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

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Can this be just a coincidence?ྭThe full-color cover image on Holy Nation is an Edward Hicks “Peaceable Kingdom” painting. It’s the one featuring William Penn in the background, making a peace trea­ty with the Indians, while to the right the lion, lamb and other animals are gathered placidly along with several children.

Here’s the coincidence: the exact same painting (out of the sixty-plus versions Hicks produced) is on the cover of another book, Sydney James’s A People Among Peoples (Har­vard, 1963). Though on James’s cover, the image is in black and white, and many small cracks are visible in the unrestored canvas.

The duplicate cover art may be serendipitous, but it is not irrelevant. James’s pioneering study of “Quaker Benevolence in Eighteenth-Century America” largely overlaps Crabtree’s book in the time period (at least up to the establishment of the American republic), covers many similar issues, and develops an interpretation of similarly-defined problems. His book is also based on exhaustive delving into Quaker records of the time, particularly those in Philadelphia up through New England. In its area, A People Among Peoples is a, perhaps the standard work.

Given this substantial overlap in subject matter, concerns, and even cover art, one might think Crabtree would take James’s book into account: supplement, revise it, and if need be critique it.

But one would be mistaken. James is referenced only twice, indirectly (pp. 140f), and his book not at all.

This neglect is both odd and unfortunate, but alas, not untypical. The tragedy of Holy Nation is that it raises very important points and has the beginnings of a powerful thesis, but the presentation is severely hobbled by sloppy and sketchy research.

The important point Crabtree makes is that early and even “Quietist” Quakerism were decisively shaped by what she calls “the Zion tradition,” a strong sense of exemplifying, indeed inhabiting the chosen people role as earlier ascribed to biblical Judaism.ྭAs a prime example, she quotes a letter by Anthony Benezet:

“‘As a people we are called to dwell alone, not to be numbered with the Nations, content with the comfortable necessaries of life; as pilgrims and strangers; to avoid all incumbrances [sic], as was proposed to Israel of old, to be as a Kingdom of Priests, an holy Nation, a peculiar people to sheer [sic] forth the prai­se of him that hath called us.’” (1)

Benezet wrote during the American Revolution, more than a century after Fox and the first Quaker insur­gency. But the founders can testify to it as well. Consider this rarely-noted snippet from the famous 1660 Letter to Charles II, signed by Fox and eleven other leading Friends. After declaring their non-violence, they issue a stern warning to the newly-crowned worldly sovereign against persecuting them:

Therefore in love we warn you for your soul’s good, not to wrong the innocent, nor the babes of Christ, which he hath in his hand, which he cares for as the apple of his eye; neither seek to destroy the heritage of God . . . .”

(The “babes of Christ”; the “apple of [God’s] eye,” and “the heritage of God”; in more current parlance, “Don’t mess with God’s chosen.” Full text in A Quaker Declaration of War, Kimo Press 2003, p. 70)

An unsigned pamphlet, issued the same year, continues the theme: “A Visitation of Love Unto the King, and Those called Royalists,” I found it quite by accident one day when browsing among the stacks of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College.

The pamphlet is–as you might expect–a defense of Friends against persecution. Again, its description of the group was not modest in its claims:

“As concerning the Quakers, that are scornfully so called, we are at this day, and have been ever since we were a people, a poor, despised and contemptible People, in the eyes of the world … and this hath been ever since the Lord raised us up to be a people…and what we are as unto the Lord, if I should declare, it could not be believed by many: but we are his peo­ple, and he hath chosen us…and though we have been and may be clouded with the Reproaches and persecutions of an uncircumcis­ed Generation, yet in the Lord’s season it shall be manifest even to the world, and to our very enemies, that we are his people and chosen of him, and he is in the midst of us, whom we serve and worship in spirit, in truth and in righ­teousness…. (Emphasis added.)

Numerous other examples could be cited of this sense of chosenness, of early Friends seeing themselves as successors to, or co-inheritors with, God’s elect status bestowed on ancient Israel.

Further, this elect consciousness (or “Zion tradition,” in Crabtree’s phrase) outlasted both the First Friends and Benezet’s generation. In the earliest printed books of Discipline, and editions through much of the 1800s, the texts began with an introductory statement that declared plainly that

“As it hath pleased the Lord in these latter days, by his spirit and power, to gather a people to himself; and releasing them from the impositions and teachings of men…these have been engaged to meet together for the worship of God in Spirit, according to the direction of the holy Law-giver….” (Emphasis added. http://www.qhpress.org/texts/obod/intro.html)

Elsewhere I’ve looked at other examples of this, and set them in biblical context (http://quakertheology.org/peoplehood-1.htm).

Otherwise, though, detailed treatment of this basic theme in the major Quaker histories is rare, and when it is mentioned, often muted. Sydney James, for example mentions it mainly to downplay it: “[American] Quakers after the Revolution began to accept diversity of denominations among Christians. Meetings tacitly and individual Friends explicitly adopted the view that their sect was not the one true church destined to embrace all the should truly united to God.” (p. 281)

Why the reticence about facing up to it? My speculations run along two lines: first, the notion of specialness is a kind of “dirty little secret” among modern Friends; of course most of us do feel we Quakers are “special”: such self-congratulatory sentiments can be heard on almost any First Day in unprogrammed Quaker worship; but it is very gauche to say so in public. Moreover, somewhat paradoxically, liberal Friends especially trumpet on almost every possible occasion their devotion to what is declared to be the Quaker “Testimony of Equality.” (The fact that no such “testimony” or principle is found in early Quaker Disciplines is of no consequence; nor does it matter that the idea is specifically disavowed by foundational thinkers such as Robert Barclay – see, for example, his Apology, Proposition Fifteen, II.6: http://www.qhpress.org/texts/barclay/apology/prop15.html )

The other line of speculation is that Friends of most branches have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the supersessionist theology of both mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism which regarded Jewish religion and “the Jews” as dis­carded, replaced or even hated by God, due to their rejection of Chris­tianity as its “true” fulfillment. Alongside such notions runs a deep, if rarely acknowledged, stream of residual anti-semitism.

Whatever the reason, this Quaker “Zion tradition” is the central piece of our history that only very rarely dares to speak its name. So Crabtree earns many points for venturing to raise it up and examine it.

And she more than just raises it up: she regards it as a key to both Friends’ survival through the war-torn period she examines (especially 1755 to 1830),

“. . . Quakers gradually abandoned this hope [of converting the world] and increasingly found solace and salvation in the idea of a holy nation, an earthly Zion, a gathered community of the chosen . . . . In so doing, they relied on the paradigmatic language of the Zion tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures . . . .” (2)

Further, “These links . . . rested on the fundamental conviction that Friends, like Jews, conformed to a law that marked them as a chosen, distinctive, and separate people. Moreover, Friends identified with the Jewish experience of persecution and diaspora . . . .”(3)

Indeed, the parallels are even closer than she thinks: Quak­ers not only had their own kind of “Torah” (including rules about speech, dress and many forms of private behavior; a uniquely broad role for women; prohibitions on taking part in war and many other forms of public activity; a shared heroic history, including persecu-tion and diaspora; and their peculiar way of doing their church business) – they also had, in Pennsylvania, a “promised Land,” in which they had conducted a “Holy Experiment” which, despite many failings, was also a remarkable undertaking. (pp. 2-3)

Nor was this all: their separate culture, preserved as a trans-national network by the endless journeys of itinerant ministers, articulated and preserved values that, Crabtree insists, were profoundly subversive of the pretensions of both the aristocratic empires, and the revolutionary nationalist ideologies which sought to replace them.

And they passed these subversive values on to their children, both through their socially secluded families, and more formally through the “walled gardens” of their schools. Crabtree did some of her most interesting research in the archive of Westtown School in Pennsylvania (founded in 1799). She first marks the contrast between the Quak­er establishments and their nascent “public” counterparts:

“the curriculum at non-Quaker schools perpetuated existing hierarchies. Textbooks denigrated American Indians . . . . They vilified Asians, South Americans, and Africans, warranting imperialism, war­fare, and the Atlantic slave trade. And they purposefully eras­ed the existence of enslaved peoples. . . .” (118-119)

But in the new Quaker schools,

“In stark contrast, young Friends learned to analyze and ques­tion the systems and structures that perpetuated these kinds of inequalities in the world at large . . . (and, it should be noted, within the Society of Friends itself).”(119)

She found that,

“The copy books left by early Westtown students also illustrate this concern for the ‘mighty work’ of philanthropy . . . . Josiah Albertson’s [1803] piece book, for example, was fill­ed with clippings supporting pacifism, temperance, and aboli­tion.”ྭ(pp. 118-119)

And she notes that at the Nine Partners School in upstate New York (ancestor of today’s Oakwood Friends School), the early Quak­er radical Hann­ah Barnard was on its library committee in the 1790s, filling the shelves with unassuming-looking but incendiary works by pioneer abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, where they would be found and consumed a few years later by the young Lucretia Mott. Along with other alumni and alumnae, Mott took the sentiments from there into the abolition and women’s rights struggles of the next century, with historic impact. (p. 122)

In short, in exploring her idea of “the Zion tradi­tion.” Crabtree turns up much that is both full of significance for understanding the dynamic of Quaker survival and a kind of activism that combined conventional charitable efforts for the poor, war victims, and un­schooled, with reformist efforts that were much more controversial. Their plain-dressed, nonviolent network also played important, if often unheralded, parts in forwarding reform groups and their crusades.

In the post-revolutionary “nation-building” era, Crab­tree argues that such universalist Quaker notions of their Zion tradition as the refusal of war ran increasingly against the grain of the republican efforts to build a new body politic, in which “citizenship” included a mandate to wage war for the new nation against its enemies. She also con­tends that over time, this American nationalism seeped into the Quak­er ranks, where it eroded the Zion tradition and helped sow the seeds of internal discord that came to calamitous fruition in the Quak­er schisms that began in 1827.

All this is, as I say, rich with promise and potential insight.

That’s the good news.

But unfortunately, there is another, technical side to the book, which severely qualifies its value. Crabtree’s research is in many, many places spotty, superficial, and marr­ed by errors that call into question both her results and many of her premises.

The list of these solecisms is too long to detail comprehen­sively, But here are a few:

She asserts that “by the early nineteenth century, more Quakers lived west of the Mississippi than in the former loci of Quaker power in the East.” (p. 55)

Um, no. If she had said west of the Ohio, there could be some­thing of a case to be made, though the “early” nineteenth century was still “early” even there.

Similarly, she claims that “by the mid-nineteenth century,” a militant reformism was expressed in “one of the most-invoked hymns inside the walls off the (northern) churches” as “tradition enshrined,” namely, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Um, no again. Julia Ward Howe’s hymn was composed at the end of 1861, eleven years past the midpoint of the century when a very real war was raging.

Also, when Crabtree describes the poet Coleridge’s dream of building a model community modeled on what he thought John Woolman’s community was like, she says Coleridge “lauded [Wool-man’s] home along the Susquehan­na as the ideal place to begin…” (pp. 187-88)

Afraid not. Most readers of Woolman’s writings know he lived in Mount Holly, New Jersey, which is more than 130 miles east of the Susquehanna, which flows through central Pennsylvania. (But Mt. Holly is near the North Branch of Rancocas Creek, which joins the Delaware River about seven miles away.)

Chronological disjointedness is also an issue. Crabtree states that “a faction of Hicksite Friends presented Senator Henry Clay with an abolition petition after he had at­tended a yearly meeting during the contentious years before the split.” (207)

Not quite. The Clay incident occurred in 1842, fourteen years after the “contentious” Hicksite separation. Further, it happened on the eve of a regional schism among Indiana Orthodox Quakers, over attitudes toward antislavery work.

(See A History of the Separation in Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends, Which Took Place in the Winter of 1842 and 1843, on the Slavery Question, by Walter Edgerton. Cincinnati: Achilles Pugh, 1856. Online: https://archive.org/details/historyofseparat00edge )

Last but not least on this list, the Quaker artist Edward Hicks (whose painting adorns her cover), was a cousin of Elias Hicks, not his brother. (page 204.)

What accounts for this unenviable list of errors? Here the contrast with Sydney James’s volume comes into focus: where he had more than twenty dense pages describing his sources, both manu­script and published, in careful detail, Crabtree has no bibliography at all. Where James’s nearly forty pages of notes is thick with citations from the minutes of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings from Carolina to New England, Crabtree’s citations from similar docu­ments is by comparison sparse and scattered.

This superficiality of the background work leaves much of her main thesis unsupported. As she acknowledges in a footnote:

“The argument that Friends turned inward during this period is frequently unquestioned in the historiography. I assume that it origi­nated with three works: Rufus Jones, The Later Periods of Quakerism [1921]. . .William Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism 1919]. . . and Jack Marietta, The Reformation of American Quakerism [1984] . . . . It is still widely accepted today, as demonstrated by Pink Dande­lion’s categorization of this period as one of ‘Quietism, 1690-1820s’ in his Introduction to Quakerism [2007]. I argue that that this period was actually one of avid engagement . . . for the Religious Society of Friends.” (p. 223) (Emphasis added.)

But if Crabtree wants to overturn the “Quietist” interpretation of this era, she will have to do more than simply “assume” its origins; the serious reader will expect her to know the historiography she is undertaking to demolish, beyond presumptions about its longevity and a scan of chapter headings. This also goes for the scholarly land­marks which apply directly to her selected period, like that of Sydney James.

This tacit admission of scholarly indolence is really rather shock­ing to me. One wonders why it did not raise any flags at the University of Chicago Press, or its referees.

Given these scholarly deficits, I can’t really recommend Holy Nation to readers seriously interested in Quaker history in the revolutionary and later periods.

I say this with much regret, however, because I remain convinced that, in “the Zion tradition,” she has highlighted a very important and shamefully neglected piece of Quaker history, one that has plenty current resonance and relevance. That is why, despite my many misgivings, we are offering an excerpt from it along with this review.

Perhaps it will stimulate a competent scholar to the diligence required to subject Crabtree’s insight to a thorough exposure to the records, and then refine it into a version that is both trenchant and reliable. Whoever that is to be, I say hurry up; we need it.


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

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