in an 1845 letter to a friend named Benjamin, “because of the present departure from First Principles in many that have stood as Watchmen and Watchwomen on our Walls, and who faithfully guarded the Flock against the Infidelity of Elias Hicks’s principles, yet now have been snared and taken in the present stratagem.” While the passage does not explicitly refer to the devil, “snare” and “stratagem” are words Kite frequently applied to diabolical activity, and the terms portray the situation as arising from the deliberate plan of some intelligence. Moreover, the text draws a parallel between the “infidelity of Elias Hicks’s principles,” which Kite believed to be a snare of the devil, and the “present stratagem” of the Gurneyite-Wilburite controversy. These considerations suggest that Kite understood a good deal of what went on in the Society of Friends during her lifetime as the work of the devil.

Kite’s belief in the devil’s active role in her life, the Quaker meetings she attended, and the controversies that rent the religious society to which she belonged sets her apart from other Quaker women ministers of her time. The papers of Hicksite Lucretia Mott and Gurneyite Rebecca Collins, also digitized for the In Her Own Right project, reveal little or no concern with diabolical influence. Quaker thought on the devil has been little explored by scholars and I hope that the availability of Kite’s papers will provide a great opportunity for researchers to do so.

Ready to explore? Visit collections related to this exhibit in In Her Own Right: Mary Kite correspondence and diaries in the Sharpless Family papers.