BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Quiet Rebels: The Story of the Quakers in America’ by Margaret Hope Bacon
Finished Mid-January 2017
I’ve always been interested in the Quakers. Maybe it’s a result of proximity or a just a fascination with decentralization, but the group has always called to me as something I wanted to explore more deeply at a point in my life.
That point came not long after the 2016 election, where (along with some family friends, one of which was raised a Quaker) we decided to attend a regular meeting to see how it was. Personally, I was curious to see if anyone would speak (most meetings on the East Coast follow an unprogrammed style, based on the traditions of George Fox and early Quakers, where worshippers sat together in silence until someone was called to speak based on divine inspiration calls on someone to speak). This idea, that God can speak to anyone, has radical implications — for example, there are no pastors, and women have been respected as equals since the inception of the Quaker practice.
To my surprise, many did speak, often sharing thoughts that were related to one another and none being self-indulgent. At the end of an hour, an ‘elder’ began shaking the hand of another next to them, causing everyone to greet one another. Afterwards, people gave thanks or asked for prayers, and new members introduced themselves. Personally, I felt it was a very rewarding experience and moving in ways I still haven’t fully explored.
Regardless, being the type of person I am, I was very curious to learn more about this tradition and it’s historical context. This lead me to The Quiet Rebels.
The book explores the founding of the religious movement in the mid 17th century during the tumultuous period after the English Civil War, to their arrival in America and founding of Pennsylvania (see: William Penn) to the modern day.
While there’s a ton in there to unpack, I think the most interesting was how foundational the Quaker practice is the traditions and framework of the American government and culture. Here’s a few:
- Separation of Church and State (after constant persecution in England and Massachusetts
- Decreasing Capital Punishment (prior to William Penn’s Frame of Government, the crown could kill you for just about anything — Penn tried to get the number to zero, but was forced to keep the punishment for murder and treason)
- Conscientious Objection (following the Quaker practice of non-violence, this lead many followers to reject military service, helping to establish the acceptance of CO’s and the establishment of alternative service during wartime)
- Multiculturalism and respect of Native American rights (Pennsylvania in particular was incredibly accepting to people of all nations as the Quaker’s believe God is in everyone, regardless of nation or creed)
- Women’s Rights (see: above)
- Abolitionism (see: above — in fact, a delegation of Quakers in Germantown, Philadelphia were the first to formally oppose Slavery in the US)
Quakers, many of which don’t believe in outward evangelization, to me seem to have imbued their beliefs and structures into the very foundation of our shared American culture.
Bacon did a great job telling the complex and multi-generational story in a way that holds no punches (see: Quietism) and is particularly illuminating as how Quaker values have held strong and lead to some of the proudest moments in American volunteerism (see: the American Friends Service Committee).
I wanted to write Bacon after completing the work, though was sad to hear that she passed in 2011. She seems to have focused on Quaker history, helping to teach a new generation about the forefathers (and fore-mothers) of the rights they hold.
All in all, The Quiet Rebels I believe is valuable to any student of history (specifically American and Pennsylvanian) as well as those curious to help define American identity (like me). It may be a bit dense at points, but it’s also light in others and largely rewarding and illuminating.