The Still Small Voice in the Wilderness: The Treatment of Silence in Two Abolitionist Quaker Narratives—Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and Linda Spalding’s The Purchase

Reviewed by Selena Middleton

The past year has seen the beginning of what could be a renaissance of Quakerism in the mainstream collective consciousness, from Martin McDonagh’s film Seven Psychopaths in which Christopher Walken plays a serene, yet foul-mouthed Quaker, to two books in which readers are presented with alternatives to the already familiar historical abolitionist Quaker narrative. Both Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway (E.P. Dutton) and Linda Spalding’s The Purchase, (McClelland & Stewart) which won the Governor General’s Award for Literature in Canada in 2012, present the reader with Quaker characters who are involved in the slave trade–either, as in the case of Chevalier’s Honor Bright, through a reluctance or unwillingness to break strict laws concerning the hiding or transporting of runaway slaves; or, as in the case of Spalding’s Daniel Dickinson, the outright purchasing of another human being.

    Many Friends have been working to contextualize and deconstruct the prevailing mythology surrounding Quaker involvement in the slave trade in the United States and elsewhere: that Quakers were universally opposed to slavery and were, therefore, the backbone of the Underground Railroad and other operations which eventually brought slavery to an end. This idea has been complicated by books such as Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice, by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye. McDaniel and Julye write that,

Friends in the 1700s were likely to view enslavement from one of four perspectives. A majority of Quakers accepted slavery “without much qualm or question.” Others were “perplexed, but did nothing.” Still others agreed with George Fox, the English founder of the Religious Society of Friends, that slaves should be treated “kindly” and offered a Christian education–a line of thought that did not embrace emancipation. Finally, a “sensitive few” doubted if Christians should be enslaving their fellow men.    (McDaniel and Julye 8)

    The circumstances in which we find Honor Bright and Daniel Dickinson, therefore, are historically accurate; Quakers in America were frequently confronted with the reality of slavery and rarely reacted with the revulsion to human bondage that Friends do today. In fact, even the Friends who believed slavery to be an affront to the divine spark in all human beings tended to balance the idea of emancipation with a fear of social collapse and, therefore, supported a gradualist approach. (McDaniel and Julye 51) The question with which The Last Runaway and The Purchase should be approached, therefore, is not one of historical accuracy, but concerns their grasp of Quaker theology.

    Both Honor Bright and Daniel Dickinson are devout Quakers who had an active spiritual life within the Religious Society of Friends prior to leaving their communities for Ohio and Virginia respectively. Thus, what evidence do they offer that their spiritual practice is rooted in sound Quaker theology? As Honor Bright and Daniel Dickinson descend into the darkness of the wilderness that they have chosen as their new homes, does the oppressive, uncivilized silence of their relative isolation have anything to offer them? Do these Quakers–both contemplative and introspective by nature–meet this new silence with familiarity or trepidation?

    Furthermore, is it this savage silence of isolation on the edges of a hostile society that begins to change how both characters practice–or fail to practice–their religion? In both The Last Runaway and The Purchase, the silence that is key to Quaker religious practice is marked and changed by the circumstances in which Quaker characters find themselves, struggling to maintain personal, moral and spiritual equilibrium in a society that threatens grave punishments for nonconformity.

    The Journal of George Fox laid the theological foundations for religious practice among Friends. What, then, does Fox say of silence?  The Journal describes many encounters that Fox had with clerics who believed that Fox’s religion was heretical. Fox used carefully crafted Scripturally-supported arguments with such clerics, asserting that outward authority and a religious hierarchy were not needed to access the divine. For example, in the following excerpt from The Journal, Fox draws a parallel between the Quaker practice of expectant waiting and the creation of the Scriptures themselves. Fox writes,

I asked him then, whether the apostles and holy men of God did not hear God speak to them in their silence, before they spoke forth the Scripture, and before it was written? He replied, Yes, David and the prophets heard God, before they penned the Scriptures, and felt his presence in silence, before they spoke them forth. Then said I, All people take notice, he said this was error and blasphemy in me to say these words; and now he hath confessed it is no more than the holy men of God in former times witness. So I showed them, that as the holy men of God, who gave forth the Scripture as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, and learned of God, before they spoke them forth; so must they all hearken and hear what the Spirit saith, which will lead them into all truth, that they may know God and Christ and may understand the Scriptures. (Fox 286-287)

    Through such arguments, Fox establishes one of the fundamental ideas of Quakerism–that the same spiritual force dwells within men and women today as inspired the writing of the Scriptures. Furthermore, Fox insists that a measure of light allows access to an

“inward teacher, Christ Jesus, who would turn them from darkness to the light. And having opened divers Scriptures to them, [Fox] directed them to the Spirit of God in themselves, by which they might come to know him, and by which they might also come to know who the false prophets were.” (Fox 70-71) The Inner Light, then, acts as a moral compass, always pointing to Truth. Fox argues that in order to access this Inner Light, or the inner teacher, a state of inner and outer silence is necessary, so that one may hear the still small voice “speak to them in their silence”. (Fox 286)

    These ideas have remained virtually unchanged in much of Quakerism for centuries; John Woolman, who would have been contemporary to Daniel Dickinson in The Purchase, and still an oft quoted Friend in the time of Honor Bright in The Last Runaway, elaborates on the effect that outward influences can have on one’s ability to access the Inner Light. Woolman states, “if we bow not in the name of Jesus, if we give not up those prospects of gain which in the wisdom of this world are open before us, […] here the mind remains entangled and the shining of the light of life into the soul is obstructed.” (Moulton 175) Waiting or expectant silence, then, paves the way to the source of divine revelation and truth, whereas striving to live in and of the world can prevent one from hearing the quiet voice of divine conscience. 

The Last Runaway - Cover

    Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway presents readers with a picture of a young Quaker woman clearly practiced in this foundational aspect of Quakerism. From the beginning of the book, readers encounter Honor Bright attempting to center down and heed the Light inside her despite her struggle to survive in a challenging environment.

    Honor is a young Quaker from England, who –after being spurned by her betrothed–moves with her sister, Grace, to America. Nearly every aspect of Honor’s journey is surprising to Honor in its difficulty; even when stopping over in well-established Meetings, Honor is plagued by a sense of detachment and impermanence. As she travels further into the largely unsettled wilderness of Ohio, Honor finds it increasingly difficult to settle into herself.

    For example, while riding on a wagon beside a kind stranger, Honor tries to slip into the silence in that familiar way. Chevalier writes, “It took discipline to quieten the mind. Honor often found a kind of peace, but the true depth of the Inner Light, that feeling that God accompanied her, was harder to reach. She would not expect to find it in the middle of Ohio woods with an old man humming hymns beside her.” (Chevalier 18) In this way, Honor recognizes the difference between the ability to find peace or stillness in silence and the ability to connect to one’s source of divinity and to maintain that silence in anticipation of revelation.

    Time and time again, Honor attempts to find a place for herself within the small village of Faithwell, which to Honor seems hastily established, suggesting a community very different from that which Honor is accustomed. In this community, Honor struggles to enter into a silence that speaks in a way that also allows her to listen. It is hardly surprising, then, that when Honor is confronted with the disillusioning truth about the family she has married into, she resorts not to the expectant silence that is the Quaker way, but into an inversion of that silence. Chevalier writes,

When an abstract principle became entangled in daily life, it lost its clarity and became compromised and weakened. Honor did not understand how this could happen, and yet it had: the Haymakers had demonstrated how easy it was to justify stepping back from principles and doing nothing. Now that she was a member of this family, she was expected to take on their history and step back as well. […] [Honor] felt so confused by the gap between what she thought and what was expected of her that she could not speak. Perhaps it was better not to, until she was more sure of what she wanted to say. That way her words could not be twisted and flung back at her. Silence was a powerful tool at Meeting, clearing the way to God. Perhaps now it would allow Honor to be heard. (Chevalier 227-228)

    Here it becomes apparent that Honor’s silence is no longer the same “powerful tool” used in worship. Instead of submerging herself into expectant silence in which she listens for the still small voice, the message from which she would discern and perhaps speak as ministry, Honor’s silence becomes a voice of protest, a form of direct action. While this new silence may be a “powerful tool”, it is not the silence of the Meetinghouse and seems to originate from a place of desperation rather than inspiration.

    While Tracy Chevalier presents a vision of the challenges faced by Quakers confronting a society whose inner workings are greased by the blood and tears of an enslaved people, Linda Spalding’s The Purchase offers a much grimmer–and more complex–picture in which those gears are turned not only by government officials and plantation owners, but also by abolitionist Quakers.

    Like Honor, Daniel Dickinson is a man who is grieving a future that has abruptly been taken from him. His Quaker wife has died from complications in birthing their last child, and in the desperation of grieving while trying to care for four children, Daniel hires an orphan, young Ruth Boyd, to take over motherly duties. Ruth is a child herself, and when Daniel’s Meeting admonishes him for keeping an unmarried girl in his house, Daniel’s pity for Ruth in her motherless state prompts him to marry her despite the fact that he knows he will be excommunicated and shunned by his community. Thus outcast, he heads from Pennsylvania for the frontier in Virginia, despite the horror that he feels at the thought of moving from Pennsylvania to a slave-holding state.

The Purchase - Cover

    The pity that Daniel exhibits in the moment of his decision–a kind of reflexive empathy that Daniel cannot deny–does not extend into the marriage relationship. In fact, the death of Daniel’s wife combined with his remarriage and excommunication, seems to propel Daniel into an emotional journey akin to his slow plodding into the wilds of Virginia. Though Daniel has seemingly always been prone to introversion, the trauma he has undergone changes, as it does for Honor Bright, the nature of Daniel’s silence. For Daniel, silence is no longer a state in which he finds the strength and guidance to act with empathy and compassion, but has become a dark void influenced by the lawlessness of his new surroundings. It is in these circumstances that Daniel becomes an unwitting slave owner. Spalding writes,

Daniel sat through the auctioning of the boy’s mother, then, and he hated the men as they yelled up their bids but he told himself they would now get to the useful tools when a boy the size of Isaac climbed up on the stage without prodding. He was surely older than nine but no more than thirteen and he got up on the stage as if daring the men below to challenge his right to stand above them. From that height he stood looking down at the pink and white faces below as if he hoped to lock eyes with the one person in the crowd who dared to take charge of his fate – although if his fate can be charged to anything, thought Daniel, it can only be to God as He speaks through each one of us. It occurred to him then to pray for the boy but he did not know where to begin. Instead, he went on trying to organize his understanding of God’s plan and he felt his right arm go up as if pulled by a string. (Spalding 32)

    The comparison Spalding draws between Daniel the Quaker and Onesimus is striking. The boy stands on the stage as if he is there of his own free will, challenging any of the men who stand below him to make eye contact. There is power and purpose in his stance. Daniel, on the other hand, finds himself unable to begin one of the very basic acts of religious life and resorts to the mental exercises of organizing doctrine. When Daniel’s hand is raised, by comparison, he strikes a clownish figure compelled to act by an impotent theology.

    Outwardly, he is a kind of holy fool; inwardly, however, it is made clear throughout the novel that Daniel–through the consistent denial of responsibility that turns him away from his inner life–is as silent and empty as a grave. Spalding’s use of catechism as a grounding spiritual text for the Dickinson family emphasizes not only a reliance upon doctrine over the leadings of the spirit, but also a continual denial of the fullness of the rich theology that gives Quaker silence its potency.

    As many Quakers today have not even heard of a Quaker Catechism, let alone read one, a brief history is necessary to provide context to the references to catechism in The Purchase. According to Stephen Angell’s 2003 article, early Quakerism came under heavy fire by leaders of other churches for not having a catechism; publication of the characteristic series of questions and answers lent a kind of authenticity to new religious movements. Especially since Fox and other early Friends contested the practices of other faiths, they needed the public validation that a catechism would bring.

    Fox himself wrote the first Quaker Catechism, which focused heavily on “delineating the Quaker notion of the Light of Christ.” (Moore 110 in Angell) Fox revised his catechism many times, the last edition of which he wrote with London Friends’ paid secretary, Ellis Hookes, and inserted into a larger  document. Angell states that “[t]he succinctness of Fox’s presentation […] invites memorization in a way that his earlier catechetical efforts did not”; Fox’s catechism, then, enjoyed a life in the active consciousness of many Meetings to match its long history of republication. As Fox intended, memorization of the catechism was a way not only for Quaker children to learn the very basic truths about their faith, but also to receive an elementary education.

    While it was Fox’s catechism that popularized the form among early Friends, The Purchase makes reference to both Fox’s catechism and that of Robert Barclay. Angell states that “[In his Catechism and Confession of Faith], Barclay’s clear and comprehensive organization of Quaker beliefs under fourteen subheadings, and his discipline in limiting his answers to questions about Quakerism almost wholly to Biblical passages, garnered his work popularity in Quaker circles still bedeviled by accusations that Quakers disregarded Scripture.”
Barclay’s Catechism, while clear and concise, is limited in terms of expressing the fullness of Quaker theology.

    For example, in answering questions about the role of women in the church, Barclay responds with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14: 34, 35: “Let your women keep silence in the church; for it is not permitted unto them to speak, but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law, and if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home; for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” (Barclay 46) As modern Friends well know, early Quaker women were very outspoken and many of the key figures in promulgating the faith of the Religious Society of Friends were female. Barclay’s Catechism, then, while supporting a faith entirely with Scripture quotations, is best read alongside Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity, which gives a fuller picture.

    Spalding’s Quaker family, however, relies solely on their memorized catechism to affirm and spread their faith, and as such, the Quakerism in The Purchase often seems hollow. Daniel’s oldest daughter Mary, for example, takes on the task of schooling the younger children using the catechism. Spalding writes,

At first she tried to teach the Catechism. Does he who has found grace have reason to fear? The questions and responses were taught to all Quaker children at an early age. But Isaac and Benjamin became restless, and, after all, what use were such questions in Lee County, Virginia, where people were hung in trees? Better to go back to the Aeneid, which catalogued a darker, truer world. Mary again asked her father for this, his most precious possession, as she desired to read rather than recite its contents, and he put down the bowl of mortar he was mixing and told her to take the words in their scrolled leather cover back to the lean-to as if it were his heart she carried. (Spalding 146)

    Throughout the novel, Mary frequently expresses regret that she memorized the catechism instead of poetry. The Aeneid becomes a sacred text to her, mirroring the brutality of her own reality, whereas the catechism, addressing problems of a seemingly far-removed spiritual realm, is dismissed as inapplicable to Mary’s life. Daniel and Mary’s attachment to The Aeneid is suggestive of a desire to connect to the emotive world of poetry, a world that so often connects directly to the spirit. For Daniel and Mary, Quakerism–once removed from their spiritual community–has become nothing more than memorized Bible verses, devoid of the spirit that makes it a living faith, rife with wonder and revelation. Instead of seeking the voice of God in the silence, Daniel and Mary fill their inner lives with the noise of heroism, battle and adventure, in order to convince themselves that the silence is not otherwise empty.

    It is perhaps fitting, then, that a true revelation from God comes not to Daniel, but to his Methodist wife, Ruth. An angel appears to Ruth one day at the river which runs through the Dickinson’s property, and tells Ruth to “Speak Out.” Spalding describes the voice that Ruth hears as “whispery but clear in its meaning.” (Spalding 86) It is the young Methodist girl, then, and not the Quaker who hears the “still small voice.”

    Yet though Ruth hears God’s command, she is not immediately sure what to do about it. She does, perhaps, become less insular within her own family unit–taking more liberties and refusing to be treated poorly by Mary who resents her, the unwelcome stepmother; but her new found forthrightness only works to institute equilibrium in her family and community relationships and does not touch the larger injustices of the society. In fact, Ruth seems unfazed by the tragedy unfolding around her and when speaking to Daniel casually refers to the future slaves they might own together. (Spalding 124)

    It is only when Ruth is faced with the untimely demise of a white member of her family that she is finally moved to act upon the angel’s command. After the death of Daniel’s youngest daughter, Jemima, Ruth takes on the role of eulogizer. At Jemima’s funeral, Ruth finally speaks out:

“[…] [M]aybe none of us can be blamed for one lost sheep in our pasture, being so busy as we must have been. But I think God must have a mean streak, though, if He made us in His image, since we showed Jemima no pity.” Seeing shocked expressions all around, Ruth took the lid of the coffin off and dropped it on the floor. “Unless we invented meanness just in order to entertain our own selves. What does it say in here?” she waved Hiram Craig’s heavy Bible but paid no mind to the page. “It says, He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort. They gave Him gall to eat. And when he was thirsty they gave Him vinegar to drink. And so it was with us.” (Spalding 289)

    In this speech, Ruth demonstrates that she is capable of making connections between her Christian principles and the situation in which the Dickinson family finds itself. Ruth speaks out with empathy despite never having felt love–and having felt resentment more than once–for Jemima. The fact that it is Ruth that makes these connections and not Daniel, who purports to hold Quaker principles of equality through his belief in the Light of Christ in everyone, once again underscores the poverty of Daniel’s spiritual life.

    While Ruth’s revelation does not cross the race divide, Daniel’s constant feelings of guilt about his own actions and his inability to speak out to bring justice to a community unbalanced by the misdeeds of Daniel and others suggests that he is receiving little guidance in his state of silence. Unlike Ruth, whose quiet contemplation at the riverside provides her with a clear directive from God, Daniel’s silence is obscured by the white noise of grief and guilt, and he is unable to compel himself to act.

    Throughout The Purchase, the reader is frustrated by Daniel’s inability to come to terms with his position within his new community. Daniel himself seems to avoid reflection which might lead him to thoughts and actions that would further plunge the family into chaos, perhaps by forcing them to move once more. Daniel seems aware of the tenuous hold he has on his place in the community, perched on what he would consider a moral high-ground, and actively avoids any thoughts that might throw him from his seat.

    For example, while attempting to take his ailing son, Joseph, to a doctor, Daniel’s thoughts stray to the sound of Mulberry’s hooves falling rhythmically on the road: “Clump clump … clump clump … horse for … a boy. Daniel listened. He leaned forward and shivered and then sat up straight. The truth of it drummed in his head. He dropped the reins and put his hands over his ears, but the racket persisted …” (Spalding 163)

    This scene offers one of the many instances in which Daniel seems to listen but then quickly rejects what he hears. This behavior continues throughout the novel until the last scene in which Daniel seems to make a different choice. In front of the tree where Onesimus had been hanged, Daniel stands with an ax, ready to fell the tree and do away with the last symbol of his responsibility. Instead of swinging the ax immediately, however, Daniel pauses to listen.
The almost-silence of the wilderness is all around him; in this silence, Daniel reflects. Spalding writes,

He thought of how he had built his house out of numbers of trees and that what he had taken had not been given, and he thought then about Simus and said, “Thee did not choose me, but I chose thee.” It was a confession of living flesh.
He dropped the axe, letting his eyes travel time and length and span, and he went on breathing in, in, seeing, at the base of the trunk near the ground, a glint of thimble, embedded. Enough to hold all of them, everything. And when he raised his eyes to the darkest branches overhead, a trace of pale moon was waiting to take back the sky. (Spalding 310)

    In this final scene, Daniel finally admits responsibility through the uttering of John 15:16 which reads, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” (New International Bible)

    In this passage Daniel is acknowledging that it was he who raised his hand, and that in doing so he set in motion not only the tragic events that befell Onesimus and Daniel’s own children, but also the continuing line of the Dickinson family, Daniel’s Quaker blood forever mixed with that of Onesimus’ descendants. This confession is mirrored in the imagery of the tree, its branches reaching “time and length and span,” and is evocative of Daniel’s own family tree, which is forever changed, but still producing fruit.

    The moon “waiting to take back the sky” suggests a coming fullness; perhaps Daniel’s confession underneath the lynching tree serves as a new beginning for Daniel who, through another grievous loss, is finally forced to acknowledge the part he played in his own trauma and that of others, and the effect those traumas had on his spiritual self. Daniel gives this one precious moment of silent confession, and the revelation that Daniel is offered in return–the acknowledgment of his actions and their ripple throughout history–is healing. While the final words of the novel are ambiguous in a complex text, Daniel’s self-acknowledgment blossoms from the fertile soil of listening and waiting, two key Quaker practices that had, up to this point, been largely absent in Daniel’s life.

    Both Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and Spalding’s The Purchase present contemporary readers with narratives that may be uncomfortable for many current members of The Religious Society of Friends. It is difficult to confront a history that so directly contradicts the prevailing mythology of a faith. Yet such works of literature that present a more complex picture of Quaker involvement in the abolitionist movement, as well as the research done by McDaniel and Julye and others, help to humanize the Quakers. Such a re-examination is overdue for a group that until very recently, has too often been characterized in ways that omitted or minimized faults, as a kind of Quaker abolitionist order of saints.

    Perhaps the treatment of Quaker theology in The Last Runaway and The Purchase can be viewed with a similar lens. George Fox, Robert Barclay and other early Friends articulated the convictions that led generations of Quakers into a silence heavy with expectation. Yet the fact remains that even the most devout Quakers are human beings who encounter difficulties in their lives that they may be ill-equipped to handle, and these difficulties sometimes drastically affect their spiritual practice. Likewise, Honor Bright, when faced with coercion, retreated not into a silence in which she would hear God’s directions to her, but into a silence so that her voice might be heard. Daniel Dickinson, traumatized by death and expulsion from his community, runs headlong from the silence that might speak to him of his own culpability in the tragedy that unfolds around him.

    While these behaviors are certainly not theologically sound within the Quaker framework, they are utterly and completely human. Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and Linda Spalding’s The Purchase may not present a clear picture of theological concepts exemplified in Quaker practice, but both novels offer hauntingly beautiful depictions of very human struggle, failure and triumph–all an immutable part of the human condition regardless of sex, race or faith.

Works Cited

Angell, Stephen W. “The Catechisms of George Fox: Why they were written in the first place, what was contained in them, what use was made of them, and what we can learn from them today.” Quaker Theology #9.Fall-Winter (2003). Web.

Barclay, Robert. Catechism and Confession of Faith. London: Darton and Harvey, 1837. Web.

Bible. New International Version. [Colorado Springs]: Biblica, 2011. Web.

Chevalier, Tracy. The Last Runaway. New York: Dutton, 2013. Print.

Fox, George. The Journal of George Fox. London: W. and F. G. Cash, 1851. Web.

Fox, George and Ellis Hookes. Instructions for Right Spelling and Plain Directions for Reading and Writing True English. N.p., 1673.

McDaniel, Donna and Vanessa Julye. Fit For Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice. Philadelphia: Quaker Press, 2009. Print.

Moore, Rosemary. The Light in their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646-1666.University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2000.

Moulton, Phillips P. Ed. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman. Richmond: Friends United Press, 2007. Print.

Spalding, Linda. The Purchase. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2012. Epub file.


*The Still Small Voice in the Wilderness: The Treatment of Silence in Two Abolitionist Quaker Narratives—Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and Linda Spalding’s The Purchase

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