Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution

Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution

by Sarah Crabtree

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Early American Quakers have long been perceived as retiring separatists, but in Holy Nation Sarah Crabtree transforms our historical understanding of the sect by drawing on the sermons, diaries, and correspondence of Quakers themselves. Situating Quakerism within the larger intellectual and religious undercurrents of the Atlantic World, Crabtree shows how Quakers forged a paradoxical sense of their place in the world as militant warriors fighting for peace. She argues that during the turbulent Age of Revolution and Reaction, the Religious Society of Friends forged a “holy nation,” a transnational community of like-minded believers committed first and foremost to divine law and to one another. Declaring themselves citizens of their own nation served to underscore the decidedly unholy nature of the nation-state, worldly governments, and profane laws. As a result, campaigns of persecution against the Friends escalated as those in power moved to declare Quakers aliens and traitors to their home countries.

Holy Nation convincingly shows that ideals and actions were inseparable for the Society of Friends, yielding an account of Quakerism that is simultaneously a history of the faith and its adherents and a history of its confrontations with the wider world. Ultimately, Crabtree argues, the conflicts experienced between obligations of church and state that Quakers faced can illuminate similar contemporary struggles.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226255934
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/13/2015
Series: American Beginnings, 1500-1900
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sarah Crabtree is assistant professor of history at San Francisco State University.

Read an Excerpt

Holy Nation

The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution

By Sarah Crabtree

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-25593-4


Zion in Crisis: Friends as the Israel of Old

In the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, British minister John Griffith urged Friends to follow the example set by the ancient Hebrews. He reminded his fellow Quakers that "through all the heathenish rage of their adversaries, the rising up of the rulers of the earth against them, and the people imagining vain things concerning them," the Israelites had remained faithful and that, as a result, "their bands were not broken, nor their cords cast away." Clearly, Griffith intended to draw parallels for his audience between the Jewish community of old and Friends' experiences during the recent hostilities. Quakers, particularly those in the American colonies, had suffered acutely during the late war as a result of their religious principles. Society members on both sides of the Atlantic endured resentment from their neighbors and suspicion from the governments under which they lived, and their opponents took to the press to vilify Friends for their refusal to support the campaign. Several Quakers experienced marked economic hardships, and the Society itself lost what little political power it had amassed. This turmoil both inside and outside of the Society was of grave concern to the majority of Friends, as they worried that external pressures would cause internal fractures among the Society. Accordingly, ministers like Griffith highlighted the example of the ancient Hebrews to encourage their coreligionists to remain united and steadfast in the face of such trials. They focused in particular on the endurance and cohesiveness of the Jewish community, touting the example of the Israelites as a people who survived periods of protracted warfare and intense persecution.

Only a decade later, however, many within the Society of Friends had moved beyond simply drawing inspiration from Hebrew scriptures. Devout ministers initiated what some scholars have termed a "Reformation" within the Society that sought to prevent backsliding among its membership. Troubled that the political upheavals occurring outside of the Society had caused members to drift away from the core tenets of Quakerism, they preached restoration and revival. Public Friends endeavored to unite their scattered and besieged followers behind an identity and a theology that transcended worldly divisions. They did so by attempting quite literally to shape their community of faith into the mold of biblical Israelites. These ministers no longer turned toward the Jewish community for motivation or for strength but rather implored their fellow members to become a modern incarnation of the ancient Hebrews, to forge a new Zion. They instructed their followers that God had called the elect to belong to this nation, to follow its law, and to accept its citizens as both their coreligionists and their (holy) compatriots.

Significantly, Friends maintained that this nation was not only an ethereal, spiritual community to be realized in the afterlife but a concrete community here on earth that impacted worldly politics. This declaration was not made in a vacuum nor was it a politically neutral claim. Quaker ministers purposefully deployed the language of nationhood when invoking the Zion tradition as a way of responding to the political ruptures and realignments endemic to the late eighteenth century. Anyone touched by this turmoil recognized the profound ways in which the Seven Years' War and the Napoleonic conflicts had altered the relationship between subject and crown as well as the new political identities and loyalties generated by the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions and the Irish Rebellion. Friends, however, confronted what they perceived to be two additional threats to their religious community resulting from these series of events: the expanding power of a centralized state and the increasingly exclusionary nature of the nation's "imagined community." Society members openly worried that these phenomena would undermine the distinctiveness of Quakerism and the bond among Friends. The compulsory duties required of the citizen by the state clashed with the Society's unique religious tenets while the centripetal powers of nationalism threatened to pull Friends toward their non-Quaker compatriots and away from their coreligionists. As a result, many Society members began to search for a way to resist the worldly demands of the state and the artificial divisions of nations.

Friends' assertion of a holy nation, therefore, was an attempt to maintain the precepts and the cohesion of the Society amidst the chaos of the world around them. It was also a highly politicized pronouncement given the imperialist and nationalist movements that engulfed the Atlantic World during this tumultuous era. Quakers' identification with Zion (at first, the historical nation of Israel and later, their own iteration) was an attempt tosustain the Society through dis-identifying with the empires and nation-states coalescing around them. Put simply, Friends' articulation of holy nationhood attempted to maintain religious unity through political separation. This alignment challenged the geopolitical foundations of nation-states, as Quakers maintained that religious and political bonds formed a stronger foundation for community. It also disrupted the process by which nation-states solidified control by denying the affective bonds necessary for nationalist sentiment and defying the compliance required by the state. Finally, it contested the conformity to the hierarchy of the state and to the sway of national customs.

This chapter traces the imbricated relationship between the Quakers' evolving theological identity and the political movements of the late eighteenth century. The Society attempted to counter the mounting pressures of nationalism and imperialism by invoking the theology of the Old Testament. The universalist propensity of religion coexisted uneasily with the particularizing tendency of nationalism and the state-strengthening expressions of patriotism. Friends, desperate to preserve the transnational orientation of their sect, turned to the Jewish faith tradition as a means of resisting these twin pressures. In particular, ministers on both sides of the Atlantic culled four key concepts from the Jewish faith tradition and relied on these tenets when confronting the pressures wrought by warfare and nationalism: (1) A communal belief in their identity as a "chosen people" subject first and foremost to divine law. This conviction in an elect status helped Friends to justify their refusal to comply with laws that conflicted with their religion as well as to defend their distinctive political ideologies and cultural practices to their critics. (2) A shared history of persecution that defined their relationship with the governments under which they lived. Friends insisted that the state did not have the authority to prosecute them for defying its will and relied on the bonds forged through this mutual suffering to endure these experiences with persecution. (3) A reciprocal experience of diaspora that bound together their scattered community. This orientation helped Friends scattered the world over to remain committed to the faith and to each other by denying the importance of the geopolitical boundaries of nations and empires and allowed Quakers to welcome new members into the fold from distant locales. (4) A collective responsibility to prophesy to stir others to repentance and reform. Friends used their prophesying to condemn the character and actions of nations and empires as well as to articulate a vision for a more peaceable future. Taken together, these four tenets represent what I have identified as the Quakers' interpretation of the Zion tradition.

This chapter also examines the evolution of Friends' deployment of the Zion tradition as they first confronted the violent imperial contest of the Seven Years' War and then faced the divisive force of nationalism during the American War of Independence and the subsequent fracturing of the British Empire. These conflicts impacted American Friends more profoundly than British Friends, as the war was waged, literally and figuratively, in their backyards and in their meeting houses. At the same time, however, Friends in other locals similarly seized hold of the Zion tradition when confronting the backsliding of their membership as a result of their direct experience with the destruction of warfare, state persecution, or the divisiveness of nationalism. Thus, when violence reached the shores of France during the Revolution, Great Britain during the Napoleonic conflicts, or Ireland during the Rebellion of 1798, Society members took up the language of Zion once again. They insisted that, as chosen people, they did not have to pay the wartime levies in Great Britain. They endured intense persecution and suspicion in revolutionary France. They gathered diasporic members into the fold from the Caribbean, Holland, Norway, Prussia, and Russia during the Napoleonic conflicts. And they prophesied during the Irish Rebellion, standing in testimony to both sides in the conflict. Thus, during these crucial last four decades of the eighteenth century, in locations as far-flung as the Ohio Territory and St. Petersburg, Russia, Friends relied on Hebrew scriptures to encourage their coreligionists to adhere to a stricter interpretation and observance of Quakerism — one that resisted the discordance of nationalism and warfare.

Friends' experiences during this era transitioned them from an allegorical interest in the history of the Jewish people to a fervent desire on their part to embody the Israelite community of the Hebrew scriptures. They did so to maintain unity among their far-flung membership and to defend their beleaguered community against its critics. At the same time, however, Quakers not-so-subtly accomplished these goals by using the idea of a holy nation to displace a worldly nation or, put another way, by asserting religious unity as a means of resisting political ruptures. Friends' modern translation of Zion thus served as an attempt to both evade and condemn the nationalist fervor spreading across the Atlantic World. By disrupting the homogeneity essential to building an imagined national community and by rebuking the obedience required to solidify the power of a state, Friends heightened the suspicion toward them already harbored by their compatriots and their governments. This chapter explores the ways in which the four tenets of the Quakers' Zion tradition interacted with the crises inside the Society of Friends as well as the crises outside of it — in other words, it demonstrates how their holy nation was a response to chaos inside of the Society created by the turmoil of warfare, nationalism, and state-building while simultaneously analyzing the challenges it posed to these processes.


In the strictest sense, Zion was a literal place. God promised the city of Jerusalem (and Mount Zion) to the Jewish people in return for their fidelity. Both while in control of the holy land and while in exile, Jews were to separate themselves from the surrounding nations and follow their own laws and traditions. The book of Leviticus in particular outlined God's instructions: "I am the Lord your God; I have separated you from the peoples. ... You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine." God commanded them to be "set apart from the nations" and directed them not to "associate with these nations that remain among you." If the Israelites followed these divine commands, God would set them "in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made" and make them "a people holy to the Lord your God." The nation of Zion was thus "a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation," a place so pure and strong that "all the nations shall stream to it."

The literal nation of Zion under the control of the twelve tribes of Israel formed "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," the scriptural passage so often quoted by Friends. They embodied the law, love, and power of God, and thus, according to a line of scripture also frequently quoted by Quaker ministers, "the law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." The "holy hill" of Mount Zion was meant to serve as a beacon to other nations, and indeed the Jews (and later, the Friends) believed that "Jerusalem will one day be acknowledged by the nations as the imperial capital where the divine suzerain will settle international disputes, thus bringing an end to war." Jewish tradition held that God intended for their holy nation to serve as an example to all others and promised to "set [Israel] high above all the nations of the earth."

Yet during periods of exile and diaspora, the nation of Zion assumed an additional, more conceptual meaning. According to scripture, the tribes of Israel did not uphold their part of the covenant, despite prophetic warnings — adopted by Quaker ministers — that "the Lord will scatter you [the Israelites] among all the nations, from one end of the earth to the other. Among those nations you shall find no ease, no resting place for the sole of your foot." During these periods, Zion became both a literal place and a term used denoting the scattered Jewish nation. Regardless of the country in which they lived, mothers and fathers of Israel remained part of this nation of Zion. They pledged their loyalty to it, continued to follow its customs, and recognized their coreligionists as its true citizens and their true compatriots. Zion was thus as much an idea and a state of mind as it was a literal place, and Friends understood themselves to be its primary inheritors.

It was this metaphorical interpretation of the Zion tradition that Quaker ministers attempted to propagate during the Reformation of the mid-eighteenth century. These Friends were upset that the Society's initial radicalism had receded, its missionary fervor all but ceased, and its discipline, particularly regarding aesthetics and marriage, had languished. In some areas Quakers still encountered problems with the authorities, as Friends on the periphery ran afoul of the government by refusing to muster for militia drills while more devout members lodged protests against oath-swearing and church tithes. But the Society, by and large, had reached a tenuous agreement with those in power: if they kept to themselves and if they kept quiet, they could live within the borders of the British Empire relatively unmolested. Indeed, this truce so flourished in the early eighteenth century that Friends even wielded significant political power of their own in areas such as Tortola, Philadelphia, Rhode Island, Nantucket, and York.

The accord did not last for long. The British Act of Toleration of 1689 had granted Friends a modicum of religious freedom; however, only within the British Empire and only during a time of relative peace and stability. The Crown governed an array of people from different nations, ethnicities, and religions, and this diversity existed more easily within an imperial structure than a national constitution. Empires required the loyalty of their subjects; they did not yet require the affective bonds of a nation. Moreover, the large and diverse population of cities such as London diminished the impact of the Quakers' conflicts with the government. Finally, the Crown relied on a mercenary army. While Friends' refusal to serve in the military was objectionable to those in power, it did not threaten the Empire's stability or survival. These conditions cast Friends as peculiar and anomalous rather than hostile and seductive, though a shifting political landscape soon brought stiffer resistance. As subjects became citizens (and citizens became soldiers), the governments under which Friends lived began to demand more of the Quakers. Their inability and therefore refusal to comply with the state or to support the nation became increasingly threatening, especially during times of war. The window of toleration, opened in the late seventeenth century, would slam shut by the mid-eighteenth century.

As violence erupted across the Atlantic World during the last half of the eighteenth century, Quakers were forced to defend and enact their peace principles, thus moving their observance of nonviolence from theory to practice. More to the point, devout Friends did not simply refuse to take up arms; they refused to aid the war effort in any way, physically, financially, or symbolically. The religious and political space that Friends had managed to carve out for themselves thus evaporated beginning with the Seven Years' War in 1756. Quakers' delicate balance between religious principles and obedience to the Crown fell apart as attempts to "render unto Caesar" proved in vain. These conflicts reinaugurated campaigns of persecution against Friends, both extralegal and sanctioned, and the divide between Quakers and non-Quakers worsened and widened as a result.

Elders within the Society, already concerned about the waning discipline and increasing worldliness of their coreligionists, became even more alarmed about Friends' ability to remain committed to their principles and to each other amidst this renewed persecution. Their ministry reflected this anxiety, as Public Friends on both sides of the Atlantic devoted their energies to implementing reform within the Society. Significantly, as more pious and prominent members attempted to explain and enforce this Reformation, they began to infuse their sermons with references to ancient Hebrews. They relied on these examples for consolation, for direction, and for validation. Thus, ministers maintained that "the Lord will search Jerusalem, he will thoroughly search the Quakers, he will blow away the Chaff, but the Wheat — oh the weighty wheat he will gather into his holy garner." In trying to restore the Society to its former, purer state, they searched for true believers among them. With the stakes this high, reformers could not abide any member who did not share fully in this quest; they turned out those who failed to meet their standards. Thus did itinerant minister Sophia Hume lament: "Oh! The many false brethren amongst us, who say they are Jews, but it evidently appears that they are not."


Excerpted from Holy Nation by Sarah Crabtree. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Holy Nation  
Part I: Combat, 1754–89
1. Zion in Crisis: Friends as the Israel of Old 
2. Lamb-Like Warriors: The Quakers’ Church Militant
Part II: Compromise, 1779–1809
3. Walled Gardens: Friends’ Schools
Part III: Concession, 1793–1826
4. The Still, Small Voice: Quaker Activism
5. The Whole World My Country: A Cosmopolitan Society
Conclusion: At Peace with the World, at War with Itself

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