Review: Quakers Living in the Lion's Mouth
A. Glenn Crothers. Quakers Living in the Lion's Mouth: The Society of Friends in Northern Virginia, 1730–1865. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012. xvi + 374 pp. ISBN 978-0-81303-973-2.
Quakers in Virginia and in the American South more generally are understudied, thus Glenn Crothers’s book fulfills a great need. Southern Quakers, like their co-religionists to the North, opposed slavery from the 1780s onward. Consequently, many Quakers, especially in the Carolinas and Georgia, found it impossible to live in a slave society and migrated to midwestern states such as Ohio and Indiana early in the nineteenth century. Yet in Loudoun County and other vicinities in northern Virginia, Quakers remained, determined to live their lives peacefully and with integrity, despite the fact that they were surrounded by many slaveholding neighbors. Such stark contrasts in values and ideologies make this book a page turner.
Quakers came to northern Virginia in the 1730s, and the book opens with a useful summary of their eighteenth-century tenets, more formally known as “testimonies,” Crothers summarizes Quaker beliefs in pacifism, the spiritual equality of humankind, plainness in dress and speech, and distinctive worship styles based on a silent waiting on the Lord. Quaker refusal to bear arms or to join militias in either the American Revolution or the War of 1812 led to great suspicion of Quakers and even, the author explains, “a fairly systematic repression” of them (55). But these tensions tended to lapse during peacetime.
The bulk of the book, quite fittingly, explores the more unfamiliar story of Virginian Quaker lives from 1820 to 1865, explored through a number of illuminating lenses, with chapters devoted to Quaker business practices, Quaker internal divisions, the domestic and public lives of Quaker women, and various Quaker antislavery activities. In each of these areas, Quakers often distinguished themselves from their neighbors. For example, Quaker women had a high degree of spiritual authority in comparison with the rest of southern society. And, as Crothers shows, the antislavery witness of Quakers drew the focused attention of their neighbors. The author recounts the story of the Virginian Quaker Samuel Janney, who in 1850was charged with inciting a slave insurrection for merely publishing antislavery arguments in a local newspaper. Virginians were reluctant to proceed with a trial against the respected Janney, however. Charges were dropped when Janney signed a statement that he “had no intention to violate the law” (230). Afterward, however Janney’s antislavery protests continued but became much more muted. As the Janney affair indicates, Crothers treats the constraints placed upon these Quakers living in a slaveholding society with much subtlety and nuance, and this aspect of his argument is extraordinarily instructive.
Most dramatic (and giving the book “the Lion’s Mouth” part of its title) were Virginia Quakers’ devastating experiences during the Civil War. Confederate authorities attempted forced conscription of pacifist Quaker men, and both Confederate and Union troops showed little restraint in confiscating and destroying Quaker property. Crothers explores appropriately the greater flexibility in application of the peace testimony that issued from Quaker experiences during the Civil War.
This volume appears in a series on “Southern Dissent;” it is indeed an exemplary scholarly treatment of an eminent and significant manifestation of American dissent. For anyone interested in previously neglected aspects of life and witness in the antebellum and Civil War South, this book is highly recommended.