Those Dangerous Quakers

 

quaker meeting 2What could be more threatening, to an aristocratic member of a rigidly hierarchical society, than a man who refused to remove his hat for his betters? Who refused even to address his betters as “Master” or “Mistress,” and addressed everyone with the familiar “thee” instead of the respectful “you?”

Quakers believed in the equal dignity of all people, and in the “inner light” implanted in every soul by God. They rejected the spiritual authority of Anglican or any other ministers, refused to pay any tax designed to support the established church, and refused even to apply for licenses for their meetings. They allowed women to preach. In the place of traditional religious authorities they created a system of small self-governing communities, in which decisions were made by the unanimous consent of the members.

When the Quakers began arriving in Virginia, in the second half of the 17th century, the traditional authorities responded with savage persecution. Quaker missionaries were imprisoned, and both male and female missionaries were publicly whipped. Even being “loving to Quakers” was made a crime.

In the sparsely settled areas of the Virginia-North Carolina border, however, the Quakers found fertile ground. Records for Isle of Wight County, in the southeast corner of Virginia, show a large number of Quaker families and very poor attendance at Anglican services. South of the North Carolina border, where the laws provided for full religious tolerance, the Quakers quickly became the dominant sect.

The tight-knit Quaker communities, with their strict rules of dress, behavior, and morality and their emphasis on the equal worth of every soul, provided the structure and support that helped to turn a collection of misfits and outsiders into a functioning society. On the remote, swampy frontier, these communities were also training their members in self-government, and preparing them for their future as citizens of a republic.

Indispensable reading, on Quakers, Virginia Cavaliers, and much else: David Hackett Fisher, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.

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