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?
Yount claims that Fox's genius consisted in focusing on the Spirit by ignoring the theological disputes that hindered true Christianity. Yet one could argue that this was Fox's great mistake. As Yount himself notes, heresies focus on a real truth "but they stretch that truth to redefine Christian faith by oversimplifying it." Isn't this exactly what Fox did? This becomes apparent as Yount explains Quaker spirituality and the Inner Light, for he quotes no less than 10 Roman Catholic and Anglican thinkers--from Dante and Anselm to Teresa of Avila and C.S. Lewis. In fact, he quotes more Catholics than Quakers! (This also leads one to wonder if the Quaker influences he claims "invented" America aren't simply part of the common heritage of traditional Christianity.) Rather than restoring "primitive Christianity," it seems George Fox isolated the contemplative strand of Christianity and set it up as the whole.
But for much of the book Yount writes about a Quakerism that doesn't actually exist. He describes a scripturally rich, Christ-centered community of Friends whom we'll know--as Yount repeatedly reminds readers--"by their fruits." But what are the fruits of modern Quakerism? Early Friends were known as "Friends of Truth." What is the truth that Quakers proclaim today? Early Friends quaked at the experience of release from sin; how many modern Quakers even use the word "sin," and who would Quakers say released them from it? For all Yount's emphasis on Jesus and the Bible I couldn't help but notice that the booklet "Faith and Practice," just put out by the Quaker school I attended for 12 years, fails to use the words "Jesus" or "Bible" at all. This is all too symptomatic of modern Quakers--even those Friends self-consciously trying to reassert their Quaker identity.
Yount describes a largely nonexistent Quakerism because he mistakes his ideal image of Quakerism for reality. It's understandable. Yount is a theologically serious Christian; in fact, he's a Catholic who became a convinced Quaker late in life and says he has "rejected none of that legacy." It's unclear how Yount reconciles Catholic belief in sacraments, priests, and dogma with Quaker belief that they get in the way. But it's readily clear that many Quakers, unlike Yount, have been drawn to Quakerism precisely because they reject the Christian legacy. And though he mentions them, he pays them scant attention.
The problem, as even Yount admits, is that when Quakers talk about God, "God himself may have trouble recognizing himself," for "whenever two or three Quakers" are gathered, "there may be five different opinions." Except, of course, when it comes to politics. Though there are always outliers, most Friends are committed liberals. The "permanent agenda" of the Friends Committee on National Legislation "seeks the peaceful prevention of deadly conflicts, extension of civil rights to all Americans, protection of the environment, and redistribution of taxes to meet pressing human needs." Emphases on peace and the environment would be expected from Fox's Quakers, but one has to wonder why a "permanent agenda" with only four goals includes redistributive taxation and what can only be understood as a veiled appeal for gay marriage. Who are the Americans, exactly, who lack civil rights?
Yount closes his book by saying that "Friends' spirituality increasingly resonates with Americans of all faiths and none." Even granting his (unsubstantiated) demographic point, Yount should tread lightly, for most Americans would find Quakerism attractive for reasons very different from his own. The appeal of being "spiritual but not religious"--where "religious," from the Latin religare, means binding oneself to common life, morals, and beliefs--is attractive to Americans. Believe and act as you wish with God's blessing, even his inspiration.
In the end, I'm not convinced that the Quakers invented America. Given my experience, it seems that America has reinvented the Quakers.
Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things.