Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004
Lucretia Mott, Liberal Quaker Theologian--
We don’t know what James said to Lucretia’s query, but after reading Blanco White, there’s no doubt in my mind that his work "colored" her later preaching. Lucretia took White’s rejection of "superstition" and ritual very much to heart. When she sent a copy of John Woolman’s Journal to a friend, she took care to add that she "defended not the visionary part." (Hallowell 287). White’s book came to her not long after she had shocked many in her meeting by ceasing to follow the custom of kneeling to pray in meeting, or standing while others prayed.
"I could go with Blanco White in this non-conformity also," she wrote, "even while it has brought down ‘Cherry St.’ anathemas thick upon me, and raised quite a ‘tempest in our tea-pot’ this winter . . . ." [Her yearly meeting, which could have disciplined or disowned her, met on Cherry Street in Philadelphia.](Hallowell 278)
And by the late 1840s, Lucretia had come to a theological position much like that of Blanco White. Here is a summary of her views, drawn from her sermon to an audience of medical students in 1849:
"I confess to you, my
friends, that I am a worshiper after the way called heresy––a believer after the
manner which many deem infidel. While, at the same time, my faith is firm in the
blessed, the eternal doctrines preached by Jesus, and by every child of God from
the creation of the world; especially the great truth that God is the teacher of
his people himself; the doctrine which Jesus most emphatically taught, that the
kingdom of God is within man––that there is his sacred and divine temple. This
religious doctrine is simple, because it appeals to self-evident conviction. It
is divested of mystery and mysticism, for it is not necessarily connected, with
anything miraculous or extraordinary. . . .
"I believe man is created innately good; that his instincts are for good. It is by a perversion of these, through disobedience, that the purity of his soul becomes sullied. Rejecting, then, the doctrine of human depravity, denying that by nature we have wicked hearts, I have every confidence, every hope, in addressing an audience of unsophisticated minds, that they may be reached, because I know that the love of God has previously touched their hearts; that he has implanted there, a sense of justice and mercy, of charity and all goodness. This is the beauty and divinity of true religion, that it is universal. Wherever man is found, these great attributes of Deity are there found––a nice sense of justice, a quick perception of love, a keen apprehension of mercy, and of all the glorious attributes of God; without puzzling the mind with attempts to reconcile his imagined infinite justice, with his prescience or his infinite power." (Sermons, 83-84; emphasis added)
This summary could be a paraphrase of the concluding sections of Blanco White’s testament, seasoned with a dash of Parker. But in private letters, Lucretia was more candid about how this Unitarian-rationalism could be disguised for more conservative Quaker audiences. Friends were, she wrote one,
"Unitarian in sentiment, whether they know it or not; and so was Wm. Penn & some other of our early Friends. But they as well as some of our modern Friends threw a veil of mysticism, and obscure expressions around them—reserving to themselves an understanding of "Christ the Light," which many of their readers fail to perceive. This practice strikes me, as not quite honest—and yet when questions are put, to see how we may be caught in our words, we have high authority for parrying a little, at least so far as to say, ‘I will also ask you,’ &.c." (Palmer 91)
And to another:
"[One friend] thinks I am a Humanitarian [or Humanist] I have never given my faith a name. . . . We give a more Orthodox hue to ours, by retaining some expressions which do not convey our real sentiments." (Palmer 108)
At this point, Lucretia’s defense team might challenge these insinuations by asking, If she was so strongly influenced by all these Unitarian worthies, why didn’t she leave Quakerism and join them?
But the answers to this question are not hard to find, and are principled, practical and personal.
As to principles, she had the birthright Quaker’s bone-deep suspicion of churches which maintained a paid class of ministers. "I don’t like it much," she told a friend in 1867, specifically referring to the Unitarian clergy. "Indeed the whole system is deplorable." (Palmer 396)
On the practical side, Unitarians might have had more attractive religious ideas, but their pulpits and church leadership were still all-male preserves. Lucretia understood the tokenism of her celebrity status among them; for instance, when she spoke to a Unitarian convention in Philadelphia in 1846, she was the first woman ever to do so, and there were strong protests against it from the floor. (Cromwell 117) Thus she was not about to give up even the limited privileges, the room to maneuver, the platform available to her in the Society of Friends.
But more personally, Lucretia was comfortable with the Society of Friends, especially its plain ways. (Cromwell 43) She often warned young people against the hazards of popular literature, and entertainment, including "lady’s periodicals" and novels.
She was also clear that the Quaker rejection of fashion and worldly culture was just a better way to live. (Hallowell, p. 292; Palmer 336, 395) And then too, like old Nantucket, The Society of Friends was home. As she put it in 1842, "Still, with all our [Quaker] faults, I know of no religious association I would prefer to it." (Palmer 106)
And beyond all these considerations, by the 1830s Lucretia had been drawn to another cause, one that loomed ever larger over the next thirty years, but which has garnered relatively little attention from scholars: internal reform of Quakerism. This reform agenda, we are contending, was a theological agenda. And it will bring us to the nub of our case.
More specifically, Lucretia had an ecclesiological agenda, which applied theology to her church, and aimed to change its shape and governance. "I would rather hear of [a Friend] laboring very faithfully, and with all Christian daring, in his society," she wrote in 1842, "than withdrawing from it." (Palmer 106) While this was written about someone else, it could serve just as well as Lucretia’s own counsel to herself. And in this internal effort, the Unitarians proved less useful and appealing than an intra-Quaker insurgency, the Progressive Friends, who surfaced not in Boston, but in Ohio.
It isn’t easy to get the real story on the Progressive Friends. They’ve fared poorly at the hands of twentieth-century Quaker historians. It’s been noted elsewhere how in most histories they were either mentioned only briefly, consigned to footnotes, or ignored entirely. (Fager: Shaggy 18) Thomas Hamm’s account in God’s Government Begun of the earliest open manifestation of this tendency, in Green Plain Quarter of the Hicksite Indiana Yearly Meeting, represents a considerable advance, but as he wrote there, "Unfortunately, the history of the Hicksites after the separation is almost completely unexplored." (God’s Government Begun, xxii) That was in 1995, and things are a bit better now, but still skimpy. (Cazden, Haines, Hansen, Hamm, Fager)
Despite their obscurity, the Progressives represented a kind of natural fruition of concerns about Quaker polity and customs which Lucretia had carried since she was a young woman. Her objections, like theirs, here were not only to one or another individual, but to the entire governing arrangement among Friends, with its separatism, enclosure, and hierarchy. This structure of church authority had persisted for 150 years, but even while Lucretia was rising within it, she also chafed under its restrictions.
As early as 1822 she had pleaded with her elders to set about "making some improvements in the discipline," beginning with a relaxation of the prohibition of "out-goings in marriage." (Palmer 12) Twenty years later she cried out to her cousin Phebe Post Willis, "Oh, if we could only mingle more as Christians should, in brotherly & sisterly affection, the impending evils in our borders might be averted.!" (Palmer 101)
One "impending evil" she foresaw was the threat of another Quaker separation, this time among Hicksites, who were increasingly torn between a conservative establishment that wanted as little change in the old ways and outlook as possible, and "radicals" like Lucretia, who were fed up with much of both. We have already seen how her religious views – her theology – had departed from anything resembling orthodoxy. And by the early 1840s, she had also become a vocal opponent of the "high-handed . . .Quaker hierarchy," of which she angrily wrote that "I doubt whether the domination of any sect is more arbitrary." (Palmer 112)
By 1847 she wrote to her cousin Nathanael Barney that, " . . . . Long years’ reflection and observation have convinced & confirmed me in the opinion, that our Select body, as also the Hierarchy or Eceliastical [sic] establishments, & privileged orders in all sects, are the main obstacles to progress––and until the true Freedom of Christ––the equality of the Brethren is better understood, we shall do little by organizing & re-organizing." (Mott-Barney 1847; emphasis in original).
Nor was this subversive sentiment uttered only sotto voce. Describing a visit to a meeting in New York City, she said, "So believing I visited ‘our Brethren’ & spake against Select Mgs. & in favor of Women’s Rights, but producing no other effect on the Powers that be than increased opposition. In N.Y. Select Mg. I repeated the heresy, & was denounced by G. F. White. Nothg. daunted I bearded that Lion––" (Mott-Barney; emphasis in original)
"That lion" was George Fox White, one of the most vocal conservative Hicksites, who had denounced Lucretia and other reformers early and often, and led the drive that got several disowned. (Hamm GGB 66-67)
Historian Thomas Hamm recently wrote that "In 1850, the victory of the more conservative Hicksites, who wished to purge their society of all outside influences, seemed complete." (Hamm 2003 45)
From one angle this may have seemed true: in New York and Philadelphia, some of the most vocal radical reformers had been disowned; in Ohio, an entire Quarterly Meeting of dissidents had been laid down. But Hamm then adds that, "Yet, within two decades the Hicksite yearly meetings had embraced most of the causes that had appeared so controversial in the 1830s and 1840s." (Ibid.)
How did this happen? It’s clear from our investigation that the conservatives’ "victory" was incomplete in at least one key respect: their purge had failed to remove one of the most persistent, visible, and effective of their challengers, namely Lucretia Mott.
This failure was not due to any lack of trying. A review of Lucretia’s letters turns up efforts to have her silenced or disowned in 1842, 1847, 1848, and 1850, and in at least two of those years there were multiple attempts.(Palmer 108, 113, 158, 161, 169, 432; Hallowell 292-4)
But not for nothing was she a daughter of old Nantucket, where Quaker women excelled in skillfully neutralizing male authority. In every case she was too fast on her feet, too articulate in her defense (citing some of the same ancient Quaker authorities as Hannah Barnard and the New Lights more than a generation before). (Palmer 108) She also had too many weighty allies to be caught in their nets.
Despite her escapes from her pursuers, Lucretia paid a heavy personal price in these struggles. Under the serene public demeanor which impressed so many of her hearers, she suffered chronic bouts of "dyspepsia," an internal distress which could lay her low for days at a time.
Some of the incidents she endured were pretty ugly. In 1847, after traveling for several days to the Indiana Hicksite Yearly Meeting, she was met by a delegation of elders who ordered her to turn around and go home. When she refused, they insisted that she keep silent in their meetings. She refused this too and spoke. Then she came down with a severe attack of her "dyspepsia," and when she sought help from a local Quaker doctor, he declined to treat her due to her "rebellion." (Hallowell 292-4; Palmer 158)
Yet she did not give up, and she did not flag. In 1852 she complained to her cousin Barney about, "What feeble steps have yet been taken from Popery to Protestantism! Our Ecclesiastics, be they Bishops or Quaker Elders, have still far too much sway. Convents we have yet, with high walls, whose inmates having taken the veil, dare not give range to their free-born spirit, now so miserably cramped and shrouded."(Palmer 213) (This last, incidentally, was an allusion to Blanco White’s plaintive account of his sister, who entered a convent in Spain and was thereafter all but lost to her family.) (White 110)
There was a practical side to these disputes, involving the question of whether Quakers should take part in outside reform movements (especially abolition), or even permit outside "radical" speakers and organizers access to their meetinghouses. But beneath these specifics, the conservative ministers and elders saw–rightly–a challenge to the entire traditional church structure they represented, and this struggle was a theological one at root.
By then Lucretia not only had eluded her pursuers, she had gained allies, in the Progressive Friends. From the first uprising in Green Plain Quarter in 1841, it spread to Michigan and New York. These Hicksite rebels demanded the abolition of the select meetings and the recording of ministers, as well as an end to the hierarchical yearly meeting structure in favor of congregational autonomy and free association. Naturally the select meetings of their respective bodies were horrified, and soon enough more insurgents found themselves disowned. (Hamm, God’s Government Begun, 68-9, 197-9)
Among the ringleaders expelled in Green Plain were Joseph and Ruth Dugdale, a farm couple who later left Ohio and moved to Pennsylvania. There they attended Western Quarterly Meeting near West Chester, but their claim of membership caused more uproar and division, and by 1851 the Quarterly Meeting had split as well. (Densmore 4ff; Wahl 410-1) Joseph Dugdale and his supporters then began the process of founding a Progressive-oriented, Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Congregational Friends. At their organizing meeting, held in the Kennett Meeting house in July of 1852, Lucretia Mott was present. And when their new Yearly Meeting gathered in 1853, she was on hand again.
The new body of Progressive Friends made its formal debut in Kennett in May of 1853, with Joseph Dugdale as Clerk and Lucretia in attendance. (Cromwell 179) Within a year the Progressives had begun building their own meeting house, which still stands at Longwood. They also issued a lengthy manifesto called the Exposition of Sentiments, which Lucretia helped to draft. This stunning (and, I maintain, historic) document makes a specifically theological argument, challenging the hierarchical ecclesiology of the Society of Friends, and presenting a biblically-based congregational alternative:
"It would be easy to show that this claim of supernatural power, on the part of the organized Church, is at war with the whole genius and spirit of Christianity as exhibited in the life and teachings of Jesus, and without warrant in the writings of the Apostles and primitive Christians, as well as subversive of individual rights and responsibilities. Jesus nowhere indicated an intention to organize a Church clothed with such power. Indeed, it does not appear from his recorded words that he even contemplated any organization whatever of those who should embrace his doctrines, He specified no such work as incumbent upon those whom he sent forth as witnesses of the truth, but left them to adopt such instrumentalities as might seem to them adapted to promote the object of their mission.
"The Apostles did indeed organize Churches, but they did not pretend that they were framed after a Divinely prescribed pattern, still less that they were clothed with a supernatural power." (Pennsylvania)
The full text of the Exposition is worth a careful reading and reflection by anyone who hopes to understand Lucretia, or the course of modern liberal Quakerism. It is also one of the clearest, most concise examples of Lucretian theology on paper.
Here, however, an important qualification has to be made: previous splits among Friends had resulted in loud mutual anathemas, mass disownments, and social shunning. But the Progressives specifically renounced formal membership, and built no walls to keep others out.(Pennsylvania) Hence, while Lucretia frequently took part in Progressive activities, even joining a Longwood committee sent out to hold antislavery meetings in 1857 (Palmer 267), she did not "join" the Progressives, or renounce her membership in the Hicksite Yearly Meeting. She didn’t have to, nor did others.
And while the Progressive Friends soon faded as an organized body, their key figures, above all Lucretia, stayed active, "spreading the virus" of internal church reform within the Hicksite yearly meetings. "This Congregational form of church government must obtain eventually," she vowed to Joseph Dugdale in 1849, and she was more than ready to help the change along. (Palmer 178-9) That same year she urged her Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to recognize the new Progressive bodies in Ohio and Michigan (unsuccessfully), and then she set out for the Hudson Valley of New York, saying of her Progressive Friend Thomas McClintock that "I hope to join him & Mary Ann in helping to Congregationalize Dutchess & Ulster & Westchester Counties & hope that Long Island may unite in the movement." (Palmer 186, 190) In this mission, she was not preaching secession, but change from within.
More than ten years later, in 1861, she was still denouncing her own "select meeting" as "that ecclesiastical relic." She added: "It only lays the foundatn. for future trouble & fighting, when for reputatn.–‘to please men’, reformers seek to ‘build agn. the things they are called to destroy. Blanco White, my beloved ultra author, says, ‘Reformers ought to be satisfied to be destructives–They are too apt to wish to be Constructives . . . .’ " (Palmer 318)
The Civil War, which was coming on when Lucretia wrote this, delivered a body blow to Quaker isolationism. To the dismay of both Lucretia and many of her erstwhile opponents, droves of young Hicksite males changed their Quaker grey for the Union Army’s blue and marched off to battle, leaving nearly 200 years of pacifism crumpled in the dust behind them. And five years later, when those who survived came marching, or limping home, there were many elders who could not bear to uphold the Discipline and disown them. (Fager 2003A 19-36)
That trauma, and the end of slavery it wrought in blood, left Hicksite Quaker isolationism in a terminal state, even if it lingered in a long fevered twilight. And my sense is that the war likewise drained much of the sting from Lucretia’s "radicalism." After Appomattox it was respectable, even politically correct, to have been an antebellum abolitionist. And if by 1865 many elders lacked the stomach to disown a Friend for fighting, it likewise became increasingly hard to turn around and disown him for "marrying out."
Or, for that matter, for questioning the literal accuracy of parts of the Bible. Not that these controversies were over; far from it. But by the 1860s, Lucretia was a revered elder; and the sometimes apocalyptic alarms once raised about her "heterodox" views must have rung rather hollow compared to the echoing noise and cries of Gettysburg, and Ford’s Theater.
In an 1869 sermon in her own Cherry Street Meeting, Lucretia spoke of this change:
"My friends, among ourselves there are some clauses in our discipline which we have outgrown, which are gradually becoming a dead letter, so every denomination and every age has its growth. . . .There is a more enlarged toleration, shall I use that selfish word, there is a more enlarged recognition of the right to worship and believe as circumstances may lead the believer and worshiper. . . .There is progress amongst us in every way, and in nothing is it more manifest than in the religious assemblies of the people, in that they can bear one another’s burdens, and will hear that which they may not entirely approve. . . ." (Greene 319, 325)