While reading about and “living with” Progressive Friends, I was inspired by several of the memorable personalities I walked with. I admired and learned from all of them, as well as others who interacted with them.
But there’s one Friend I identified with especially: Samuel M. Janney.
This was something of a surprise. Janney wasn’t a Progressive Friend; he was more of a middle-of-the-road Hicksite, with traditionalist leanings. But that’s not where the identification came from. It was more with his situation, his plight.
His situation is described in one of the best recent books I came across in my studies. It’s called Quakers Living In the Lion’s Mouth, by A. Glenn Crothers. If you appreciate a poignant story, with plenty of current relevance, it should be in your meeting or personal library.
The book is about Quakers living in northern Virginia before and through the Civil War, and into its aftermath. There were a lot of them, and Crothers describes many of them. But Janney is a something of a central figure in the saga.
Janney was among other things a schoolteacher, in an era when almost all schools were “private,” and were also small businesses. He was a Friends minister as well, who traveled widely among Eastern and Midwestern Quaker groups. Visiting Ohio, he tried to mediate some of the conflicts between Progressives and mainstream Hicksites, though without much success. He also worked to begin bridging the chasm between the Hicksite and Orthodox branches, a labor that continued for decades after his death.
All of that is interesting. What was compelling for me was that he lived out his life as a Virginia Friend. Virginia was, of course, a slave state; that’s the “lion’s mouth” of Crothers’ title. And his book shows us in often painful detail the challenging, frequently agonizing implications of Quaker life there.
And what they came down to was compromise. Not compromise in the “give a little, take a little” negotiating sense, which is often constructive and is important in Quaker decision making too, even though many Friends don’t like to admit that.
No, in a slave state like Virginia it meant that Janney and other Friends were caught in an inherently “compromising situation,” and were forced every day into being “compromised” by their social, economic and political environment.
A list of such “compromising” situations would be long: Janney did not own slaves; that was a long-settled testimony for him. Yet everything he bought was either made with slave labor, or brought to him by it. In his schools, which were open to non-Friends, it was the patronage of slave-owning families, paying tuition with the profits of slave labor, that kept them afloat. The state’s politics, while concerned with many practical issues, was dominated by defense of slavery. And as the war clouds gathered, that defense and the associated rhetoric became steadily more repressive and bellicose.
Many Virginia Friends, exhausted by trying to cope with all this, left the state and headed west. Janney stayed; Virginia was in his blood; burdened as the culture was, it was his home.
But he didn’t passively submit to this fate, especially after 1842. That year, he was struck with a Progressive lightning bolt: Lucretia Mott was at the sessions of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, which Virginia Friends were part of. She preached an antislavery sermon which electrified Janney; it convinced him he had to become more active and vocal in antislavery witness, despite the risks.
So he did. Not that he turned into a fire-breathing abolitionist; that was a dead-end in a state where association with abolitionist “incendiary publications” could send one to prison for five years. But he did speak up and speak out: he published a series of carefully-worded, well-informed newspaper articles, pointing out how the use of slave labor actually retarded the growth of Virginia’s economy, and how ending it (gradually and, he hoped, painlessly) would greatly benefit all its citizens and generations to come.
He also promoted and lobbied for a system of free public schools (for whites), based on the idea that as more whites became educated, support for slavery would wane.
These were sound ideas, for which he worked diligently. And while his efforts might not look radical to us, they entailed risks: in 1849 he was indicted under the “incendiary publications” provisions. He defended himself well and won the case; but it had to be a traumatic experience.
In sum, though, all Janney’s diligent efforts at promoting a voluntary, locally-oriented transition out of slavery came to nothing. At the end of his road — at the end of all the roads — was war. A long and very brutal war, from which Virginia was not spared.
I don’t point up this failure to be critical of Janney. I wouldn’t have done any better in his place; more likely, I would have been among those who headed west, or north.
And far from criticizing Janney, I’m writing about him because I feel as if I’m in a very similar situation to his. I too, live “in the lion’s mouth,” in an economy and society that is supported in significant measure by slavery, or its modern equivalent.
How so? Well, the evidence rides every day in my shirt pocket, in the form of a smartphone. The evidence stares out at me right this minute from my computer screen. It slips onto my feet as comfortable black sneakers. And so on: I’m connected to mass exploitation and de facto slavery in a hundred ways.
To be sure, unlike Janney’s Virginia, the slaves supporting me are usually kept well out of my sight, thousands of miles away, so easy to forget. It’s one of the many wonders of globalization. And mostly I do quite well at forgetting them. Our media and much else in my society eagerly help me float my tiny boat along the wide river of denial.
Twinges of conscience come, of course. And like Janney, I’ve done a little of this and a little of that, aimed more or less at easing this situation.
But still, my compromised status persists. I look in the mirror and I see a hazy image of him, probably from the late 1850s, as all his labors are about to be swallowed up in the smoke of Fort Sumter.
Further, unlike many of Janney’s fortunate Quaker contemporaries, I don’t know where to go to escape this plight. There are no “free states” on my horizon (or on Google maps) to which to emigrate. I can’t even figure how to follow his default testimony of not owning slaves. (Sure, at least in the U.S., one doesn’t technically “own” anybody; these days, one only rents them, along with millions of the rest of us affluent ones, long enough to extract one’s collection of gadgets and goodies. Is that morally any better?)
I’ve read some manifestoes by those who say they’re determined to tear down our world and start over. Right; I read them on the net, and Facebook, those quintessential markers of entanglement with our world’s status quo. They’re no help to me.
I know how Samuel Janney’s story turned out: a long, terrible war came, with major battles fought in Virginia and repeated ordeals for Friends there. Yet slavery was ended, though the forces of reaction triumphed over Reconstruction, and violent racism was re-enthroned across the South (with different forms in the North) for many decades more.
Janney survived all this, kept up his work as a minister while his health lasted, and died peacefully in 1880.
Somebody said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it can rhyme. Pondering Janney’s plight,
and mine, I wonder on which line, from his life and those of other Virginia Friends of his era, the rhyme might now fall. My hope is that with the justice due, there might also be some mercy.
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