In colonial America the Friends often met with severe condemnation and some persecution, except in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania, where in 1682 William Penn settled his famous colony. As religious freedom grew, the Friends sent representatives to the Continent and to America, Asia, and Africa. Although for reasons of conscience Friends could not take an active part in the Revolutionary War, they were loyal in upholding the new national government. They subsequently found a wide field of activity in philanthropic movements, taking the lead in the effort to abolish slavery. Among noted American abolitionists were John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and John Greenleaf Whittier. The Friends worked for prison reform (e.g., Elizabeth Fry), for improvement in insane asylums, for mitigation of the penal code (especially abolition of capital punishment), and for the betterment of common education.
In 1827 questions arising in connection with the preaching of Elias Hicks divided the American Friends into two groups, the "Hicksites," who placed emphasis upon the individual's belief as guided by revelation to his or her own spirit, and the "Orthodox," who gave to the elders the duty of decision as to soundness of doctrine. At the same time, under Joseph J. Gurney, there was an evangelical revival among Friends in the western states, with a tendency to discard many of the old forms and distinctions. Another break occurred in 1845 in New England, when the adherents of John Wilbur set up a new yearly meeting in protest against what they considered dangerous departures from the teachings and ways of the early Friends. Two superficial marks of the Friends generally disappeared—the plain language, in which they used "thee" to everyone as a mark of equality, and the plain gray dress, the broad-brimmed men's hats, and the women's bonnets.