Craig White's Literature Courses

Historical Backgrounds

in American
(and transAtlantic)
Literature & History


See also Teaching Literature with Religion.


most American consumers identify "Quakers" only via "Quaker Oats,"
whose logo pictures
William Penn, Quaker founder of Pennsylvania
(though many assume this picture is of Benjamin Franklin)

"Quakers" is the popular name for "the Religious Society of Friends."

Local connections: In 1895 Friendswood, Texas was founded by Quakers or "Friends," for whom the town is named. Friendswood Friends Church still stands at the city's center. As part of the Quakers' Evangelical branch, worship at Friendswood varies little from religious denominations like Methodists or Baptists. However, the Live Oak Friends Meeting just inside the loop in NW Houston continues the "silent meeting" form originally developed by Quakers—now known as the "primitive" or "Conservative" branch of Friends.

Instructor's Note: Teaching Quakers in American literature and history takes the usual risks, but offsetting qualities make the subject comparatively safe:

  • Most Quakers don’t proselytize or seek to convert others to their faith. (Instead they try to set a good example.)

  • Quakers were never numerous; today, like most “mainline” religious denominations more than a century old—e.g., Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists—their membership is rapidly aging and dwindling.

  • In everything except popularity or survival as a large denomination, Quakers have generally been on the right side of history. (see below)

  • Most of their history is in fact history—a reason for developing this subject is that few students know anything of the Quakers.

In other words, teaching the Quakers avoids many contentious issues associated with more recent and expansive religious movements like Southern Baptists, Church of Christ, Mormons, Pentecostals, or Assemblies of God.

Quakers are often confused with Puritans—Why?

  • Puritanism and Quakers in their early years were antagonistic. Puritans often persecuted Quakers for much the same reason they persecuted Anne Hutchison in Boston—for preaching that all individuals had a direct and automatic connection with God, a.k.a. Antinomianism.

  • Styles of both Puritans and Quakers marked by sober demeanor, plain dress and speech, modesty, middle-class status, hard bargaining.

  • Both movements rose in Great Britain during the 17th century (1600s).

  • Both Quakers and Puritans were mostly middle-class but also highly literate communities. Individuals often kept journals recording their spiritual and earthly lives.

  • Quakers, Puritans, and other “dissenting” religious movements derive practice a style of English your instructor regards as the best English prose ever, combining the vigor and directness of everyday life with the abstractness of spiritual aspirations plus the energy of a rising people.

  • William Penn, Quaker founder of Pennsylvania (pictured at top), is often confused with Benjamin Franklin, who was descended from Puritans in Boston but moved as a young man to Philadelphia, the capital city of Pennsylvania, a.k.a. “The Quaker State.”

Quakers’ record for being on the right side of history:

  • Equality of men and women. (Unlike most churches with default-male ministers, early Quakers had no ministers, enabling women as well as men to speak at meetings.)

  • Dedication to fair dealings with Indians, including payment for property (starting with William Penn and Delaware Indians in Pennsylvania).

  • Early opposition to slave trade and support for Abolition of slavery.

  • Pacifism or opposition to war, enacted by passive resistance such as non-cooperation and economic boycotts.

  • Prison reform & reform of mental hospitals

  • Supported universal education for poor, women, Indians, blacks

  • Temperance (questionable whether on right side of history)

  • Settlement Houses (to help poor and immigrants in early 20c cities)

  • Relief work following wars and natural disasters

Some current issues Quakers may still model:

Testimony of Simplicity anticipates Thoreau’s Walden and Voluntary Simplicity movement

Is society becoming more pacifist? Recent studies show democratic nations do not fight wars with each other. (As the USA has become less democratic and more controlled by the rich, it's entered a historic phase where it's always at war somewhere, usually to protect fossil-fuel interests.)

However, capitalism traditionally regards war as disruptive to communication and trade (though government spending on war [as on other things] can stimulate the economy).


Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713-55), Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge (1744)

John Woolman (1720-72), selections from The Journal

Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), Discourse on Woman (1849)

Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), Lucretia Mott, Letter to the Convention of the Women of Ohio (1850)

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), "THE FAREWELL Of a Virginia slave mother to her daughters sold into Southern bondage" (1838)

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), "Dear Lord & Father of Mankind" (hymn, from 1872 poem)

Levi Coffin (1798-1877) Reminiscences (1876; concerning the Underground Railroad)



possible later inclusions:

Two Presidents of the United States were Quakers or of Quaker descent: Herbert Hoover (1928-32), Richard Nixon (1968-74)

Walt Whitman and James Fenimore Cooper descended from Quakers.

Thomas Paine?

Bayard Rustin 1912-87 (Civil Rights worker, friend to M. L. King, organizer for March on Washington)

Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister (1827-1912): British surgeon & pioneer of antiseptic surgery