Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004

Lucretia Mott, Liberal Quaker Theologian

Chuck Fager

Let me begin by posing a question: If Lucretia Mott had ever been arrested for being a liberal Quaker theologian, would there have been enough evidence to convict?

Of course, she would have loudly protested that she was no such thing, that in fact she roundly despised theology, and steered clear of it.

But if I were the prosecutor, I believe I could prove the contrary. The indictment would allege not only that Lucretia Mott was a theologian; but that she in fact was one of the key, formative theologians in the liberal Quaker stream.

Furthermore, her role as a theologian was subversive, to the point of being revolutionary. When she first "appeared in the ministry," in 1818, the Society of Friends still defined itself as a separate, chosen people. (The Old Discipline 3) It was governed by interlocking circles of "select meetings," within a clear structure of subordination and hierarchy, over which male ministers and elders held the reins.

By the time of her death in 1880, this system was intact but tottering, and within a few more decades, in her liberal branch, it had collapsed completely. She did not live to see this collapse, this quiet revolution; but she would have recognized it, and rejoiced in it. And while she would have modestly, or shrewdly, declined to take any credit, she was the key to its demolition.

In support of this charge of being a theologian, we will show that Lucretia Mott had all the elements of culpability: She had the motive; she had the opportunities – lots of them – and she had the means. Nor did she act alone. She met and conspired with others in this scheme, including several acknowledged, even notorious, practitioners of theology. And despite Lucretia’s efforts at evasion, which included a lifelong effort to avoid leaving a paper trail, we have plenty of surveillance transcripts to draw on, plus other incriminating evidence, much of it in her own hand.

In short, Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, it would be fair to point the finger at Lucretia Mott, sitting behind the defense table, looking demure in her bonnet and preoccupied by her knitting, and say "There – there is the veritable God-Mother of modern liberal Quaker theology, at least in the United States."

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Now, before getting to the concrete evidentiary elements of the case, two preliminaries must be disposed of:

First, defining the charge: a theologian, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is someone who makes a study or a profession of theology; and it defines theology as study and discourse on matters relating to God, the divine, and the divine’s relations with humanity and the world.

Lucretia is not the first of her sort to try the "I hate theology" defense. In Quaker thought there has long been a strong, often virulent anti-theology strain. Robert Barclay expressed this repugnance with remarkable vividness in his Apology, denouncing what he called, ". . . school divinity, a monster made up betwixt some Scriptural notions of truth and the heathenish terms and maxims, being, as it were, the heathenish philosophy Christianized, or rather the literal external knowledge of Christ heathenized . . . ." (Apology 264-5)

But Barclay was hardly more disdainful of theology than Lucretia Mott, who wrote her friends Richard and Hannah Webb that,

        "As to Theology, I am sick of disputes on that subject; though I cannot say just as my husband has—that he ‘don’t care a fig about it’—for I do want [that] those I love, should see their way out of the darkness and error with which they are surrounded. Moreover, I think so much harm is done by teaching the doctrine of human depravity & a dependance (sic) on a vicarious atonement, that I feel constrained to call on all every where, to yield such a mistaken and paralyzing dogma."(Palmer 91)

Nevertheless, just as Barclay had to become a theologian if only to defend early Friends against other theologians, I intend to show beyond a reason-able doubt that, despite all her claims to the contrary, Lucretia did make a study of things relating to the divine and God’s relations with humanity, that she did conduct vigorous and extended public discourse on these mat-ters, and finally that her discourse was not simply private musings, but had profound and lasting effects among liberal Friends. She was a theolo-gian, whether she could admit it or not, and whether she liked it or not.

The second preliminary is to set the scene and fill in a bit of the perpetrator’s background. This is important because Lucretia did a good job of throwing biographers and scholars off her theological trail, persuading them to focus instead on her social activism, abolitionism, pacifism, temperance, and other reform crusades, while giving her theological work short shrift, or missing it entirely.

To be sure, her reformism was real enough, and in an ordinary, less dynamic person, would have taken up all available time and energy. But Lucretia, as we know, was no ordinary person; not an ordinary woman, not an ordinary Quaker, and certainly not an ordinary Christian, and reform was not all there was to her career; no indeed.

She was, after all, a daughter of old Nantucket, and her loyalty to her native island was deep and lifelong. There are many books about the unique stronghold of Quaker culture that flourished on this small island for well over a hundred years. But in their pages, amid the focus on whaling and commerce, this unique society’s role as a nursery of religious dissent is not as well known as it should be.

Two aspects of this seaborne "dissent factory" are relevant here: first, its record of producing strong, smart, independent-minded women, who were also well-skilled at quietly circumventing the pretensions of their menfolk. And second, the refusal of some of the most notable of these women to accept the religious status quo they inherited.

We have Lucretia’s own testimony to the former. As she told Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1855, in typically self-deprecating fashion:

          "As to Nantucket Women, there are no great things to tell. In the early settlement of that Island Mary Starbuck bore a prominent place, as a wise counselor, & a remarkably strong mind.

          "—Divers Quaker women since that time, have been eminent as preachers . . . . In the Mo. Mg. of Friends on that Island, the Women have long been regarded as the stronger part—This is owing in some measure to so many of the men being away at sea—During the absence of their husbands, Nantucket women have been compelled to transact business, often going to Boston to procure supplies of goods—exchanging for oil, candles, whalebone—&.c.—This has made them adept in trade—They have kept their own accounts, & indeed acted the part of men.

        "—Then education & intellectual culture have been for years equal for girls & boys so that their women are prepared to be companions of man in every sense—and their social circles are never divided. Successive generations of this kind of mental exercise have changed improved the form of the head, and the intellectual portion predominates—Set down as much of this to partiality & self-praise as thou please." (Palmer 234)

No great things to tell? I don’t think so.

And as for producing dissenters, we have only to look more closely at the record, and up pop a number of all-but-forgotten episodes that provide vivid forerunners, sprouts and seedlings of what was to come to full flower in Lucretia.

Three of these examples need to be mentioned here, if only in passing:

First, the case of Hannah Barnard, another expatriate daughter of Nantucket whom Lucretia much admired. "I have always regretted that so little has been published of the sad experience of that remarkable woman, Hannah Barnard," Lucretia wrote, late in her own life. (Hallowell 478-479)

Barnard was disowned by her New York meeting in 1802, after expressing doubts about the divinely-inspired accuracy of some Biblical war stories while on a preaching journey to England. But her offense lay not only in her proto-Hicksite ideas, but also in her impertinent eloquence, the defiant way in which she quoted early Quaker writers in her defense, insisted on her rights as a Quaker Christian, and generally made fools of her many male inquisitors. (Matthews; Narrative) Barnard’s case was much debated among Friends, and although Lucretia was not yet ten years old at the time, it is very reasonable to infer that she heard about it, and precocious as she was, that it left an impression.

Then we fast-forward fifteen years, and move to the harbor towns of Lynn and New Bedford, Massachusetts, to glance at what has been dubbed the "New Lights" conflict among Friends there. Again we find noisy dissidents, this time a whole pack of them, questioning old doctrines, including the literal truth of much of the Bible, and challenging the authority of the ruling elders and ministers who were trying to shut them up. (Tolles) Key insurgents in this struggle were women, including an articulate preacher named Mary Newhall in Lynn, who was highly regarded by Lucretia (Palmer 9) and Mary Rotch of New Bedford, a similarly weighty Quaker grande dame who likewise had Nantucket roots, and was Lucretia’s cousin to boot. (Palmer 157, 159)

By 1824, however, both Rotch and Newhall had been disowned for their militant heresy, along with a few dozen of their cohorts, and the "New Light" controversy seemed to be over.

In New Bedford, nearly all of these renegades then moved on to the city’s Unitarian church, whose new minister was fresh from service as assistant to one William Ellery Channing in Boston. We will hear of Channing again in our presentation of evidence.

Finally in this quick survey, I need to note that when the Hicksite-Orthodox Separation convulsed American Quakerism three years later, it seemed that New England Yearly Meeting was spared its tumults and stayed solidly Orthodox. But this relative calm was probably ensured by the fact that the most likely Hicksite dissidents had already been disowned, one at a time, as New Lights, without forming a separate body. And it is worth noting that the 1827 Separation did affect one key New England outpost, namely Lucretia’s own Nantucket Island, where the Hicksite meetinghouse still stands on Fair Street in Nantucket Town.

Admittedly, all these items are circumstantial, but cumulatively they add up to a powerful set of predisposing factors:

     – Lucretia Mott was a prime example of independent-minded, smart, shrewd Quaker Nantucket womanhood;

     – She admired Hannah Barnard (Palmer 234);

     – And we know she followed the cases of Mary Newhall, and her kinswoman Mary Rotch with grim interest.

     – She wrote to her grandfather in 1822 of her pain and embar-rassment at the New Light feud, which had been widely reported in secular newspapers. Expressing surprise that "accusation ha[d] been brought against some of those whom we had always estimated as among the ‘very elect . . . ,’" she added that some Friends in Philadelphia had voiced unease at the willingness of the New England elders to "call down fire from Heaven" on the dissenters. (Palmer 9)

     – And more important, as I will now show, her own thinking, under influences that can be definitively established, followed the direction of these religious rebels, and took their central theological themes not only to the next level, but to a much larger stage.

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