Quaker Meals

By Thomas Clarkson.

Customs at and after meals—Quakers never drink healths at dinner—nor toasts after dinner—the drinking of toasts a heathen custom—interrupts often the innocence—and leads to the intoxication of the company—anecdote of Judge Hale—Quakers sometimes in embarrassing situations on account of this omission—Quaker-women seldom retire after dinner, and leave the men drinking—Quakers a sober people.

The Quakers though they are occasionally found in the custom of saying grace, do not, as I have stated, either use it as regularly, or in the same manner as other Christians.

Neither do they at their meals, or after their meals, use the same ceremonies as others. They have exploded the unmeaning and troublesome custom of drinking healths at their dinners.

This custom the Quakers have rejected upon the principle, that it has no connection with true civility. They consider it as officious, troublesome, and even embarrassing, on some occasions. To drink to a man, when he is lifting his victuals to his mouth, and by calling off his attention, to make him drop them, or to interrupt two people, who are eating and talking together, and to break the thread of their discourse, seems to be an action, as rude in its principle, as disagreeable in its effects, nor is the custom often less troublesome to the person drinking the health, than to the person whose health is drank. If a man finds two people engaged in conversation he must wait till he catches their eyes, before he can drink himself. A man may also often be put into a delicate and difficult situation, to know whom to drink to first, and whom second, and may be troubled, lest, by drinking improperly to one before another, he may either be reputed awkward, or may become the occasion of offence. They consider also the custom of drinking healths at dinner as unnecessary, and as tending to no useful end. It must be obvious that a man may wish another his health, full as much without drinking it, as by drinking it with his glass in his hand.  And it must be equally obvious that wishes, expressed in this manner, can have no medicinal effect.

With respect to the custom of drinking healths at dinner, I may observe that the innovation, which the Quakers seem to have been the first to have made upon the practice of it, has been adopted by many, not out of compliance with their example, but on account of the trouble and inconveniences attending it; that the custom is not now so general as it was; that in the higher and more fashionable circles it has nearly been exploded; and that, among some of the other classes of society, it is gradually declining.

With respect to the custom of drinking toasts after dinner, the Quakers have rejected it for various reasons.

They have rejected it first, because, however desirable it may be that Christians should follow the best customs of the heathens, it would be a reproach to them to follow the worst. Or, in other words, it would be improper for men, whose religion required spirituality of thought and feeling, to imitate the heathens in the manner of their enjoyment of sensual pleasures. The laws and customs of drinking, the Quakers observe, are all of heathen origin. The similitude between these and those of modern tunes is too remarkable to be overlooked; and too striking not to warrant them in concluding, that christens have taken their model on this subject from Pagan practice.

In every Grecian family, where company was invited, the master of it was considered to be the king or president of the feast, in his own house.  He was usually denominated the eye of the company. It was one of his offices to look about and to see that his guests drank their proper portions of the wine. It was another to keep peace and harmony among them. For these purposes his word was law. At entertainments at the public expense the same office existed, but the person, then appointed to it, was nominated either by lot, or by the votes of the persons present.—This custom obtains among the moderns. The master of every family at the present day presides at his own table for the same purposes. And at great and public dinners at taverns, a similar officer is appointed, who is generally chosen by the committee, who first meet for the proposal of the feast.

One of the first toasts, that were usually drank among the ancient Greeks, was to the “gods.” This entirely corresponds with the modern idea of church; and if the government had been only coupled with the gods in these ancient times, it would have precisely answered to the modern toast of church and state.

It was also usual at the entertainments, given by Grecian families, to drink the prosperity of those persons, for whom they entertained a friendship, but who happened to be absent. No toast can better coincide than this, with that, which is so frequently given, of our absent friends.

It was also a Grecian practice for each of the guests to name his particular friend, and sometimes also his particular mistress. The moderns have also a parallel for this. Every person gives (to use the common phrase) his gentleman, and his lady, in his turn.

It is well known to have been the usage of the ancient Greeks, at their entertainments, either to fill or to have had their cups filled for them to the brim. The moderns do precisely the same thing. Glasses so filled, have the particular name of bumpers: and however vigilantly an ancient Greek might have looked after his guests, and made them drink their glasses filled in this manner, the presidents of modern times are equally vigilant in enforcing adherence to the same custom.

It was an ancient practice also with the same people to drink three glasses when the graces, and nine when the muses were named: and three and three times three were drank on particular occasions. This barbarous practice has fortunately not come down to the moderns to its full extent, but they have retained the remembrance of it, and celebrated it in part, by following up their toasts, on any extraordinary occasion, not with three or nine glasses of wine, but with three or nine cheers.

Among the ancients before mentioned, if any of the persons present were found deficient in drinking their proper portions, they were ordered by the president either to drink them or to leave the room. This usage has been a little altered by the moderns. They do not order those persons to leave the company, who do not comply with the same rules of drinking as the rest, but they subject them to be fined, as it is termed, that is, they oblige them to drink double portions for their deficiency, or punish them in some other manner.

From hence it will be obvious that the laws of drinking are of heathen origin; that is, the custom of drinking toasts originated, as the Quakers contend, with men of heathen minds and affections for a sensual purpose; and it is therefore a custom, they believe; which men of Christian minds and affections should never follow.

The Quakers have rejected the custom again, because they consider it to be inconsistent with their Christian character in other respects. They consider it as morally injurious; for toasts frequently excite and promote indelicate ideas, and thus sometimes interrupt the innocence of conversation.

They consider it as morally injurious again, because the drinking of toasts has a direct tendency to promote drunkenness.

They, who have been much in company, must have had repeated opportunities of witnessing, that this idea of the Quakers is founded in truth, men are undoubtedly stimulated to drink more than they like, and to become intoxicated in consequence of the use of toasts. If a man has no objection to drink toasts at all, he must drink that which the master of the house proposes, and it is usual in this case to fill a bumper.  Respect to his host is considered as demanding this. Thus one full glass is secured to him at the outset. He must also drink a bumper to the king, another to church and state, and another to the army and navy. He would, in many companies, be thought hostile to government, if, in the habit of drinking toasts, he were to refuse to drink these, or to honor these in the same manner. Thus three additional glasses are entailed upon him. He must also drink a bumper to his own toast. He would be thought to dishonor the person, whose health he had given, if he were to fail in this. Thus a fifth glass is added to his share. He must fill a little besides to every other toast, or he is considered as deficient in respect to the person, who has proposed it. Thus many additional glasses are forced upon him. By this time the wine begins to act, when new toasts, of a new nature assail his ear, and he is stimulated to new potions. There are many toasts of so patriotic, and others of so generous and convivial a nature that a man is looked upon as disaffected, or as devoid of sentiment, who refuses them. Add to this, that there is a sort of shame, which the young and generous in particular feel in being outdone, and in not keeping pace with the rest, on such occasions. Thus toast being urged after toast, and shame acting upon shame, a variety of causes conspires at the same moment to drive him on, till the liquor at length overcomes him and he falls eventually a victim to its power.

It will be manifest from this account that the laws of drinking, by which the necessity of drinking a certain number of toasts is enjoined, by which bumpers are attached to certain classes of toasts, by which a stigma is affixed to a non-compliance with the terms, by which in fact a regular system of etiquette is established, cannot but lead, except a man is uncommonly resolute or particularly on his guard, to intoxication. We see indeed instances of men drinking glass after glass, because stimulated in this manner, even against their own inclination, nay even against the determination they had made before they went into company, till they have made themselves quite drunk. But had there been no laws of drinking, or no toasts, we cannot see any reason why the same persons should not have returned sober to their respective homes.

It is recorded of the great Sir Matthew Hale, who is deservedly placed among the great men of our country, that in his early youth he had been in company, where the party had drunk to such excess, that one of them fell down apparently dead. Quitting the room, he implored forgiveness of the Almighty for this excessive intemperance in himself and his companions, and made a vow, that he would never drink another health while he lived. This vow he kept to his dying day. It is hardly necessary for me to remark that he would never have come to such a resolution, if he had not believed, either that the drinking of toasts had produced the excesses of that day, or that the custom led so naturally to intoxication, that it became his duty to suppress it.

The Quakers having rejected the use of toasts upon the principles assigned, are sometimes placed in a difficult situation, in which there is an occasion for the trial of their courage, in consequence of mixing with others, by whom the custom is still followed.

In companies, to which they are invited in regular families, they are seldom put to any disagreeable dilemma in this respect. The master of the house, if in the habit of giving toasts, generally knowing the custom of the Quakers in this instance, passes over any Quaker who may be present, and calls upon his next neighbor for a toast. Good breeding and hospitality demand that such indulgence and exception should be given.

There are situations, however, in which their courage is often tried.  One of the worst in which a Quaker can be placed, and in which he is frequently placed, is that of being at a common room in an inn, where a number of other travelers dine and sup together. In such companies things are seldom conducted so much to his satisfaction in this respect, as in those described. In general as the bottle passes, some jocose hint is conveyed to him about the toast; and though this is perhaps done with good humor, his feelings are wounded by it. At other times when the company are of a less liberal complexion, there is a determination, soon understood among one another, to hunt him down, as if he were fair game.  A toast is pressed upon him, though all know that it is not his custom to drink it. On refusing, they begin to tease him. One jokes with him.  Another banters him. Toasts both illiberal and indelicate, are at length introduced; and he has no alternative but that of bearing the banter, or quitting the room. I have seen a Quaker in such a company (and at such a distance from home, that the transaction in all probability never could have been known, had he, in order to free himself from their attacks, conformed to their custom) bearing all their raillery with astonishing firmness, and courageously struggling against the stream. It is certainly an awkward thing for a solitary Quaker to fall in such companies, and it requires considerable courage to preserve singularity in the midst of the prejudices of ignorant and illiberal men.

This custom, however, of drinking toasts after dinner, is, like the former of drinking healths at dinner, happily declining. It is much to the credit of those, who move in the higher circles, that they have generally exploded both. It may be probably owing to this circumstance, that though we find persons of this description laboring under the imputation of levity and dissipation, we yet find them respectable for the sobriety of their lives. Drunkenness indeed forms no part of their character, nor, generally speaking, is it a vice of the present age as it has been of former ages; and there seems to be little doubt, that in proportion as the custom of drinking healths and toasts, but more particularly the latter, is suppressed, this vice will become less a trait in the national character.

There are one or two customs of the Quakers, which I shall notice before I conclude this chapter.

It is one of the fashions of the world, where people meet in company, for men and women, when the dinner is over, to drink their wine together, and for the women, having done this for a short time, to retire. This custom of the females withdrawing after dinner was probably first insisted upon from an idea, that their presence would be a restraint upon the circulation of the bottle, as well as upon the conversation of the men. The Quakers, however, seldom submit to this practice. Men and women generally sit together and converse as before dinner. I do not mean by this that women may not retire if they please, because there is no restraint upon any one in the company of the Quakers; nor do I mean to say, that women do not occasionally retire, and leave the men at their wine. There are a few rich families, which, having mixed more than usual with the world, allow of this separation.  But where one allows it, there are ninety-nine, who give wine to their company after dinner, who do not. It is not a Quaker-custom, that in a given time after dinner, the one should be separated from the other sex.

It is a pity that the practice of the Quakers should not have been adopted by others of our own country in this particular. Many advantages would result to those, who were to follow the example. For if women were allowed to remain, chastity of expression and decorum of behavior would be more likely to be insured. There presence also would operate as a check upon drunkenness. Nor can there be a doubt, that women would enliven and give a variety to conversation; and, as they have had a different education from men, that an opportunity of mutual improvement might be afforded by the continuance of the two in the society of one another.

It is also usual with the world in such companies, that the men, when the females have retired, should continue drinking till tea-time. This custom is unknown to the Quakers, even to those few Quakers, who allow of a separation of the sexes. It is not unusual with them to propose a walk before tea, if the weather permit. But even in the case where they remain at the table, their time is spent rather in conversing than in drinking. They have no toasts, as I have observed, which should induce them to put the bottle round in a given time, or which should oblige them to take a certain number of glasses. The bottle, however, is usually put round, and each helps himself as he pleases. At length one of the guests, having had sufficient, declines filling his glass.  Another, in a little time, declines also for the same cause. A third, after having taken what he thinks sufficient, follows the example. The wine is soon afterwards taken away, and this mostly long before the hour of drinking tea. Neither drunkenness, nor any situation approaching to drunkenness, is known in the Quaker companies. Excess in drinking is strictly forbidden by the laws of the society. It is a subject of one of their queries. It is of course a subject that is often brought to their recollection. Whatever may be the faults of the Quakers, they must be acknowledged to be a SOBER PEOPLE.


This is taken from A Portraiture of Quakerism.





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