"A Quaker's View" first appeared in 1990, as a column in the WHF newsletter. Articles from that column are now available online (though some have been lost).

Nothing here is meant to be the last word in Quaker Orthodoxy. It is, after all, "A Quaker's View."

Our Reputation


Greetings dear Friends! This is Pendle Hill, once again, with Another Quaker's View. In this column, we consider the place Quakers have come to hold in the popular imagination. Yes, this is a Quaker's view on the view of Quakers!

During the earliest years of the Quaker movement, Friends were held in very low esteem indeed. In some cases, early Friends were actually accused of witchcraft (supposedly snatching up converts by insinuating 'Quaker Powder' into the mugs of their unsuspecting victims).

To the established church, the early Friends were heretics of the highest order. To the government, we were subversives and rebels. To just about everyone else, we were certified oddballs. Quakers were arrested, thrown into prison, barred from Oxford and Cambridge and generally regarded with suspicion.

Without ever losing our reputation as a peculiar people, we Quakers did manage to improve our status in society at large. In particular, Quakers gained a reputation for honesty in business. While others might hope to take advantage of a buyer's ignorance or desperation, Quakers were very careful to set a fair price and to stick by it.

In fact, the time came when even non-Quaker businesses adopted names like Quaker Oats or Old Quaker Whiskey. By associating themselves with the Friends, these companies sought to bolster their own reputations for fairness and value.

In a few short decades, Quakers went from social pariahs to marketing mascots!

However, just because Quaker Oats turned the face of William Penn into a household icon, we should not conclude that the Quakers themselves were adopted into the American mainstream. On issues like slavery, the rights of women and the treatment of Native Americans, 19th Century Quakers continued to walk out of step with the majority of their neighbors. During times of war, in particular, Friends felt divided from the dominant culture.

Unlike the earliest Friends, Quakers of this period were no longer regarded as sinister. These Friends were largely perceived as well-meaning, but seriously misguided.

A strange thing has happened in the last 150 years: American society has inched its way closer to the Friends position. Now, Quakers are hailed for their role in ending slavery. Quakers are lauded for helping reshape society's views on women. In 1947, the American Friends Service Committee (along with its British counterpart) received the Nobel Peace Prize. The very issues that once divided Friends from the dominant society now cast Friends in a more favorable light.

Now, many churches advocate an unwavering commitment to peace. A consensual model of decision making has become all the rage in business. And simplicity is a trend!

Having championed hugely popular social changes, Quakers now enjoy an unparalleled level of good will. I dare say Quakers have never been so highly esteemed by the culture around them.

Believe it or not, this newfound status is reflected in two works of science fiction -- The Dazzle of Day, by Molly Gloss (published in 1997) and Pennterra, by Judith Moffett (published in 1987). In each novel, Quaker pioneers leave the earth in order to colonize a new, alien planet.

Both authors envision the earth in a terrible state of decay: a new world must be found, because our old one is dying. But finding a new planet is only half the struggle. We must also find a new way of living. Business as usual will destroy our new home just as it destroyed the last.

In each book, Quakers represent something like hope for the future. In each book, Friends are uniquely qualified to build a new society, because Friends have a different way of doing things.

In The Dazzle of Day, wealthy people hope to escape the noise and crowding of earth by taking up residence in space. However, after building space stations with self-contained ecosystems, the wealthy decide to stay on earth after all. From their point of view, life in space is too inhospitable if you must share your home with bugs (a necessary part of the self-contained ecosystem).

So the Quakers move into the abandoned stations. At first, the Friends are worried that other counter-cultural groups will move to space as well, but white supremacist don't like bugs any more than the wealthy!

According to these writers, we Quakers are willing to live within our limits -- instead of wrestling this world into submission, we are willing to submit ourselves. We are a people of restraint: we restrain from violence, we restrain from greed, we restrain selfish individualism.

Did I mention this was fiction? Nevertheless, it shows what some people see in us -- or is it hope to see in us?

Here are some questions to consider:

1. What are some advantages of being outside the mainstream? Are there ways to maximize the advantages while minimizing the disadvantages?

2. Today, it is hard to imagine a serious debate over issues like slavery or the right of women to vote. Are there contemporary issues that will one day seem just as one-sided to our descendants?

3. Because Friends do not have a hierarchical system of leadership, there is no one 'at the top' who can speak on our behalf. How then can we make our voices heard?

4. Should we be concerned about 'living up' to the reputation we have earned in our society?