Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Quietism and Abolition
Quakers are proud of their abolitionist heritage. The story of how Quakers confronted their own complicity in slavery and then, over a period of time, rejected that institution, is one that is often told. John Woolman’s transformation on this issue, and his dedicated, and effective, campaign to remove slavery and slaveholders from the Society of Friends is inspiring and often held as an ideal to which modern Quakers should aspire and model their own behavior on.
What I want to point out here is that the transformation of the Religious Society of Friends into an organization that rejected slavery and that purged from its ranks those who would not abandon that institution took place during the period of Quietism. The paradox is this: that today we interpret as a high point of our past the adoption of an abolitionist stance, yet at the same time we tend to dismiss the context of Quietism which made that transformation possible.
Why do I say that it was Quietism that made the transformation of the Religious Society of Friends into a group that was free of slaveholders and slaves possible? During the period of Quietism the Quaker community lived under a Discipline which was enforced. By ‘enforced’ I mean that those who were members of the Society were expected to live up to the codes of the Discipline. Infractions of the Discipline were dealt with by Overseers. Consistent violation of significant aspects of the Discipline could result in an individual being expelled from the Society. Sometimes this was noted as someone being ‘written out of the Meeting’. It was the Quaker equivalent of excommunication, banning, or shunning.
It was this mechanism that allowed the Quaker community to exert pressure on its members to reject slavery. That is to say that the issue of slavery became important enough for Quakers that the mechanism of excommunication would be used if someone did not fall in line with the anti-slavery position. If someone stubbornly refused to give up their slaves, eventually they would be written out of the Meeting.
In other words, a process of purification took place and the mechanism of that process of purification was the Discipline that Quakers at that time lived under. And this kind of Discipline is a distinctive feature of the Quaker community during the period of Quietism.
What is perplexing is that the triumph of the anti-slavery view is not (or at least I have not seen it put in these terms) attributed to Quietism; yet it is specifically the Quaker Quietists who deserve the credit for this transformation. What I am suggesting is that without the perspective of Quietism, and the code of Discipline that was a central feature of Quietism, such a transformation would not have happened; I suspect that it would not have been possible.
I suspect that the reason modern Quakers do not see the connection between abolition and Quietism is that today many Quakers operate under a view of tolerance that manifests in a deference to inclusion of various views. This is particularly true among liberal Quakers; but I suspect it is true also, to a lesser degree, among evangelicals as well. Given the structure of contemporary Quaker ‘Faith and Practice’ it would be very difficult to excommunicate someone not only for their beliefs, but also for their behavior. In fact, today’s Quakers are often proud of their diversity of beliefs and behaviors. The impact of such an approach tends to weaken, sometimes to the point of abandoning altogether, the idea that certain beliefs and behaviors should not be operative in the Society of Friends.
These days the Old Discipline is seen as oppressive. From the dominant perspective of the hyper-individualism which permeates our culture at this time, the Old Discipline is thought of as oppressive because it undermines individual expression and imposes upon individuals ideals of behavior that individuals are expected to align themselves to. Yet it is precisely this ‘oppressive’ structure which allowed the Quakers of the period of Quietism to fully embrace the abolitionist view. Perhaps this is a lesson from history that the period of Quietism has to offer us today. Perhaps what we need today is a narrower, rather than a broader, focus on what it means to be a Quaker.
Addendum: I posted this previously. I then took it down because it seemed some responses misunderstood what I was attempting to get at. So I would like to clarify. First, I am not advocating for a return to an enforced Discipline. On a practical level I doubt such an approach could gain any traction today. We are all too invested in our individualism to surrender to such strictures. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing (which is probably the inference that some took from my original post).
On the other hand, I think that we have a tendency to look at the Old Discipline in entirely negative terms and are unable to see the plusses of such an approach. And one of the big plusses is that it is precisely the strictness of the Old Discipline which allowed the RSoF to transform into an abolitionist Society. That is something that I think is worthy of pondering and it perhaps indicates that by abandoning such an approach we may have lost something that, at times, would be of benefit.
The second thing I would like to add is that the period of Quietism represents at least a third of Quaker history. Both evangelicals and liberals tend to dismiss this period (though for different reasons) and view it as a decline, rather than as a resource. I do not know of any other religious group that has so thoroughly sidelined a full third of its history in this manner. Once I opened my eyes to this, I felt how really strange it is. And the more I learn about this period, the more I feel how unjustified it is.