Messiahs of Every Age: A Theological Basis of Nineteenth-Century Social Reform

Priscilla Elaine Eppinger

At the age of 87 Lucretia Mott attended the 1880 Philadelphia Quaker Yearly Meeting. The representative committee reported that although the issue of temperance had been before them, the “way did not open for them to take action upon it.” After a lively discussion it was noted that a bill proposing the investigation of the effects of alcohol traffic had already been before Congress for two years. One of her daughters reported to another that Mott “quickly rose, and said ‘perhaps the way had not opened!’ This produced a suppressed titter of enjoyment while she went on to say, that she was tired of that phrase; it was a convenient excuse for doing nothing; she had heard it often enough in years past, . . .”(Hallowell 461-2).

Although Mott depended greatly upon the movement of the Holy Spirit to open the way to reform, she believed strongly that one way that the Spirit moved was through people. Mott’s theology–as evidenced by her sermons, speeches, and letters in addition to her life practices–was characterized not only by its contextual and participatory nature, but by her systemic analysis of structures of oppression.

Mott was aware of racial and sexual privilege, and of the fact that she benefitted from one ideology and was oppressed by the other. She critiqued an economic system which enabled the rich to become richer while the poor became poorer (Greene 250). Her theology required praxis: active involvement in the re-creation of the world of justice and righteousness which was God’s intent in creating. This participatory theology was foundational to Mott’s involvement in the myriad reform movements of the nineteenth century.

The Quaker hermeneutic taught Mott to read the justice and righteousness called for by ancient Hebrew prophets as eternal divine imperatives. When Mott looked upon the system of chattel slavery, clerical dominance of the Church, the inequities that women faced in comparison to men, and economic disparity between rich and poor, she perceived that conditions in the world did not fit with what she had learned as a Quaker about God’s intent for humanity. As she read her Bible, works of early members of the Religious Society of Friends, and contemporary religious writings, and was sensitive to the understanding given her by the Inner Light, she concluded that a faithful response required her to do all she could to reform the world.

As a result, she constructed a present-oriented eschatological vision which, overlaid onto her historical moment, contrasted with the dominant social order which did not resemble God’s intent for creation. Her participatory christology required personal involvement to bring reality into alignment with the eschatological plumb line.

In this paper I will show to what great extent Mott’s involvement in social reform movements was predicated on her understanding of truth as authoritative. I will then sketch briefly Mott’s eschatology and christology, as these are areas of her theology the application of which compels action to overturn oppression and to establish justice.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, fleeing slaves were increasingly pursued and arrested even in free states. A case of mistaken identity might result in a free person being sent into slavery. In other cases a person who had worked, bought property, and raised a family in a free state might be arrested years after his or her flight from slavery.

Such were the circumstances in 1859 when Daniel Dangerfield was tried before the U.S. Commissioner in Philadelphia. The new commissioner being of Quaker heritage, Philadelphia abolitionists had high hopes that he would not send Dangerfield to slavery.

Lucretia Mott was not satisfied merely to hope for the best and to pray for justice. Or rather, her prayer took the form of a word to the commissioner. She later related that a number of anti-slavery activists waited for the trial to begin, in the same courthouse room as Commissioner Longstreth. Mott wrote,

     “Knowing him as a birthright member of the Society of Friends, I ventured to step forward, and, in an undertone, expressed to him the earnest hope that his conscience would not allow him to send this poor man into slavery. He received it civilly; but replied that he must be bound by his oath of office,–or words to that effect,–as nearly as I can remember. This line of the poet came to my mind, which I simply repeated, and said no more,–

‘But remember
The traitor to humanity, is the traitor most accursed.’ “

The trial resulted in Dangerfield’s release. Mott claimed, “This is the only case in which I ever interfered in any trial by our courts, further than to shelter the fugitives.” (Hallowell 388-9)

To Lucretia Mott, justice, truth, love, and peace were not merely theoretical ideals; putting them into practice in concrete ways, in everyday life, was the only meaningful way to express these principles. She held that justice, love, and truth are divine teaching and essential to true faith, and called them the “beautiful truths” of “pure religion.” (Greene 363) For Mott, the practice of peace, justice, and mercy was more essential to a life of faith than was adherence to creeds and doctrines. (Greene 107-8, 240)

Lucretia Mott claimed that there was “one standard of goodness and truth” among the ancient prophets and that the “requirements of truth are the same in all ages–to do right[,] to give freedom to the oppressed . . .” (Greene 253, 256) These eternal principles, therefore, are neither individualized nor self-centered; their aim is the re-establishment of the harmony of God’s creation.

Mott believed that God’s revelation continued into the present, as much as in times past. (Greene 92) She believed that “true religion” is not “veneration of the past;” the word of God is manifested to us in our day, and teaches what is erroneous and what is true. (Greene 96) This contemporary revelation was made principally through the light within. It was the Inner Light which might give understanding regarding the scriptures; which could inspire unconventional or unpopular actions; which had guided Jesus throughout his lifetime and which made it possible for others to be Christlike if they would but be faithful to God’s revelation as Jesus had been.

Hence Mott accorded greater authority to truth revealed and confirmed by the Inner Light than to claims that phrases or ideas from the Bible were authoritative primarily because they had a place in Holy Writ. She cited as the cardinal doctrine of Quakerism, “the sufficiency of the ‘light within,’ and righteousness without,”(Hallowell 210) and adopted as her motto “Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth,” in later years penning this statement with her name whenever her autograph was requested. (Hallowell 341-2)

The truth that appeared so clear to Mott was less so to others. Many who took a pro-slavery or anti-woman’s rights position justified their ideology through use (or as Mott would have it, mis-use) of scripture. Of this practice she declared, “Instead of taking the truths of the Bible in corroboration of the right, the practice has been, to turn over its pages to find example and authority for the wrong, for the existing abuses of society.” (Greene 215-6) She was willing to accept that the Bible contains stories of wrongs, and of misunderstanding of divine intent as well as eternal truths. She held to her stand that human fallibility is more likely than divine changeability. (Greene 225; Hallowell 297, 307)

One may conclude from Mott’s understanding of authority and truth that truth may be known by anyone. She held that the “true gospel” is not equated with any particular theology, (Greene 254) and that considering Christianity to be the only source of Truth is a way of “[limiting] the Holy One of Israel.” (Greene 275) The limits of her self and her context constrained her always to speak of “Christianity” as the way of truth; however Mott’s liberal thinking intended by “Christianity” a different concept from that embraced by most of her contemporaries. Her own practice of true faith and religion was Quaker Christianity; her language often echoed with biblical phrases; however, she did not wish to impose her style of piety upon others. Mott considered any seeker of Truth who worked for justice to be a fellow follower of true religion.


     “If the mission of Jesus was so emphatically to bring “peace on earth and good will to men” we must endeavor to carry it out, . . . Why, the millennium [sic] is here; the kingdom of God has come.” 26 September 1858

Eschatology seeks to elucidate the telos of creation, and when, how, and by whom it will be realized. While to some this may appear to be matter for esoteric debate, for Mott the answers to these questions affected in very practical ways how one was to live one’s life, and were intimately related to her belief about Christ and the role of the Church.

Lucretia Mott’s eschatological vision coincided with what she termed the “kingdom of God.” In light of God’s goodness and the goodness of creation (which we are sometimes unable to see because of our ignorance of natural laws) the telos of the world is the fulfillment of God’s intent in creating. To be sure, this vision is enough different from present reality to be able to speak of a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation. However, the new is really a return to what was original in intent, if never actually fulfilled in form.

Mott expected that at some point God’s realm would be total. She insisted on its potential realization, saying: “. . . the kingdom is now at hand, if only we will work for it in the right way.” (Greene 377) And working for it in the right way did not mean adhering to dogma, converting to denominations, or interpreting signs in the skies. She explained to the Anti-Sabbath Convention of 1848 how to work for God’s reign: “The standards of creeds and forms must be lowered, while that of justice, peace, and love to one another, must be raised higher and higher. . . . We wait for no imagined millennium–no speculation or arithmetical calculation–no Bible research–to ascertain when this shall be. It only needs that people examine for themselves–not pin their faith on ministers’ sleeves, but do their own thinking, obey the truth, and be made free. The kingdom of God is nigh, even at the door.” (Greene 67) For Mott, working for the kingdom of God in the right way meant participating in God’s actions to bring about the fulfillment of God’s intent for creation.

In her May 1872 address to the Free Religious Association, Mott made clear that she did not look for signs of a cataclysmic change in the world order, but sought evidence of God’s reign in the world as it was, saying:

     “The kingdom of God is always nigh at hand. It was nigh at hand when Jesus declared it eighteen hundred years ago, and it has been entered many and many a time since then. I believe that it is very near us; that it is with us–although some here have an idea that we are not to look for the entrance until after death, and pulpits mostly declare what shall be hereafter, forgetting what the Apostle says, that “now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be.” (Greene 361)

Since Mott’s vision of the kingdom of God was based primarily upon the prophetic call for justice it is not surprising that she viewed reform movements as contributing toward God’s reign. In a moving speech to the fourteenth annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May 1848, Mott quoted a reformer, whom she called the Jesus of the present age, on the Mount Zion of Peace, [as saying]:

      “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old, thou shall war only in self-defence, but I say unto you, take not up the sword at all.” The language is not now only in prophetic vision, as of old; it does not, . . . explain the prophecies of peace on earth, to refer to some future, far distant millennium, . . . remember how it was said by them of old time: “thou shalt drink wine moderately, and abstain from the unnecessary use of intoxicating liquors.” What is the language now of the Saviour on the Mount Zion of Temperence? “I say unto you, drink not wine at all–practice ‘total abstinence’ from all intoxicating liquors.” . . . Let the abolitionist, who should be as the Jesus of the present age on the Zion of Freedom, continue to say: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old, thou shall treat thy slaves kindly, thou shalt prepare them for freedom at a future day; but I say unto you hold no slaves at all, proclaim liberty now throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” . . . Let us no longer be blinded by the dim theology that only in the far seeing vision discovers a millenium [sic], when violence shall no more be heard in the land . . . ; but let us behold it now, nigh at the door–lending faith and confidence to our hopes, assuring us that even we ourselves shall be instrumental in proclaiming liberty to the captive.

Greene 72, 76-7

In the same way that Jesus proclaimed the in-breaking of the reign of God to be possible and real in his time, Mott expected evidence of it in her time. Mott’s reference to proclaiming liberty to the captive was a repetition of the Gospel of Luke’s words describing Jesus’ mission. “. . . The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, . . . he hath sent me to . . . preach deliverance to the captives, . . .” (Luke 4:18ab KJV, in turn a quotation from Isaiah 61) By referring to this passage Mott implies that “we ourselves” may be the ones upon whom the Spirit of the Lord is. Those engaged in reform movements were to be as active as Jesus in ushering in the kingdom of God.


In a speech to the semi-annual Unitarian Convention in 1846 Mott decried “the ambiguous and deceiving phraseology” which served to “perpetuate the erroneous views which prevail in Christendom, of the divinity of Christ, and the vicarious atonement.” (Greene 53) To a congregation of medical students three years later she preached:

     “In the view of many, the gospel is not preached, unless it embrace a certain scheme of salvation and plan of redemption. Faith in Christ has become so involved with a belief in human depravity and a vicarious atonement, imputed sin and imputed righteousness, that a discourse is divested of the character of gospel preaching, . . . if this scheme and plan–this system or theory, be not embraced.–

     “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 doctrine preached by Jesus, . . . ; 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.”

Greene 83

Mott claimed that her preaching was of the true gospel, even though (or perhaps especially because) she took a different stance regarding the person and work of Jesus. Like practitioners of the liberal theology which developed throughout the nineteenth century, Mott preferred to emphasize the scientifically plausible events of Jesus’ life, and thus focused more on his teaching than on accounts of miracles and other extraordinary events. She noted herself, “I confess to great skepticism as to any account or story, which conflicts with the unvarying natural laws of God in his creation.” (Hallowell 315)

Lucretia Mott’s christology and soteriology emerge from the principle that, as theologian Daniel Migliore put it, “The doctrines of the person and work of Christ are inseparable. . . . We cannot speak meaningfully of anyone’s identity, and certainly not of Jesus’ identity, apart from that person’s life act. Personal identity is constituted by a person’s history, by his or her life story.” (Migliore 143) In Mott’s reading of the Gospels, Jesus relieved people’s suffering and brought “glad tidings of great joy.” (Luke 2:10) (Greene 186) Jesus ministered to both the body and the spirit, and this ministry constituted his identity.

The version of Quaker theology which formed the background for Mott’s own life acts acknowledged the need for salvation; was wrought by “obedience to the law of justice and of goodness in the soul,” not by the actions, life, or death of someone eighteen centuries distant. (Greene 238)

Mott’s understanding of both the need for and means of salvation was intrinsically linked to her view of humanity: sinful, but without having lost the original created goodness; estranged from God, but with the divine spark still alive within and able to be fanned into a brightly burning flame by one’s attentiveness to it. As neglect or ignorance of the laws of nature might lead to consequences which, by some, are interpreted to be the result of sin, so redemption from this sin lies in education and moral progress. Similarly, ignorance or neglect of God’s call for justice and righteousness might be rectified by education, persuasion and receptiveness to the urgings of the Spirit.

The doctrine of vicarious atonement does not change ignorance; herein lies its great harm. Mott considered vicarious atonement a gloomy doctrine (already a downfall in her eyes, since Christ’s mission was one of “glad tidings of great joy”) because atonement leads to a sense of fatalism: either Christ has redeemed or has not; the individual cannot change this. Atonement as conceived of by evangelical Christianity led neither to an increase in knowledge of God’s laws or of the laws of nature, nor to incentive to change one’s behaviour. Ultimately the rupture of God’s and nature’s laws persists, leading to the same consequences and results. Vicarious atonement had not brought individual salvation from ignorance or neglect, nor the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. It is no wonder that Mott considered atonement an “absurd doctrine.” (Greene 137)

Moreover, Mott considered the soteriology of her contemporaries to be not only worthless, but dangerous. It was of great concern to her that people not be trapped into inaction by this theology. She wrote to Irish Friends:

     “. . . 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 those I love to see their way out of the darkness and error with which they are surrounded. Moreover, I think there is so much harm done by teaching the doctrine of human depravity and dependence on a vicarious atonement, that I feel constrained to call on all, everywhere, to yield such a mistaken and paralyzing dogma (emphasis mine).”

Hallowell 209

Salvation for humans would come through the faith of Christ, not faith in Christ. By this, Mott meant a faith like that of Jesus. She quoted from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (2:20): “Faith of Jesus Christ is faith in the truth, faith in God and in man. The life that I now live in the flesh, said the Apostle, I live by the faith of the son of God. . . . Well what is this other than a faith similar to that which Jesus held, the faith of the son of God.” (Greene 124)

Mott also liked to quote from the writings of William Penn, and was sometimes chastised by those who took offense, not realizing that it was with the words of one of the founders of their tradition that they disagreed, rather than with Mott. A statement of Penn’s which got her into trouble with her co-religionists more than once was, “It is time that Christians were judged more by their likeness to Christ than their notions of Christ.” (Greene 107)

Penn’s statement underlay her christology, in that she viewed Jesus to be a human who followed the Inner Light to perfection. He was Christ because of his response to the Holy Spirit, his obedience to God and to Truth. (Greene 86) Mott spoke against the divinization of Jesus as it was commonly expressed and understood. She did not believe his divinity a unique and inherent quality, but one developed through his responsiveness to God’s will. His close communion with God, his living out of “peace on earth, good will to men,” (the message proclaimed by angels at his birth, according to Luke 2:10) were redemptive. Jesus embodied what is possible for all of humanity; in the fullness of his humanity is found the fullness of his divinity.

Mott’s theology of the person and work of Jesus Christ connected her anthropology with her eschatology. To Mott, Christ’s divinity is connected with “that divine humanity which we may find in all God’s creatures everywhere, . . .” In her local Quaker meeting in September 1849 she preached,

     “This creed based upon the assumption of human depravity and completed by a vicarious atonement–connected with a belief in mysteries and miracles as essential to salvation–forms a substitute for that faith which works by love and which purifies the heart, leading us into communion with God and teaching us to live in the cultivation of benevolence, to visit the widow and the fatherless in their affliction and to entertain charitable feelings one unto another.” (Greene 97) She considered any faith or religion which hindered the living out of God’s will to be false religion. A faith like that of Jesus would lead each person toward their own divinity as each lived into the increasing fullness of God’s reign.”

Mott looked on those who acted out the vision of God’s kingdom as children of God, messiahs. In March 1869 she stated,

     “I look to this class [reformers] for such changes in the commercial world, in the monetary system of the country, in all the relations of capital and labor, in all the influences around us–. . . to remove the terrible oppression, the terrible wrongs which so large a part of our fellow human beings in this and other lands are groaning under, . . . I say the only means I know of appointed by God in any age of the world, is the faithfulness of His children, the obedience of those who are sent, the Sons of Him in every age, the Messiahs of their age, who have gone forth proclaiming greater liberty, greater truths to mankind, greater duty for that entire community.”

Greene 335-6

The kingdom of God was characterized by justice. Realization of God’s reign would be effected by faithful participation in removing oppression and establishing justice. Such an understanding required Mott to be involved in social reform movements. She manifested a “faith which works by love . . . leading into communion with God.”

Lucretia Mott was herself one of the Messiahs of her age.

Works Cited

Greene, Dana, ed. Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1980.

Hallowell, Anna Davis. James and Lucretia Mott: Life and Letters. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884.

Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. reprint ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B.Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.

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