World of Antislavery Women: Spirituality in the Lives of Five Abolitionist Lecturers (New
York: Syracuse University Press, 2000). For Stantonâ™s religious convictions as they pertained
speciď¬cally to women, see Kathi Kern, Mrs. Stantonâ™s Bible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
22 My thanks to Christopher Densmore of Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, for
bringing this fact to my attention. For a recent study of the Convention and its origins, see
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 321
When the Society split for theological reasons, the Hicksites took some
aspects of the theology and political theory with them, the Orthodox took
others, and yet more splinter groups did the same. It is impossible to discuss all
the variations here. I will instead restrict the discussion to the strain that had
the most inď¬‚uence on the reform movements â“ the radical Hicksite Quakerism
of Mott and her followers â“ and compare it with the traditional theory.23
When Friends separated, at issue was the locus of divine authority and, by
extension, the seat of authority in the ecclesiastical polity. To describe it very
simply, those who followed Elias Hicks came to believe that power was in
the Light (now becoming indistinguishable from reason) and the individual
conscience, while the Orthodox held that it was found in dogma, Scripture,
and the church government. Hicksites accused the Orthodox of tyranny; the
Orthodox accused the Hicksites of anarchy. The dissenters no longer sought
to convince, and the Orthodox no longer let themselves be convinced. For
the former, individual conscience took precedence over unity; for the latter,
conformity to existing ideas and structures prevailed over expression of the
individual conscience. There was no longer a via media.
Lucretia Mott was clearly the leading proponent of this brand of Hick-
site Quakerism. Her understanding of the Light, like those of most Hicksites,
emphasized individual interpretations and opposed coercion of the conscience
by the church. If Mott was not as radical as conservative Friends painted her,
her sermons were sometimes vague and suggestive in such a way that could
easily lead to extremist interpretations. A case in point is William Lloyd Gar-
rison, whose thought was shaped by Mottâ™s teachings. He wrote, âIf my mind
has . . . become liberalized to any degree, (and I think it has burst every sec-
tarian trammel) â“ if theological dogmas which I once regarded as essential to
Christianity, I now repudiate as absurd and pernicious â“ I am largely indebted
to [James and Lucretia Mott] for the change.â24 He and others picked up on
Mottâ™s strain of theologico-political thought and developed it into the nonre-
sistance and come-outerism movements. Not only was Mott the mentor for
radical reformers such as Garrison, she also approved of their actions. âI care
not,â she said, âhow radical the true inquirer may become, if a regard for true
religion is preserved.â25
Judith Wellman, The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Womanâ™s
Rights Convention (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
23 Orthodox Friends represented the withdrawing extreme of Quaker behavior. While they were
also in favor of abolition, for example, they did not openly advocate the cause, preferring
instead to undertake any efforts surreptitiously, if at all. The result was that they were accused
by some of contributing to the problem. See Ryan Jordan, Slavery and the Meetinghouse: The
Quakers and the Abolitionist Dilemma, 1820â“1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
24 William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator, November 9, 1849. See also William L. van Deberg,
âWilliam Lloyd Garrison and the â˜Pro-Slavery Priesthoodâ™: The Changing Beliefs of an Evan-
gelical Reformer, 1830â“1840,â Journal of the American Academy of Religion vol. 43, no. 2
25 Lucretia Mott to Sister, 1st mo. 3rd, 1865, in Anna Davis Hallowell, ed., James and Lucretia
Mott: Life and Letters (Boston: Houghton Mifď¬‚in and Co., 1884), 415.
322 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
Nonresistance and come-outerism were seminal to the radical activism on
abolitionism and womenâ™s rights. And both of them were extreme interpreta-
tions of some Quaker theological tenets. Come-outerism was the idea that peo-
ple should remove themselves from the corrupt institutions of society, namely
the church and the state.26 This, of course, is a legacy of Quaker quietism
that caused some Friends to remove themselves from the civil government of
Pennsylvania. Nonresistance was an extreme paciď¬st position that held that
these institutions had no right to coerce the consciences of individuals, yet they
must not be resisted by force. As Thomas Hamm has noted, this was a logical
extension of the peace testimony.27 In essence, these movements denied the
legitimacy of government and the engagement of the individual with it. Both
were based on the idea of the perfection of the individual and the notion that
when man was perfect, and under the government of God directly, he would
need no earthly government.
The advocates of these theologico-political philosophies were very conscious
of the Quaker roots of their beliefs and argued for their own continuity with
the faith and practice of early Friends and notable eighteenth-century activists.
James and Lucretia Mott proclaimed their beliefs were âin accordance with
Fox, Penn, and Barclay.â28 Mott seemed to be trying to revive the practices of
early Friends in deď¬ance of how Orthodox Quakers were now portraying the
same principles â“ accurately or not. ââ˜Our principles,â™â she quoted an early
source, ââ˜lead us to reject and to intreat the oppressed to reject all carnal
weapons, relying solely on those which are mighty through God to the pulling
down of strongholds.â™â29 Garrison and others also thought of themselves as
the heirs of these early Friends, as did Edward Burrough and, later, John
Woolman. Then in a statement that many Quakers would consider heretical,
Mott declared, âI am no advocate of passivity.â But she did not mean to
sanction overt violence. To clarify, she continued by making the distinction
that has eluded most historians for decades: âQuakerism, as I understand it,
does not mean quietism. The early Friends were agitators; disturbers of the
peace; and were more obnoxious in their day to charges which are now so
freely made than we are.â30
While Mott was correct in her interpretation of early Quaker activism,
ironically, in spite of their rhetoric of peace and salvation, there was something
quite violent and unforgiving about the paciď¬sm of nonresisters. Their beliefs
were an expression of the peace testimony in one way, but, in another way,
they violated it. The philosophy of government and civic engagement that Mott,
26 Isenberg, âPillars in the Same Temple,â 101â“02; and Lewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anar-
chy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
27 Thomas D. Hamm, âHicksite Quakerism and the Antebellum Non-resistance Movement,â
Church History vol. 63, no. 4 (1994), 557â“69. See also, Hamm, Godâ™s Government Begun.
28 James Mott to Wiliam Smeal, 8th mo. 24th, 1840, in Hallowell, Life and Letters, 178.
29 Mott, âI am no advocate of passivity,â in Greene, Lucretia Mott, 261â“62, 261.
30 Ibid., 262.
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 323
Garrison, Stanton, and others advocated was decidedly contrary to traditional
Quaker theologico-political thought in several ways. Although Mott was also
correct that there had always been a powerful individualistic component of
the Inward Light, early Quakers believed that it was precisely to restrict the
âscatteringâ tendency of the Light that God ordained the government. As we
have seen, Fox wrote the ď¬rst constitution of the Quaker church to control
wayward Friends, and Barclay wrote the Anarchy of the Ranters in its defense
to explain to radical Friends why they were about to be coerced by the new
church government, and why this was part of Godâ™s plan for them. Subsequent
Quakers in the Society and Pennsylvania government advocated a measure of
coercion to achieve unity. By contrast, Mott preached that âwe are perhaps
too much taught to venerate . . . the government . . . more than is consistent
with true Quakerism or true Christianity.â31 Famously, Garrison went so far
as to burn the Constitution in public, call it âa covenant with Death and
an agreement with Hell,â and advocate its abolition.32 Such language and
behavior is clearly contrary to the peaceable conversation and walking of earlier
Quakerism. Moreover, politicians thinking in the Quaker tradition, such as
William Penn and John Dickinson, referred to the constitution and government
as sacred institutions. Nevertheless, Mott responded to Garrisonian hostility
to the Constitution by saying, â[The abolitionists] have found it their duty to
come out against the Constitution and Government of the country, as it is at
present construed . . . I am glad . . . of the progress evident in this.â33 Therefore,
while they crusaded for individual rights and rejected institutional coercion,
radical Quakers and their followers applied their own coercion to the polity
with the intent to disrupt it as much as need be to achieve their ends â“ to abolish
it along with civil injustice.
What Quakers had always striven for, and what Mott, Garrison, and their
followers abandoned to one degree or another in their pursuit of individual
liberties, was the security for liberty that a balanced system would ensure.
Barclay wrote Anarchy of the Ranters (renamed blandly in 1822 A Treatise
on Church Government) in hopes that Quakers could avoid both tyranny and
anarchy in their ecclesiastical government. There was no aspect of traditional
Quaker politics that would have supported Elizabeth Cady Stantonâ™s goal to
âEducate women into rebellion.â34 For many, if not most Quakers, the ques-
tion had never been whether slaves should be freed or women given equal
rights, but how. In traditional Quakerism, the ends did not justify the means
because the wrong means might destroy the polity. And when the polity is
destroyed, the freedom of all is lost. As president of Delaware, John Dickinson
31 Mott, âKeep Yourselves from Idols,â in Greene, Lucretia Mott, 173â“74.
32 Perry, Radical Abolitionism, 189; James H. Hutson, âThe Creation of the Constitution: Schol-
arship at a Standstill,â Reviews in American History vol. 12, no. 4 (1984), 463â“477, 465.
33 Mott, âLaw of Progress,â in Greene, Lucretia Mott, 77â“78.
34 Elizabeth Cady Stanton quoted in Sandra Stanley Holton, ââ˜To Educate Women into Rebellionâ™:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Creation of a Transatlantic Network of Suffragists,â American
Historical Review vol. 99, no. 4 (1994), 1112â“36.
324 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
drafted a bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in that state.35 Slavery was
abhorrent to him, yet he believed that cautious, measured manumission was the
only way to do it without risking the polity. Freedoms should be introduced
into society slowly in order that both individuals and the established order
can have time to adjust to adjust to it properly. Nonresisters, for their part,
abandoned the political and ecclesiastical process that in many ways deď¬ned
Even as Garrison and others protested that they were following in the steps of
great reformers such as John Woolman, they rejected the conciliatory language
that more moderate Friends used to preach against slavery while also preserving
the harmony and perpetuity of the Union. Garrison wrote to Mott that âthere
seems to be something like an attempt to propitiate the spirit of these cruel
and ungodly oppressors, in a way which I do not like.â36 Unlike Woolman,
Garrison had apparently given up on the possibility of salvation for these
For nonresisters and come-outers, perfectionism was possible for individu-
als â“ or rather, for some individuals. For traditional Quakers, perfectionism
also applied to the civil constitution. This idea was exempliď¬ed in how Friends
actualized their ecclesiastical and civil constitutions and governments. Despite
tremendous convulsions in the early Society and in Pennsylvania government,
Friends never separated as a Society, except brieď¬‚y during the Keithian Contro-
versy and during the Revolution, or resorted to the overthrow of the govern-
ment to achieve the liberties they sought. Instead, as we have seen, they worked
through peaceful extralegal means or within the system for reform rather than
Early Quakers had a theory and practice of civil disobedience that would
gradually lead to constitutional perfection, but we cannot say the same for
the most noteworthy of Quaker reformers in the nineteenth century, who
abandoned the key element that deď¬ned civil disobedience â“ political obliga-
tion. Although seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Quaker politicians demon-
strated in their theory and practice that profound reforms could be achieved
peacefully within the political system, prior to the Civil War, many Americans
seemed not yet to have learned this lesson. The radical Hicksites and their
followers articulated the question clearly on the minds of many Americans in
the Antebellum period: Could a constitution be amended peacefully, or must
it be abandoned when it or the union it symbolizes is imperfect?
With such a vigorous public campaign for the rights of the individual over
the collective, it is interesting to speculate about the long-term effects that radi-
cal Hicksites and their followers had on the rise of what Tocqueville, observing
Americans during this period, called individualism. Today the popular conno-
tation of this word is positive, and it is used as a synonym for individuality;
35 John Dickinson, âAn Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,â Logan Family Papers, vol. 30,
36 William Lloyd Garrison to Lucretia Mott, April 28, 1840, in Hallowell, Life and Letters, 140.
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 325
but for Tocqueville, it was a particularly detrimental development in Ameri-
can culture. He described it as a focus on the individual to the exclusion of
the rest of society that âdams the spring of public virtuesâ and eventually
âattacks and destroys all the others too and ď¬nally merges in egoism.â37 As
we have seen, Quakers were always concerned that many within their meeting
might develop a âlibertine spiritâ that was difď¬cult to keep in check. And they
recognized that non-Quakers also took this spirit away from their meetings
instead of âbearing the crossâ of membership. This was most certainly at issue
with the Quaker-infused political culture in Pennsylvania before the Revolu-
tion and the disproportionate number of radical Revolutionaries that emerged
from the colony. And as certainly, if they looked, scholars would ď¬nd a con-
nection between Quakerly libertinism and the rise of American individualism.
Radical Quakers and their followers left it instead to their more moderate and
more obscure brethren to show them how to advocate both rights and political
obligation at the same time.
Traditional Quaker Thought in the Nineteenth Century
Despite the dominance of radical Hicksite Quakerism in the reform movements,
the traditional strain of Quaker theologico-political thought remained in a few
thinkers and actors. Their mark was, however, relatively faint, and they have
largely disappeared from Anglo-American historical consciousness. Thomas
Clarkson and Jonathan Dymond were among the traditionalists who made an
impression both within and without the Society of Friends.38 What we see for
the ď¬rst time during this period are explicit expressions of many of the principles
of Quaker theologico-politics that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
must be deduced mainly from their practice and theology. They articulated
the same priorities â“ a strong central government with a divinely ordained
constitution, and the imperative to resist it peacefully by breaking unjust laws
with the aim of reform.
Thomas Clarkson (1760â“1846) was an abolitionist and president of the
British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which still exists today as Anti-Slavery
International. What is most signiď¬cant about Clarksonâ™s writing is his near-
complete articulation of the deď¬nition of civil disobedience. Following almost
exactly Edward Burroughâ™s statement in 1661, Clarkson wrote in 1806, âAs the
governed in [the case of an unjust law] ought in obedience to God . . . refuse a
compliance with the law of their own governors, so they ought to be prepared
to submit to the penalties which are annexed to such a refusal, and on no
account, if just representations made in the quiet spirit of their religion, are not
37 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 507.
38 Although Clarkson and Dymond were British Friends, with the strong transatlantic Quaker
network, their inď¬‚uence would not have been markedly less in America than that of American
Friends. On this network, which persisted long after the American Revolution and still exists
to some extent today, see Alison Olson, âThe Lobbying of London Quakers for Pennsylvania
Friends,â PMHB vol. 117, no. 3 (1993), 131â“52.
326 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
likely to be effectual, to take up arms or resist them by force.â39 This statement
lacks only two components to make it complete. The ď¬rst is the condition
that the breaking of the law must be public. At this time, publicity was still
understood by all to be the Quaker way. The other is that it should be for
change and not merely to appease the conscience. A statement of this principle
Jonathan Dymond (1796â“1828), a British linen draper and political theo-
rist, gives us perhaps the most explicit discussion of civil disobedience by any
Quaker until the twentieth century.40 In Essays on the Principles of Morality
and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1829)
he lays out the tenets that have deď¬ned Quaker civic engagement since nearly
the beginning and, in doing so, comes tantalizingly close to using the very
phrase in question. First, he identiď¬es the imperative for political obligation
to the divinely ordained constitution. â[T]he general duty of Civil obedience,â
he writes, is âbecause government is an institution sanctioned by the Deity.â41
Dymond went on to articulate even more aspects typical of Quaker philosophy
than did Clarkson, including the reasonâ“revelation dilemma, the perpetuity and
mutability of the constitution, and the popular sovereignty that could change it.
In an interesting mixture of the language of reason and progressive revelation,
he described the changeable constitution:
The science of government . . . acquires a constant accession of light. . . . Forms of Gov-
ernment should be capable of admitting, without disturbance, those improvements
which experience may dictate, or the advancing conditions may require. Upon these
grounds no constitution should be regarded as absolutely and sacredly ď¬xed, so that
none ought and none have the right to alter it.
And he continued with a statement of what Quakers had known and practiced
since the establishment of their ecclesiastical polity, and which they continued
in their civil polity â“ the principle of constituent sovereignty. âThe question of
right,â he explained, âis easily settled. It is inherent in the community, or in
the legislature as their agents.â42
Although for some Quakers the difference between reason and the Light
was becoming negligible, a few such as Dymond still maintained the distinc-
tion, at least when it came to civil resistance. He adhered to the traditional
understanding put forth by the early Quakers that reason might allow various
courses of action, but divine revelation only one. When following the law of
nature â“ the law of reason â“ all means are permitted to resist government.
39 Thomas Clarkson, A Portraiture of Quakerism, 3: 7. On Clarkson, see Ellen Gibson Wilson,
Thomas Clarkson: A Biography (New York: St. Martinâ™s Press, 1990).
40 There is no extant biography of Dymond. For a brief discussion of his life and work, see Jones,
The Later Periods of Quakerism, 716â“17.
41 Dymond, Essays on the Principles of Morality, 323, 324.
42 Ibid., 337.
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 327
But, said Dymond, âWhen we turn from the law of nature to Christianity,
we ď¬nd, as we are wont, that the moral cord is tightened, and that not every
means of opposing government for the public good is permitted to us.â43 The
government, he wrote, âshould be susceptible to peaceable changeâ; âChris-
tianity forbids an armed resistance to the civil power.â44 Finally, Dymond
added one of the missing components of Clarksonâ™s description: Disobedience
must generally be undertaken with the âview to an alteration of the existing
institutions.â45 At least one scholar of the period has found that Dymondâ™s
work not only preď¬gured the work of important nineteenth-century dissenters
but also likely shaped it.46
If non-Quakers have heard of Dymond, it is likely because he was read
and noted by Henry David Thoreau (1817â“62). While at Harvard, Thoreau
wrote that he undertook an âexamination of Mr. Dymondâ™s opinions.â47 But
although he read this Quaker theorist, who was very clear in his explanation
of civil disobedience, and although during his life he was surrounded by social
reform movements that had grown out of and were in large part led by Quakers,
he did not espouse or practice their teachings in their entirety. It is one of
the biggest misconceptions in American scholarship that Thoreau was a civil
disobedient. Only a few scholars have noted that his famous work, which
they call On Civil Disobedience (1866), was actually originally entitled On
Resistance to Civil Government; and this was not merely because the term civil
disobedience was not yet in use. If we adhere to the deď¬nition used in this
study, Thoreau did not advocate it. Nor did he practice it in his own resistance.
He does not make acceptance of legal punishment a condition of resistance,
nor must resistance necessarily be peaceful. Further, his resistance was not
undertaken publicly. He was imprisoned for not paying taxes to support the
Mexican-American War, but he did not announce his intentions, and was
not even arrested until years later. At the time, he did it to appease his own
conscience, not to convince the world of the injustice of the war. Neither
should we overlook the fact that he openly supported violent rebellion. He
was a champion and sympathizer of John Brownâ™s bloody raid on Harperâ™s
Ferry.48 As important as Thoreauâ™s inď¬‚uence was on later reformers, we must
look elsewhere for a theory and practice of true civil disobedience.
43 Ibid., 323.
44 Ibid., 337 and 326.
45 Ibid., 330. He qualiď¬es statement by saying that one ought to resist orders to commit crimes
without a view to changing the system.
46 James Duban, âThoreau, Garrison, and Dymond: Unbending Firmness of Mind,â American
Literature vol. 57, no. 2 (1985), 309â“17, 310â“11.
47 Thoreau quoted in Duban, âThoreau, Garrison, and Dymond,â 312.
48 See William H. Herr, âThoreau: A Civil Disobedient?â Ethics vol. 85, no. 1 (1974), 87â“91; and
Daniel Walker Howe, Henry David Thoreau on the Duty of Civil Disobedience: An Inaugural
Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 21 may 1990 (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
328 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
Quaker Activism in the Twentieth Century
As in the nineteenth century, Quakers and Quaker organizations in the twen-
tieth century were among the seminal actors in the reform movements, most
notably womenâ™s suffrage and civil rights. Yet most of the individuals are
unknown except to scholars in the ď¬elds of civil rights or peace studies, or to
Alice Paul (1885â“1977), president of the National American Woman Suf-
frage Association, was the most important woman in the suffrage movement.
The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was a direct result of her orga-
nization of one of the largest protest campaigns in American history. Under
Paulâ™s direction, thousands of women calling themselves the âSilent Sentinelsâ
picketed the White House for eighteen months from January 1917 until June
1919 when the âSusan B. Anthony Amendmentâ passed both houses. In spite
of the progressive reforms underway in other areas, the political climate was
not friendly to such disruption. With the country at war, to dissent from the
government on any issue was tantamount to treason in the eyes of many. Over
the months, dozens of women were arrested, imprisoned, and some of them
beaten and tortured psychologically. They demanded political prisoner status
to secure humane treatment. Paul herself went on a hunger strike and was force
fed.49 Though her tactics were extremely disruptive, they were submissive, and
never violent or destructive.
Paulâ™s Quaker credentials are impressive. A descendant of William Penn,
she explained that âI donâ™t know whether I had any [ancestor] who wasnâ™t
a Quaker.â50 She was raised by devout Quaker parents in âa little Quaker
villageâ in New Jersey and attended Quakers schools, including Swarthmore
College, which was âpurely Quakerâ at this time, and a school for training
Friends in social work in Woodbridge, England.51 As she was growing up, she
said that âI never met anybody who wasnâ™t a Quaker, and I never heard of
anybody who wasnâ™t a Quaker.â52 To be a suffragist was a natural (or rather,
a divine) step for Paul. In her community of Friends, the right of women to
vote was taken for granted; this was just one of the âmany things in which the
world hadnâ™t yet come along.â53 She followed early Quaker womenâ™s rights
activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and was a colleague of
Jane Addams, herself raised by a Hicksite father. Paulâ™s biographer, Christine
A. Lunardini, describes her as âperhaps the single truly charismatic ď¬gure in
the twentieth-century suffrage movementâ and adds that âMax Weber might
have used Alice Paul as his model in developing the concept of the charismatic
49 Christine A. Lunardini, From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National
Womenâ™s Party, 1910â“1928 (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 123â“49.
50 Conversations with Alice Paul: Woman Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment. An inter-
view conducted by Amelia Fry (Regents of the University of California, 1976), 6.
51 Ibid., 5.
52 Ibid., 15.
53 Ibid., 33.
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 329
leader.â54 Her personality and ethic were quintessentially Quaker. She was
a polarizing ď¬gure who elicited extreme comments from her followers and
detractors. By some she was considered charitable, patient, well-intentioned,
and conscientious.55 The response of her followers, suggests Lunardini, âcan
be understood as a symbol of their search for balance and equality in a world
they perceived to be disorderly.â56 She was, according to her fellow suffragists,
âa genius for organization.â57 On the other hand, she was also perceived to be
abrasive, a âfanatic,â and a âmartyrâ for the womenâ™s cause.58 Her efforts to
secure womenâ™s rights continued into the 1970s as she fought for the passage
of the Equal Rights Amendment, a measure she helped create.
None would dispute the claim that Martin Luther King, Jr., was the pre-
eminent leader of civil rights reform in the nationâ™s history. Few, however,
know about his intellectual and spiritual mentors. Because of the disjuncture
between Quaker history and mainstream American history, most scholars have
assumed that King drew his inspiration primarily from Thoreau and Gandhi.
And, to be sure, these men were important teachers for him. Similarly, some
King scholars assume that his drive for reform came from his Baptist tradition.
Reasonable though these assumptions are, they are misguided if taken as the
main source of his thought. For reasons discussed previously, he could not have
gotten a full-ď¬‚edged theory of civil disobedience from Thoreau. Also, although
King had been exposed to the teachings of Gandhi in college, learning about
them theoretically had not caused him to internalize the ethic and strategy of
nonviolent resistance. Finally, the imperative for social activism was not strong
in the black ministers with whom King associated; they were more concerned
with bringing people to Jesus than effecting change.59 A little-documented fact
is that Quakers were a major impulsion behind the Civil Rights Movement.
Two Friends who were crucial to it were Richard Gregg (1885â“1974) and
Bayard Rustin (1912â“87). Although they were activists in their own right and
engaged in civil disobedience, they have been overshadowed by their more
famous successor and protÂ´ gÂ´ .
No doubt Gandhi was a powerful inď¬‚uence on King, but this assertion should
be qualiď¬ed and amended in some important ways. First, it was Gregg who
brought Gandhian philosophy to America. In addition to publishing several
early works with a Quaker press, in 1934 he produced the ď¬rst major work in
the United States on Gandhiâ™s peaceful resistance, The Power of Nonviolence,
with an introduction written by Rufus Jones, a foremost Quaker historian and
theologian. This work enumerates the same principles as those that appeared
54 Lunardini, From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights, xivâ“xv.
55 Ibid., 9.
56 Ibid., xvi.
57 Lucy Berns quoted in ibid., 10.
58 Ibid., 9, 10.
59 John Dâ™Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2003), 226.
330 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
later in An Introduction to the American Friends Service Committee (1962).60
Scholars agree that Greggâ™s work âmore than any source helped to popularize
Gandhiâ™s teachings in America.â61 As a group that believes in the universality
of the Light, Quakers were likewise ecumenical in their use of sources to sup-
port their teachings. Greggâ™s use of Gandhian principles was hardly a stretch,
considering Gandhiâ™s own philosophy was shaped in large part by the Sermon
on the Mount.62 In his forward to a 1959 edition of The Power of Nonviolence,
King calls the book âa classic.â63
Second, Gregg did not merely popularize Gandhi; he also added his own
concepts to the theory of nonviolent resistance and made an original contribu-
tion to Kingâ™s thinking. In addition to Gandhiâ™s satyagraha, Gregg put forth
his own interpretation of peaceful resistance, calling it âmoral jiu jitsuâ â“ the
method of knocking oneâ™s opponent off balance with love. This is in the same
tradition as Dymond, who wrote, âHe that resists by force, may be overcome
by greater force,â but ânothing can overcome a calm and ď¬xed determination
not to obey.â64 Greggâ™s aim and his method of disobedience ď¬t the mold of
the Quaker bureaucratic libertine of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries;
it centered on Quaker process. âThe process,â said Gregg, âis sure and, if the
method is faithfully adhered to, the result is certain.â65 His end, liberty and
unity through peaceful means, was explicit: âWar also acts to unify nations
engaged in it. But the unity engendered by non-violent resistance is deeper,
more closely knit and more permanent than that produced by war.â66 Ignoring
even Thoreau, not to mention the centuries of Quakerism before Gregg, one
historian has called him âthe ď¬rst American to develop a substantial theory of
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Bayard Rustin was the single most
important inď¬‚uence on the thought and practice of King. Rustin was a birthright
Quaker, attended a Quaker-founded school for black children, and was a
member of a meeting in Manhattan. His biographer John Dâ™Emilio writes that
60 Judith Hicks Stiehm, âContemporary Theories of Nonviolent Resistanceâ (Ph.D. Diss.,
Columbia University, 1969), 64.
61 Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer, 132. See also Richard G. Fox, âPassage from India,â
in R. Fox and O. Starn, eds., Between Resistance and Revolution: Cultural Politics and Social
Protest (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 65â“82.
62 V. V. Ramana Murti, âInď¬‚uence of the Western Tradition on Gandhian Doctrine,â Philosophy
East and West vol. 18, no. 1/2 (1968), 55â“65; A. L. Herman, âSatyagraha: A New Indian Word
for Some Old Ways of Western Thinking,â Philosophy East and West vol. 19, no. 2 (1968),
63 Martin Luther King, Jr., Forward to The Power of Nonviolence, Richard Gregg (Nyack, NY:
Fellowship Publications, 1959).
64 Dymond, Essays on the Principles of Morality, 110.
65 Richard Gregg, The Power of Nonviolence (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1934), 108.
67 Joseph Kip Kosek, âRichard Gregg, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Strategy of Nonviolent Resis-
tance,â The Journal of American History vol. 91, no. 4 (2005), 1318â“48, 1318.
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 331
Rustin left a profound mark â“ on the unfolding of the Montgomery bus boycott as a
national story, on the evolution of Kingâ™s role as a national leader, on the particular
association of nonviolence with Montgomery and King. Rustin was as responsible as
anyone else for the insinuation of nonviolence into the very heart of what became the
most powerful social movement in twentieth-century America.68
Like Gregg, Rustin drew on Gandhi. He also looked to Marx for his inspi-
ration, and Greggâ™s The Power of Nonviolence was an âessential primerâ for
him.69 Like other Quaker activists, the tradition in which he was raised pro-
vided the foundation for his principles, and he passed it self-consciously on to
King. Dâ™Emilio explains that âthe Quaker inď¬‚ection to his faith, with its paci-
ď¬st tradition and nonconforming stance, made social activism his gospel.â70
Rustin handed these traditional principles down to King: universality of the
Light, peaceful process, and activism. It would not be difď¬cult to convince a
Baptist minister that âthe spark of God is in each of usâ; by this time, Quak-
ers were hardly the only people to reject predestination or retain hope for the
regeneration of man.71 But the other principles were not native to Kingâ™s tra-
dition, nor had he acquired them by 1955 when he met Rustin. He was not a
paciď¬st. In fact, when Rustin visited Kingâ™s home for the ď¬rst time, there were
guns lying about the house. Nor was he an activist.72 For Quakers, of course,
paciď¬sm and activism were intimately connected.
In the ď¬rst place, Rustin said in his schooling of King, âWe cannot remain
honest unless we are opposed to injustice wherever it occurs.â73 This meant
that there was an imperative to enter the public sphere to challenge the dom-
inant culture. But it also meant that they must do so in a way that would
convince, not coerce. âWe paciď¬sts urge nonviolence,â he said, âbecause if
change toward justice is to take place, it must be in an atmosphere where cre-
ative conď¬‚ict and debate are possible.â74 In an assertion of Quaker process,
he wrote, âWe paciď¬sts maintain that the law of ends and means does, in fact
operate.â75 As an indication of the nonexplicit way â“ by example as opposed
to overt instruction â“ in which Quakers generally transmit their tradition, it is
interesting to see that Rustin had to study Quaker process and apply the tradi-
tional principles himself to learn through experience. He learned that peaceful
68 Dâ™Emilio, Lost Prophet, 237. The reason Rustinâ™s name is not more closely associated with
Kingâ™s would seem to be because of the formerâ™s homosexuality. As Dâ™Emilio explains it, Rustin
was reticent about being too public a ď¬gure for this reason (237), and, for a period he and King
became estranged as an opponent of Kingâ™s threatened to levy charges against him of a sexual
affair with Rustin (298). On Rustin, see also Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: The Troubles Iâ™ve
Seen: A Biography (New York: Harper-Collins, 1997).
69 Ibid., 52.
70 Ibid., 236.
71 Rustin in ibid., 459.
72 Ibid., 230.
73 Rustin in ibid., 459.
74 Bayard Rustin, âNonviolence on Trial,â in Staughton Lynd, ed., Nonviolence in America: A
Documentary History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), 496.
75 Ibid., 495.
332 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
dissent is not easy, and neither is balancing dissent and unity, while still mak-
ing progress toward the Truth. âAs a Quaker,â he explained, âI started out
by saying that I thought we had to make all decisions by consensus.â But he
eventually realized that â[c]onsensus does not mean that everybody agrees. It
means that the person who disagrees must disagree so vigorously that he is
prepared to ď¬ght with everybody else.â76 Of course, we must understand that
âto ď¬ghtâ in this context means âcreative conď¬‚ictâ or âpositive confrontationâ
rather than hostility. Robert Barclay wrote that it is âunlawful to do Evil, that
Good may come of it . . . it is far better to suffer Loss.â77 King again echoed
this fundamental Quaker process. âConstructive ends,â he said, âcan never
give absolute moral justiď¬cation to destructive means, because in the ď¬nal anal-
ysis the end is preÂ¨ xistent in the mean.â78 Moreover, he recognized the same
imperative for balance between the individual and community that Quakers
had struggled with in their process for centuries. He wrote, âThe Kingdom of
God is neither the thesis of individual enterprise not the antithesis of collective
enterprise, but a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both.â79
This âcreative conď¬‚ictâ is the way in which Rustin counseled King toward
activism. For Quakers, looking for âGodâ™s sparkâ inside and then peacefully,
but ď¬rmly disagreeing with those who would sanction injustice was a duty.
Jonathan Dymond explained that âthe business of man is to act as the Christian
citizen â“ not merely to prepare himself for another world, but to do such good
as he may, political as well as social, in the present.â80 Rustin believed that this
was what he bequeathed to King. Rather than saving souls for the next world,
Rustin taught him âto save souls in this life by making it simpler for people to
be good.â He gave him âa socialist educationâ and taught him the importance
of modeling the process.81
Not just his teachings, but Rustin himself launched King into the public
sphere. He was not only the inspiration behind much of Kingâ™s work, but, at
ď¬rst, he was actually Kingâ™s voice. The ď¬rst publication under Kingâ™s name was
Rustinâ™s work â“ âOur Struggle,â published in 1956 in Liberation.82 Reď¬‚ecting
on Kingâ™s relationship with Rustin, one contemporary asked: âHow would it
have been possible for King not to have become a protÂ´ gÂ´ of Bayard? Not how
did he, but how could he not have been?â
We need not hunt through Kingâ™s papers or his more obscure publications
to ď¬nd only a smattering of statements that prove Quaker inď¬‚uence. He wrote
it all in one place as he sat in a jail cell in Birmingham. He presented himself
as one of the primitive Christian apostles who roamed the land proclaiming
76 Rustin quoted in Dâ™Emilio, Lost Prophet, 342.
77 Barclay, Anarchy, 41.
78 Martin Luther King, Jr., âPilgrimage to Nonviolence,â in Nonviolence in America, 211.
79 Ibid., 213.
80 Dymond, Essays on the Principles of Morality, 326.
81 Dâ™Emilio, Lost Prophet, 238, 231.
82 Ibid., 239.
83 David McReynolds quoted in Dâ™Emilio, Lost Prophet, 236.
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 333
the âgospel of freedom.â84 He described the process, the steps, one must take
to bring oneâ™s case before the people: â(1) collection of the facts to determine
whether injustices are alive; (2) negotiation; (3) self-puriď¬cation; and (4) direct
action.â Their âvery bodiesâ would be presented âas a means of laying our case
before the conscience of the local and the national community.â85 Recognizing
the performative aspect of this sort of protest, he explained that the disobe-
dience âseeks to dramatize the issue.â The resulting âconstructive, nonviolent
tension,â he continued, âis necessary for growthâ within the community.86 He
addressed the usual misconception by outsiders that had attended all Quaker
civil disobedience â“ that this behavior was a sort of antinomianism, a rejection
of civil law in favor of some internal, private law. âAt ď¬rst glance,â he acknowl-
edged, âit may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.â He
explained to his readers how to distinguish between just and unjust laws.87 Fol-
lowing Barclay, who assured King Charles II of his ď¬delity to the government,
he continued, âIn no sense do I advocate evading or defying the lawâ clandes-
tinely. âThat would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do
so openly, lovingly . . . and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit
that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who
willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience
of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect
The American Friends Service Committee found this letter to be âan eloquent
statement of the nonviolent approach to the restructuring of our social orderâ
and linked it with early Quakers, who were âled by conscience to practice
civil disobedience as a witness to the supremacy of Godâ™s commands over
the dictates of men.â89 The Society of Friends could not have written a better
statement of their traditional theologico-political philosophy themselves. Thus,
in May of 1963, Quakers once again became the âFirst Publishers of Truthâ
when they released the ď¬rst 50,000 copies of Kingâ™s letter to the world.90
84 Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, 3
85 Ibid., 4.
86 Ibid., 5.
87 Ibid., 6â“7.
88 Ibid., 7
89 Colin W. Bell, preface to ibid.
90 S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious
Leaders, and the âLetter from Birmingham Jailâ (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Press, 2001), 141.
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