Friday, August 26, 2011

A Portraiture of Quakerism, I

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.


broschultz said...

Jesus had something to say about wahing the inside of the cup (Matthew 23:25&26). The only point I would add is that our light shines from a growing relationship and that the role of a faith community is to nurture and encourage that relationship.

Eric H-L said...

I just started reading Mansfield Park this afternoon. What a strange coincidence! I now look forward to reading Clarkson also.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Diane,

Thanks for the recommendation of Clarkson, sounds intriguing (as I continue my quest through history).

As to whether we Quakers should be more of a "peculiar people," yes and no;-)

No--if that means we choose special "things" to cling to like the "nots," or certain forms like thinking that somehow "umprogrammed" is better than them.
Or how we dress, or how we speak of the days of the week.
Even Margaret Fell, early on, criticized the way that Quakers were becoming rigid about dress, etc.
Not the letter but the Spirit--the Holy Creative Spirit of God.

Yes, in the sense that when as followers of Jesus we live in love and thus live differently from the world. For instance, we may not buy as many clothes or ones with designer labels, but it's not that we are thus "Quakers!" Rather we choose to lessen our expenses so we can give more generously to missions and social concern. We quake for God, not for ourselves:-)

In the Light,

paula said...

The list of "no's" for Quakers of that period is really no more strict than for other conservative groups at the time. To use the example of Fannie Price in Mansfield Park, and her cousin Edmund, drama was certainly a bad influence for these devout young people, and gambling was an evil in their household as well. Other than bingo in today's Catholic churches, do churches these days encourage gambling?

Further, novels weren't acceptable as proper reading material for many religious people far into the 19th century, and beyond.

Perhaps the major exception to the attitudes of society at large among Quakers that held into the 20th century was the prohibition against music, still not allowed at Haverford College by about 1915. Otherwise, the list you present doesn't strike me as odd among devout Christians during the time.

Because of my love of our Society and our history, and my firm belief in our testimony of simplicity, I resonate with the points you make about showing the world our faith community in easily discernable ways. And yet: I believe that there is the danger of spiritual pride in deciding to follow this route unless you feel an absolute call to follow God in this matter. We don't want to be accused of play-acting. I stand with Margaret Fell in my concern for empty forms.

Diane said...

I didn't realize this had been picked up by QuakerQuaker--or I might have responded sooner (or not.) Eric, fascinating that you are reading Mansfield Park, as I would call that Austen's "Quaker" novel. Paula,
it is interesting that other groups had these prohibitions in the 18th century--Clarkson really plays up Quakers as different or Other--perhaps that was a convention of the genre he's using--"Exotic natives."

paula said...

It's funny, but just yesterday I was talking to a Friend who has just applied for membership. He was raised in the church of the Nazarene. He listed all the "worldly" practices to avoid, and they match up to all the same types of prohibitions from the 19th century, with the addition of movie-going (extension of play-going!).

Also, I have been told by social historians that play-going wasn't just an activity to watch a play. People went to plays to be "seen," which is why they got all dressed up and paraded around. They talked and visited all through the dialog on-stage. This happened during one of Jane Austen's books (Persuasion?? Sense & Sensibility? Both??). said...

It will not work in fact, that is exactly what I think.