Quakers (American History Through Literature)
The nineteenth century witnessed significant changes within the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Quakerism had arisen amid the tumult and experimentation of the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. One of many radical religious groups of that era, Friends had proclaimed God's availability to each individual through the Inward Christ or the Inner Light, rendering creeds, outward sacraments, and clerical hierarchy unnecessary. Quakers worshiped by gathering in silence until the spirit inspired someone to speak. To the scandal of many in that day, women as well as men felt led to preach in Quaker worship. Early Quaker spirituality embraced both the inward and the outward life: inner purification led to a powerful sense of union with God and with one another, and the victory of good over evil in the soul energized Friends to seek to transform human society. Quaker social ethics emphasized equality, simplicity, integrity, and peace. When decades of persecution persuaded Friends that the rest of the world was not going to join their program, they withdrew into a quieter, settled life of spiritual discipline, tending toward separation from the larger society. William Penn's Holy Experiment in colonial Pennsylvania, however, kept alive the Quaker ideal of a humane political and social order until Friends withdrew from the legislature in the 1750s, when the English crown insisted on a militia. The American Revolution, during which Friends as pacifists maintained neutrality and suffered for it from both sides, pushed Quakers even further into a sectarian existence.
QUAKERS, 1820870: THEOLOGICAL DIRECTIONS
By 1820 new winds were blowing. Westward migration to Ohio and Indiana produced new social settings and structures, and the "hedge" that had separated "God's peculiar people" from "the world's people" was successively lowered. Some Quakers began to find common ground with other religious groups on matters of philanthropy or social reform, such as abolition. The evangelical movement was at the forefront of many progressive social issues at that time, and evangelical theology began to influence some Quaker thought.
The attraction to the evangelical movement was also a conscious move away from Quaker traditions of the eighteenth century. Quaker thought in that era is often described as "quietist." The turning inward of Quakers as a group paralleled an inward turning of each individual. Quietist thought built on the earlier Quaker understanding of the Inner Light and held that the only trustworthy religious experience was an inward, direct dependence upon God for guidance. Quietism was suspicious of all human initiative.
Elias Hicks (1748830) can represent the quietist position for the nineteenth century, though he himself did not use this term. In his understanding, in order to allow the Inward Christ to work in the soul, the self must abstain from all willing and acting. The animated devotion of evangelicals looked to him like emotional self-indulgence. The appropriate goal of the religious life was instead to lose the self in union with God, to experience annihilation, to become nothing. Evangelicals would find his description of God too impersonal, but to Hicks this did not matter because the aim was selflessness, a state in which there was practically speaking no self left that could be in relationship with a personal God. His views may remind others of the exalted but austere ideals of medieval mystics such as Meister Eckehart or Sufi mystics such as Ibn al-'Arabi.
Hicks was a radical on the issue of slavery. When others suggested that slaves should be purchased from their keepers in order to be set free, he replied that slave owners had no right to additional payment. Not only should they be denied such funds, but they should also be required to set their slaves free and then compensate them for previous services rendered. Hicks promoted a boycott of slave-produced goods. Yet his radical ethic was also separatist: he did not believe that Quakers should cooperate with other antislavery activists. Such social promiscuity could endanger the purity of God's peculiar people. Some antislavery speakers, for example, were professional clergy, so to work with them could be seen as tacit approval of clergy. Hicks was reluctant to compromise on any issue.
Other Friends found the quietist impulse in Quakerism too confining. The sectarian strain prevented collaboration with other sincere Christians on the pressing social issues of the day. Quietism was inadequate to the needs of the times. Additionally, the lofty severity of quietist inwardness felt like a denial of human emotion as a divinely given gift. Evangelical piety focused on love, centered in the love of God. The divinity of Jesus demonstrated God's love, and the humanity of Jesus affirmed the human qualities of the individual believer. To evangelicals, the suffering of Christ awakened in the faithful a sympathy that extended to others who are suffering. This sympathy motivated evangelicals to participate in efforts to relieve human suffering, such as the antislavery movement or prison reform.
Among North American Friends, quietists and evangelicals vied for political power within Quakerism, resulting in a schism in 1827828, first in Philadelphia and then spreading throughout North American Quakerism. The evangelicals called themselves Orthodox Friends. Their counterparts were the Hicksites, who came to include both quietists and liberals. Liberals valued reason over emotion and questioned the infallibility of the Bible. The progressive mood of the era fostered a desire for freedom from what liberals perceived as narrow dogma. Some quietists, fearing the heresy that they found inherent in liberalism, chose the Orthodox camp over the Hicksite. By mid-century this resulted in further division among the Orthodox, resulting in three major factions: the evangelical Gurneyite Friends who took their name from Joseph John Gurney (1788847); the quietist Wilburites whose name derived from John Wilbur (1774856); and the increasingly liberal Hicksites named after Elias Hicks. Later, the evangelical revivals of the late 1860s and beyond brought changes to the evangelical Quaker worship, which came to resemble mainstream Protestant worship with hymns, a planned sermon, and a paid pastor. But before those innovations, the divisions among Quakers must have seemed insignificant or imperceptible to the wider world. While it is true that other Protestant denominations in the United States were likewise dividing along the same lines regarding the evangelical movement, both Quaker parties continued to hold on to common Quaker traditions that were not matters of doctrine. Both parties continued the same pattern of worship in silence. Both groups allowed women to preach. Both sides followed the same pattern of plain dress. Both continued opposition to slavery and war.
QUAKERS AND SOCIAL REFORM MOVEMENTS
Quakers in the nineteenth century were perhaps best known for their antislavery work, and among Quaker abolitionists perhaps the best known was Levi Coffin (1798877). He had migrated from North Carolina to Indiana, as did many southern Friends, to leave behind the land where slavery was legal and to take up life in territories where it was prohibited. He became a leader in the Underground Railroad, the clandestine movement of escaped slaves on their way to Canada. Coffin's activities were controversial among some Quakers. In earlier days Friends had broken the lawor example, to continue to hold Quaker worship when it was illegal in Englandut they had done so publicly, despite the threat of persecution. Now their defiance of the law endangered not themselves but those whom they were attempting to help, so Coffin and others were comfortable acting in secret so as not to endanger the safety of the refugees. Fidelity to the Quaker commitment to equality led to careful reflection on Quaker devotion to moral integrity, when the traditional Quaker practice of honesty could threaten the lives and liberty of the escapees.
Levi Coffin's Reminiscences (1876) relates many tales of his work with the Underground Railroad and reveal his considerable skills as a raconteur. Among his stories is an account of his houseguest Eliza Harris, the historical figure who inspired her namesake in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) Eliza Harris, escaping from Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River near Ripley on drifting broken ice with her child in her arm. Readers of Uncle Tom's Cabin from Levi Coffin's day to the early twenty-first century have speculated that Simeon and Rachel Halliday are Levi and Catherine Coffin in thin disguise. After some twenty years in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana, where they assisted thousands of refugees from slavery, the Coffins moved to Cincinnati, where they continued in the Underground Railroad. Coffin also became a leader in the free-labor movement. Another form of protest against slavery, this movement bought and sold only goods produced without the exploitation of slaves. After the Civil War, Coffin worked with freed slaves in Arkansas. He traveled to England, where he raised $100,000 to support the work with freedmen.
Other Friends recognized for their antislavery work in this period include the abolitionist Thomas Garrett (1789871) and the Grimké sisters Sarah (1792873) and Angelina (1805879). Some used journalism to promote antislavery work, as did John Greenleaf Whittier (1807892), who worked for several newspapers; Benjamin Lundy (1789839) in his newspaper the Genius of Universal Emancipation; and Elisha Bates (1781861), whose Moral Advocate also protested against capital punishment and war and promoted temperance and prison reform.
American Quakers engaged in prison reform also included Stephen Grellet (1773855)ho made his home in New York but reported to the tsar, the pope, the sultan, and various European monarchs on the sorry conditions of their prisonsnd Charles (1823916) and Rhoda (1826909) Coffin, relatives of Levi. Elizabeth Comstock (1815891) promoted prison reform and also worked in the Underground Railroad before the Civil War and with freedman's concerns thereafter as well as temperance and women's equality. Elizabeth Howland (1827929) shared these last three concerns.
If a single person can represent the breadth of Quaker commitment to social reform in the nineteenth century, Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793880, also related to Levi through common Nantucket
Mott was not satisfied to call for the end of slavery in the South: she also protested the racism of the North. She defied the segregationist customs of her day, offering hospitality to African Americans in her home and preaching in black churches. Lucretia and James Mott were appointed delegates to the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, but as a woman she was not seated as a delegate but only invited to sit politely in the ladies' gallery. Quite a stir followed as she and others held for the recognition of women as official delegates. At that conference she befriended the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Upon their return to the United States, they committed themselves to laboring for women's rights. The outcome of their (and others') resolve was the conference at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 and its famous Declaration of Sentiments, which led the way to the women's suffrage movement. Mott also worked with peace societies, the Nonresistance Society, anti-Sabbath groups, Native American concerns, and on education, including women's medical education. Bold and unshakable in her ethical passions, Mott was nearly pushed out of Quakerism by more conservative voices. She stood her ground, and by her later years Hicksite Friends considered her as their spiritual leader.
QUAKERS IN LITERATURE
Portraits of Quakers in American literature from 1820 to 1870 range from the unsympathetic to the idealized. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) was not especially appreciative of seventeenth-century Quakers, but then his literary works do not reveal much appreciation for any religion in that era. In "The Gentle Boy," from Twice-Told Tales, Hawthorne describes early Quakerism as "unbridled fanaticism" (1:104) and an "enthusiasm heightened almost to madness" that "abstractly considered, well deserved the moderate chastisement of the rod" (1:86). Yet the Quakers in this tale are chiefly a vehicle for comparison with the cold brutality of the Puritans who persecuted and martyred them. Quakers appear as victims of persecution in The Scarlet Letter (chapter 6), and in "Young Goodman Brown" the devil informs the protagonist that Brown's grandfather, who persecuted Quakers, was the devil's partner in so doing. In "Main Street" the narrator suggests a more positive regard, noting that the itinerant Quaker preachers in Salem had "the gift of a new idea" (3:461).
Herman Melville's (1819891) Moby-Dick includes Quakers, since Nantucket was a whaling as well as a Quaker community. Peleg and Bildad, the ship owners, seem more like caricatures, the former being the Quaker by culture who wears a plain coat but has no real use for religion and the latter a pious but hypocritical tightwad who will not pay Ishmael a decent wage if he can get away with it. Both of them Melville calls "fighting Quakers" (p. 71) who profess pacifism against humans but have no quarrel with the brutal killing of the noble monsters of the deep. Starbuck, the virtuous but cautious first mate, also a Quaker, is courageous enough to face any natural danger and to stand up to Ahab, only to give in ultimately. He ponders but then resists the urge to save the crew by killing Ahab. Melville's point may be that Starbuck's weakness is that, in spite of knowing good from evil, he cannot summon the strength to act decisively. Near the end Starbuck questions the justice of it all if his life of devotion leads only to a watery grave.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882) held a genuine appreciation for Quakers, including Lucretia Mott, whom he knew personally. He wrote that much of the best thought of his day had been anticipated by early Friends. In his essay "Natural Religion," Emerson praised Friends for their likeness to the earliest Christians' ideals: "The sect of Quakers in their best representatives appear to me to come nearer to the sublime history and genius of Christ than any other of the sects. They have kept the traditions perhaps for a longer time, kept the early purity" (p. 57).
Walt Whitman (1819892), reminiscing some sixty years later, wrote of hearing the resonant preaching of Elias Hicks, whom he admired for his attacks on evangelical doctrines. Whitman appreciated the inwardness of Hicks's thought, which would submit to no outward creed, scripture, or theology of blood atonement. Hicks would have been surprised by some of Whitman's praise: "Always E[lias] H[icks] gives the service of pointing to the fountain of all naked theology, all religion, . . . namely yourself and your inherent relations. . . . This he incessantly labors to kindle, nourish, educate, bring forward and strengthen. He is the most democratic of the religionists" (2:627).
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896) has numerous Quaker characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin, some (as mentioned above) perhaps inspired by Levi and Catherine Coffin. Through them she pictured a religious life without ostentatious self-righteousness or racial bigotry. Her Quakers are idealized, as were Whitman's memories of Elias Hicks, but genuine Quakers would have recognized the ideas as their own.
The only Quaker of literary renown in this period was the poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807892). He was an ardent abolitionist and a friend of William Lloyd Garrison, with whom he faced mob violence from opponents of abolition. Later the two came to differ over the issue of political involvement, when Whittier became an enthusiastic supporter of the antislavery Liberty Party. Whittier once aspired to a life in politics and was elected to the state legislature in Massachusetts, but frail health and his outspoken abolitionist views put an end to his hopes for election to Congress. He worked as an editor for abolitionist newspapers and composed antislavery poems, such a "The Christian Slave," "The Hunters of Men," and "Ichabod," and lived on the edge of poverty until the publication of Snow-Bound (1866) and "The Tent on the Beach" (1868) brought him popular fame. These collections of poetry captured the spirit of the age and spoke to the inner needs of a society struggling to recover from the trauma of a civil war. Late in his life he achieved such popularity that his birthday was a school holiday in his native Massachusetts. Whittier was a friend of the poets James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his poetry, as in his life, Whittier sought to integrate the inward life of quiet receptivity to the divine presence with a devoted effort to better human society. In this he reflected the ideals of Quakerism.
See also Abolitionist Writing; The Bible; Evangelicals; Feminism; Moby-Dick; Reform; Religion; Slavery; Transcendentalism; Uncle Tom's Cabin; Underground Railroad
Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. Cincinnati: Robert Clark, 1876.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Uncollected Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson; Reports of Lectures on American Life and Natural Religion, Reprinted from the Commonwealth. Edited by Clarence L. F. Gohdes. New York: W. E. Rudge, 1932.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 13 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1882883.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. New York: Norton, 1967.
Mott, Lucretia. Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons. Edited by Dana Greene. New York: Edward Mellen Press, 1980.
Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman: Prose Works 1892. 2 vols. Edited by Floyd Stovall. New York: New York University Press, 1964.
Whittier, John Greenleaf. The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. Edited by Horace E. Scudder. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1894.
Bacon, Margaret Hope. Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott. New York: Walker, 1980.
Barbour, Hugh, and J. William Frost. The Quakers. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1994.
Hamm, Thomas D. The Transformation of American Quakerism: Orthodox Friends, 1800907. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Ingle, H. Larry. Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Jones, Rufus M. Later Periods of Quakerism. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1921.
Michael L. Birkel