The Quaker meeting at Somerton (near Suffolk) claims to be "the oldest continuous congregation in Virginia."1
The congregation first started worshipping together in 1672, after George Fox made his one trip to Virginia to preach his version of true faith. Fox was not the first missionary from the Religious Society of Friends to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The first two women who visited the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1656 were accused of witchcraft by the Puritan leaders and forced to leave after two months. Others who arrived later were jailed, fined, and even executed.2
The Quakers were in violation of the Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament in 1662, and were not welcomed by the Anglican leaders in the Virginia colony. Still, by locating at the edge of the Dismal Swamp, they were subject to less harassment in the 1600's.
The Quaker beliefs in equality between races and sexes were non-traditional, and the Somerton group experienced local hostility when it taught freed slaves after the Civil War ended. The school and meeting house was burned in 1866. The current Somerton Friends Meeting House on Quaker Drive, east of Quaker Swamp, was constructed in 1867, and a historical marker was installed next to it in 2016.3
In Virginia, the counties that exported the most tobacco developed the strongest economic and cultural ties to England in the 1600's, and had the most traditional social structure tied to the Anglican church. The areas in Virginia with poor soil for growing tobacco, particularly south of the James River (at Lower Norfolk, Nansemond, and Isle of Wight) and the Eastern Shore developed their trade with other colonies in North America and the Caribbean islands.
Commercial links reinforced religious links. The counties with a higher percentage of intercolonial trade interacted with more diverse cultures, and had a higher percentage of resident Quakers and Puritans. The first Quaker preachers came to Virginia in 1650's, mostly from England via Barbados.
Quakers on Virginia's Eastern Shore were concentrated in 1657 at mouth of Nassawaddox Creek. What may have been the first Friends meetinghouse in America was built there.4
Puritan and then Anglican officials in colony pushed back against Quakers, ordering preachers to leave and threatening to fine ship captains who brought Quakers to Virginia. Quakers threatened the traditional hierarchy of the gentry by claiming everyone had a universal inner light, and Quakers in Virginia were persecuted more than Puritans.
Maryland, a Catholic colony that experienced its own discrimination, was more tolerant of different religious groups. Ships carrying Quakers to Virginia pretended to be sailing to Maryland, before surreptitiously landing them on the Northern Neck or Eastern Shore.
Most Quakers on the Eastern Shore moved into Maryland on north side of Pocomoke River by 1662, after harassment by Col. Edmund Scarborough. On October 12, 1663, Scarborough led 40 horsemen across the disputed colonial border and raided Quaker settlements at Annemessex and Manoakin.
Maryland governor Charles Calvert traveled to Jamestown to complain to Virginia Governor William Berkeley. Berkeley soothed Calvert by promising to resolve the boundary dispute on the Eastern Shore, and in 1668 the Calvert-Scarborough line was surveyed to define to Virginia-Maryland border from the Pocomoke River to Chincoteague Bay. In 1673, George Fox visited the Quakers at Annemessex, while his companions crossed border to talk to those Quakers still remaining in Virginia.5
South of the James River the traveling ministers of the Quakers, known as Public Friends, followed Indian trading paths inland. The best Anglican ministers sought parishes near Jamestown and in the tobacco-growing areas where glebe lands would generate more income, and were less inclined to proselytize in the backcountry where Quakers were accepted.6
After Pennsylvania was founded 1682, Virginia governors were nervous that Quakers on the northern border would not fight the French occupying the St Lawrence River valley or the Iroquois/Susquehannock that raided south. When Francis Nicholson served as lieutenant governor in 1690-1692, he required local officials to interrogate traveling Quakers and requested William III to set up a colonial postal system so information could move faster between governments.
Starting in 1680, Bishop of London Henry Compton (who was responsible for the church in Virginia) required new ministers get certificates from him before going to Virginia. Bishop Compton appointed an agent ("commissary") to oversee activities in Virginia. Commissary James Blair got approval for the College of William and Mary because religious and political leaders wanted to ensure conformity/control by training ministers, so they would reinforce traditional Anglican beliefs and the traditional social hierarchy in Virginia despite the 1688 Toleration Act.7
1. "Historic Quaker congregation in Suffolk commemorated with roadside marker," The Virginian-Pilot, July 4, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/news/local/historic-quaker-congregation-in-suffolk-commemorated-with-roadside-marker/article_28d69569-21c2-5c83-bf53-bf0e19445799.html (last checked July 6, 2016)
2. "Quakers fight for religious freedom in Puritan Massachusetts, 1656-1661," Global Nonviolent Action Database, March 25, 2012, http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/quakers-fight-religious-freedom-puritan-massachusetts-1656-1661 (last checked July 6, 2016)
3. "Historic Quaker congregation in Suffolk commemorated with roadside marker," The Virginian-Pilot, July 4, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/news/local/historic-quaker-congregation-in-suffolk-commemorated-with-roadside-marker/article_28d69569-21c2-5c83-bf53-bf0e19445799.html (last checked July 6, 2016)
4. Robert Leland Johnson, A Good Gene Pool of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, Gateway Press, 2006, p.39
5. Robert Leland Johnson, A Good Gene Pool of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, Gateway Press, 2006, pp.40-42
6. April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, p.5, p.112, pp.124-126
7. April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, p.133, p.211