Before entering upon the subject of the influence of
Quakerism on my young life, I want it to be thoroughly
understood that I am not trying in any sense to give a true
transcript of Quakerism,
as my elders understood it and lived it,
but only as it influenced an undeveloped eager girl, who had a
decidedly religious side to her nature, but who was too full of life
and spirits to be very seriously interested in any abstract
questions outside of her every-day duties and fun.
I cannot trace back my notions to any definite teaching,
and at the time I did not formulate them, but the impressions I
retain of those days seem to me now to have had their rise in the
general atmosphere that surrounded me. It is very likely that my
adult relatives and friends had no idea of creating such an
atmosphere, and, if they were alive now, would be very much
surprised at some of my interpretations. But the fact remains that
the Quakerism of my young life has left the strong impressions I
record, and I want to give them as truthfully as I can, as part of
my own personal history, and not at all as an authoritative
exposition of Quaker views.
In tracing back the line of our ancestors, we find that they
came over from England during the seventeenth century, in
company with a great body of Quakers who, unable to find in their
own land that spirit of religious liberty which was a fundamental
article of their faith, sought an asylum in the new Western world,
hoping there to found a state where their children might enjoy
that freedom to worship God according to the dictates of their own
consciences, which had been denied to themselves in the old
world. These Quakers had settled largely in the colonies founded
by William Penn in and around Philadelphia, on both sides of the
Delaware River, and had become, by the time I was born, a most
influential and respected body.
A good deal of their early freshness and fervor had
however passed away, and it was a very sober, quiet sort of
religion that remained, which allowed of but little expression, and
was far more entirely interior than seems to me now to have been
wise. There had been left from earlier days a firm belief in what
was always spoken of as the “perceptible guidance of the Holy
Spirit,” meaning the distinct and conscious voice of God in the heart;
and a loyal devotion to what were called “Friends’ testimonies,”
which testimonies were the outward expression of
the convictions of truth that had, they believed,
been directly revealed by the “inward light” to George Fox,
the founder of the society, and to his early followers.
Many of these convictions were opposed to the usual ideas
of people around us, and their observance therefore made the
Quakers of my day very peculiar. But we were taught that it was a
great honor to be God’s “peculiar people,” and I for one fully
believed that we Quakers were meant where it says in Deuteronomy,
“The Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people
unto Himself above all the nations that are upon the earth.”
In the face of such an honor, the things in which we were “peculiar,”
which often, I acknowledge, caused us considerable
embarrassment and even trial, seemed to be a sort of “hall-mark”
of especial Divine favor; and, instead of being mortified over their
peculiarities, the Quakers of my day were secretly proud of them,
and of the singularity they caused.
We Quaker children imbibed somewhat of this feeling, and when we walked along the streets in
our quaint Quaker garb, and the street gamins called after us,
as they often did
“Quaker, Quaker, mash potato”
we felt a sustaining sense of superiority that took some of the sting out of the
intended insult, and enabled us to call back with a fine scorn,
as having far the best of the matter,
“Dutchy, Dutchy, mash-paytouchy!”
If we were Quakers, they were perhaps the descendants
of the early German, or, as they were called,
who were the servants of the first colonists;
and at any rate we were determined they should know we thought they were.
I remember that after my sisters and I had discovered
this effective retort, we were able to silence most of our persecutors.
But it was sometimes very hard for us Quaker children to
be obliged to take our share of persecution for “conscience sake,”
since it was the consciences of our elders and not our own;
and combined with our pride in being God’s peculiar people,
we also often had a sense of ostracism that I feel on looking back,
we ought not to have been asked to endure.
Still I have no doubt it imparted to our characters a sort of sturdy independence
that was of real value to us in our after life, and I for one have always been
thankful for the deliverance from the fear of man, and the
indifference to criticism, that was, I am convinced, engendered in
my spirit by these early persecutions for “conscience sake.”
There was, as I have said, very little direct religious
teaching to the young Quakers in my time. We were sometimes
preached to in our meetings, when a Friend in the gallery would
exhort the “dear young people “ to be faithful to their Divine
Guide; but no doctrines or dogmas were ever taught us;
and, unless one was especially awakened in some way,
none of the questions that exercise the minds of young people in the present day …
were even so much as dreamed of by the young people of my circle,
at least so far as I knew;
and a creature more utterly ignorant
of all so-called religious truth than I was up to the age of sixteen,
when my awakening came,
could hardly be conceived of
in these modern times.
The whole religious question for me was simply as to
whether I was good enough to go to heaven, or so naughty as to
As to there being a “plan of salvation,” or any such
thing as “justification by faith,” it was never heard of among us.
The one vital point in our ideas of religion was as to whether or
not we looked for and obeyed that “perceptible guidance” of the
Holy Spirit, to which we were constantly directed;
and the only definite teaching we received as to our religious life
was comprised in “Friends’ testimonies,”
and in the “queries” read and answered
every month in the “monthly meetings for business” which were
regularly held by every congregation of Quakers.
We had no Sunday-schools nor Bible classes; in fact, as I
have said, these were considered to be a form of “creaturely activity”
only to be excused in the “world’s people”
(by which we meant everybody who was not a Quaker),
because they were in ignorance, as we believed,
of the far higher teachings of the Holy Spirit which were our special inheritance.
Neither did our Society teach us any regular prayers,
for Friends believed they could only pray acceptably
when moved by the Spirit to pray.
As little children our parents had taught us a childish prayer, which we
repeated every night after we were tucked up in bed before the
last farewell kisses were given.
But as we grew older, and our parents recognized more and more our individual independence,
these nightly childish prayers were omitted,
and the Quaker atmosphere as regards prayer gradually gained the ascendancy;
and in time I, at least, came to feel as if,
because of my lighthearted carelessness and indifference,
it was almost wrong for me to try to pray.
What this Quaker teaching about prayer was may be
gathered from the following extract from the writings of Isaac Pennington.
“Prayer is a gift. A man cannot pray when he
will; but he is to watch and to wait, when the Father will kindle in
him living breathings towards Himself.”
In consequence we knew no formal prayers, and were not even taught the Lord’s prayer,
and until I was a woman I actually did not know it by heart,
and even to this day I am often puzzled for a moment
when I try to repeat it.
The real truth is that as a child I got the impression
somehow that the Lord’s prayer was “gay,” and that only “gay”
people were expected to use it. By “gay” we meant anything that
was not Quakerly. Quakers were “plain” and all the rest of the
world, and even of the Church were “gay.”
It even seemed to me that it was distinctly “gay” to kneel
in prayer. We Friends always stood when prayer was offered in our
meetings, and if we ever prayed on retiring at night, it was done
after we got into bed. And when, as sometimes happened, one of
our little circle ventured to kneel beside her bed for her evening
devotions, we always felt that it was a lamentable yielding to a
worldly spirit, and was to be mourned over as a backsliding from
the true faith.
As a fact … all Church or Chapel services seemed to us very
gay and worldly, and to join in them seemed almost to amount to
sinning; and until I was married I had actually never entered any
place of worship other than Friends’ Meeting houses.
I should have felt it a distinct “falling from grace” to have done so.
I cannot remember that we were distinctly taught any of
these things, or that any one ever said to me in so many words
that Quakers were the “peculiar people” spoken of in the Bible as
being especially dear to God;
but the sort of preaching to which we listened,
and only of course half understood,
in regard to the privileges and the blessings of our peculiarities,
made the impression upon my young ignorance that in some way,
because of our “peculiarities,”
we were the objects of especial Divine favor.
I can remember very well having the distinct feeling that we
were the true Israelites of whom the Bible spoke,
and that all who were not Quakers belonged to the “outside Gentiles.”
To tell the whole truth I had as a child a confused idea in my mind
that we Quakers had a different and a far higher God than others,
and that the God other Christians worshiped
was one of the
“Gods of the Gentiles”
whom the Bible condemned.
That I was not singular in these feelings will be shown in
the following extracts from the lately published reminiscences of
an American Friend, who is an able educationalist of the present day.
“I am quite sure no Israelite in the days of Israel’s
prosperity ever had a more certain conviction that he belonged to
a peculiar people whom the Lord had chosen for His own, than I
did. There was for me an absolute break between ‘us’ and
This phariseeism was never taught me,
nor encouraged directly by anybody,
but I none the less had it.
If I had anything in the world to glory over
it was that I was a Quaker.
Others about me had a good deal more that was tangible than I had.
Their life was easier, and they did not have as hard a struggle
to get the things they wanted as we did.
But they were not ‘chosen,’ and we were!
As far back as I can travel in my memory
I find this sense of superiority—
a sort of birthright into Divine grace and favor.
I think it came partly from impressions I got from traveling Friends,
whose visits had an indescribable influence upon me.
It will of course seem to have been a very
narrow view, and so it was,
but its influence was decidedly
important upon me.
It gave me somewhat of a dignity to my little life
to feel that I belonged to God’s own people;
that out of all the world,
we had been selected to be His,
and that His wonders had
been worked for us,
and we were objects of His special love and care.
“Everybody at home, as well as many of our visitors,
believed implicitly in immediate divine guidance. Those who went
out from our meeting to do extended religious service,
and there were many such visits undertaken,
always seemed as directly selected for these momentous missions,
as were the prophets of old.
As far back as I can remember I can see Friends sitting
talking with my grandmother of some ‘concern’
which was ‘heavy upon them’,
and the whole matter seemed as important as though
they had been called by an earthly king to carry on the affairs of
It was partly these cases of divine selection, and the
constant impression that God was using these persons,
whom I knew, to be His messengers,
that made me so sure of the fact
that we were His chosen people.
At any rate I grew up with this idea firmly fixed.”
(From “A Boy’s Religion,” by Rufus M. Jones.)
I believe every young “Friend,” in the circle to which I
belonged, would have owned to the same feelings.
We were God’s “chosen people,” and, as such,
belonged to a religious aristocracy as real as any earthly aristocracy could be;
and I do not believe any earl or duke was ever prouder of his earthly aristocratic position
than we were of our heavenly one.