J. Williams Thorne (1816–1897) was an outspoken farmer who spent the first half-century of his remarkable life in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he took part in political debates, helped fugitive slaves in the Underground Railroad and was active in the Progressive Friends Meeting, a national group of activist Quakers and allied reformers who met annually in Chester County. Williams and his associates discussed vital matters of the day, from slavery to prohibition to women’s rights. These issues sometimes came to Thorne’s doorstep—he met with nationally prominent reformers, and thwarted kidnappers seeking to enslave one of his free black tenants.
After the Civil War, Williams became a “carpetbagger,” moving to North Carolina to pursue farming and politics. An “infidel” Quaker (anti-Christian), he was opposed by Democrats who sought to keep him out of the legislature on account of his religious beliefs. Today a little-known figure in history, Williams made his mark through his outspokenness and persistent battling for what he believed.