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Quaker Nation?

The Society of Friends and American society.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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How the Quakers Invented America

by David Yount

Rowman & Littlefield,

176 pp., $19.95

Everything you think you know about them is probably wrong. They don't live in Pennsylvania or ride horse-and-buggies (that's the Amish). They didn't compose "Simple Gifts" (the Shakers). They don't all wear black suites and broad-brimmed hats (the guy on the oatmeal box).

If you haven't guessed, I'm talking about the Quakers. And in How the Quakers Invented America, veteran journalist David Yount presents the much-overlooked and misunderstood Religious Society of Friends (as they're formally known) to an America that doesn't realize how much it owes them. A "convinced" Friend (the term used for "convert") with three theology degrees and nine books to his name, Yount brings to the project the usual advantages and drawbacks of being both a practitioner and a scholar of his subject.

Sandwiched between opening and concluding chapters that attempt to show the Quaker influence on America are 10 well-crafted chapters explaining the basics of Quakerism. In 17th century England--a hundred years after the reforms of Calvin and Luther--George Fox sought a more radical reform, doing away with "steeple-houses," clergy, sacraments, hymns, creeds, sermons, and idolization of scripture. Fox preached that because "there is that of God in everyone" (the standard Quaker tenet) everyone has equal access to God--no ministers required. Quakers look to the "Inner Light" (their term for the Holy Spirit) for inspiration, which is paramount: "Scripture and creed were subordinate to the inspiration of the Spirit." This wasn't done to undermine Christianity; Fox tells us it was precisely "to turn people from darkness to light that they might receive Christ Jesus."

They were called "Quakers" because when Friends encountered God they would literally quake with a "feeling of release from sin and the power of God to forgive it." For at the center of Fox's Quakerism was the truth that "one must first repent in order to live in the new era dominated by God's spirit." Then one can focus on the "testimonies" of simplicity, equality, integrity, community, and peace. Simple living, truthful speaking, and plain dressing became Quaker hallmarks. Their "Meeting for Worship," held on the "First Day" (Sunday) consists of sitting silently on plain wooden benches in a plain room for an hour. Those moved by the Spirit to share their inspiration stand, speak, and sit back down.

The emphasis on silence and expectant listening is to focus on living in the light of eternity "through immersion in the present moment." And Yount's exposition on Quaker spiritual practices that make eternal life present now is one of the most appealing parts of the book, especially in our fast-paced, media-driven culture.

Yet the title argument is the book's least developed and least convincing. Rather than a sustained presentation of the way Quakers affected American life, Yount merely catalogues Quaker values and asserts they are also American values. Yes, the Quaker-drafted Rhode Island constitution was an influence on the Bill of Rights. And yes, the Liberty Bell was originally named the Great Quaker Bell. But some of Yount's examples are merely amusing. He submits that "all Americans prefer casual clothing" because of the Quakers who, by the way, also invented "the idea of marriage." Meanwhile, Yount overlooks distinctively Quaker ideals that never quite received patents: The prohibition of alcohol and general hostility toward holidays, sports, and theater.

Yount insists that Quakers "contributed more than any other group to the founding ideals that sustain our national life." While it's true that Thomas Paine was a birthright Quaker (but didn't practice as an adult) and that Susan B. Anthony was a Friend for life, have Quakers really contributed more than Puritans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, or Locke and Rousseau, or Madison, Hamilton and Jay or, for that matter, Jefferson (who derided the Quakers as "Protestant Jesuits")? Thirteen of America's original 29 senators were Episcopalians; only one was a Quaker.

Yount's historical-theological arguments for Quakerism also seem shaky. Since he writes for both Quakers and non-Quakers--religious skeptics and enthusiasts--the book tends more toward apologetics than academics. When he asserts that "George Fox restored primitive Christianity . . . to the simple faith and practice of Jesus' own companions," Yount simply repeats a long-discredited romanticized notion of "primitive" Christianity. Would Justin Martyr, who wrote in the second century that Christian worship was a liturgy of readings, a sermon, and a sacrament (the Eucharist), recognize Fox's version as more authentic?