Saturday, August 5, 2017

Quaker practice

Arch Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia.
Meetinghouses' only furnishings are benches.
As I said in last month's blog, even if you count members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) among your ancestors, you might not know much about what it meant to be a Friend. You might even, as I noted in the previous blog, confuse Quaker beliefs with those of other "peculiar" sects such as Mennonites, Amish, or Shakers. A "peculiar people", by the way, was a term Friends often applied to themselves, meaning they saw themselves and their lifestyle as notably different from the mainstream.

Quakers dressed differently, in plain colors only, with no frills, bright buttons, or other decorative touches. They spoke differently, using the familiar "thee" and "thou" with everyone,--family, friend, stranger, or those of higher rank alike. Most notably, they worshipped very differently.

"The Presence in the Midst" by J. Doyle Penrose, 1916
This has been a popular painting among Quakers,
representing the ideal of Quaker silent worship.
Friends today worship in the way Friends worshipped in the 17th Century.* Friends sat together in silence, listening for the "still small voice." Anyone could hear this voice, so anyone, man, woman, or child, was welcome to speak God's message. Since God could speak through anyone, there was no need for a minister, nor for liturgy, ritual, prayer or music of any kind. There was no church building. (George Fox dismissively called churches "steeple houses", places whose very design encouraged people to believe that God could only be encountered within such buildings and under the leadership of a paid minister.) There was no creed spelling out what or how to believe about God. Quakers were (and are, whether unprogrammed or programmed) united in the belief there is "that of God in everyone", and that all thoughts, words, and deeds should be guided by a commitment to four principles: Peace, Integrity, Simplicity, Equality.

Friends' commitment to living peacefully with all, opposing any kind of violence, is well known.
William Penn's colony was founded on the principles of peaceful co-existence and non-violence. All people who would commit to those principles were welcomed into the colony. "Now let us see what love can do," Penn wrote, and his words are invoked by modern-day Quakers working to end the causes of war as well as domestic violence, human trafficking, and capital punishment.

Penn's Treaty with the Indians at Shackamoxon
by Benjamin West, 1772
Friends were expected to speak only the truth and to behave honestly in every place and situation. "Let your "yea" be 'yea', and your 'nay' be 'nay'," George Fox told his followers. Integrity--scrupulous honesty--led people to patronize Quaker businesses; It was said a small child could be sent to a Quaker grocer with a fistful of money and return with the exact order, and every cent of correct change. The commitment to integrity was the basis for Friends' refusal to take oaths or to swear on a holy book. Such demands suggested one's word is not sufficient, or that there was a different standard of truth in a court of law.

Simplicity was outwardly manifested in Friends' dress and speech, as explained above. More importantly, Friends' commitment to simplicity was a commitment to not taking more than one needed so there would be plenty of everything to go around. Friends saw simplicity as the antidote for the greed and ostentatious displays of the upper classes that deprived so many others of decent lives.

Germantown (Philadelphia) Friends Meeting issued the
earliest protest against slavery in America, 1688

Equality stemmed directly from the belief that there is "that of God in everyone." If God is in every single person, then every single person deserved to be treated fairly and respectfully. From the beginning, women held positions of leadership in their meetings. Penn's colony had the most peaceful relationship with Native Americans of any of the American colonies because Quakers dealt honestly and respectfully with them. Quakers were early leaders in the movement to abolish slavery, and later in the movement for women's suffrage. Modern Quakers continue to be advocates for those who are marginalized and discriminated against because they are perceived as "different".

If you are a Muskingum County researcher with Quaker roots in Virginia and the Carolinas, you should know your ancestors probably emigrated to Ohio because of slavery. Surprising as it might be, some early American Quakers were slave owners. Eventually, they realized the evil of slavery and so began to free their slaves. In response, the state legislatures made manumission a felony, and large segments of those states' Quaker populations opted to take themselves, and any slaves they might own, to Ohio in the Northwest Territory where slavery was outlawed.

Next blog: Sources for Researching Your Quaker Ancestors

*In the United States, there are 3 distinct branches of Quakerism. "Unprogrammed Friends" worship in the manner of the first Friends, while the other two branches ("programmed Friends") have a designated minister to lead worship which includes music. They also call their places of worship "churches", a term never used by unprogrammed Friends, whose places of worship are always called meetinghouses.

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