Monday, August 20, 2018



The Quaker Context in American Literature, by the turbulent 1680s, in the aftermath of the republican experiment and before the Glorious Revolution, England and its empire were in the throes of numerous controversies over constitutional liberties and autocratic power. Against this backdrop arose a sect of Christians, inspired by a man named George Fox, who had turned away from every established church, Catholic, Anglican and Puritan in search of the true road to God. 

These were the Quakers. The Quakers believed that divine guidance was not to be found in any outward church, or even in the Bible (though the latter was of couke central to all faith). It was to be found in the voice of conscience, which is God's voice. Neither rituals nor clergy were needed. Even taking the sacraments in church was unnecessary. One's whole life was instead to be a continuing baptism, in the sense of resisting sensual evils, and a continuing communion, in the sense of a union with Christ. The purpose of a religious gathering, what the Quakers called a meeting, was to commune jointly, in silence, with the indwelling spirit. If a member felt called upon to rise and speak, he was to do so freely and without concern for his lack of clerical training. The Quakers were distrustful of learning, for they felt it led to the sin of pride in self. True preaching came not from a learned and arrogant ministry, they believed, but from within the body of the meeting in the persons of "god-called" ministers.
American Enlightenment 
The Quakers insisted upon living inviolate and orderly lives of thrift and frugality. Every person should have a "calling," a committed engagement to work in this world. Even in jail, the Quakers busily set about working at crafts and skills. These habits helped to make them well-to-do merchants, leading to the very best that they were people with one foot in the meeting house and the other in the counting house.
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But though the Quakers had a lot in common with the Puritans, the two sects held theological opinions opposed to one another. The Puritans were horrified by the Quakers belief in the perfectibility of all human beings. If there is evil in the world, declared the Quakers, it lies in external institutions of hierarchy, power and violence, not inside the human heart. Where Puritans thought of God as supreme authority, and in his image built strong institutions of government, in which the magistrate was ' central, the Quakers regarded God as absolute love, and in his image built a civil society without supervisory or superintending structures. Thus, the Quakers sought to apply the Sermon on the Mount in the most literal sense, creating a world of equality and fraternity here and now. They aided the poor and the destitute, and were the first to condemn slavery. They believed in complete equality between men and women--women had leading roles as charismatic leaders in the Quaker movement--as well as between everyone in society. They would not refer to anyone as "Mister" (which originally meant "master"), called the King "Charles" instead of "King Charles," and always used the familiar forms "thee" and "thou" instead of the more formal "you" in interpersonal conversation. Since "hat honor" was insisted upon in seventeenth century European life (inferiors always took off their head covering in the presence of superiors), Quakers wore theirs even in the king's presence.

The Quakers grew in numbers, reaching perhaps 60,000 by the 1680s, but this was in the face of sheer repression. It was common for a Quaker congregation to be fined thousands of pounds for not attending Anglican services, for Quakers by the thousands to be imprisoned or to have their livelihood denied them for not taking oaths. What they wanted, therefore, was to find a place of refuge abroad, some place in the king's empire where they might live in peace--and, they hoped, attract converts by the virtue and purity of their lives and religion. For years this searching went on, into the islands of the Caribbean and on the North American mainland.

Literary Theory
In 1674 a group of Quakers, including the gifted William Penn, joined to buy the western half of New Jersey as their place of settlement. As an oppressed minority they were acutely conscious of the need for guaranteed fundamental rights, and the constitution that William Penn wrote for West New Jersey--the Concessions and - agreement--was strikingly liberal. It established an annually elected assembly that was fully independent of the executive. 
Settlers were guaranteed full due process in confrontation of accusers, the right to cross-examination, and the admission of evidence), and trial by jury. There was to be neither life imprisonment nor capital punishment, both novel provisions centuries ahead of their age. Everyone in West Jersey was also guaranteed complete religious freedom, for there would be no established state church. Liberal land provisions were offered to attract settlers, and within a few years hundreds of settlers, mainly Quakers had arrived. (All of New Jersey became a royal colony in 1702, the two halves being merged under a unified government that was provided by New York Colony until 1738.)

A far grander "Holy Experiment" was set in motion in 1681. King Charles II had owed a large debt to William Penn's dead father, and to repay it he granted to William Penn--a close friend of the Duke of York--a huge proprietary colony (that is, Penn personally owned the land, and had absolute powers of government), Pennsylvania, including what is now Delaware, which had already been settled by Swedes and Dutch. Now, half a century after John Winthrop had taken his company of Puritan settlers to New England to begin their attempt at building a Utopian Christian society, Penn and the Quakers set out on a similar adventure. Pennsylvania was outstandingly prosperous from the beginning. Its rich farmlands attracted a constant stream of settlers, who produced a bountiful supply of food to be sold abroad. Philadelphia was quickly settled by experienced merchants from London and from towns elsewhere in the colonies. By the mid-eighteenth century they had made Philadelphia the third commercial city in the British Empire, after London and Bristol. Through personal religious ties, Quaker merchants had contacts all over the North Atlantic commercial world, from Germany to the Caribbean. It was not uncommon for an intermarried network of merchants to connect Madeira, London, Barabados, Newport, and New York, and then work together in assisting one another.
In London it there was a vigorous community of Quaker merchants who aided their counterparts in Philadelphia. In the same letters they sent, along with denominational news, reports on crops, prices and finances also. Pennsylvania's wealthy men soon invested in western lands, reselling at higher prices to incoming farmers. Many of them sought land for the same reason that the aristocracy did in England did--to provide social eminence as well as income. Quaker merchants also were not long in starting to build iron foundries. Because of this, Pennsylvania has been uniquely identified with the metals trade since the colonial days. Based upon this and other enterprises, an aristocracy grew up in Pennsylvania comparable to that of the planters in the Chesapeake and Carolina colonies, the patroons in the Hudson valley and the merchant princes of Boston.

However, though they were so like the Puritans in their ways of living (if not in their religious beliefs), in one great particular they differed--they could abide dissent. Indeed, allowing people to dissent, and to believe in and practice their own different faiths in their own diverse ways, was the bedrock of the Quakers' social policy. In turn, this principle would create so great a babble of creeds and sects in their colony of Pennsylvania that their own distinctive identity would be lost.

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