The Eternal Quaker
Quakers took their Christianity seriously, with disastrous results.
THE QUAKER experience in Pennsylvania can be described in terms of three tendencies which will help us understand what caused the Quakers to fail in government and what helped them continue, despite heavy trials, to be dedicated Quakers.
Self-Purity and Perfectionism:
Although Penn had originally set himself the task of a holy experiment, of building a community on Friendly foundations, leading Quakers of Pennsylvania showed an unremitting preoccupation, sometimes close to obsession, with the purity of their own souls. On more than one occasion, the Quakers in power seemed more anxious for their own principles than for the welfare, or even the survival, of the province itself…Somehow, whenever tested, the Quakers chose the solution which kept themselves pure, even though others might have to pay the price. To avoid taking oaths, Quakers sacrificed the humanity of criminal laws. While die-hard Quakers kept free of the taint of militarism and preserved inviolate their testimony against war, hundreds of innocent women and children were being massacred by Indians in western Pennsylvania.
One of the distinctive features of the Pennsylvania experiment was that American Quakers were subject to constant persuasion, surveillance, and scrutiny from afar. The powerful rules of the London Yearly Meeting were remote from the perils, opportunities, and challenges of America; yet their influence was a check on what might have been the normal adaption of Quaker doctrines to life in America.
The Society of Friends had become a kind of international conspiracy for Peace and for primitive Christian perfection. Some years later after the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson called them “a religious sect…acting with one mind, and that directed by the mother society in England. Dispersed, as the Jews, they still form, as those do, one nation, foreign to the land they live in. They are Protestant Jesuits, implicitly devoted to the will of their superior, and forgetting all duties to their country in the execution of the policy of their order.”
Quaker discipline required Friends to set themselves apart. Intermarriage with non-Quakers was frowned on or prohibited; a young Friend would be officially warned against the charms of the particular non-Friend whom he had been courting. The Quaker Meetings, ostensibly for reasons of peace and good fellowship, required their members to submit disputes to arbitration by the Meeting itself rather than use the regular courts of law. They even organized the “Friendly Association” which they set up to deal with Indians outside the government. In these ways they put themselves outside the law, confined by ghetto walls built by their own principles and cemented by the purity of their consciences.
— excerpted from Americans: The Colonial Experience by Daniel J. Boorstin (1958)
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