Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004

Lucretia Mott, Liberal Quaker Theologian  -- page 2

Lucretia’s defense against the charges laid here would doubtless include the point that while she might arguably fit the dictionary definition of a theologian, she was never a member of any real-life theological guild. These groups were (and are) made up almost exclusively of people with extensive formal training and advanced degrees, usually associated with seminaries, and more recently universities. Moreover, these guilds’ discourses are carried on principally by means of publication-based dialogues and debates, plus the teaching of courses and mentoring of disciples. And, of course, these guilds – completely in her day, and still largely in ours – were a preserve of men, men who wrote and spoke mainly about the works of other men.

By contrast, Lucretia did not finish what we would call high school, only briefly taught a few courses at that level, and had a near-phobic aversion to writing for publication (Palmer 65, 172; Cromwell 155). Indeed, in more than half a century as a preacher she never used a prepared text (Palmer, 371), and when questioned about her sermons afterward, repeatedly claimed she could hardly remember what she had said. (Cromwell, 63; Palmer 67)

Indeed, the only reason we have a record of some of her sermons is that people repeatedly (and often without her permission) sent stenographers to record her remarks – some in order to have a cherished record of her eloquence, and others in hopes of finally getting enough "smoking gun" evidence of heresy to have her disowned. And as for mentoring, while she had many friends, Lucretia would have laughed or bridled at the notion of training disciples, at least in this field. Yet she would also have scoffed at the idea that "study and discourse on matters relating to God" are enterprises best left to men.

Moreover, to be a Quaker theologian in the nineteenth century, Lucretia really only had to master one volume above all, namely the Bible. And by her own admission, she sought such mastery intensively, and maintained it throughout her career. "The popular doctrine of human depravity never commended itself to my reason or conscience. I ‘searched the Scriptures daily,’ finding a construction of the text wholly different from that which was pressed upon our acceptance." (Bacon)

She wove the Bible into nearly all her public expressions, with fluency and ease; but she could also wield this mastery like a whip. One biographer tells this story:

     "The Report of one meeting of the Woman’s Rights Movement notes that a gentleman in the audience ‘sought to embarrass Lucretia Mott by injecting Scriptural quotations into the discussion. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God," he said, "and is profitable . . ." To this seemingly redoubtable argument, Lucretia replied, "If thou will look at that passage thou will see that the ‘is’ is italicised, which signified that it is put in by the translators. The passage should read ‘All scripture, given by inspiration of God is profitable,’ etc. At a proper time I would like to discuss the subject with thee." Needless to say, her critic was silenced.’ " (Cromwell 29)

As this suggests, Lucretia read widely, and thought about what she read. As she did so, her interpretations followed closely the lines laid down in her youth by Hannah Barnard and Mary Rotch.

But where her earlier heretical sisters were on their way to obscur-ity, Lucretia was quick to seize upon more respectable – and male – auth-orities to bolster and shape her argument. By her own admission, three such influences were primary: their names were Channing, Parker and White. All these can be called as witnesses for this prosecution.

In 1819 William Ellery Channing of Boston preached a sermon entitled "Unitarian Christianity." This sermon, which rejected the Trinity, literal interpretation of the Bible, and the divinity of Jesus, is regarded by Unitarians as their charter and manifesto. The sermon was famous and controversial, and Lucretia was familiar both with it, and with Channing himself. (Palmer, 65, 67)

What she thought of him can be gauged from her public references to him as "our revered Dr. Channing;" indeed, she placed him on a par with Fox, Penn and Elias Hicks as a comparable example of "rational and pure faith" which was heralding "the more liberal and rational Christianity, demanded by the age." (Palmer 179)

When she preached in Washington’s All Souls Church in 1843, Lucretia could hardly praise him highly enough, as:

     "He who is now gone, but whose benevolence even in other lands has commanded respect and admiration; he who acknowledged the universal brotherhood of man, and secured the love of all, and that respect which gives evidence that righteousness exalteth yes, the name of CHANNING will be long remembered and revered . . . ." (Greene 1843 - Washington)

And she was not loath to speak his name in her own Quaker meeting as well,

     "I have remembered in this meeting the language of one who may well be venerated by those who are accustomed to acknowledge, as saints, the apostles and such as have fulfilled their duty in their day—one who might well be ranked with these—the Sainted Channing." (Greene 1849 - Improvement)

One other connection, though indirect, is worth repeating here: it was Channing, remember, who trained the minister of the New Bedford Unitarian church, the one the disowned Quaker New Lights joined. This is a church connection which will come up again in the evidentiary record.

What exactly was this "more liberal and rational Christianity" she and Channing spoke of? In addition to Channing, two other influences, both Unitarian but quite different, answer this question best.

The first was expressed in another classic Unitarian sermon, called: "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity," delivered by another Bostonian, Theodore Parker, in 1841. Lucretia soon obtained, read, and effusively praised it: "I hope thou wilt be able to get Theodore Parker’s sermon," she wrote to friend. "It is a beautiful production; the sentiments so just, and yet so horrifying to orthodoxy. . . ." (Palmer 96)

Given Lucretia’s endorsement, we may rightly pause a moment to consider what it was that Parker considered "permanent" in Christianity over against its "transient" features.

"But looking at the history of what men call Christianity," Parker declared,

     "nothing seems more uncertain and perishable. While true religion is always the same thing, in each century and every land, in each man that feels it, the Christianity of the pulpit, which is the religion taught, the Christianity of the people, which is the religion that is accepted and lived out, has never been the same thing in two centuries or lands, except only in name. . . . It must be confessed, though with sorrow, that transient things form a great part of what is commonly taught as Religion. An undue place has often been assigned to forms and doctrines, while too little stress has been laid on the divine life of the soul, love to God, and love to man. Religious forms may be useful and beautiful. They are so, whenever they speak to the soul, and answer a want thereof. In our present state some forms are perhaps necessary. But they are only the accident of Christianity; not its substance. They are the robe, not the angel, who may take another robe, quite as becoming and useful." (Parker; emphasis added)

Parker evidently loved the sound of his voice, and the studied mellifluousness of his prose; the sermon goes on for twelve thousand words, and must have taken almost two hours to preach. But in this paragraph we have the nub: "Doctrines and forms," including the Bible, theology, the supernatural, miracles, churches, and all their rituals, whether Christian or otherwise – all are transient.

"Like clouds of the sky," Parker rhapsodizes, "they are here today; to-morrow, all swept off and vanished; while Christianity itself, like the heaven above, with its sun, and moon, and uncounted stars, is always over our head, though the cloud sometimes debars us of the needed light."

What then is permanent? When all the verbiage is sifted away, it all comes down to "Love to God and love to man." For Parker this imperative is the core, the eternal, the universal essence of all religion, including Christianity. Jesus, Parker said, delivered this message in an especially God-centered way, but it was not, strictly speaking, "His" message.

And this too is what Lucretia believed: "Parker is full of faith," she enthused, "in the true groundwork of religion in all ages on which the truths of Scripture are based; not on miracles, nor inexplicable creeds." (Palmer 96)

Parker also insisted on the necessity of examining biblical texts with the same detached rational analysis applied to any other ancient text, and here too Lucretia was on the same page. In another letter praising Parker’s sermon she added:

Parker also insisted on the necessity of examining biblical texts with the same detached rational analysis applied to any other ancient text, and here too Lucretia was on the same page. In another letter praising Parker’s sermon she added:

     "We shall not make much progress as Christians, until we dare to read & examine the Jewish Scriptures, as we would any other of the ancient records. By what authority do we set so high a value on every text that may be drawn from this volume? Certainly not by any command therein found. On the contrary, again & again is there an appeal to the inner sense,— "why even of yourselves, judge ye not what is right?["] Parker’s remarks on the Bible, in the Discourse above mentioned, I like very much—that its real & proper estimate will not be lessened by breaking through the Idolatry which is now paid to it. I read its pages—I mean the scriptures—over & over again with a keen relish and encourage our childn. to do the same, but I cannot do, as we saw Friends in England & Ireland do—make the reading of that book a religious rite in the family—and adopt a peculiar tone & solemn style of pronunciation—all the e.d. terminations full &.c. Let us venerate the Good & the True, while we respect not prejudice & Superstition!" (Palmer, 107)

Lucretia had actually met both Channing and Parker. But she was even more affected by a third Unitarian figure, a man she never met or corresponded with: Joseph Blanco White. White (1775-1841) was a Spaniard who went into exile in England, and after leaving the Catholic priesthood, he passed through the Church of England before finding his way to the Unitarians.

His major work was a posthumously published spiritual autobiography, The Life of Joseph Blanco White (1845), and its main subject was White’s lifelong struggle for a faith which he could reconcile with reason. White was chronically ill, and his narrative mingles physical maladies and inward spiritual agonies of belief and unbelief.

Once Lucretia found White’s book, she never let it go. In a well-known 1858 portrait of Mott, she is shown with an open book in her lap, and it is Blanco White’s Life. As she wrote to a friend in 1847:

     "If you have not already enjoyed it, a rare treat is in store for you. The progress of his mind from the darkness of Catholicism to more than Unitarian light, and his honesty in the avowal of his opinions from time to time, are truly admirable. His veneration for the Right & the true through all the changes of his theological opinions, and his firm faith & calm trust in ‘conscientious Reason,’ & a Great First Cause––up to the close of a life of much physical & not a little mental suffering, inspire his readers with renewed confidence in all that is good in Religion; while his great desire, that the fatal errors & absurdities of ‘articled’ Christianity ––pretended oracles––& sacerdotal religion, may be more openly opposed; that ‘Bibleolatry’, & the superstitious belief in miracles may give place to rational Christianity & pure worship;––that not only Catholicism––the most mischievous system of Priesthood, but also the narrow, dogmatic teachings of the English Universities––their wealthy establishments, founded upon the misty twilight of the dark ages, may be more faithfully & aggressively exposed; his ardent wish that a truly philosophical work on the source of knowledge respecting God, should be written, must meet a response in every liberal mind, impressed with the magnitude of the evils & errors he deplores. This work has made me dislike bigotry & bigots more than ever before. I asked James if he had perceived that it had given a coloring to my preaching. (Palmer 148-9)

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