Quaker Reply to Objections

[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism.]

Section 1.

Reply of the Quakers to these objections—they say first, that they are to be guided by revelation in the education of their children—and that the education, which they adopt, is sanctioned by revelation, and by the practice of the early Christians—they maintain again, that the objections are not applicable to them, for they pre-suppose circumstances concerning them, which are not true—they allow the system of filling the mind with virtue to be the most desirable—but they maintain that it cannot be acted upon abstractedly—and, that if it could, it would be as dangerous, as the philosophical moralists make their system of the prohibitions.

To these objections the Quakers would make the following reply.

They do not look up either to their own imaginations, or to the imaginations of others, for any rule in the education of their children.  As a Christian society, they conceive themselves bound to be guided by revelation, and by revelation only, while it has any injunctions to offer, which relate to this subject.

In adverting to the Old Testament, they find that no less than nine, out of the ten commandments of Moses, are of a prohibitory nature, and, in adverting to the new, that many of the doctrines of Jesus Christ and the apostles are delivered in the form of prohibitions. They believe that revealed religion prohibits them from following all those pursuits, which the objections notice; for though there is no specific prohibition of each, yet there is an implied one in the spirit of Christianity, Violent excitements of the passions on sensual subjects must be unfavorable to religious advancement. Worldly pleasures must hinder those, which are spiritual. Impure words and spectacles must affect morals. Not only evil is to be avoided, but even the appearance of evil.  While therefore these sentiments are acknowledged by Christianity, it is to be presumed that the customs, which the objections notice, are to be avoided in Christian education. And as the Quakers consider these to be forbidden to themselves, they feel themselves obliged to forbid them to others. And, in these particular prohibitions, they consider themselves as sanctioned both by the writings and the practice of the early Christians.

In looking at the objections, which have been made with a view of replying to them, they would observe first, that these objections do not seem to apply to them as a society, because they presuppose circumstances concerning them, which are not true. They presuppose first, that their moral education is founded on prohibitions solely, whereas they endeavor both by the communication of positive precepts, and by their example, to fill the minds of their children with a love of virtue. They presuppose again, that they are to mix with the world, and to follow the fashions of the world, in which case a moderate knowledge of the latter, with suitable advice when they are followed, is considered as enabling them to pass through life with less danger than the prohibition of the same, whereas they mix but little with others of other denominations. They abjure the world, that they may not imbibe its spirit. And here they would observe, that the knowledge, which is recommended to be obtained, by going through perilous customs is not necessary for them as a society. For living much at home, and mixing almost solely with one another, they consider their education as sufficient for their wants.

If the Quakers could view the two different systems abstractedly, that of filling the heart with virtue, and that of shutting it out from a knowledge of vice, so that they could be acted upon separately, and so that the first of the two were practicable, and practicable without having to go through scenes that were dangerous to virtue, they would have no hesitation in giving the preference to the former; because if men could be taught to love virtue for virtue’s sake, all the trouble of prohibitions would be unnecessary.

But the Quakers would conceive that the system of filling the mind with virtue, if acted upon abstractedly, or by itself, would be impracticable with respect to youth. To make it practicable children must be born with the full grown intellect and experience of men. They must have an innate knowledge of all the tendencies, the bearings, the relations, and the effects of virtue and vice. They must be also strong enough to look temptation in the face; whereas youth have no such knowledge, or experience, or strength, or power.

They would consider also the system of filling the mind with virtue, as impossible, if attempted abstractedly or alone, because it is not in human wisdom to devise a method of inspiring it with this essence, without first teaching it to abstain from vice. It is impossible, they would say, for a man to be virtuous, or to be in love with virtue, except he were to lay aside his vicious practices. The first step to virtue, according both to the Heathen and the Christian philosophy, is to abstain from vice. We are to cease to do evil, and to learn to do well. This is the process recommended. Hence prohibitions are necessary.  Hence sub-causes as well as causes are to be attacked. Hence abstinence from vice is a Christian, though it may be a sluggish, virtue. Hence innocence is to be aimed at by an ignorance of vice. And hence we must prohibit all evil, if we wish for the assistance of the moral governor of the world.

But if the system of filling the heart with virtue were ever practicable of itself, that is, without the aid of prohibitions, yet if it be to be followed by allowing young persons to pass through the various amusements of the world which the Quakers prohibit, and by giving them moral advice at the same time, they would be of opinion, that more danger would accrue to their morality, than any, which the prohibitions could produce. The prohibitions, as far as they have a tendency to curb the spirit, would not be injurious, in the opinion of the Quakers, because it is their plan in education to produce humble, and passive, and obedient characters; and because spirit, or high-mindedness, or high feeling, is no trait in the Christian character. As far as the curiosity, which is natural to man, would instigate him to look into things forbidden, which he could not always do in the particular situation of the Quakers, without the admission of intrigue, or hypocrisy, or deceit, prohibitions would be to be considered as evils, though they would always be necessary evils. But the Quakers would apprehend that the same number of youth would not be lost by passing through the ordeal of prohibitory education, as through the ordeal of the system, which attempts to fill the mind with virtue, by inuring it to scenes, which may be dangerous to its morality; for if tastes are to be cultivated, and knowledge to be had, by adopting the amusements prohibited by the Quakers, many would be lost, though some might be advanced to virtue. For parents cannot always accompany their children to such places, nor, if they could, can they prevent these from fascinating. If these should fascinate, they will suggest repetitions.  But frequent repetitions, where you accustom youth to see, to hear, and to think, what ought never to be heard, seen, or thought of by Christians, cannot but have the effect of tainting the character in time.  This mode of education would be considered by the Quakers as answering to that of “dear bought experience.” A person may come to see the beauty of virtue, when his constitution has been shattered by vice. But many will perish in the midst of so hazardous a trial.


Section 2.

Quakers contend, by way of farther reply to the objections, that their education has been practically or experimentally beneficial—two facts in behalf of this assertion—the first is that young Quakers get earlier into the wisdom of life than many others—the second, that there are few disorderly persons in the society—error corrected, that the Quakers turn persons out of the society, as soon as they begin to be vicious, that it may be rescued from the disgrace of a bad character.

The answers, which have hitherto been given to the reader, may be considered as the statement of theory against theory. But the Quakers, would say farther upon this subject, that they have educated upon these principles for a hundred and fifty years, and that, where they have been attended to, their effects have been uniformly beneficial. They would be fearful therefore of departing from a path, which they conceive their own experience and that of their ancestors has shown them to be safe, and which after all their inquiries, they believe to be that which is pointed out to them by the Christian religion.

I shall not attempt to follow up this practical argument by any history of the lives of the Quakers, but shall content myself with one or two simple facts, which appear to me to be materially to the point.

In the first place I may observe that it is an old saying, that it is difficult to put old heads on young shoulders. The Quakers, however, do this more effectually than any other people. It has often been observed that a Quaker boy has an unnatural appearance. This idea has arisen from his dress and his sedateness, which together have produced an appearance of age above the youth in his countenance, or the stature of his person. This, however, is confessing, in some degree, in the case before us, that the discretion of age has appeared upon youthful shoulders. It is certainly an undeniable fact, that the youth of this society, generally speaking, get earlier into a knowledge of just sentiments, or into a knowledge of human nature, or into a knowledge of the true wisdom of life, than those of the world at large. I have often been surprised to hear young Quakers talk of the folly and vanity of pursuits, in which persons older than themselves were then embarking for the purposes of pleasure, and which the same persons have afterwards found to have been the pursuits of uneasiness and pain.

Let us stop for a while, just to look at the situation of some of those young persons, who, in consequence of a different education, are introduced to the pleasures of the world, as to those, which are to constitute their happiness. We see them running eagerly first after this object, then after that. One man says to himself “this will constitute my pleasure.” He follows it. He finds it vanity and vexation of spirit.  He says again “I have found my self deceived. I now see my happiness in other pleasures, and not in those where I fancied it.” He follows these.  He becomes sickened. He finds the result different from his expectations. He pursues pleasure, but pleasure is not there.

”They are lost
In chase of fancied happiness, still woo’d,
And never won.
Dream after dream ensues;
And still they dream, that they shall still succeed
And still are disappointed.”
-- Cowper

Thus after having wasted a considerable portion of his time, he is driven at last by positive experience into the truth of those maxims, which philosophy and religion have established, and in the pursuit of which alone he now sees that true happiness is to be found. Thus, in consequence of his education, he looses two thirds of his time in tedious and unprofitable, if not in baneful pursuits. The young Quaker, on the other hand, comes, by means of his education, to the same maxims of philosophy and religion, as the foundation of his happiness, at a very early period of life, and therefore saves the time, and preserves the constitution which the other has been wasting for want of this early knowledge. I know of no fact more striking, or more true in the Quaker-history, than this, namely, that the young Quaker, who is educated as a Quaker, gets such a knowledge of human nature, and of the paths to wisdom and happiness, at an early age, that, though he is known to be a young mariner by the youth displayed in his countenance, he is enabled to conduct his bark through the dangerous rocks and shoals of life, with greater safety than many others, who have been longer on the ocean of this probationary world.

I may observe again, as the second fact, that it is not unusual to hear persons say, that you seldom see a disorderly Quaker, or, that a Quaker-prostitute or a Quaker criminal is unknown. These declarations, frequently and openly made, show at least that there is an opinion among the world at large, that the Quakers are a moral people.

The mention of this last fact leads me to the notice, and the correction, of an error, which I have found to have been taken up by individuals. It is said by these that the Quakers are very wary with respect to their disorderly members, for that when any of them behave ill, they are expelled the society in order to rescue it from the disgrace of a bad character. Thus if a Quaker woman were discovered to be a prostitute, or a Quaker man to be taken up for a criminal offence, no disgrace could attach to this society as it would to others; for if, in the course of a week, after a discovery had been made of their several offences, any person were to state that two Quaker members had become infamous, it would be retorted upon him, that they were not members of the society.

It will be proper to observe upon the subject of this error, that it is not so probable that the Quakers would disown these, after the discovery of their infamy, to get rid of any stain upon the character of the society, as it is that these persons, long before the facts could be known, had been both admonished and disowned. For there is great truth in the old maxim “Nemo fecit repente ‘turpissimus;” or “no man was ever all at once a rogue.”

So in the case of these persons, as of all others, they must have been vicious by degrees: they must have shown symptoms of some deviations from rectitude, before the measure of their iniquity could have been completed. But by the constitution of Quakerism, as will appear soon, no person of the society can be found erring even for the first time, without being liable to be privately admonished. These admonitions may be repeated for weeks, or for months, or even for years, before the subjects of them are pronounced so incorrigible as to be disowned. There is great reason therefore to presume, in the case before us, though the offenders in question would have undoubtedly been disowned by the Quakers, after they were known to be such, yet that they had been disowned long before their offences had been made public.

Upon the whole it may be allowed, that young Quakers arrive at the knowledge of just sentiments, or at the true wisdom of life earlier than those, who are inured to the fashions of the world; and it may be allowed also that the Quakers, as a body, are a moral people. Now these effects will generally be considered as the result of education; and though the prohibitions of the Quakers may not be considered as the only instruments of producing these effects, yet they must be allowed to be component parts of the system, which produces them.




Original text by Thomas Clarkson, edited and revised by William Mackis - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 

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Quaker Reply to Objections