ELIAS HICKS, QUAKER PREACHER
The Hicks family on Long Island was descended from Robert Hicks, who, in 1622 at 42 years of age, arrived on the ship Fortune in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Robert's son John, continuing the family wanderlust, became one of the founders of Hempstead, Long Island. Elias Hicks, a descendant of John Hicks, was born March 19, 1748, and he remained a lifelong resident of Long Island, though his work as a Quaker preacher would take him tens of thousands of miles around the country.
A Spellbinding Speaker
Hicks was described by his contemporaries as a tall, spare man, clean-shaven and simply dressed, who stood straight and spoke forcefully. With his expansive forehead, prominent eyebrows and piercing dark eyes, he must have been an impressive figure. Hicks had a reputation for scrupulous honesty and vigorous intellect. Never pretentious, he would argue the most critical national and spiritual issues by powerful reasoning in accordance with everyday common sense.
In November 1829, a young Walt Whitman, only ten years old, heard Elias Hicks, by then 81 years old, speaking before a huge crowd in the ballroom of Morrison's Hotel in Brooklyn. Years later, writing of the experience, Whitman recalls Hicks' words "very emphatically and slowly pronounc'd, in a resonant, grave, melodious voice: What is the chief end of man? I was told in my early youth it was to glorify God, and seek and enjoy him forever." Whitman goes on to describe Hicks, in the midst of religious fervor, taking "the broad-brim hat from his head, and almost dashing it down with violence on the seat behind, [then continuing] with uninterrupted earnestness... Many, very many, were in tears."
Elias Hicks at Home
But in 1771, when Elias Hicks married Jemima Seaman, his fame was yet to come. They had met at the Westbury Quaker meeting, and they settled on the prosperous Seaman farm in Jericho in what is now called the Elias Hicks House, built circa 1740.
In those days, the village of Jericho was fast becoming a popular stopover point for travelers along the Jericho Road. Rather than see bars and grog houses set up in their village to accommodate transients, Elias and Jemima Hicks opened their home to wayfarers. In addition to the growing Hicks family, this simple, two-story dwelling often housed as many as 20 guests at a time. Travelers were served simple meals--stews, fish, meat, home-baked bread--and invited to spread their bedrolls near the hearth to sleep. This hospitality continued for many years, until newer roads took the traffic elsewhere. Yet in all that time the family never accepted any form of payment from their overnight visitors.
The family increased rapidly: seven daughters and four sons were born to Elias and Jemima Hicks. Sadly, only a handful of the children grew to adulthood. Their second daughter died young of smallpox, and the youngest daughter was stillborn. All four of the sons, their father wrote, "were of weak constitutions, and were not able to take care of themselves, being so enfeebled as not to be able to walk after the ninth or tenth year of their age." None of the boys survived beyond their teens.
Elias Hicks had been trained in carpentry, and in 1787, he helped build the Jericho Quaker Meetinghouse. At first reticent about speaking in public, by 1778 he had become a "Public Friend," a preacher who, traveling widely, carried the Quaker message. Over the remaining 52 years of his life, Elias Hicks toured the country by carriage and horseback, addressing huge crowds of followers and admirers.
He preached religious ideas that were at odds with established Quaker beliefs. He and his followers, called Hicksites, held that "the entire work of salvation is within man," that it was not Satan abroad in the world who destroyed mankind, but rather the weaknesses and unbridled passions of human beings themselves.
Opponent of Slavery
Out of his firm belief in the equality of all God's creatures, Hicks spoke forcefully against slavery and was an early leader in the anti-slavery movement. "We are not better for being white, than others for being black," he preached. One of the tales told about him concerns a Virginia planter who vowed to blow Elias Hicks' brains out if Hicks ever set foot near his plantation. With quiet courage, Hicks went to the man's house, introduced himself, and humbly spoke of his religious beliefs. "Tell me if thou canst, how this Gospel can be truly preached without showing the slaves that they are injured, and without making a man...feel as if they were encouraged in rebellion." The two men talked and argued late into the night, and at parting the slaveholder invited the Quaker to visit again. They met several times in subsequent months, and before a year had passed, the Virginian emancipated all his slaves.
In 1811, Hicks' pamphlet against slavery was published. He encouraged his followers to join in a boycott against the products of slavery and would not himself use rice, sugar or cotton. It is said that even on his deathbed, his right arm paralyzed from a stroke that also left him unable to speak, he would not abide the blanket that someone had used to cover him, but instead kept trying to throw it off--until a friend realized it was made of cotton and replaced it with one made of wool.
A Legacy of Caring
Elias Hicks died in February 1830, at the age of 81, having continued actively to travel and preach and espouse his liberal views until his final illness. He is buried in the graveyard at the Quaker Meeting House he helped build, just steps away from the Long Island Community Foundation offices.
In 1974, recognizing the irreplaceable value of the vanishing village of Jericho, Nassau County acquired for park and preserve purposes about 22 acres of land, with some half-dozen historic buildings, including the Elias Hicks House. In 1990, four rooms of the house were restored for use by the Long Island Community Foundation, and in 1999, the remainder of the house was adapted for the Foundation's use.
Long Island Community Foundation/1740 Old Jericho Turnpike/Jericho NY 117531(516) 681-5085