-- by Sara
Every Thanksgiving, Americans repeat the ancient schoolbook tale that the English settlers by and large first came to these colonies because they were "seeking religious freedom." But, it turns out, that easy fable really only holds true for the two groups that settled the northern colonies: the Puritans and the Quakers. (The southern Cavaliers and Borderers came mainly for economic and political reasons that had little to do with religion.) And of all four groups, none needed that freedom as desperately -- or had as much to prove to themselves and the world -- as the Quakers. Between 1675 and 1725, they provided the third wave of English migration, bringing over 25,000 plain, upright, thrifty laborers and tradespeople from England's rapidly industrializing midlands, and settling them in the rich and temperate basin of the Delaware Valley.
A New Light
The Society of Friends was founded in England by George Fox in the 1650s, and immediately took England and western Europe by theological storm. It was a religion tailor-made for the continent's emerging industrial middle and working classes. Preaching the dignity of simple living, honest work, community and family, kindness, and thrift, Quakerism elevated virtues that even the poorest wage-earner could afford to cultivate. Furthermore, it told these workers that it was not only unnecessary, but actually immoral, to pay tithes and taxes that supported church hierarchies, buildings, and learned clergy. All souls were equal in the eyes of God, and thus perfectly capable of addressing him without intercession. Everyone has a duty to find truth and meaning for themselves, with the steadfast support of community and family. In God, we all Friends -- fellow travelers supporting each other on life's way.
Of course, their refusal to pay tithes and church taxes instantly put these heretics on the wrong side of the Anglican church, which came after the Quakers with all the viciousness that a 17th century European government could muster. The Quaker home counties were in England's industrial midlands (Fischer notes that the region's thousand-year history of Scandinavian settlement -- which had already inculcated thrifty self-sufficiency as a local character trait-- may have been one reason the Plain Faith found good root there); and it wasn't long before the hundreds of Quaker meetings throughout this area each started keeping a detailed "Book of Sufferings," documenting the seizures, fines, and jail sentences their members endured at the hands of the Crown. Even now, they are terrifying reading. Entire Quaker families and communities simply vanished into the rugged hills of Yorkshire and northern Wales, embracing the rough life of the wilderness in order to escape persecution.
Still, Fischer argues, the forces that pulled the Quakers toward America were at least as strong as those that pushed them out of England. He argues that the Quaker belief system has gone through at least four major shifts in theological focus in its 350-year history, so the Quakers we know now are not quite like Quakers as he describes them back then. In 1675, they were in their second phase, pursuing a vividly idealistic vision of what the world might become if they were allowed to fully live their faith.
When William Penn -- one of the most powerful men in England, and far and away the most noble of all the Quakers -- secured an American land grant from the Crown in the early 1670s specifically to attempt the Great Quaker Experiment, it triggered a Quaker migration that drained entire Midland and northern Welsh counties of their working classes. Meetinghouse collections were taken up to send a steady flow of families from Liverpool to Philadelphia. Over the course of 40 years, England's dwindling Quaker population fed the burgeoning settlements of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
The circumstances of their migration are important, because in them we find the seeds of the Quakers' most important legacy: our American ideal of diversity, equality, and tolerance; and the concept of reciprocal liberty. From the beginning, the Delaware Valley migration swept in not only English Quakers, but also Welsh, Irish, French, Dutch, and German Friends; and, for good measure, a few thousand Bavarian Pietists (Mennonites, Dunkers, and Amish) recruited by William Penn because they shared similar beliefs about the "new light" that shone in each born-again soul. (The New Light movements were the original proponents of the "born-again" idea -- another legacy of this region.) From the beginning, the Delaware Valley colony peaceably brought together people of many different languages and cultures, and expected them to live together as equals in the eyes of God and the law.
They even welcomed people of other religions. Other religious minorities, including Baptists, Catholics, and freethinkers, realized quickly that the Friends made good neighbors, so Quaker towns were typically full of non-Quakers who admired their way of life, even though they never joined the church themselves. This large subset of sympathizers who weren't formally "Friends," were (even then) referred to as "Friendly." Fischer describes the way in which Quaker beliefs were absorbed by these Friendlies, and thus began to shape the culture of an entire region:
The special teachings of Quakerism in this second period entered deeply into the culture of the Delaware Valley. Friends and neighbors alike embraced the idea of religious freedom and social pluralism. They favored a weak polity and strong communal groups. Most came to share the Quakers' concern for basic literacy and their contempt for higher learning. They also accepted Quaker ideas of the sanctity of property, equality of manners, simplicity of taste, as well as their ethic of work, their ideal of worldly asceticism, their belief in the importance of the family and their habits of sexual prudery. All of the attitudes became exceptionally strong in the folkways of an American region.A New Caanan
In the Delaware Valley, the Quakers ended up with the very choicest piece of British America. More fertile and temperate than Puritan Massachusetts, and less affected by swamp-borne illness that sapped the Cavaliers in the nearby Chesapeake, the valley turned out to be rich with nuts and berries, hardwoods, and an incredible supply of mineral wealth. Beyond that: the native Lenni Lenape tribes were also far more friendly (if not Friendly) than the Pequots or the Powhatans (which had rained down terror on the Puritans and Cavaliers, respectively). Penn, in his idealism, approached them in peace; and, fortunately for him, they were inclined to return peace in kind.
The upshot was that the Quakers were largely spared the lean and violent early years that had faced the previous two migrations. Working in family and community groups that they'd uprooted intact from England, they found it easy to build homes, establish villages, and set up productive farms and businesses. Penn, unlike the previous colonists, had the good sense to aggressively recruit artisans and tradespeople who could help build up the economy from the beginning. More than any other immigrant group, the Quaker colonists were able to hit the ground running.
Fischer paints William Penn as a complicated man -- visionary, but hardly modern. Penn clearly understood, far better than either the Puritan John Winthrop or the Cavalier John Beverley, what it took to build a successful colony; and he merged that pragmatism with an idealistic vision of "love and brotherly harmony" between the colonists. But, says Fischer:
"Penn never imagined that all people were of the same condition. He expected 'obedience to superiors, love to equals, and help and countenance to inferiors.' There was to be no freedom for the wicked; Penn's laws on sin were more rigorous in some respects than those of the Puritans or Anglicans....Maybe not; but in time, the culture of Penn and the early Quakers supplied much of the character of what we now consider "Midwestern'" America. Fischer traces dozens of familiar Midwesternisms like flabbergasted, cuddle, gumption, spud, and wallop to their roots in the dialects of the North Midlands. Like the earlier immigrant groups, they also replicated their ancestral housing styles, using the valley's handsome fieldstone to re-create the stone cottages of Yorkshire and Cheshire (though the barn out back was usually built in the sturdy style of the German Pietists). While the Puritans baked and the Cavaliers fried, the Quakers preferred the boiled foods that were also common in the Midlands.
He was not a modern man. He despised the material and secular impulses that were gaining strength around him, and dreamed of a world where Christians could dwell together in love. His vision for America looked backward to the primitive Church, and also to what he called England's ancient constitution. These were not progressive ideas."
Quakers regarded work as a form of worship; and idleness as a cardinal sin. Even social gatherings usually had a "needful" purpose -- barn-raisings, quilting bees, and so on. In their strict utilitarianism, they frowned on dancing, games, idle conversation, and sports -- especially sports that involved cruelty to animals, which included horse racing. A balanced life was important -- but leisure time was better spent on "useful" pursuits like hunting, fishing, and horticulture. To foster this self-sufficiency, they were the first Americans to extend hunting and fishing rights to everyone equally, instead of withholding them as the privilege of a few. Curiously, they were also the first to take up swimming and ice skating just for fun.
Love and Equality at Home
The forthright intelligence and outspokenness American women are known for -- and the extraordinary political and social equalities we enjoy (at least, when compared to other women in the world) -- are another Quaker legacy. Quaker founder George Fox had proclaimed, "Spiritual power was one in the male and the female, one spirit, one light, one life, one power, which brings forth the same witness." It was a profound statement in a time when men in Europe seriously debated whether women had souls at all.
Quaker women preached, went on missions abroad, and endured the persecutions alongside their husbands -- and, sometimes, on their own. Unfortunately, they didn't leave that persecution behind when they sailed from Liverpool: the two other colonies were, if anything, even more heavy-handed in their treatment of these heretics, and the brunt of it fell on women. Massachusetts Puritans, for example, spared no punishment for Quaker women who dared to preach in public. Elderly missionary Elizabeth Hooten was stripped, beaten, and left in the woods for dead by a mob of Harvard students; another, Mary Dyer, was simply hanged.
This revolutionary belief in gender equality was reflected in the Quaker approach to marriage. Equality in marriage was such a strange and difficult concept that Fox ended up writing over sixty essays explaining to his befuddled followers how it should all work out; and then set the community to stand guard over the institution, just to make sure. As a result, Quaker weddings were Byzantine affairs, following a strict 16-step order in which written permissions for the union were collected from both families, and various committees within the congregations of both parties. If you didn't "pass the meeting," you didn't get married. Largely because of these intricate rules, Quaker America had far and away the latest age of marriage, and the highest number of life-long bachelors and spinsters, of any of the four groups. And, while the Friends didn't mind living alongside others -- and even tolerated interracial marriage in some circumstances -- out-marriage to a non-Quaker often resulted in shunning and disinheritance.
All of this community oversight was a container for a happier fact: the Quakers believed in marrying for love. Not lust (Fox was adamant that sex was for procreation only), and certainly not money; but both partners were entitled to mutual respect and companionable love. Quaker writings referred to husband and wife as co-equal "heads of household," and mutually responsible as parents. Again, Fischer traces the acceptance of these ideas to the Scandinavian influence throughout the Midlands, heirs to a Viking culture that had also granted exceptional rights to women in its time.
However, despite their emphasis on love matches, the Quakers also set severe and lingering national standards when it came to sexual inhibition. Pious Quaker couples were known to abstain for years at a time, with the help of separate beds and often bedrooms as well -- which may be part of how the Quakers, alone among the English immigrant groups, successfully controlled and limited their family size. Sex was thought to destroy the higher spiritual union essential to marriage -- a tenet that found its ultimate expression in the Shaker offshoot sect, which was entirely celibate for life. Fischer suggests that America's notorious sexual prudery may have found its start in Quaker Philadelphia.
Quakers childrearing was nothing short of radical for its time. While most of the English world firmly believed that children were born evil and required a firm hand to bring them to goodness, the Quakers thought children were born innocent and good. In the early years, children were loved and doted on -- and carefully sheltered from the harsh realities of life. Later, when they'd acquired the maturity to handle it all, they were given a Quaker education designed to cultivate common sense and reason, teach a trade, and gently discipline the adolescent to submit his or her will to the needs of the larger community. But higher education was rare. Since they didn't need a trained clergy, Quakers were suspicious of universities. You needed to be able to read intelligently, work productively, speak well, and think clearly. Anything more than that was an indulgence unsuited to plain people.
Quakers avoided corporal punishment, preferring positive reinforcement techniques that simply ignored children who misbehaved. Argument and defiance were met with gentleness; visitors of the time were taken aback at the uppity outspokenness of Quaker enfants terribles as they addressed their elders.
Old people were seen as teachers and community leaders -- a bit more equal among equals. Death was a community affair, as a Friend left this world surrounded by friends and family. Funerals were no-fuss, no-frills, no-wake affairs: a simple disposition of a now-useless body. The spirit was one of confident optimism about the afterlife -- which also, in time, made the Quakers susceptible to seances and other rituals to contact the dead.
The Quaker Legacy: Reciprocal Liberty
Thanks to favorable geography, friendly neighbors, good planning, and their own emphasis on charity, thrift, hard work, and equality, the Quaker Experiment quickly succeeded beyond Penn's wildest dreams. Their sterling reputation for honesty and fair dealing -- and a network of family ties that not only reached back to the emerging Industrial Midlands and London, but also covered much of Europe -- allowed the Friends to dominate the new Industrial Age as the leading bankers, managers, and traders in both England and America.
Their open-mindedness and ready acceptance of strangers gave them enormous business advantages over the xenophobic insularity of the Puritans, and the hide-bound classism and condescending unscrupulousness of the Cavaliers. They were trustworthy, careful, and fair; and people preferred doing business with them whenever they had the choice. The Friends' nuanced and original vision of what we now call "soft power" served them incredibly well in a rough and uncertain world. It was the core piece of their success -- and it might serve modern Americans well to go back and study how they did it.
They also opposed the slave trade with implacable tenacity. Abolition efforts began in Pennsylvania within the first decade of the colony -- and continued, without ceasing, until the Revolution. Most of these efforts failed when they ran afoul of the English government, which was heavily invested in the trade. Through it all, the Society of Friends kept up steady social and economic pressure on Pennsylvania's ever-dwindling number of slave owners, and tried to set a better example in their own treatment of free blacks.
The early Delaware residents -- both English Friend and (usually German) Friendly -- took all these traits with them as they moved west through the 18th and 19th centuries to settle up a wide swath of the frontier, stretching from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; up to Minnesota and Wisconsin; and all the way out as far as Idaho and Montana. Followed in time by Scandinavians and Germans who were their kindred souls, they built up mines and farms and factories and great industrial cities wherever they went. Though the Quakers' descendants largely ended up over time in Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches, what we now think of as the "Midwestern" character -- modest, plain-talking, straight-dealing, hard-working, fair, and full of optimistic good will -- is a distinctive mark left by the Friends on the American frontier. Their long struggle against slavery is another: two centuries later, the determined grandsons of these peaceable people would form the backbone of the Union Army in the Civil War.
Another legacy is their nuanced and democratic approach toward justice -- a necessary stance, given the diversity of cultures in the Delaware Valley. Democratically-chosen judges and sheriffs dominated as peacekeepers and mediators. After enduring so much at the hands of the English and other colonists, they quickly limited the gallows to traitors and murderers only; and used the lash only on those who'd "invaded the peace" of another. The laws of Pennsylvania granted an unprecedented and expansive set of rights: the right to a jury trial, to a speedy trial, to counsel, and to equal access to evidence and witness. Jails were envisioned as rehabilitation, not punishment. The most serious crimes were those against equality -- abuse of a woman or servant was a very grave offense -- and against property, which was considered an invasion of another's peace.
Fischer also credits the Quakers with establishing much of America's enduring political culture. The Delaware Valley had many varied ethnic and religious groups, but very little in the way of an economic or hereditary oligarchy like those that dominated the earlier colonies. A rough-and-tumble party politics evolved to fill that power vacuum, with a steady level of active engagement by almost everyone. County government, directed by elected commissioners, plus the judge, coroner, and sheriff, held most of the power. The Quaker experience in England left them suspicious of big government and high taxes; all they wanted was a local structure to preserve peace and good order, with as little encroachment and taxation as possible. Americans' deep-seated suspicion of government is another Quaker bequest.
Like the Puritans and the Cavaliers, the Quakers had their own unique idea of liberty, which eventually became an enduring piece of the American conversation. Fischer calls it "reciprocal liberty" -- the egalitarian idea, based on the Golden Rule, that I can only legitimately claim those freedoms for myself that I'm also willing to grant to you. The more liberty we grant each other, the more free we all become.
Their belief in freedom of conscience mandated freedom of religion. Freedom of speech followed naturally from this, and they defended it even when they loathed the ideas being expressed. (After all, we all have the sacred freedom to be wrong.) Their belief in equality of every soul in the eyes of God opened the philosophical door to equal rights for women and minorities. Their deep suspicion of government power resulted in outspoken party politics, strong county governments, faith in good courts, and an enduring animus toward unwarranted taxation. The rights we now associate with the Miranda warning are, almost entirely, attributable to early Quaker law.
Prudish, uptight, and answerable to their community for every moment of their days, you can't fairly say that the 17th-century Quakers were in any sense a liberal people. But in their willingness to meet other people as equals under God -- without regard for race, religion, age, gender, or wealth -- they endowed modern American liberalism with its uniquely expansive sense of equal rights, civil liberty, and social justice.
Perhaps even more important: their extraordinary financial success demonstrated exactly what Penn had hoped to prove -- that a society that dedicates itself to peace, equality, and fairness will soon find itself respected and welcomed around the world. And in doing so, it ultimately secures a level of peace and prosperity for itself that can't be achieved by any other means.
Our worst moments as a nation have always come about when we forgot this. And our best have inevitably happened when we remembered again, however briefly, what it once meant in America to be a Friend.