[ originally posted on Medium ]

Do you know the etymology of “grok”? To the best of my knowledge, it comes from Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein.

You’d think I’d have talked a lot more about that book by this point. Why do I say that? Because I’m a devotee of science fiction, which I use to inform my mathematics.

“To grok” means “to comprehend deeply” if I’m not mistaken, to really “get” as they taught us to say in the Standard est Training.

The book has an anthropological flavor. I remember adults were talking about it, which was somewhat unusual, as in those days, the 1960s, we thought science fiction was for kids.

What got me grokking Quakers today, in addition to my visiting a Quaker Meeting (it’s within walking distance), was listening to the United States Constitution read aloud. Had I ever heard it in such a slow reading voice?

Suddenly I was back in school, head down on my desk in a darkened room, with my peers, concentrating on these Articles and their several sections.

Where I heard Quakerism enter in was where the President of the United States was either “to swear” or “to affirm” his commitment to protecting the country. The Constitution says “him” with regard to said president, not “him or her”.

For those who don’t know, and for those who do but want to see how I tell the story, Quakers were forbidden, by their own Code of Conduct, from taking oaths, because the convention of oath taking assumed a backdrop in which lying was more the norm.

Under oath, a lie was literally a criminal act, whereas in the normal course of civilian life, a propertied male, a voter, was entitled to lie.

The Protestant faith held in high estimation a Lord’s executive privilege when deflecting the rabble. Fooling people is a big part of effective government, no? Do American football teams share all their best plays with opponents? At least white lies have to be OK, or where’s the secrecy?

Quakers, though, wanted to assert they had no such double standards and were instead commanded to speak plainly and truthfully at all times, or say nothing.

Since saying nothing is often the wiser course, Quakerism tends to create a Great Silence, which fills the room once worshipers have set aside their internal echo chamber monologues.

Heinlein’s novel had some characters like that, known as Witnesses I believe, trained to only speak the truth. Once a person has resolved to never “speak beyond one’s light” that person’s speech may start sounding stilted, or at least a bit odd.

Some sort of self-censorship is going on. Extra wheels are turning. We’re getting some professional version of truth.

I think of Spock on Star Trek. His commitment to logic had this flavor, to label speculation as such.

Quakers raised a big fuss back in England, about how oath-taking was for their moral inferiors. Their alternative lingo, wherein one could “affirm” without “swearing” became fashionable among royalty even. By the time the United States rolled around as a project, Quakerism had become thoroughly entrenched.

Pennsylvania was to get eight representatives right off the bat. The Quaker State was still on a roll back then, in terms of holding on to its Quaker roots.



The rest of what I have to say is about proposing a Study Guide of sorts, a way to roll forward with Quakers a focus, as a way of gaining more insight into United States history.

I want to zoom in on the Civil War Era and the role of Quakers in relationship to the institution of slavery. Lets talk about Quaker slave owners.

Then I want to talk about Prohibition, in the context of women finally gaining the vote.

Both chapters center around Codes of Conduct, as we might say today. Shall Quakers own slaves? Shall Quakers consume alcohol?

The stereotype some Friends like to cultivate is that Quakers were the principal engineers of the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses helping properties escape their owners.

As a matter of fact, very few Quakers were “immediatists” calling for ending slavery yesterday, as an intolerable practice. Most went along with the prevailing wisdom: that a solution might be at the end of some long tunnel, from which no light could yet be seen.

God would show us a way forward, incrementally, not overnight.

My understanding of Prohibition is it was a direct result of women gaining the vote and wanting to close the taverns and saloons full of sex workers and human traffickers.

Too many husbands had fallen prey to these institutions, which formed a gauntlet between the factory and home. Wages would be grossly less because of debts owed to these dens of iniquity. Prohibition would put the dark side out of business, once and for all.

What actually happened is citizens became lawbreakers and scofflaws in record numbers. The well to do were especially sure that Prohibition could not apply to them. Class hath its privileges, one of which is to enjoy fine gins.

I imagine Wall Street has much the same attitude today towards other prohibited substances. The money-driven often look favorably upon cocaine for example, as it gives them the bull’s blood needed to turn cold calls into high roller deals.

High powered brokers count on getting, and expensing, their tools of the trade.

Where are Quakers in all of this?

Mostly not on Wall Street, as stock portfolios without Arms Bazaar stigma are not that easy to come by, and tend to be jeered at by those judging a fund by what it returns. Applying external criteria, apparently not market related, is not good business sense by some playbooks.

Some Quakers excelled as brewers however, and I’m guessing many smuggled rum even during Prohibition. Staying out of the weapons business did not mean staying out of steel, or ship building, or chocolate… or alcohol in some cases. These businesses could be respectable, along with banking and insurance.

Quakers rose to middle class and beyond, from humble 1600s beginnings, thanks to all that plain speech and fair dealing. They helped spark a boom economy, and offered the promise of prosperity, even to workers and their dependents. The recent book Quakernomics talks about this Quaker heyday and catalyzing role in the English industrial revolution.

What helped bring alcohol back, after the amendment establishing Prohibition was repealed, was factory beer and the automobile. Instead of running a gauntlet of bars between work and home, a middle class husband could pick up a six pack on the way home, and both he and his wife could consume it together, in front of the television. Beer companies jumped on the bandwagon of promoting clean family fun, such as outdoor adventure through car camping. Bars came back as sports bars. Athleticism and drinking go together, like baseball and hotdogs.

However, in following these two well-worn ruts, slavery and Prohibition, I’ve skirted some of the more sensitive topics that might help us “grok” Quakerism.

What about its relationship with Islamic cultures?

And how about with Native Americans?

Wasn’t the Quakers’ service organization in America, known as AFSC, on McCarthy’s watch list? Didn’t AFSC help get medical supplies to Hanoi at the height of the American bombings?

In talking about “safe topics” aren’t I copping out at some level?

I like to think “no, I’m just not biting off more than I can chew”. No sense eating with my mouth open. I should digest more history and study my own innards some more, before I make lots of public pronouncements about studies still underway. Stay tuned.

Views: 26

Comment by David McKay on 3rd mo. 12, 2019 at 7:49pm

And whaling. Nantucket Quakers made some big bucks hunting whales.

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