In volume one of A Portraiture of Quakerism, abolitionist Thomas Clarkson systematically works through the various activities, common to his English upper class, that are prohibited by the Quakers, and endeavors to explain the rational basis for these prohibitions. In this post, so it stays reasonably short, I will look only at one. His goal is to make Quakerism, which no doubt appeared at times a bizarre, fundamentalist (ie, arbitrary and irrational) and forbidding cult intelligible to people of a certain class and education. While framing his story as describing the “quaint Other,” Clarkson’s agenda, I imagine, is to render Quakerism more respectable and rational, in order, thus, to render abolitionism more respectable and rational. Notably, Portraiture appeared in 1806, a year before legislation was passed banning the slave trade (though not slavery) in the British Empire. It is true too, that over the course of 150 years, Quakerism had in fact shifted from its radical and apocalyptic beginnings (early Quakers did not think the End Times were coming soon—they thought, with the execution of Charles I that the End Times HAD ARRIVED, a concept known as Realized Eschatology)—to a group that, influenced deeply by Enlightenment thought, and the reality that the New Jerusalem had not yet descended, had become more rational. Whether this embrace of rationalism was a step forward or backwards is, of course, still debated among contemporary Quakers
To a modern Quaker reader, the prohibitions Clarkson has so far described--against gambling/lotteries/games of chance, music, dancing, theater, novels and blood sports—break into two categories: prohibitions that (in a softer way) are still strongly accepted and prohibitions that are rejected. Modern Quakers would probably accept and support the prohibitions against gambling/lotteries/games of chance and blood sports and reject the prohibitions on music, dance, theatre and novels.
The Quaker prohibition against gambling which Clarkson justifies at length we would sum up as recognition of its addictive nature—the Quakers, rationally, want to avoid a pastime that can lead to ruin. Other comments he makes as reasons to avoid gambling, lotteries and card playing—the last, which we know from Jane Austen, was a common pastime—include their tendency to be a waste of time, their tendency to habituate people to the concept of effortless gain and their tendency to excite passions.
Clarkson emphasizes rationality when he writes: “For when they [Quakers} consider man, as a reasonable being, they are of opinion, that his occupations should be rational. …. “ and “The Quakers are not so superstitious as to imagine that there can be any evil in cards, considered abstractedly as cards, or in some of the other amusements, that have been mentioned.” But cards take away from more fruitful occupations.
A chief objection, then and now, to gaming Clarkson writes is the following: “For by gaming a man learns to pursue his own interest solely and explicitly, and to rejoice at the loss of others, as his own gain, grieve at their gain, as his own loss, thus entirely reversing the order established by providence for social creatures.”
Reading this section in light of Jane Austen, I’m reminded of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, whom we find at the beginning of the novel so engrossed in a game of lotteries at Mrs. Phillip’s that she hardly notices Wickham. This characterizes her as immature and childlike, impulsively fixated on the moment to the exclusion of all else, but also, in light of Clarkson’s words on gambling and gaming, as in an environment that excites her passions and primes her for “quick win” risk-taking—in her case, being the first married of the Bennett sisters. She does rejoice at her gain of a husband ahead of her sisters and Austen does lead us to understand Lydia’s “elevation” as a grotesque reversal of the social order, all the more galling for Lydia’s cluelessness about the sacrifices that saved her.
I think today about the state lotteries and casinos, and personally, can't help but agree with the early Quakers on the corrupting influence of this. I too think that the idea "I too could be rich tomorrow," no matter how remote, encourages people to support regressive tax laws that make it harder to build a juster society. I tend to believe that there is something insidious and destructive in the valorization of the pursuit of quick riches, especially when it is only for the very, very few and the rest are left in poverty ... but the question arises: in prohibiting gambling, lotteries and games of chance, are the Quakers merely attending to the outward shell and not the inner soul? Or, as George Lindbeck suggests in the Nature of Doctrine, does the outward (social) form of the faith largely determine the inward experience? Where do you fall on lotteries?