Excerpt from: “Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution”*

The Society of Friends cast themselves as a “holy nation” during this period, drawing on the Jewish tradition of Zion to articulate their relationship with God and to govern their interactions with outsiders. This parallel explained their suffering and gave meaning to their persecution. Friends drew inspiration from the ancient Hebrews who remained faithful and steadfast amidst hardship and harassment. While the Friends’ rendering of the Zion tradition was primarily a theological orientation, it carried with it significant political implications during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The rise of the nation-state (and empire-state) necessitated that the “imag­ined communities” of citizens coincide with specific geopolitical borders. The boundaries of the nation, in other words, had to overlap with the people and territory under the control of the state. The Friends’ “holy nation” transcended these worldly delineations, and their doc­trine prevented them from identifying with the geopolitic­al nations in which they lived.

Because of this unique positionality — to be in the nation but not of the nation – worldly leaders remained wary of Friends. Significantly, the Quakers’ withdrawal occurred at the same time that the governments under which they lived demanded the increasing participation of their citizens as well as mounting demonstrations of their loyalty. Those in power required men to serve in the militia, households to pay additional wartime levies, voters to swear oaths of alle­giance, parents to educate their children in the traditions of the country, and everyone to participate in the pageantry that advanced the agenda of the state. Taken together, political leaders hoped that these actions would ensure that a coherent, dedicated, and submissive citizenry emerged out of a disparate and diverse population.

Quakers, however, could not abide any of these obligations. In fact, not only did the Friends refuse to promise their allegiance, service, or supplies to the governments under which they lived, they declared their commitment to one another across enemy lines and sent relief to all suffering parties, regardless of nationality or denomination. They also repudiated national tributes, celebrations, feasts, and fasts, even going so far as to gather together, host meals, and open their businesses during national prayer days. In this way, Quak­ers publicly undermined the efforts of those in power to create a unified and committed citizenry. They declined to participate in any of these nation-building activities pro­moted by politicians and, on occasion, organized counter-displays and protests.

Governmental officials resented Friends’ obstinacy and worried that their dissent would inspire others to withhold resources or to rebuff attempts at forging nationalist identities. Most of all, however, they remained anxious about the Quakers’ insistence that God was the only and the highest authority and that divine decrees superseded worldly regulations, In keeping with their conceptualization of Zion, Friends believed that the law would go out from Zion, and thus they could not comply with any edict that betrayed (their interpretation of) divine will. Quaker theology, there-fore, directly contradicted the authority of those in power and implied that the actions of the powerful authorities went against the will of God. In this way, Friends’ religious ideology highlighted the of tenuous political order of the eigh­teenth and nineteenth centuries, as their protests against many state policies and burgeoning nationalism complicated the attempts of newly elected and established governments to consolidate their control over a territory and its population. They refused to recognize the authority of worldly leaders and professed allegiance only to their God.

Until now, Quaker historians have categorized the era beginning in the mid-eighteenth century and continuing well into the nineteenth as one of “quietism” within the Society, maintaining that Friends retreated from worldly politics to deal with intrasocietal discord. Yet this book has demonstrated that the Public Friends in particular remained ex­tremely active during this period. As soldiers in the church militant, they declared war on those who pursued–or al­lowed–violence. They used the language of spiritual warfare to justify their continued engagement in and with the world, as they cast their peace work as campaigns on behalf of God. These comparisons worked to undercut the state’s claim of divine approbation of its war, as Friends’ public protests made it increasingly difficult for government officials to assert the universal support of its population or the inherent virtue of their actions. Additionally, Quakers’ pledge to serve only a divine commander challenged the growing association among citizenship, masculinity, and military service. Friends rejected charges of cowardice and asserted their unfettered courage in the lamb’s army. Men and women alike Joined the ranks of the church mi1itant, thereby attempting to undermine the emergence of “muscular citizenship in mod­ern nation-states.

To train subsequent generations of Christian soldiers, Friends founded a series of guarded (Quaker-only) schools during the late eigh­teenth and early nineteenth centuries. These institutions sought to accomplish seemingly incongruous objectives: to remove young Society members from the corrupting influences of the world and to train them to engage the world to change it. School planners adopted the metaphor of “walled gardens” to describe this dual mission, as children learned about the traditions of the Society behind protective “walls” and yet also acquired the skills necessary to transform the world around them. By educating their children thusly in the Zion tradition, Quakers rebuked the public education movement’s central goal to instruct children in the (invented) traditions of the nation. This pedagogical approach inspired a bold and unique generation of students many of whom would join several of the nineteenth-century reform movements and continue to question the definitions of nation and the obligations of citizenship. In all of these ways, the effect of these Quaker schools was more wide-ranging than previous scholars have recognized and was of fundamental importance to the philanthropic movements of this era.

As a people “zealous of good works,” Friends considered philanthropy both an obligation and a privilege. While several scholars have noted their over-representation in many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reform movements, few have recognized the essential role Quakers played in inspiring, funding, founding, connecting, and coordinating philanthropic organizations. Many Friends preferred to play secondary roles in these associations, as they worried that the ill will and distrust many people harbored against them would tarnish the causes about which they cared so deeply. Because these movements often criticized the policies of national govern­ments, worldly leaders remained wary of these activists. As such, to associate too closely with the Friends and their “holy nation” would have damaged the credibility of these organizations. Thus, Quakers often chose to contribute their “still, small voices” and remained intentionally in the background. Their Zion tradition compelled them to pursue justice in the world, but their refusal to compromise with or calm the fears of national governments resulted in their quiet participation.

And yet still their critics multiplied. The Friends, once admired for their universalism and benevolence, became victims of the political and the philosophical move away from cosmopolitanism and toward nationalism. Quakers had serv­ed as way for many important figures of the radical Enlightenment to stake out their position in debates about human nature and human society. French and British think­ers in particular wrote extensively about the Society to flesh out their own ideas about good government, rational religion, and a moral economy. These very same writers, however, soon decided that “the whole world [was not] their country.” The series of wars in Europe turned many of these former cosmopolites into ardent nationalists, and their writings about Friends reflected this about-face on European politics. By the time peace returned to the Atlantic World in 1815, Quakers were once again the margins of political society, shunned and vilified for their transnational vision of community.

For this reason, peace was no easier for the Friends than the three-quarters of a century of violence and persecution they had endured. Global war had irrevocably changed the political landscape, and the Society of Friends would even­tually fracture amidst the pressures brought to bear by geopolitical states, exclusive definitions of citizenship, and ideologies of patriotism. Each faction chose to respond to these new political systems and structures in strikingly different ways, and their divergent paths would not reunite for more than a hundred years. In short, the Friends’ holy nation remained divided while the people and institutions that opposed it became stronger and increasingly united as nineteenth- and twentieth century states grew more robust and policed their geographic and ideological boundaries more effectively.

For the historian, however, Friends’ protests were not merely failed and futile attempts to challenge definitions of nation and citizen. Rather, the Quaker experience during this period illustrates for modern audiences a moment when religion and nation did not exist comfortably alongside each other. Much of the existing scholarship has explored the ways in which the power and authority of the church and the nation-state were mutually constitutive. These works have analyzed how politicians used religious belief and practice to promote, justify, and maintain their status and control. Scholars have also examined how, in turn, many ministers became involved in politics and ad­vanced their own interests through their interaction with the state. Yet the Friends resisted these relationships with the governments under which they lived and rejected the strategies of other Chris­tian denominations. They chose instead to join, support, and defend a trans­national com­munity of coreligionists and, together, to protest the constrictive and exclusive definitions of nation and citizenship that emerged during this critical period. The case of the Society of Friends thus demonstrates a moment at which the debate did not concern the role of the church within the state, but rather the place of nationalism within a universal church.

Scholars must continue to grapple with those moments of conflict between religion and nation in American history. Studies of the Society of Friends are particularly important in this regard as they complicate notions of identity and citizenship through an examination of the relationship between church and state. As of yet we have not examined fully the ways in which religion has challenged the authority–indeed the very existence–of the nation (or empire). At present, the discourse casts religion as contained by the nation; however, we need to explore the possibility of the church as both larg­er than and in opposition to the nation. Serious questions regarding this latter position need to be considered, such as: Is religion truly catholic? In other words, is it a universal transcendent? Does it offer a constitution and an idea of citizenship in any way similar to those of the nation-state? Most important, can one’s religious affiliation forge a new alternative political identity? And if so, should it supersede one’s nationality? Until we can provide meaningful answers to these questions, and thus a viable alternative to the en­trenched rhetoric con­cerning religion and nation, we cannot hope to counter the growing power of fundamentalists–both religious and nationalist–in Amer­ican politics.

The history of the Society of Friends, therefore, must be integrated into mainstream historical literature to forefront the inherent tension between religion and the politics of nation and empire. The potential for transnational identity and the commitment to reform enacted by the Quakers remains an intriguing possibility in a world still largely defined by the same concerns of religious and secular nationalism as well as similar debates regarding the responsibilities of citizenship. This project has demonstrated that in a time when political and economic upheaval challenged and altered ideas of nationality and citizenship, the Society of Friends offered a different possibility, one rooted in peace, progressive education, and philanthropy.


*Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an
Age of Revolution. Sarah Crabtree. University of Chicago Press, 2015

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