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Quakerism in the 18th Century
by Bill Samuel
Originally published July 1, 1999 at Suite101.com
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) began in the mid-17th century. The 18th century was thus the first full century of Quakerism. There are many aspects to the development of Quakerism in the 18th century, of which we will here only touch briefly on some of the more important ones, with an emphasis in developments on the American continent.
By the time of the 18th century, the initial explosion of Quakerism on the world scene had run its course. With the notable exception of Margaret Fell, most of the key figures of the first generation of Friends had died before the beginning of the 18th century. Thus, it is not surprising that there was reduced evangelical effort and increasing emphasis on preserving the testimonies and values of Quakerism.
The distinguishing marks of the Christian life as understood by Friends became consolidated into a discipline enforced upon members and sometimes interpreted fairly narrowly. Most obvious to outsiders was the transformation of a concern against ostentation and vanity in dress into the adoption of a standard form of dress, almost a uniform - the "plain dress" with the use of bright colors strictly proscribed. Margaret Fell unsuccessfully protested this as "a silly, poor gospel." But while we may see this period as one in which the deadly hand of legalism was felt, we must also realize that the discipline upheld high standards of moral behavior and protected against undue compromise of basic Christian principles.
While the plain dress and other strictures of quietist Quakerism made Friends a "peculiar people," the strict integrity and high ethical standards of Friends also helped them prosper. Friends businesses were popular because people knew they could count on being treated fairly by Friends, and that the word of Friends was dependable. The cliche is that Friends sought to do good and did very well. Friends became prominent in retail trades, industry, banking and shipping.
Organization of Friends into bodies meeting at different frequencies and with different functions began well before the 18th century began. However, it was still somewhat rudimentary, and even formal membership did not exist until well into the 18th century. By the end of the 18th century, three groups of Friends with special functions were fairly clearly defined - ministers, elders and overseers. While the key figures of the first generation of Friends were mostly ministers engaged in evangelistic work, by the end of the 18th century the key group was the elders whose principal concern was the faithfulness of the members.
The 18th century is generally known as the quietist period in Quaker history. Quietism, which is not unique to Quakerism but which had widespread influence among both Catholics and Protestants at the time, emphasized the quieting of creaturely activities so that in the "silence of all flesh" God could be heard. It is a form of mysticism which starts with the assumption of basic moral ruin in human nature. It is not opposed to activism, but is cautious about determining if action is truly led by God. Thus this period included fleshing out of the process of corporate discernment of leadings, critical to the maintaining of spiritual integrity and unity in a noncreedal, nonhierarchical faith.
Quietism had a significant impact on the worship life of Friends. The early period of Quakerism was marked by a very vigorous vocal ministry, including lengthy sermons expounding upon Truth as laid out in the scriptures and opened to Friends by the Holy Spirit. In the Quietist period, there was a strong emphasis on avoiding any preparation for vocal ministry as leading to ministry in "the will of the creature." Quietism increasingly upheld the value of the silence in Friends' meetings for worship. By the end of the century, some Friends felt there was almost an intimidating atmosphere towards the vocal ministry.
Growth of Quakerism in America
Quakerism, which started in England, rather quickly became a major force in what was to become the United States of America. The Religious Society of Friends spread into many parts of the colonies and grew in membership during the first half of the 18th century. Quakers had purchased New Jersey and, while losing control of it in 1702, remained prominent there. The second colony they acquired was Pennsylvania, which became a prosperous center of culture in the New World. But in proportion to the total population, they were strongest in Rhode Island where they were half of the population and held the governorship for 36 straight terms. Friends were also the most important religious group in North Carolina for a time. They were also scattered through the other colonies.
The 18th century was also a time of discernment and challenge for American Quakers about Friends testimonies relating to the social, economic and political structures of society. As Friends were prominent in government in several colonies, this correspondingly caused Friends to wrestle with ethical questions about participation in government.
Friends early sought peaceful relations with native Americans on a basis of mutual respect. Their good relations with the native population contrasted sharply with those of many others who came to America, who often saw this population as a subhuman enemy to be killed or tricked. In Pennsylvania, Friends dominated the legislature for many years, and refused to support the crown's expeditions against native Americans. Eventually, those favoring the French and Indian War outnumbered Friends and their allies in the legislature. Rather than be complicit in that policy or be forced out through a requirement of an oath of office, Friends withdrew from the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1756. They then formed an association for peace with the native Americans, and were instrumental in the negotiations that ended that War.
All the American yearly meetings took an active interest in the welfare of native Americans, and sought to protect and help them. When Pennsylvania Friends moved into the Shenandoah Valley and found no natives remaining with whom to negotiate. Concerned about benefiting from the sins of others against the native population, they created a fund to benefit the former native owners of their land if found, or other native Americans. In 1795, Baltimore Yearly Meeting appointed an Indian Affairs Committee, partly to administer these funds, which it continues to do today.
This was a century with a significant amount of war activity, and Friends corporately held to their peace testimony and refused to participate. Friends could be removed from membership for participating in war as soldiers or through providing funds. Friends suffered dearly for their adherence to the peace testimony in the colonial era during the wars against the native population and other European colonies. They suffered even more for refusing to participate in the Revolutionary War.
While there were statements against slavery and the slave trade by various groups of Friends from very early days, nevertheless Friends did not have a clear corporate testimony against slaveholding. In areas where there was a great reliance upon slave labor, there were Friends who held slaves. John Woolman and other concerned Friends labored diligently and patiently with slaveholding Friends seeking to bring them to the point of understanding that God did not want them to treat fellow humans in this way. By the end of the century, Friends throughout the colonies had a corporate discipline against the holding of slaves.
Friends started the century as a vital movement in the process of becoming an organized denomination. They had won a significant degree of religious liberty and had a significant impact in Britain and the American continent. By the end of the century, their strong principled stands and strict discipline resulted in their being more of a dissenting community and even a sometimes despised minority. Internally, some Friends were growing restless about increasing rigidity in the worship and disciplinary life of the Friends community, which was to result in rather dramatic schisms and internal conflicts among Friends in the 19th century, which are beyond the scope of this article.
For a more British-oriented look at 18th century Quakerism, look at the 18th Century chapter of Quakers in Brief by David M. Murray-Rust.
© by Bill Samuel. Do not reprint in whole or in part without prior permission of the author, except for limited quoting in accordance with "fair use" principles. You are welcome to link to this page.
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