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.”

* * * * * * * * *

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 ‘doesn’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 everywhere, 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 reasonable 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 matters, and finally that her discourse was not simply private musings, but had profound and lasting effects among liberal Friends. She was a theologian, 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.

* * * * * * * *

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

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

 Similarly, after the Civil War, the Hicksite yearly meetings began slowly but surely chipping away at the authority and central roles of ministers and elders, and by the 1880s the “chosen people” language disappeared from their books of Discipline. This process has not been documented in detail, but the trajectory is clear in their pages.

Creeping respectability did not “mellow” Lucretia in old age, or dilute her radical theology; by no means. Nor did it make her any more eager for the limelight. In 1869, when she found that a New York City reception for her was “to be made a great affair,” she wrote to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were organizing it, and declined. “I shall stick to that . . .” she wrote her family, “I will not be lionized when I can avoid it.” (Palmer 411; emphasis in original)

For that matter, in her last years she found new allies coming from an old locale. Up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a minister named William James Potter had taken the pulpit of that same Unitarian Church populated by former New Light Quakers. Potter himself had been born and raised a Friend, and left the Society as a young man after defying the intellectual restrictions of his Quaker schooling and reading the works of Channing. Later he often listened to Theodore Parker preach; and as a minister he worried aloud about conservative tendencies in the growing Unitarian denomination, comparing them to the rigidity that had overcome New England Quakerism in his youth.

In 1867, Potter feared that conservatives were maneuvering to enforce an exclusively Christian orientation on Unitarian churches, so he resolved to found a “spiritual Anti-Slavery Society,” which was called the Free Religious Association, and it was open to persons of all faiths. Is it any surprise that Lucretia was present and spoke at its first annual meeting (and many thereafter)? (Kellaway)

For that matter, after the Progressive surge abated, as it soon did, Joseph Dugdale did not disappear either. He moved to West Liberty, Iowa in 1862, and in 1863 returned to Hicksite Quakerism there (Janney 210-214). In 1875 he was “present at the creation” of Illinois Yearly Meeting (Ill YM Minutes).

From that yearly meeting emerged the idea for a General Conference of (Hicksite) Friends, and from within its fold came one Jesse Herman Holmes. Holmes was born and raised in Dugdale’s West Liberty, and found his way from the farm to a university education, and then to a long career at Swarthmore College (which Lucretia helped to found), and in the Hicksite Swarthmore Meeting. Holmes also had a key role in the growth of Friends General Conference (FGC), and, not least, served for twenty years as the last Clerk of the Longwood Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends. (Wahl 409-430)

Holmes brought all the strands of Lucretia’s legacy together in an almost preternatural fashion: a humanist theology, roots in both the Hicksite and Progressive camps, a long list of social concerns, and indefatigable energy as an advocate for this heritage. And nowhere was this confluence shown more clearly than in 1926, when Holmas was part of an FGC Committee which produced a Uniform Discipline for its seven member Yearly Meetings. (Fager 2004 42-46)

It was this Uniform Discipline which marked the final triumph of the Mott-Progressive agenda: it ended the “select meetings” and the recording of ministers; set out a congregational, Monthly Meeting-centered polity; it put social betterment at the top of the list of religious duties. Gone was any hint of Quakers as a chosen people: the Light Within each individual was the central reality of Quaker faith; God was left an undefined, impersonal immanence, Jesus an enlightened exemplar rather than a savior, the Bible one interesting collection among others – and all were shorn of the “miracles and superstition” that Lucretia so disdained. (FGC)

This Discipline even, in a fastidious, genteel way, endorsed Lucretia’s 1842 plea for “social mingling,” commending “contact with those of all conditions of life . . . .Especially,” it added with the appropriate touch of noblesse oblige, “is this true regarding those less fortunate than ourselves . . . .” (FGC 59)

This Uniform Discipline, and especially the essentially humanist, Holmes-drafted “Letter to the Scientifically Minded,” which FGC issued shortly thereafter, breathe the spirit of the Ethical Culture Society, except that they retain the word “God,” while similarly draining it of virtually all content. Such an association is not gratuitous: Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, was a longtime member of the Free Religious Association with Lucretia.

The Uniform Discipline’s outlook dominated the FGC stream of liberal Quakerism for decades. It has of late been undergoing change, but those recent changes are outside our purview here.

* * * * * * * * *

And so, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, our chain of evidence is long, and there are many twists and turns, but in the end it closes in on an inescapable conclusion: Lucretia Mott was a central figure in the theological revolution which forged liberal American Quakerism in the twentieth century.

Working with her co-conspirators, New England Unitarians on one side, Joseph Dugdale and the Progressives on the other, and advocating constantly and assertively for this internal reform for over forty years, from Boston south to New York, Washington DC and Richmond, and as far west as Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, she left indelible marks on her faith community, even as she also made it easy, all too easy, to overlook her fingerprints. After her death in 1880, the standard of progressive reform was carried forward by direct theological descendants, notably Jesse Holmes, until in 1926 its success was codified in the FGC Uniform Discipline.

If Lucretia had been a man, publishing her work in books, and thus allowed into the “official” theological discourse, this conclusion would have been obvious long ago. Nevertheless, it is clear.

And if theology were an actionable misdeed–as Lucretia’s own preaching often insinuated–she was as culpable for it as Channing or Parker, and as successful in her arena as they had been in theirs, perhaps even more so.

Motive, opportunity, and means. Lucretia Mott had them all, and she used them all. So despite her numerous denials, the inescapable verdict must be: guilty as charged.

Your honor, the prosecution rests.


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Mott, Lucretia. “Memo on Self,” in Lucretia Mott Speaking: Excerpts from the Sermons & Speeches of a Famous Nineteenth Century Quaker Minister & Reformer, compiled and edited by Margaret Hope Bacon (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #234, 1980)

Mott, Lucretia. Letter to her cousin Nathaniel Barney, June 7, 1847. Reproduced in the Lucretia Coffin Mott Correspondence. Winter 2000. p. 3. Pomona, CA: Lucretia Coffin Mott Project.

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White, Joseph Blanco. The Life of the Rev. Joseph Blanco White, Written by Himself. London: John Chapman, 1845.

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