Utopia Before the Quakers

Illustration by Ambrosius Holbein for the 1516 first edition of Utopia. commons.wikimedia.org.

Thomas More and the Prophetic Purpose of Community

Can a community be organized for the benefit of all, and not to satisfy the greed, lust, and appetite for domination of a few? —Robert Adams’s preface to the third edition of Utopia by Thomas More (1973)

In the opinion of University of California, Los Angeles English professor Robert Adams, this question was critical to understanding Thomas More’s Utopia, the work that gave us the ubiquitous term that serves as the theme for this issue. Utopia, published in 1516, describes a fictional society meant to satirize the abuses and injustices of English and European culture. It is simultaneously medieval and progressive; fantastically absurdist; and yet, at times to the reader, quite possible. Though written before the advent of Quakerism and the examples in this issue, it is worth looking at Quaker utopias in light of More’s Utopia: not only because it has provided the well-worn term but also, as the question above attests, because the benefits and challenges found within More’s fictional society mirror the benefits and challenges that have faced and will face Quaker utopian experiments.

Utopia imagines a conversation between More and a weary traveler named Raphael Hythloday, who describes for More a fantastic land and society that is as superior to the European nations of the day as it is different. While the uniqueness of Utopia, both in its broad scope and in its details, confounds efforts to create a summary, some key points will communicate how strange Utopia must have seemed to sixteenth-century European readers. Utopian society is communal; anchored by collective farming; and lacks currency, compensation, or payment. Everyone takes as they need, with meals provided and eaten in communal settings. In exchange, citizens are expected to work diligently at farming and another trade, determined by the citizen’s perceived skills and community needs. While the people’s needs are provided for and they are granted leisure time for self-improvement, citizens are watched by their neighbors, and unauthorized travel is severely punished. Utopia is also noted for its freedom of religion, the death penalty for adultery (second offense), and euthanasia. If one or more of these policies seem progressive or controversial now, one only has to imagine a sixteenth-century reader’s response.

A spirit of perseverance is especially crucial in the face of societal hopelessness. To live prophetically against the dominant culture means living in tension with a way of life or thinking that seems impenetrable and immovable.

However, there are areas where Utopian society resonates with Quaker values (especially early Quaker faith and practice): Utopians dressed simply, favoring undyed wool garments; Utopians “despise war as an activity fit only for beasts”; and their priesthood was open to women. Their living situation involved high levels of stewardship, communal oversight and discipline, and the absence of locales that would encourage idleness and vice (e.g., alehouses, brothels, taverns, etc.). But the differences outweigh the similarities, and the value lies not in a direct comparison but in understanding the meaning and purpose of Utopia.

While there is a multitude of ways that this book has been interpreted throughout the centuries (from a proto-communistic proposal to nothing more than a lighthearted, absurdist comedy), I believe the best way is to recognize it as a satire against the prevailing governmental and societal ills of More’s day. For example, Utopia had a policy of never signing treaties but instead relying on national integrity, which is contrasted with European nations:

[where the] dignity of treaties is everywhere kept sacred and inviolable . . . partly because the kings are all so just and virtuous . . . partly because of the reverence and fear that everyone feels towards the ruling Popes.

Utopia’s policy, and this statement, makes sense and becomes biting when one recognizes the constant breaking of treaties that occurred between the “virtuous” monarchs, often unconstrained by the popes of the day, such as Alexander VI (the Borgia Pope) and Julius II (the Warrior Pope). It is through the lens of satire that one sees More’s criticism of the dominant culture, and it is through this criticism that More’s Utopia and Quaker utopian communities intersect.

Map of Utopia by Ortelius, ca. 1595, created by Thomas More. commons.wikimedia.org.

The term I will use to describe the ideal Quaker utopia is “prophetic”: an existence marked by speaking out against that which is and pointing people toward that which could be. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann has argued that a subcommunity can be prophetic against the dominant community in which it resides if it possesses the following characteristics:

  • A long and available memory of an identifiable past (conveyed in song and story)
  • A sense of pain that is owned and recited as a real social fact, publicly acknowledged and unbearable in the long term
  • An active practice of hope
  • An effective mode of discourse, passed down generationally, rich in distinctiveness and significance to insiders

Quaker utopian communities (and Quakerism in general) possess these necessary qualities, and it is as a prophetic community that Quaker utopias find their purpose. More’s Utopia loses all meaning without the dominant culture it critiques. (It becomes nothing more than an absurdist comedy, as C. S. Lewis contends it was all along.) Likewise, Quaker utopias lose their meaning without the same prophetic purpose against the injustices and ills of the society that they critique. This cannot be stressed enough: Quaker testimonies lose their impact once detached and disconnected from the injustices and inequities they seek to protest and redress. For example, the use of “thee” and “thou” loses meaning when separated from the class-perpetuating language of which it was protesting; it loses further meaning when detached from the biblical concept of equality rooted in the Imago Dei found in every person. Without those things to anchor the distinctive language, it quickly devolves into a novelty or, worse, a caricature of what it was meant to be. It seems that a prophetic purpose is crucial to the creation and sustainability of a Quaker (or any) utopian community.

What helps sustain a community and its purpose is integrity and purity of mission. What is fascinating about Utopian society are the gaps between Utopian ideals and their implementation, which leads to some ironic scenes. To give just one example: Utopians slaughter animals outside of town, away from citizens, for “slaughtering our fellow-creatures gradually destroys our sense of compassion.” However, there is no compassionate compunction about the people owned as slaves and ordered to do the slaughtering (and other menial labor). The danger in any “perfect” community is that self-righteousness can blind participants to their own blatant hypocrisy and wear down their witness to outsiders. Quaker utopias are no exception to this reality.

Harry Berger Jr. noted in “Utopia: Game, Chart, or Prayer?” that the viability of Utopia rests partly on its existence outside of time and space: not because it is a fictional country but because its existence is imagined in an ideal island, free from the accidents of history, geography, politics, and the natural friction of individuals living within a society. Thus, “the very self-enclosed spatiality of Hythloday’s green world is a criticism; it is a womblike retreat protected from the outside world.” While it is doubtful that More meant for the Utopian society to ever exist in reality (as will be seen below), the only way Utopia could exist is within an Eden that placed no obstacle to disrupt the clockwork functioning of that fictional society.

The mark of authentic Quaker utopian and prophetic living is not whether such a community can be imagined, articulated, or even implemented but whether it can withstand the unrelenting temptation of realpolitik and the crushing pressures of conformity and expediency.

Quaker utopias do not have such an Edenic and idyllic playground in which to live out their principles but instead must incarnate their convictions in the gritty world that, at best, will find the community baffling and, at worst, threatening. A spirit of perseverance is especially crucial in the face of societal hopelessness. To live prophetically against the dominant culture means living in tension with a way of life or thinking that seems impenetrable and immovable. While having not read the examples provided in this issue, I hypothesize that, besides internal strife, one of the most significant causes of utopian collapse is the erosion of hope: participants giving up because of a lack of “progress” or impact and giving in by rejoining the world at large. The mark of authentic Quaker utopian and prophetic living is not whether such a community can be imagined, articulated, or even implemented but whether such a community (or even personal ideals) can withstand the unrelenting temptation of realpolitik and the crushing pressures of conformity and expediency.

The most significant point of departure between More’s Utopia and Quaker utopian communities is that it is likely More never intended for these Utopian ideals ever to be actualized in reality (the very word utopia in Greek is translated as “no place”). Thus, it has always existed as little more than a thought experiment and, in terms of socio-political impact, a more ephemeral than effectual one. The danger for Quaker distinctives is that they ultimately become more abstract than actual and that theorizing about these convictions becomes preferable to incarnating them, in all of their messiness and complications, in our relationships and communities.

Depending on the translation, More, at the end of Utopia in Robert Adams’s translation, reflects on the probability of England implementing any Utopian policies: “I don’t really expect it will” or, in Ralph Robinson’s slightly more poetic version, “I may rather wish for than hope after.” May readers, as they reflect upon the Quaker utopias in this issue, be encouraged and inspired by the faith and love made flesh in the actions and attitudes of these communities, and may all possess the prophetic, utopian hope of what could be.

Derek Brown

Derek Brown is vice president for graduate studies and distance education at Barclay College in Haviland, Kans., where he also serves as the chair of the Pastoral Ministry program. A recorded Friends minister, Derek has written a book, On Quakers and Pastors, which was recently published by Barclay Press. He is married with two daughters.

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