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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · February 08, 2017

A fresh look at early Quaker history

WMQ 6 min read

Today’s post comes from Geoffrey Plank, professor of History at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. His article “Quakers as Political Players in Early America” appears in the January 2017 edition of the William and Mary Quarterly. 


I have been studying early Quaker history, with increasing intensity, for more than fifteen years now. When Joshua Piker asked me to introduce the William and Mary Quarterly’s forum on Quakers as political players in early America, I didn’t hesitate. The essays belong to a wave of recent scholarship integrating Quakers more fully into the main currents of early American history. Rather than focusing on long-celebrated Quakers who modelled themselves on the prophets, these essays show how Quakers worked within existing power structures in their efforts to exert influence in such unpromising places as Puritan New England, colonial South Carolina and the halls of the early U.S. Congress.

Since 2010 I have been involved in two major conferences in Philadelphia, one focusing on Quakers and slavery, the other on Quakers and Native Americans. These events brought together historians, theologians, literary scholars, political scientists, and lawyers as well as non-academic Quakers and concerned members of the public. The presentations covered all periods from the mid-seventeenth century to the twenty first, and demonstrated the prominent role that Quakers have played in American cultural, economic and political life. This continuity of Quaker influence is striking given the Quakers’ small numbers. The Society of Friends has suffered several periods of numerical decline, and in comparison with other religious groups, today there are relatively few Quakers.

At both conferences the participants grappled with an apparent contradiction within the standard narrative of Quaker history. An early period of great promise, symbolized by William Penn’s peace with the Lenape in the seventeenth century and the Quakers’ leadership in eighteenth-century abolitionism, seems to have been followed by a less inspiring period in the nineteenth century. During that later, apparently bleaker, time, Quakers promoted Indian Reservations and the complete assimilation of Native Americans into Protestant American culture. They also squabbled viciously among themselves over the tactics and aims of nineteenth-century abolitionism, and most Quakers opposed immediate abolition. Some scholars have looked at this long-term trajectory and asked “what went wrong?”  Others, more neutrally, have simply wondered how and why the Quakers changed. But some – like Thomas Hamm at the Quakers and slavery conference – have emphasised continuity in Quaker belief and practice.

Like members of other groups, present-day Quakers generally revere their distant predecessors. Many feel that they are carrying a burden as heirs to a legacy established centuries ago when the Society of Friends was stricter with itself, more dedicated, consistent, inspired, and active. This view of Quaker history can be both instructive and humbling, if not intimidating, but the effort to uphold it has led some (consciously or not) to suppress, downplay or misinterpret incongruent details from the Quakers’ past. For example, a good number of prominent Quakers in the religious society’s first century, including family members of the founder George Fox and the extended family of the “Quaker saint” John Woolman, owned slaves. Other Quakers aided colonial armies violently dispossessing American Indians. Of course the continuity in Quaker history extends beyond the Friends’ complicity in evil practices. Quakers were engaged in sweeping debates over social hierarchy and the allocation of power from their earliest days, and they almost continuously disagreed among themselves. Incorporating their diverse views into the narrative of early American politics promises to deepen and enrich our understanding of religious toleration, women’s power, and other topics in addition to slavery and colonial relations with Native Americans.  On all these issues some Quakers made statements dramatically, but others did so only quietly in the conduct of their daily lives. Historians should look beyond the Quakers’ self-consciously prophetic protests and examine their participation in the mundane routines of social gathering, commerce, litigation, war, and politics. Read the essays in this forum and you will see how Quaker history can shed light on the politics of colonial Massachusetts, the society and culture of Charlestown, South Carolina, and the social and legal status of African Americans in the early United States.

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