The Quakers, as every body knows, differ more than even many foreigners do, from their own countrymen. They adopt a singular mode of language. Their domestic customs are peculiar. They have renounced religious ceremonies, which all other Christians, in some form or other, have retained. They are distinguished from all the other islanders by their dress. These differences are great and striking. And I thought therefore that those, who were curious in the development of character, might be gratified in knowing the principles, which produced such numerous exceptions from the general practices of the world.
Thus writes Thomas Clarkson, an eighteenth century abolitionist who, with William Wilberforce, worked closely with Quakers on the movement to end the English slave trade. His interest in the Quakers led him to author a three-volume book about the Society of Friends. Volume 1 was published in 1806, a year before the 1807 Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade (but not slavery) in the British Empire.
Clarkson explains his motivations as follows:
From the year 1787, when I began to devote my labours to the abolition of the slave trade, I was thrown frequently into the company of the people, called Quakers, these people had been then long unanimous upon this subject. Indeed they had placed it among the articles of their religious discipline. Their houses were of course open to me in all parts of the kingdom. Hence I came to a knowledge of their living manners, which no other person, who was not a Quaker, could have easily obtained.
As soon as I became possessed of this knowledge, or at least of so much of it, as to feel that it was considerable, I conceived a desire of writing their moral history. I believed I should be able to exhibit to the rest of the world many excellent customs, of which they were ignorant, but which it might be useful to them to know. I believed too, that I should be affording to the Quakers themselves, some lessons of utility, by letting them see, as it were in a glass, the reflection of their own images. I felt also a great desire, amidst these considerations, to do them justice; for ignorance and prejudice had invented many expressions concerning them, to the detriment of their character, which their conduct never gave me reason to suppose, during all my intercourse with them, to be true.
Nor was I without the belief, that such a history might afford entertainment to many.
Clarkson’s work, like Robert Southey’s Letters from England, written at almost the same time, offers a critique of English society as seen through the eyes of outsiders. Clarkson will also critique the Quakers from the point of view of a sympathetic outsider to their group.
I look forward to continuing reading this work, which can be found on-line. It will be interesting to learn more about how English Friends lived in the 18th century, not only to compare them to the “normal” English of that period, but also to compare them to Quakers in our time.
Several thoughts pop immediately to mind. First, much of my interest in Clarkson and Quakers of this period derives both from being a Quaker and from my interest in Jane Austen. Austen brushed up against Quakers during her life, and she was a great fan of Clarkson. We know she read his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. As a Clarkson admirer and as a subscriber to circulating libraries, as well as a voracious reader, she almost certainly read A Portraiture of Quakerism.
Second, although Quaker numbers were to dwindle to dangerously low levels by the middle of the nineteenth century, at this time, Quakers seem to have been robust. Even if they were already dwindling in numbers, they were active. For example, 300 Quakers petitioned Parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1783. Though separating themselves from the rest of society, their strong objection to slavery forced them into alliances with people like Wilberforce and Clarkson, who were not barred from becoming members of Parliament as Quakers were.
A glance at the table of contents of Portraiture shows Quakers to have been, not surprisingly, “more different” from the general society than they are today: much of the first volume focuses on what Quakers prohibited: gaming, gambling, lotteries, music, drama and novels, to name a few.
A recurring question in contemporary Quakerism in this: Should we be more of a "peculiar" people? Some Quakers do adopt plain dress and use "thee" and "thou." I have no objection to these kinds of separations and believe they can provide a frame for an alternative worldview. Mostly, however, I believe that deepening our discernment as a faith group so that we can coalesce around being lights in the world from a faith, rather than a political, perspective, is our chief task.