During the Early Republic, the Society of Friends struggled to preserve its peculiar identity in the midst of a rapidly changing America. Conflict between the Society and the world led many Quakers into reformist activism, and others into introspective withdrawal, and conflict within its own ranks ultimately produced the schisms of the 1820s through 1840s. Confronted with such turmoil, few Quakers remained unaffected.
The son of attorney Samuel Allinson (1739-1791), and a member of a prominent West Jersey Quaker family, William Allinson became a weighty member of the Burlington (N.J.) Monthly Meeting at the turn of the 19th century. Still a bachelor at age 40, he envisioned his life as intimately bound up with the affairs of the Society, and devoted his time to his religion as an elder of the meeting, clerk of the Monthly Meeting (1798-1807), representative to the Quarterly and Yearly Meetings, and as minister, advisor, and member of innumerable committees. "I do not desire a Life of Ease," he claimed, "& it is very evident it is not for me; but could I choose, it would be most agreeable to be best fitted & most Employd in religious services" (1803 April 26).
Allinson found little ease in his life, indeed. Above all, he felt himself embroiled in conflict -- with his own spiritual failings, with his bachelorhood, and with the temptations of the world. Through self-discipline and self-interrogation, he scrupulously examined every action for earthly motive and spiritual meaning. Although the ministrations of other Friends, particularly George Dillwyn, provided some solace, Allinson found little comfort in his ceaseless waiting for the stillness of the Inward Light, and he obstinately refused to move forward until he could intuit the right path. "I desire to be instructed," he stressed, "& in order thereto that nothing may be withheld which may promote my refinement & increase my acquaintance with the mind of Truth respecting me." In his heart, Allinson felt the painful scourge of spiritual inadequacy and his own inability to draw nearer to the divine; the moments of joyful communion with the divine counterbalanced by the nagging uncertainties of his own worth: "Oh for the precious Fellowship with the Father," he lamented, "for ability to enter into the Closet of the Heart & perform, oftner than the Morning, acceptable Worship there to him!" (1803 March 12).
Few things tormented Allinson as much as his bachelorhood and celibacy. Far from being uncomfortable around women, he was as willing to heed their religious insights as those of men. However because of the connection he saw between his sexual and spiritual shortcomings, women symbolized something more than men. He reproached himself when "transgress[ing] the boundaries of true sobriety" in the presence of some "lively young girls," having been prompted into levity, "which wounded my Peace" (1804 August 22), and after demurring from approaching the parents of a woman for whom he had harbored affectionate feelings for over three years, he indulged in characteristic self-reproach:
"Alas! while writing I am ready to Despair of ever arriving here, -- my strippings & Plungings must be greater than I have known, and my obedience & Faith greater than they have been, or most assuredly I never shall exceed (spiritually) the stature of a Dwarf: -- I desire, and sometimes ardently, to be perfected, but nature revolts at suffering... yet often, very often, I am too weak to ask it from a Consciousness that much Dross needs purging away, and a Dread of the Essential operation of the Furnace" (1804 November 1).
In true Quaker fashion, Allinson explained his reticence about marriage by saying only that he sought "internal Evidence to discover how long it is right to stand still & when it will be safe to move," and hoped that he would not be deluded by temptations (1805 March 23). This connection between spirituality and sexuality surfaces as well in his fears that holding back in marital relations might somehow be connected with holding back from a relation with the divine:
"I endeavor at seasons to approach the Throne of Grace & make some intercession for foregiveness of my Omissions & backslidings at the footstool of Him whom I sometimes have been enabled to call my Beloved, -- but alas! my Love seems cold -- I cannot approach -- the Temple is occupied with other Lovers, and I fail to witness, what I often long for, Jerusalem to be a quiet habitation" (1804 November 4).
Channeling his energies into his church, Allinson involved himself in a variety of Friends-sponsored charitable activities, including supporting the Westtown School, ministering to the Indians in the "western" states, and regularly attending meetings at all levels throughout western New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including preparatory, worship, monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings. Like many other members of his family, he was committed to the antislavery movement, and often visited local African-Americans "with a view to assist, Encourage, & as ability might be afforded, advise" (1805 January 25), on at least two occasions, appearing in court to support the efforts at liberation waged by African Americans held in slavery. Allinson was on the Acting Committee of the Burlington County Antislavery Society, and in 1807, became a member of the Yearly Meeting Committee on Indian Affairs.
For Allinson, the world presented a scene of almost continual strife, of contestation between the striving for a spiritually pure life, an Inward Life, and the temptations and bustle of the secular world. The young of his day, he felt, were particularly inclined to reject Quaker simplicity and plainness in dress and behavior, and peculiarly resistant to spiritual suasion. "Oh what an ago of Licentiousness & Infidelity!" he lamented, "no marvel if the Divine Indignation should be kindled; -- many of his own workmanship are forgetting him as Days innumerable. -- many are indulging in fleshy Lusts & living in the Pride of life, and many are at open War with Omnipotence & publickly declaring their disbelief of scriptures, of the Truths of revelation, & a final Retribution..." (1803 January 1). At Byberry Meeting, he found the young men to be "like Bullocks unaccustomed to the yoke." Even his own brothers, James and John, seemed to teeter on the brink of succumbing to the lures of worldly dress and comportment, leading Allinson to confront them on occasions regarding their "increasing Deviations in dress & Pursuits," and to conclude that Samuel was "in great Danger of being carried away by the Prince of the Power of the air" (1803 March 27). What he sought in himself and in society was self-discipline, spiritual simplicity, and purity. What he longed for was self-assurance and community, commodities too rarely found by Allinson to provide an abiding sense of peace.