Quakers in Politics

By Carl Abbott and Margery Post Abbott. Christian Alternative Books (Quaker Quicks), 2023. 96 pages. $10.95/paperback; $5.99/eBook.

This little book has a deceptively simple title; we all know who Quakers are and what politics is, don’t we? But we quickly discover that even the husband-and-wife authors started with different understandings of what exactly “politics” is. To Margery, politics is “about the ways that groups of people interact with each other and reach agreements that make it possible to live together.” Carl, on the other hand, limits it to activities “directly influencing or participating in the democratic institutions of government.” Although Carl’s “more precise, well bounded definition” predominates, Margery’s more expansive view is also represented. Moreover, as we continue reading, we realize that over the centuries what it means to engage in politics has changed in various ways and that Quakers have been involved in politics since we emerged in the 1650s. Even when we renounced any involvement in elections in the United States in the middle of the eighteenth century, Friends still sought to influence the authorities.

In the first chapter, the Abbotts sketch out a Quaker approach to politics, and in the next four chapters, they describe Friends’ evolving political involvement, both as individuals and as a religious community. Early on, the most basic activities of the Religious Society of Friends were illegal, and the sect was persecuted, which led to persistent lobbying for toleration. Once that was achieved, there was an impulse to withdraw from the world, but God’s revelations that slavery was wicked, war evil, prisons cruel, the poor mistreated, women disempowered, and more pulled us back into “the world” we were attempting to avoid. The final chapter provides glimpses of the lives of many more recent Friends who are or have been directly involved in local and national governments on several continents and as outsiders advocating for fair and just policies.

This is not an encyclopedia. Not every political action or significant Quaker actor is included, but it holds some surprises. I had never heard of Warner Mifflin, who was moved to manumit the enslaved people he inherited in 1774 and found that just clearing his own conscience wasn’t enough. He advocated first among Friends but then in the public sphere: lobbying for emancipation and reparations in Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. On a national level, his lobbying may have been instrumental in the creation of a slavery-free Northwest Territory in 1787. And in 1790, Mifflin traveled to New York City where the new federal congress was meeting; his strategy there was persistent, including presenting petitions, distributing pamphlets, and talking at length with individuals on both sides of the issue. On a few occasions around this time, he even dropped in unannounced on President George Washington!

If you are interested in gaining an appreciation for the sweep and scope of how Quakers have been involved in politics, this book cannot be beat. Even better, it would be of particular value as part of an adult religious education program in your church or meeting.

Paul Buckley has written numerous articles and books on Quaker history, faith, and practice. He worships with Clear Creek Meeting in Richmond, Ind., and travels in the ministry urging spiritual renewal among Friends. His most recent publication is a Pendle Hill pamphlet, Quaker Testimony: What We Witness to the World. Contact: bucklpa@earlham.edu.

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