The other day I started reading a biography about Walt Whitman, a Brooklynite of sorts (he was actually born on Long Island and died in New Jersey). I learned that Whitman was a Quaker, and on top of that he met Elias Hicks, the very man whose beliefs split the Quaker Church into Hicksite and Orthodox. That got my attention because I happen to own the original two pamphlets published in 1824 that concern that split.
The Quaker split was on account of Hicks drift from the official Quaker dogma, and it interested me that religious questing was as discouraged in the early 19th Century Brooklyn. This is surprising because I was taught and I believed that our country was founded on religious freedom, and I would expect that less than 50 years after the Revolution, there would be a bit more tolerance of differing religious views. To me that would mean allowing for personally seeking a greater understanding of the mysteries of existence. But, no, I found out that when Elias Hicks views caused an uproar.
I did some research on the issue of colonial religion and found out that the Puritans – who brought us the Salem witch trials – were British Anglicans who wanted to reform that State church and were considered cranks because of it. They left England for the purpose of expressing their religious beliefs more freely and made it against the law to skip Sunday services. You would think they’d have developed a tolerance because of the way they were treated, but no. In keeping with religious narrow-mindedness and bigotry, when the Puritans settled in colonial US, they made their religion the State religion and anyone veering from it was considered a heretic which included the Quakers. One colonial governor went so far as to ask for help in sinking a ship in which Quakers were traveling.
Having grown up in a home where I was taught that anyone not a Baptist was going to hell, I had a terrible aversion to other religions until I was out on my own and what I knew about Quakerism was limited to oats. I was curious but afraid of exploring what was taught in those houses of worship that was so bad as to damn their members forever. One of my great-grandfathers was a minister and he killed someone. My grandfather was a minister and an adulterer. I was hard pressed to understand what went on in a Lutheran church or a Quaker meeting that would lead me astray.
I’ve attended many different religious services as an adult, even venturing into a catholic mass or two, and on at least three occasions I attend a Quaker meeting. All three of the Meetings I attended were Hicksite meetings where the people sat quietly together until someone felt compelled to speak, supposedly no preaching, and I don’t remember any singing either.
The first was in Austin where everyone sat quietly until someone spoke of the government’s policies in the Middle East. When the meditation ended, I learned that the Meeting was sending a delegation to the Middle East to end or prevent (not sure) the violence there. I said I thought that might be fruitless and someone explained to me that a delegation of Quakers went to Germany before WWII to speak to Hitler. Thus making my point.
The second Meeting I attended was in Santa Monica, California and a third at the Quaker Meeting House (circa 1857) at 110 Schemerhorn in Brooklyn. During both meeting someone interrupting the meditative silence to speak passionately about politics and errors in political decision-making.
All in all, the Meetings had a lot of what seemed like preaching to me, but nothing heretical.
At any rate, I set forth here a quote from one of the pamphlets – this one published by Elias Hicks – The Misrepresentation of Anna Braithwait in Relation to the Doctrines Preached by Elias Hicks Together with the Refutation of the Same in a Letter from Elias Hicks.
“[Hicks] conceived the writings of Confucius and of many of the philosophers were equally of Divine Revelation with the scriptures; that the heathen nations of the Mahometans, Chinese, and Indian bore greater evidence of the influence of Divine Light than professing Christians.” (pg. 9 of above document)
It sounds so modern (except for the spelling). And not a word about the government.
At any rate, I’m glad to own the pamphlets which I found not in Brooklyn, but in Los Angeles.