Quakers and Foundational American Values

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Quakers and Foundational American Values
By Matthew Hurd

What do you know about Quakers? You probably know about the little man on the Quaker Oats tub in grocery stores, the “pilgrim” style of dressing themselves, or that they were some radical religious group that was not in the majority back during the 17th -19th centuries. Believe it or not, there is a lot more to the Quakers (collectively known as the Religious Society of Friends) then meets the eye. One would say that they laid the foundation for many basic civil rights in today’s America. Quakers were heavy backers for abolition of slavery, promoting equal rights for women, promoting education and humane treatment of prisoners, and peace. These may seem like basic civil rights today, but one point in our history they were not. As such, Quakers were ridiculed and prosecuted to measures that would be seen as torture today.

Brief History and Persecution of the Quakers

England:

The origins of the Quakers started overseas in the country of England by a man named George Fox. Ingle, who was George Fox’s biographer, says this was back in the mid 1600’s and Fox expressed the idea that God could speak to all sort of peoples, not just your churchmen that paid their way through the church. In Ingle’s text it said that for roughly 4 years, Fox was recruiting people’s of all types to be potential Quakers; one’s that might have been uncertain about their religion or disillusioned, as well as just common folk that could be persuaded.

Yount explains that Quakers referred to an Inner Light that was shared by every person. It is the doctrine of Inner Light that explains their beliefs in God’s continuing revelation of himself through personal inspiration. Fox sought not to create a new faith, but to restore the authentic faith and practice of the earliest Christians. Yount recounts to the Acts of the Apostles to explain the original community of faith, “There was complete agreement of heart and soul…. A wonderful spirit of generosity pervaded the whole fellowship. Indeed there was not a single person in need among them” (Acts 4:43-44).

In Hamm’s Origins of American Quakerism chapter of The Quakers in America, it talks about how Fox was flexible in what the movement could be called. His preference was “Children of the Light”, but other terms for the movement were such as “People of God”, “Royal Seed of God”, and “Friends of the Truth” which is eventually how the official name “Religious Society of Friends” came about.

Hamm’s text also states that one of the definite movements in the founding of Quakerism happened in 1652, after Fox was released from jail. Fox climbed to the top of Pendle Hill where he was led by the Lord to see what places where people were to be gathered. This location, after gathering about a thousand people, was on Firbank Fell where Fox first gave word to the masses of the Quakerism movement.

Eventually there were many movements by the Quakers through the 1650’s and it led across the Atlantic into the New World, later known as the United States.

America:

Worrall writes that scholars are in agreement to who the first Friend (another term for Quaker), from the Religious Society of Friends, was to arrive in North America. It was Elizabeth Harris who travelled in the Chesapeake region to arouse interests from Puritans starting around 1655. Hamm writes that there were nearly sixty Friends that were in the two colonies by 1662. Maryland was very tolerant of the Quakers, but Virginia was a different case. Quakers in Virginia were imprisoned because of their refusal to attend the services of the established church and pay their tithes to it. At least one of the Virginia Quakers died in jail.

Another example of persecution to the Quakers is when they moved to the Puritan colony of Massachusetts. Barbour and Frost write that two women Friends, Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, arrived in Boston and they were immediately imprisoned. Their Quaker books were burned and were examined for witchcraft. Jones writes that between 1656 and 1659, 33 Quakers visited Massachusetts and all were expelled. On top of expulsion, they were often brutally punished in ways of whipping, branding, and other mutilations. Two children of a Quaker couple in Salem were sold to be indentured servants in the Caribbean. It even got to the point where Massachusetts passed a law that imposed death on any Quaker who returned to the colony after being banished twice.

As one can see, Quakers were treated incredibly poorly back in the day. Hamm writes that Quakers were seen as heretics and blasphemers who put blockades in the way of salvation. Their refusal to defer to authority, the power and public roles of Quaker women, and their opposition to oaths all seemed like direct challenges to the Puritan social order.

Elliot’s text gives a good breadth of the spread of Quakerism across the American Frontier. Early in the days, Quakers reached land from the already stated colonies to regions south, north, and west. Regions such as Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, all the way out to the west coast, but more importantly the two colonies of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

Jones and Worrall both write that Rhode Island was the colony that was most open to Quakers which was the colony that was founded on religious toleration. This colony had attracted a wide variety of nonconformists, many of which followed the Quaker message. At the same time, toleration did not mean acceptance. When George Fox visited the colony in 1672, Roger Williams, the founder of the colony, challenged Fox to a public debate. Fox could not stay for the debate, but other Friends agreed to do so. Eventually, Quakers started becoming a major force in politics in this region.

The next colony of importance to the Quakers was Pennsylvania which was the region that many Quakers called home. William Penn, a member of the Society of Friends, was the founder of the colony. Penn received a royal grant to this land in 1681 and had absolute power over the colony and the form that its government and settlement took. He framed it according to Quaker principles, which made it the first society in the world to be so established. Penn wanted Pennsylvania and its capital, Philadelphia to be a model for the rest of the world. Penn’s “Frame of Government” provided for complete religious freedom and did not include governmental support for any church, including Quakerism (Penn did limit office holding, however, to Christians). Compared to England, the criminal code was enlightened and capital punishment was only provided for treason or murder.

Penn also encouraged settlement by making land available on easy terms. Many people would settle to this new land. At the same time, he wanted to have fair dealing relations with the native peoples of the land, mainly the Lenni Lenape or Delaware, he even learned to speak their languages. The Indians saw him as treating them equitable and with respect. Since all these things were so attractive to the Friends, more than three thousand friends arrived in Pennsylvania in the span from the founding in 1681 to the end of 1683.

Beliefs of the Quakers

Yount writes that over time, Pennsylvania became the model for the United States. He also says that the liberty Americans take for granted did not originate in the minds of secular Enlightenment thinkers but from the application of the Quakers’ Christian faith. The American Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in Quaker Pennsylvania, the nation’s Bill of Rights was modeled after the Quaker-drafted constitution of Rhode Island. The Liberty Bell was originally the Great Quaker Bell, purchased long before the American Revolution. Despite the obscurity of Quakers in America today, their role in forming the American character can be said to fit the definition of American democracy.

Yount lays out some examples of beliefs by the Quakers that are basic, fundamental rights to all today:

  • Equality: The Friends’ sense of equality was radical for its time, extending to women, African Americans, Native Americans, and many more. This meant suffrage for women and civil rights for all.
  • Informality: The Quakers sense of simplicity in many aspects of life was quickly picked up by fellow countrymen and women
  • Tolerance: The Quakers believed that there is “that of God in everyone”, meaning they welcomed all culturally and religiously different people to have God’s rights of conscience.

Besides some foundations of American character, Quakers also strongly influenced many other aspects of American life:

  • The dialect and word of Quakers was a very muscular speech-bluff, literal, direct, vivid, forceful, and plain-spoke. Unlike other American dialects, their speech employed expressions, pronounced vowel, and stressed the same syllables we find in standard American speech today.
  • The Quaker’s also employed a sense of family life that characterizes many American families today. Puritans and Anglicans were said to employ fear to maintain family unity, where Quakers completely opposed that. On top of this, the idea of Marriage under Quaker thought was ideal for today. Quakers thought it should be a union of “sweethearts”, and love must precede marriage, not follow it.
  • Optimism is another trait that Quakers often strive for. Death was as familiar as life and was not to be feared but welcomed as the beginning on eternity.
  • Education in America today is what early Quakers wished it would be to best serve all students. They completely opposed state churches and were critical of frivolous and speculative education because they believed such schooling caused divisions between the people.
  • For Quakers, work was a fundamental form of worship, doing the service of God through one’s God-given talents. Being occupied was a matter of discipline, one of taking control of your life.
  • Bankruptcy was considered a failure to Quakers, but when happened, they were still there to help their friends who were going through rough times. Since the Quakers believed so much in helping one another, they became a leader in the insurance industry. The oldest corporate business in America was founded by Quakers to insure all against fire.

Besides these values that Quakers held, there were also many other things they influenced such as they way we build our homes, dress ourselves, eat, sport and leisure, defining social status and power, and many others.

Conclusion

The biggest thing I wanted to accomplish with this essay was to let people become a little more aware of Quakers, their influence on America, what their ideals and beliefs were, and the persecution they had to go through. They are not just the little man on the Quaker Oats tub, they are more than that. Quakers hold some of the ideals and beliefs that we place as some of the most important foundational values to America. Whether it is equality, informality, tolerance, optimism, et cetera, the Quakers can be considered to help lay the ground to make America what it is today. I really love Yount’s title of his book because I really do think the Quakers helped “invent” America.

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