To respond to the State of the Union address, we’ve invited two special Friendly commentators, who are joining us via our new astral projection uplink.
First up is our old buddy, Walter Whitman, late of Camden, New Jersey, where he settled once they named a big bridge there after him. Whitman is known as the author of the best-selling pro-marijuana polemic of all time, Leaves of Grass.
What “secret” am I talking about here? Lucretia Mott with a secret?
For her devotees, Lucretia Mott’s life is, or should be, an open book: born into a loving, encouraging family, married for 57 years to what one biographer called “the best husband ever”; she had a long public career of preaching and speaking, of which generous samplings have been preserved; and she wrote hundreds of letters which scholars have combed through. She also endured sorrows: the loss of two of her six children, and then widowhood; and she overcame years of withering criticism of her ideas and “heresies.”
None of that is new, or unexamined. And in her personal carriage she was a model of traditional Quaker propriety: she disdained novels as frivolous and vain; it was husband James who sat in a quiet corner, burning the midnight oil, unable to put down Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Then, while Hicksites all around were shedding the grey and the bonnet, she was plain til the very end. Continue reading Lucretia Mott’s Birthday Secret: No Woman Is an Island?→
Lucretia Mott, considered at the time of her death in 1880 to be the “greatest American woman of the nineteenth century” by many of her contemporaries, was a Quaker abolitionist, women’s rights activist and social reformer. She was also a key figure in an important insurgent movement of Progressive Friends. Her messages and actions are very pertinent today – and laid much of the foundation for the current women’s movement.
Thursday First Month (January) 3, 2019, will mark Lucretia’s 226th birthday.
What message would she have for us if she were here today?
HINT: She’d likely tell us we’re in deep trouble and should get up and get busy. (She’d say it nicely, but urgently).
Maintaining religious liberty within the Religious Society of Friends has not always been easy. For instance, contrary to popular Quaker legend, work in the abolitionist movement was widely unpopular among Friends, and especially repugnant to the entrenched power structure of recorded ministers and elders. Abolitionist work even precipitated a purge that led to a formal schism in Indiana Orthodox Yearly Meeting. (Only after the Civil War was won and legal slavery abolished did many prominent Friends suddenly “discover” that they had really been for abolition all along.)
While these authorities did oppose owning, buying or selling slaves, they also thought public activism aimed at abolishing the institution of slavery was “creaturely,” needlessly dangerous — and many highly-placed Friends, while not owning slaves, yet had extensive business interests connected to the slave economy. All these were threatened by connections with abolition “agitation.”
The result was what I have called “The Great Purge”; many Friends were forced out of the Society, and others resigned, to uphold their antislavery principles. Even some meetings were laid down by “executive action” for being tainted by the reforming virus.
Some Friends did not wait for the Overseers and elders to show up to apply this “discipline.”
Instead, they pre-emptively renounced their membership. One early activist, for both abolition and women’s rights, was Abby Kelley (later Abby Kelley Foster). She left her Meeting in Connecticut in 1841, publishing her resignation letter, and insisted that she had disowned Friends, for defaulting on their own testimonies, not the other way around.
In Philadelphia, two rising stars, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, also arranged a departure in their own unique way. Refugees and turncoats from a wealthy slaveholding family in South Carolina, they had joined Friends in Philadelphia because of the testimony against slavery.
They had also become instant abolitionist celebrities in 1837, when they went on an antislavery lecture tour in New England. Their lectures were thronged, and they even testified before the Massachusetts legislature, the first women ever to do so. But they were also rebuked and stifled by the enforced quietism of the Quaker establishment, and soon resolved to leave the Society.
An elegant way out soon appeared, when Angelina became engaged to abolitionist activist Theodore Dwight Weld. Because Weld was not a Friend, under the existing and strictly applied rules of the Discipline, Angelina forfeited her membership when she married him on May 14, 1838 — and Sarah was disowned as well, simply for being present at the ceremony. (More Friends were expelled for such “offenses” in those decades than for any other cause.)
Lucretia Mott was a friend and supporter of the Grimkes — but as a public speaker & abolition activist, she too had been the target of several disownment attempts, and she did not dare attend the wedding to avoid falling into that trap.
Indeed, Lucretia did not attend a non-Quaker wedding until 1863, twenty-five years later, when she was seventy, and when the strictures of the discipline were finally beginning to relax their grip:
Lucretia wrote of this in a letter to her sister Martha Wright, on Christmas Day, 1863. In it she told of the wedding of Laura Strattan, a distant cousin, who was marrying a dashing army officer, Col. Fitzhugh Birney. He was the son of James G. Birney, a prominent abolitionist who had run for president for the Liberty Party. The groom came in his dress uniform, accompanied by other soldiers.
“They made an imposing appearance,” Lucretia wrote, “with all the awful regimentals — [William] Furness [the minister] acted well his part–the whole thing beautiful–his prayer touching– especially the close for Fitzhugh.”
The marriage did not last long. Birney had taken part in many major battles, including Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and he had been wounded. The exertions of extended combat broke his health, and in the spring of 1864 his health failed. After surviving so much combat, he succumbed to pneumonia in June; Laura Strattan Birney was a war widow after less than seven months. (Harvard Memorial Biographies, Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1867, Vol. 2, pp. 415-424)
Theirs was one tragedy among a multitude. But the significance of this report here is something else, a detail that by contrast seems trivial to the point of frivolousness, but is nonetheless portentous:
By openly being present at their nuptials that December, Lucretia Mott had for the very first time attended a non-Quaker wedding, one furthermore conducted by a “hireling preacher,” in a church, with the groom in military regalia, she had defied several rules that had long been grounds for immediate disownment in her Quaker world.
But now she did it — and nothing happened. She had gained and used a new measure of religious liberty, for Friends. the “Great Purge” was ending.
There have been other struggles for religious liberty in our small Quaker world. Religious Liberty Day, May 24th, is not only for others. it’s for Friends too.
More about this “Great Purge” and its religious context in my book, Remaking Friends,available here.
Well, I don’t believe that women are inferior, that gays should be killed, or that slavery is acceptable; all of which are in the Bible too. And actually, the notion of eternal hellfire is only in part of the Bible, and a pretty late entry.
Besides, burning in hell forever is just plain unfair. It’s an endless or infinite punishment. But even the worst human crime falls well short of being “infinite.”
(This post is based on a Presentation to Green Pastures Midwinter Quarterly Meeting, Ann Arbor Michigan Third Month 15, 2013)
A small sample of my failure to achieve simplicity . . .
When I was getting ready to retire last year, I came face to face with the Quaker value of simplicity.
No question — that’s always been the most complicated and difficult testimony for me. I mean, on some of the others, I’m at least on the charts — peace? I stayed out of the military, and went to lots of protests. Equality? I worked in the civil rights movement, and raised my three daughters on tales of Lucretia Mott and Harriet Tubman. Continue reading Liberal Quaker History and The Present Crisis→
Some of the differences are not about “beliefs”, but about the ways the two groups do things. At the evangelical church I call New Covenant Temple, there are pastors and big gatherings with lots of music, and videos and talk and noise.
For Progressive Quakers, worship is based around silence, and doesn’t have a pastor leading it. Speaking or singing are possible, but mostly it’s quiet. (A few meetings are somewhat hybrid, with some silence and some planned singing or preaching; they’re often called “semi-programmed. There are also many meetings which employ pastors and have formally programmed worship; we’re not talking about them here.)