Quakers and Slavery

Because I am an idiot, I neglected to register for the Quakers and Slavery conference and misremembered it as starting on Friday. As it turned out I probably wouldn’t have made it to much of the Thursday program anyway, but still, it would be nice to occasionally not be an idiot.

On the plus side, I did attend Jerry Frost’s keynote lecture. My knowledge* of the conference subjects stems most immediately from Smolenski’s Friends and Strangers and Block’s “Cultivating Inner and Outer Plantations,” so I had a bit of useful context for the earlier period covered in the conference but very little for the nineteenth century. From my perspective, the lecture provided a good overview, delved into changing methods of discourse, and offered pointers for subjects to read up on in greater detail.

Frost made a couple interesting terminology digressions: “War Testimony” (17th and 18th century) vs. “Peace Testimony” (a later, expanded usage) and “Inward Light of Christ” (pre-1860s) vs. “Inner Light” (later usage).  I confess, part of me was thinking I should make a note on the off chance I write a story involving Quakers before that period, because that part of me is always thinking along those lines. I do find terminology shifts interesting. While I always generally conceded the power of words, it wasn’t until the past decade or so (“harsh interrogation” and “socialist,” anyone?) that it truly dawned on me just how much they matter.

“Inner Light” also seems to lend itself to separating Quakers from other Christians. (It’s also, to my ear, evocative of New Age mysticism; obviously Victorians would not have the same Southern California stereotypes at play in their subconscious.) Most of my reading covers the “Inward Light of Christ” period, but whether persecuted dissenters in England or an uneasy elite in Pennsylvania there’s still in- and out-grouping. There’s “Meeting” instead of “church”…which I now only thought of because I remembered an episode of Six Feet Under and a reference to “Quaker church.” The phrase was jarring and I wondered if it was a California thing or sloppy writing or if the line was intended to alienate, qualifying Quaker practices as somehow non-Christian. So now that I know there was a shift, I am curious about the reasons. Did freshly-minted dissenters feel the need to declare their Christianity more than members of a well-established sect? But according to Frost, early Quakers referred to the Bible, not personal or progressive revelation, when arguing against slavery. Despite invoking Christ’s name, perhaps there was a sense that personal revelation wouldn’t fly. Perhaps it was a pragmatic decision, given the negative attention attracted by early Friends. Perhaps it was influenced by print culture, which was so important to Friends: the Bible is written, and real, and safe.

* Where knowledge is defined as a) one’s ability to realize that the issue is large and complex and cannot be usefully boiled down to “didn’t Quakers support abolition?” and b) one’s ability to identify at least a few of the sources discussing the largeness and complexity.

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