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The Curse of Perfectionism

IN THE PERSPECTIVE of European history, the Quaker withdrawal is simply another example of the failure of a religious sect to hold control of a government. In the perspective of American history it is a good deal more: it illustrates the special trials of dogmas in America, marked in this instance by the peculiar contradictions within the Quaker teachings themselves. Quaker experience in Pennsylvania can be described in terms of three tendencies which will help us understand what caused the Quakers to fail in government and what helped them continue, despite heavy trials, to be dedicated Quakers.

Self-Purity and Perfectionism. Although Penn had originally set himself the task of a holy experiment, of building a community on Friendly foundations, leading Quakers of Pennsylvania showed an unremitting preoccupation, sometimes close to obsession, with the purity of their own souls. On more than one occasion, we have seen, the Quakers in power seemed more anxious for their own principles than for the welfare, or even the survival, of the Province itself. Before expressing unqualified admiration for such steadfastness, we might well examine its implications for the survival of a sturdy Quakerism and for the daily lives of those many others who, according to the Quakers themselves, had a right to live and prosper in America. Somehow, whenever tested, the Quakers chose the solution which kept themselves pure, even though others might have to pay the price. To avoid taking oaths, Quakers sacrificed the humanity of criminal laws. While die-hard Quakers kept free of the taint of militarism and preserved inviolate their testimony against war, hundreds of innocent women and children were being massacred by Indians in western Pennsylvania. And so it went. Numerous Quaker preachers who came from England to harden the obstinacy of the Friends of Pennsylvania exhorted them to “walk in white” at any cost. Even in the wilderness they must be “as a lily amongst thorns.”

Repeatedly they were urged to “mind their own business as Friends do everywhere else.” For a Quaker to mind his own business meant for him to pursue the purity of his principles. This turning inward brought blindness to the facts of life about him—to the character of Indians, to the threat on the western borderlands, to the self-interest of other men. His resignation to the will of God made him indifferent to the stream of everyday life.

“Let’s do our duty,” William Penn had urged as early as 1701, “and leave the rest with God.” Battles should be fought not by men but by God; governments should be raised up and torn down by Him alone. Men like Franklin, “who can have no Confidence that God will protect those that neglect the use of rational Means for their Security,” might be continually faced with moral problems. But Quakers thought all such problems could be settled in advance. John Woolman and his fellow Quaker Saints, striving “for a perfect Resignation … a Belief, that whatever the Lord might be pleased to allot for me, would work for Good,” induced men to furbish their own souls while the community shifted for itself. Yet neither self-purity nor resignation to God’s unaided will could build a wall against fighting enemies. Nor construct a community in the wilderness.

Cosmopolitanism. One of the distinctive features of the Pennsylvania experiment was that American Quakers were subject to constant persuasion, surveillance, and scrutiny from afar. The powerful rulers of the London Yearly Meeting were remote from the perils, opportunities, and challenges of America; yet their influence was a check on what might have been the normal adaptation of Quaker doctrines to life in America.

The Society of Friends had become a kind of international conspiracy for Peace and for primitive Christian perfection. Some years after the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson called them “a religious sect … acting with one mind, and that directed by the mother society in England. Dispersed, as the Jews, they still form, as those do, one nation, foreign to the land they live in. They are Protestant Jesuits, implicitly devoted to the will of their superior, and forgetting all duties to their country in the execution of the policy of their order.” Emissaries from the London Yearly Meeting tried to shape Pennsylvania policy in the interests of the international Quaker community. Only occasionally and by chance, as when they urged the Pennsylvania Quakers to widen their use of capital punishment in order to avoid the oath, did that interest happen to lead to compromise. More often, they pushed American Friends toward rigid orthodoxy. In the tense days of 1756, Dr. John Fothergill from London and the two emissaries, John Hunt and Christopher Wilson, added their voices to those of American extremists; they urged Quakers to withdraw from government so they might preserve their pacifist principles inviolate. In this, the interest of the English Quaker community was dominant.

Pressure from England was not merely occasional. A constant flow of itinerant ministers carried the “refreshing” currents of world Quakerism even into the smaller villages and the back country. In the period of less than a century between the founding of Pennsylvania and the outbreak of the American Revolution, well over a hundred Quaker men and women ministers came from abroad, mostly from England. The leading historian of colonial Quakerism, Frederick B. Tolles, has described how an “Atlantic Community” of the Society of Friends emerged during this period. After 1670 the eyes of English Quakers were turned westward. Traveling preachers built and preserved that transoceanic community and, in George Keith’s words, “kept the Quakers so strong in countenance.” The fact that they were often preaching to the converted did not mean that they retailed flabby platitudes. They preached strong medicine. The spirit of the earlier Quaker martyrs lived on in them. Their cheerfulness was as remarkable as their courage. One of them, Samuel Fothergill, the brother of Dr. John Fothergill, wrote his wife in 1755:

I have now travelled 2550 miles, upon the continent of America; of which, one horse has carried me 1750; he is an excellent creature, and providentially put into my hands by a friend near Philadelphia. He cost me about five pounds sterling; he travels with great ease and safety, and sometimes, like his master, with hard fare, and sometimes none at all, but we both jog on contentedly.

But, contented or not, these ministers had set themselves a grim task: to be Jeremiahs in the wilderness, recalling American Quakers to their mission as a peculiar people.

Their dominant theme was a warning against the temptations of prosperity and a plea for the primitive virtues of the Society of Friends. Some, like Thomas Chalkley, who came over from England in 1698, stayed on; a member of the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting for over forty years, he never lost the spirit of the missionary, the zealot, and the prophet. He recorded in his journal for 1724:

I was concerned at that Meeting at Philadelphia to let the People know, That as God had blessed the People of that City, and the Province, with spiritual and temporal Blessings, and made the Land naturally fruitful, to the Inriching many of the Inhabitants, he now expected Fruits from them of Piety and Virtue; and that if there was not a stricter walking with God in Christ Jesus, they might expect his divine Hand, which had visited them with Favours from Heaven above, and from the Earth beneath, would visit them with a Rod in it, and that he had already given them some gentle Strokes therewith.

Such Jeremiads were of course familiar enough to Puritan New England, and might have had little effect in Pennsylvania had they not been coupled there with a menacing insistence on certain otherworldly dogmas. Prominent among them was, of course, the principle of pacifism. As early as 1739, with King George’s War in the offing, Chalkley traveled about the province urging Friends to hold themselves aloof. Visiting ministers from England, like William Reckitt who first came in 1756, went about reproaching the people of Pennsylvania for worrying over defense of the colony “in which several had been meddling and concerning themselves.” So the Pure Truth was replenished from abroad and the people were saved from the curse of prudence.

The plea for universalism had the simultaneous effects of strengthening Quakerism and of weakening its influence in American society. For Friends in Pennsylvania, the close tie to England was a tie to orthodoxy, an anchor against the winds and currents of the New World. Isaac Norris, the Philadelphia Quaker, preened himself and criticized the provincialism of New England Christianity. “Your New England ministers, so called,” he wrote in 1700, “seem to have much zeal for religion, but have a peculiar talent in the application and practice; and by looking no farther than their own narrow limits, do not consider the universality of God’s love to the creation.” Yet without that very talent for “application and practice” no ministry could incorporate its teachings into the social mind.

Insularity. As the Quakers of Philadelphia deferred to the London Yearly Meeting, they insulated themselves from their neighbors, whom they had to understand if they were to rule the broad province of Pennsylvania. To the Quakers, their obstinacy doubtless seemed a purity of principle and their rigidity a steadfastness in belief. But some of their more perceptive contemporaries saw the perils hidden in these virtues. William Penn himself wrote in exasperation from England in 1705:

There is an excess of vanity that is apt to creep in upon the people in power in America, who, having got out of the crowd in which they were lost here, upon every little eminency there, think nothing taller than themselves but the trees, and as if there were no after superior judgment to which they should be accountable; so that I have sometimes thought that if there was a law to oblige the people in power, in their respective colonies, to take turns in coming over for England, that they might lose themselves again amongst the crowds of so much more considerable people at the custom-house, exchange, and Westminster Hall, they would exceedingly amend in their conduct at their return, and be much more discreet and tractable, and fit for government. In the mean time, pray help to prevent them not to destroy themselves.

During those great crises which put their principles to the test, strict Pennsylvania Quakers looked down their noses at neighbors who had lost the character of a peculiar people, and had become “as salt which hath lost its savour.” Policies which Benjamin Franklin opposed because they set Quakers apart were, for that very reason, favored by men like the visiting missionary Samuel Fothergill. He hoped that the passing of the hated militia tax would separate the sheep from the goats, the true believers from the hypocrites, and so be a “winnowing of the people.” To Fothergill and his like, resignation from government seemed not a flight from responsibility but a symbol of the desire to “live in peace and quietness, minding their own business as Friends do everywhere else.”

This insularity of the Pennsylvania Quakers took several forms. In the first place, it was geographical. For a number of reasons they were not swept along in the westward current which carried wave after wave of Irish, Scotch-Irish, and Germans across the Allegheny Mountains to the outposts of western Pennsylvania. From the beginning they settled and prospered for the most part either in Philadelphia and its environs or in one of the three “Quaker” counties of Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks, tightly clustered on the eastern seaboard. Quakers did not settle in western Pennsylvania until about 1770, a fact which gave substance to the charge that Quakers grew fat in the warm metropolis while others risked everything. More serious, it kept them from sharing the common and characteristic experience of the people of their province in their age. Had they gone along with the Irish and Germans to live in the back country, the Pennsylvania Friends might better have comprehended the attitudes of western settlers toward the Indians, and they might have found reasons to be less unbending in their pacifist orthodoxy.

Even their belief in religious toleration, which had been embodied in Penn’s first Frame of Government and continued as a principle, helped put the Quakers in a minority and, eventually, in an isolated position. While most Quakers remained in their original eastern settlements, a motley flood of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and even Catholics, poured in around them. Within less than a half-century after founding Pennsylvania, Quakers could only describe themselves (in Penn’s prophetic phrase) as “Dissenters in our own country.”

Quaker discipline required Friends to set themselves apart. Intermarriage with non-Quakers was frowned on or prohibited; a young Friend would be officially warned against the charms of the particular non-Friend whom he had been courting. The Quaker Meetings, ostensibly for reasons of peace and good fellowship, required their members to submit disputes to arbitration by the Meeting itself rather than use the regular courts of law. They even organized the “Friendly Association” which they set up to deal with the Indians outside the government. In these ways they put themselves outside the law, confined by ghetto walls built by their principles and cemented by the purity of their consciences.

It is possible that Quakers might have broken down these walls and become more infused by a worldly spirit, had they tried to proselytize. But concern for their own purity overshadowed their desire to improve their community. The Quakers who traveled to Massachusetts Bay went not so much to make converts, as to give their bodies in testimony to their Truth. Perhaps no sect of equal size has had so many “missionaries,” yet none has sought fewer converts. Quaker missionaries, whether from abroad or from within the province, were for the most part missionaries to the Quakers. Instead of urging the Truth upon their unenlightened neighbors, energetic Quaker missionaries visited one Quaker Meeting after another hoping to save the Society of Friends from trifling faults.

Their self-righteousness and their rigidity are symbolized by an anecdote which John Churchman relates. During his ministerial wanderings in the 1750’s he came to know a thoughtful and studious barber whose shop he patronized. On one occasion the barber proudly showed his visitor a difficult work in algebra which he had been studying on his own. “I said it might be useful to some,” Churchman answered sanctimoniously, “but that I could take up grubbing, or follow the plough, without studying algebra; as he might also shave a man, &c. without it. Besides I found it a more profitable and delightful study, to be quietly employed in learning the law of the Lord written in mine own heart, so that I might walk before him acceptably.” In such a situation, a Puritan might have admired the barber’s industry, have expressed interest in his subject, and finally perhaps have noted that God himself was the greatest of all algebraists. The intellectual and dogmatic character of Puritanism had shown the enquiring Puritan a path to God from every little fact. But the Quaker was preoccupied with his rites of self-purification. With the obstinacy of the mystic he refused to admit the existence of the enemy’s cudgel, even though his own or another’s head be broken by it. The close alliance with English Quakerism and the insularity of American Quakerism preserved his dogma from the most corrosive of all tests, the acid of everyday experience.

Finally, the Quakers made a dogma of the absence of dogma. It was a primary article of their creed that a true Christian could have no creed. This deprived the Quaker of that theological security which had enabled the Puritan gradually to adapt Calvinism to American life. The Quaker was haunted by fear that every compromise was a defeat, that to modify anything might be to lose everything. Because his doctrine was suffused with the haze of mystical enthusiasm, he could not discern clearly which were the foundations and buttresses of his cathedral and which the ornamental gargoyles.

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