Lucretia Mott’s Quaker Easter Message, Still Good the Day After

Some years ago, a Friend who was much taken with what she believed was Quakerism’s essential, and defining character as a kind of mysticism, approached me. Knowing of my admiration for Lucretia mott, she asked if she should add Lucretia to her list of the great Quaker mystics.

Nope. Quite the contrary, I told her. In truth, Lucretia would in fact all-but head the list of the great anti-mystics of Quaker history. And as Lucretia’s motto was, “Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth,” it would be untruthful say otherwise.

I don’t know what happened to that Friend’s list. But before all the folderol and sugar high of Easter weekend dissipates, it may be worth taking a few moments to consider Lucretia’s convictions on the seasonal fanfare.

In short, she had no truck with Easter; the whole thing left her cold, not only the churchly hoopla, but even more the theology it embodied. She was not shy about this view. As she wrote in an 1841 letter to Friends in Ireland:

“. . . as to theology, I am sick of disputes on that subject; though I cannot say just as my husband has–that he ‘doesn’t care a fig about it’–for I do want those I love to see their way out of the darkness and error with which they are surrounded. Moreover, I think there is so much harm done by teaching the doctrine of human depravity and dependence on a vicarious atonement, that I feel constrained to call on all, everywhere, to yield such a mistaken and paralyzing dogma (emphasis mine).” (Hallowell 209)

And in various formulations, that notion of depravity and the vicarious atonement for it by Jesus’ death and reported resurrection, is what the whole traditional Christian Easter event and story is about:

Humans are bound for hell, all of us, and human efforts are helpless to escape that fate.

Only an act of God can head it off, and so Jesus, being God and man, sacrificed himself and “atoned” (or “paid for”) this vast human “debt” of sin.  Thereby God stayed His condemning hand, forgave humanity, and as as sign of it brought Jesus back to life on Easter.

Don’t ask me to explain all this; there are libraries of weighty tomes devoted to it.  The point here is that Lucretia Mott completely rejected this whole scenario, decrying the “harm done” by it.

Yet she seemed devoted to Jesus. She quoted his words incessantly, affirmed his “messianic status,” and thought she was preaching his “gospel” message during her sixty controversial years as a Quaker preacher.

But if Jesus’ “gospel” was not about depravity and vicarious blood atonement, what did Lucretia say it was?

Scholar Priscilla Eppinger has put it in a nutshell: Salvation for humans would come through the faith of Christ, not faith in Christ. By this, Mott meant a faith like that of Jesus. She quoted from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (2:20):

“Faith of Jesus Christ is faith in the truth, faith in God and in man. The life that I now live in the flesh, said the Apostle, I live by the faith of the son of God. . . . Well  [Mott added] what is this other than a faith similar to that which Jesus held, the faith of the son of God.” (Greene 124)

The faith of Christ, not faith in Christ. Neither Eppinger nor Lucretia originated this alternate  motto.  And what was this “faith”?

The chief sayings of Jesus that respond to this query are two: First, from Luke 4:

[14] And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee . . . .

[16] And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up to read.

[17] And there was delivered unto him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And when he had opened the scroll, he found the place where it was written,

[18]“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
           because he has anointed me
           to bring good news to the poor.
           He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
           and recovery of sight to the blind;
          to let the oppressed go free,
[19] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

[20] And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the attendant, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.

[21] And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

[Keep in mind that after he said this, the locals ran him out of town and tried to kill him. But I digress.]

The second passage is from Matthew 25, describing a vision of the last judgment, and explaining why some will be going to “heaven”:

37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 

38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 

39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 

40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

To which could also be added the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Thus, for Mott, Jesus’ “gospel” was a call to do justice, free the oppressed, tend to the poor and suffering, and build a loving and just community. And for Mott, his example of enacting this call was complete, making him a messianic (saving) figure for real living people, and an ideal, an archetype, for those who came after. The best of those who followed, be they male or female, Christian or not (including non-theists), could not only carry on this “saving” work, but also become “messiahs of their age,” leading many into “the Kingdom of Heaven,” not in the sky, but on earth.

Even Jesus’ death, a trumped-up execution, was part of the pattern: she had seen many face death in similar causes; she knew her Quaker martyrology; she had walked in the shadow of that valley herself not a few times. He (and they) were “resurrected” in the lives of their successors.

Note that none of these gospel passages includes or depends on belief in any set of doctrines or notions of divine “atonement,” or  miracles or heavenly interventions.

Lucretia and her message faced opposition in many quarters, often intense, and especially from the ruling ministers and elders. When she visited the Indiana Hicksite Yearly Meeting in 1844, after a days-long jouncy coach ride, she was met by a delegation of ministers & elders who told her to turn round and go home.

When she refused to do that, they then insisted that if she sat in any of the body’s sessions, she must keep quiet.

She declined to  follow this command as well.

But the next year, the The Clerk of that Yearly Meeting,  John T. Plummer, struck back, by issuing an “Admonitory Appeal” to members over his signature. It showed how angry Mott’s appearance and message had made him:

But who are these that are running to and fro in the earth, in their own time, and will, and strength; babbling of temperance, and non-resistance, and slavery, and benevolence, and communities, and the scriptures, and the sabbath, and woman’s rights? These are the thieves that cannot abide the way of humility and the cross, but climb up some other way, and steal the testimonies of Jesus, and are lifted up in their self-sufficiency . . . .

“Oh! seriously consider, friends, what it is to assume the prerogative of the Most High! Keep [i.e., stay] at home; be still in your minds; wait upon him; and whatsoever he bids you do, that in meekness do; and your reward will be with him. But go not after the Beast of many heads and many horns; even though some of them should be like the head of a lamb; it is but one of the many forms of the heads of the beast, that would fain deceive the very elect.

And what if we should say, that this head, that is like the head of a lamb, has deceived many, and it has even now written upon its forehead, ‘PROGRESS, MORAL SUASION; but its heart is puffed up with presumption, and in it is written SELF-SUFFICIENCY, and even BLASPHEMY against the Most High.’

“. . . It is He [God], and not man [or woman], that governs . . . . Then who art thou, oh! man! worm of the dust! Dead leaf of the forest, driven to and fro by the wind! That thou undertakest to reform the world! Art thou greater than He who created thee?”

Many other efforts were made to silence and disown Mott and like-minded Friends; I have documented several aimed specifically at her. But she was too nimble a Quaker politician, and they never managed to snare her.

Instead, Mott kept delivering her non-miraculous, non-mystical gospel; in her ”home”  meeting in September 1849 she declared,

    This creed based upon the assumption of human depravity and completed by a vicarious atonement–connected with a belief in mysteries and miracles as essential to salvation–forms a substitute for that faith which works by love and which purifies the heart, leading us into communion with God and teaching us to live in the cultivation of benevolence, to visit the widow and the fatherless in their affliction and to entertain charitable feelings one unto another.” (Greene 97)

She considered any such faith or religion which hindered the living out of God’s will to be false religion. A faith like that of Jesus would lead each person toward their own divinity as each lived into the increasing fullness of God’s reign.

Mott also rejected the special God-Man status orthodoxy conferred on Jesus. Instead, she looked on those, women as well as men, who acted out what she called the “practical” vision of God’s kingdom in later eras as equally children of God, themselves as much potential new messiahs as Jesus. In March 1869 she stated,

     I look to this class [reformers] for such changes in the commercial world, in the monetary system of the country, in all the relations of capital and labor, in all the influences around us–. . . to remove the terrible oppression, the terrible wrongs which so large a part of our fellow human beings in this and other lands are groaning under, . . . I say the only means I know of appointed by God in any age of the world, is the faithfulness of His children, the obedience of those who are sent, the Sons [& daughters] of Him in every age, the Messiahs of their age, who have gone forth proclaiming greater liberty, greater truths to mankind, greater duty for that entire community. (Greene 335-6) one: 

So this is Lucretia Mott’s Quaker Easter message. Like it or not, it seems to me to have lost little relevance 140 years after her death in 1880.

And it’s worth considering the day after; or even the day before.

Note: for more of Lucretia’s beliefs about Jesus, his life’s& message, plus her views on the Bible & its use, click here: https://afriendlyletter.com/a-progressive-quaker-message-from-lucretia-mott/

A footnote on sources:

James & Lucretia Mott, Life & Letters, by Anna Davis Hallowell, 1884. Online here at archive.org

Greene, Dana, ed. Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1980. (Not online.)

Eppinger, Priscilla Elaine. Messiahs of Every Age:  A Theological Basis of Nineteenth-century Social Reform. Quaker Theology #10, Spring-Summer 2004

Fager, Chuck. Lucretia Mott, Liberal Quaker Theologian. Quaker Theology #10, Spring-Summer 2004.

 

 

6 thoughts on “Lucretia Mott’s Quaker Easter Message, Still Good the Day After”

  1. Marcus Borg speaks of the pre-Easter Jesus. The Jesus before the scribes assigned all sorts of miracles to him so that Christianity would appeal to the masses For the first time, I felt like I could embrace this Jesus

  2. A perennial frustration for me: Many contemporary Quakers are so unfamiliar with Quaker religious thought over the centuries that they assume that “Christianity” equals beliefs like Substitutionary Atonement, the Virgin Birth, “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior,” etc., etc. How many Quakers today believe that the Quaker religion and the Quaker way of life represent (or should represent) Primitive Christianity revived?

  3. Thank you for the real meaning of Easter…I have never been comfortable with the “classic” story..so cruel…and think I have made the resurection a reaffirmation a symbol of God’s Love

  4. I wonder if her practical Christianity motivated by a great love might not also have been mystical, a direct sense of the love of g-d outside the prevailing Christian dogma. It seems to me that her praxis does not necessarily exclude being a mystic. I don’t hear it excluded here. I don’t know if she was or not a mystic.

    1. Brad, This matter deserves some closer scrutiny. I think it’s established that Lucretia was anti-supernatural, and evinced much scorn for “superstitions” in mainstream Christian thought/practice, and among Quakers (Quietists/mystics?). When she sent an inquirer a copy of Woolman’s Journal in 1834, she specified that her recommendation of it did not extend to “the visionary parts.”
      At the same time, she was steadfast in her conviction of the centrality (& universality) of the Light Within, as a “Divine principle.” And she took that as a guide for her spoken ministry, never preparing a formal text; and she was renowned far beyond Quaker precincts for the clarity and grace of her speech, even though mixed with urgent cals to action for reform. Does this point to something like a mystical aspect to her ministry? Maybe — though I expect if she were here, she would deny that as “superstition.” As I say, this aspect her life & work deserves more attention.

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