Quaker Manners

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

Manners and conversation—Quakers esteemed reserved—this an appearance owing to their education—their hospitality in their own houses—the freedom allowed and taken—their conversation limited—politics generally excluded—subjects of conversation examined in our towns—also in the metropolis—no such subjects among the Quakers—their conversation more dignified—extraordinary circumstance that takes place occasionally in the company of the Quakers.

The Quakers are generally supposed to be a stiff and reserved people, and to be a people of severe and discourteous manners. I confess there is something in their appearance that will justify the supposition in the eyes of strangers, and of such as do not know them: I mean of such, as just see them occasionally out of doors, but do not mix with them in their own houses.

It cannot be expected that persons, educated like the Quakers, should assimilate much in their manners to other people. The very dress they wear, which is so different from that of others, would give them a stiff appearance in the eyes of the world, if nothing else could be found to contribute towards it. Excluded also from much intercourse with the world, and separated at a vast distance from it by the singularity of many of their customs, they would naturally appear to others to be close and reserved. Neither is it to be expected that those, whose spirits are never animated by music, or enlivened by the exhibitions of the theatre, or the diversions which others follow, would have other than countenances that were grave. Their discipline also, which calls them so frequently to important duties, and the dispatch of serious business, would produce the same feature. I may observe also, that a peculiarity of gait, which might be mistaken for awkwardness, might not unreasonably be expected in those, who had neither learned to walk under the guidance of a dancing, master, nor to bow under the direction of the dominion of fashion. If those and those only are to be esteemed really polished and courteous, who bow and scrape, and salute each other by certain prescribed gestures, then the Quakers will appear to have contracted much rust, and to have an indisputable right to the title of a clownish and inflexible people.

I must observe however that these appearances, though they may be substantial in the estimation of those who do not know them, gradually vanish with those, who do. Their hospitality in their own houses, and their great attention and kindness, soon force out of sight all ideas of discourteousness. Their freedom also soon annihilates those of stiffness and reserve. Their manners, though they have not the polished surface of those which are usually attached to fashionable life, are agreeable, when known.

There is one trait in the Quaker-manners, which runs through the whole society, as far as I have seen in their houses, and which is worthy of mention. The Quakers appear to be particularly gratified, when those, who visit them, ask for what they want. Instead of considering this as rudeness or intrusion, they esteem it as a favor done them. The circumstance of asking, on such an occasion, is to them a proof, that there visitors feel themselves at home. Indeed they almost always desire a stranger who has been introduced to them “to be free.” This is their usual expression. And if he assures them that he will, and if they find him asking for what he wishes to have, you may perceive in their countenances the pleasure, which his conduct has given them. They consider him, when he has used this freedom, to have acted as they express it “kindly.” Nothing can be more truly polite than that conduct to another, by which he shall be induced to feel himself as comfortably situated, as if he were in his own house.

As the Quakers desire their visitors to be free, and to do as they please, so they do not fail to do the same themselves, never regarding such visitors as impediments in the way of their concerns. If they have any business or engagement out of doors, they say so and go, using no ceremony, and but few words as an apology. Their visitors, I mean such as stay for a time in their houses, are left in the interim to amuse themselves as they please. This is peculiarly agreeable, because their friends know, when they visit them, that they neither restrain, nor shackle, nor put them to inconvenience. In fact it may be truly said that if satisfaction in visiting depends upon a man’s own freedom to do as he likes, to ask and to call for what he wants, to go out and come in as he pleases; and if it depends also on the knowledge he has, that, in doing all these things, he puts no person out of his way, there are no houses, where people will be better pleased with their treatment, than in those of the Quakers.

This trait in the character of the Quakers is very general. I would not pretend, however, to call it universal. But it is quite general enough to be pronounced a feature in their domestic character. I do not mean by the mention of it, to apologize, in any manner for the ruggedness of manners of some Quakers. There are undoubtedly solitary families, which having lived in places, where there have been scarcely any of their own society with whom to associate, and which, having scarcely mixed with others of other denominations except in the way of trade, have an discourteousness, engrafted in them as it were by these circumstances, which no change of situation afterwards has been able to obliterate.

The subjects of conversation among the Quakers differ, like those of others, but they are not so numerous, neither are they of the same kind, as those of other people.

The Quaker conversation is cramped or fettered for two reasons, first by the caution, that prevails among the members of the society relative to the use of idle words, and secondly by the caution, that prevails among them, relative to the adapting of their expressions to the truth. Hence the primitive Quakers were persons of few words.

The subjects also of the Quaker conversation are limited for several reasons. The Quakers have not the same classical or philosophical education, as those of other denominations in an equal situation in life. This circumstance will of course exclude many topics from their discourse.

Religious considerations also exclude others. Politics, which generally engross a good deal of attention, and which afford an inexhaustible fund of matter for conversation to a great part of the inhabitants of the island, are seldom introduced, and, if introduced, very tenderly handled in general among the Quaker-society. I have seen aged Quakers gently reprove others of tenderer years, with whom they happened to be in company, for having started them. It is not that the Quakers have not the same feelings as other men, or that they are not equally interested about humanity, or that they are incapable of opinions on the changeable political events, that are passing over the face of the globe, that this subject is so little agitated among them. They are usually silent upon it for particular reasons. They consider first, that, as they are not allowed to have any direction, and in many cases could not conscientiously interfere, in government-matters, it would be folly to disquiet their minds with vain and fruitless speculations. They consider again, that political subjects frequently irritate people, and make them warm. Now this is a temper, which they consider to be peculiarly detrimental to their religion. They consider themselves also in this life as but upon a journey to another, and that they should get through it as quietly and as inoffensively as they can. They believe again with George Fox, that, “in these lower regions, or in this airy life, all news is uncertain. There is nothing stable. But in the higher regions, or in the kingdom of Christ, all things are stable: and the news is always good and certain.” [56]

[Footnote 56: There is always an exception in favor of conversation on politics, which is, when the government are agitating any question, their interests or their religious freedom is involved.]

As politics do not afford matter for much conversation in the Quaker-society, so neither do some other subjects, that may be mentioned.

In a country town, where people daily visit, it is not uncommon to observe, whether at the card, or at the tea-table, that what is usually called scandal forms a part of the pleasures of conversation. The hatching up of suspicions on the accidental occurrence of trivial circumstances, the blowing up of these suspicions into substances and forms, animadversions on character, these, and such like themes, wear out a great part of the time of an afternoon or an evening visit. Such subjects, however, cannot enter where Quakers converse with one another.  To avoid tale-bearing and detraction is a lesson inculcated into them in early youth. The maxim is incorporated into their religion, and of course follows them through life. It is contained in one of their queries. This query is read to them in their meetings, and the subject of it is therefore repeatedly brought to their notice and recollection.  Add to which, that, if a Quaker were to repeat any unfounded scandal, that operated to the injury of another’s character, and were not to give up the author, or make satisfaction for the same, he would be liable, by the rules of the society, to be disowned.

I do not mean to assert here, that a Quaker never says a harsh thing of another man. All, who profess to be, are not Quakers. Subjects of a scandalous nature may be in introduced by others of another denomination, in which, if Quakers are present, they may unguardedly join. But it is certainly true, that Quakers are more upon their guard, with respect to scandalizing others, than many other people. Nor is this unlikely to be the case, when we consider that caution in this particular is required of them by the laws of their religion. It is certainly true also, that such subjects are never introduced by them, like those at country tea-tables, for the sole purpose of producing conversation. And I believe I may add with truth, that it would even be deemed extraordinary by the society, if such subjects were introduced by them at all.

In companies also in the metropolis, as well as in country towns, a variety of subjects affords food for conversation which never enter into the discourse of the Quakers.

If we were to go into the company of persons of a certain class in the metropolis, we should find them deriving the enjoyments of conversation from some such subjects as the following. One of the company would probably talk of the exquisitely fine manner, in which an actress performed her part on a certain night. This, would immediately give birth to a variety of remarks. The name of one actress would bring up that of another, and the name of one play that of another, till at length the stage would become the source of supplying a subject for a considerable time. Another would probably ask, as soon as this theatrical discussion was over, the opinion of the company on the subject of the duel, which the morning papers had reported to have taken place. This new subject would give new fuel to the fire, and new discussions would take place, and new observations fly about from all quarters. Some would applaud the courage of the person, who had been killed. Others would pity his hard fate. But none would censure his wickedness for having resorted to such dreadful means for the determination of his dispute. From this time the laws of honor would be canvassed, and disquisitions about punctilio, and etiquette, and honor, would arrest the attention of the company, and supply them with materials for a time. These subjects would be followed by observations on fashionable head-dresses, by the relation of elopements, by the reports of affairs of gallantry. Each subject would occupy its own portion of time. Thus each would help to swell up the measure of conversation, and to make up the enjoyment of the visit.

If we were to go among persons of another class in the metropolis, we should probably find them collecting their entertainment from other topics. One would talk on the subject of some splendid route. He would expatiate on the number of rooms that were opened, on the superb manner, in which they were fitted up, and on the sum of money that was expended in procuring every delicacy that was out of season. A second would probably ask, if it were really known, how much one of their female acquaintance had lost at faro. A third would make observations on the dresses at the last drawing room. A fourth would particularize the liveries brought out by individuals on the birth-day. A fifth would ask, who was to have the vacant red ribbon. Another would tell, how the minister had given a certain place to a certain nobleman’s third son, and would observe, that the whole family were now provided for by government. Each of these topics would be enlarged upon, as successively started, and thus conversation would be kept going during the time of the visit.

These and other subjects generally constitute the pleasures of conversation among certain classes of persons. But among the Quakers, they can hardly ever intrude themselves at all. Places and pensions they neither do, nor can, hold. Levees and drawing rooms they neither do, nor would consent to, attend, on pleasure. Red ribbons they would not wear if given to them. Indeed, very few of the society know what these insignia mean. As to splendid liveries, these would never occupy their attention. Liveries for servants, though not expressly forbidden, are not congenial with the Quaker-system; and as to gaming, plays, or fashionable amusements, these are forbidden, as I have amply stated before, by the laws of the society.

It is obvious then, that these topics cannot easily enter into conversation, where Quakers are. Indeed, nothing so trifling, ridiculous, or disgusting, occupies their minds. The subjects, that take up their attention, are of a more solid and useful kind. There is a dignity, in general, in the Quaker-conversation, arising from the nature of these subjects, and from the gravity and decorum with which it is always conducted. It is not to be inferred from hence, that their conversation is dull and gloomy. There is often no want of sprightliness, wit, and humor. But then this sprightliness, never borders upon folly, for all foolish jesting is to be avoided, and it is always decorous. When vivacity makes its appearance among the Quakers; it is sensible, and it is uniformly in an innocent and decent dress.

In the company of the Quakers a circumstance sometimes occurs, of so peculiar a nature, that it cannot be well omitted in this place. It sometimes happens, that you observe a pause in the conversation. This pause continues. Surprised at the universal silence now prevailing, you look round, and find all the Quakers in the room apparently thoughtful.  The history of the circumstance is this. In the course of the conversation the mind of some one of the persons present has been so overcome with the weight or importance of it, or so overcome by inward suggestions or other subjects, as to have given himself up to meditation, or to passive obedience to the impressions upon his mind.  This person is soon discovered by the rest on account of his particular silence and gravity. From this moment the Quakers in company cease to converse. They become habitually silent, and continue so, both old and young, to give the apparently meditating person an opportunity of pursuing uninterruptedly the train of his own thoughts. Perhaps, in the course of his meditations, the subject, that impressed his mind, gradually dies away, and expires in silence. In this case you find him resuming his natural position, and returning to conversation with the company as before. It sometimes happens, however, that, in the midst of his meditations, he feels an impulse to communicate to those present the subject of his thoughts, and breaks forth, seriously explaining, exhorting, and advising, as the nature of it permits and suggests. When he has finished his observations, the company remain silent for a short time, after which they converse again as before.

Such a pause, whenever it occurs in the company of the Quakers, may be considered as a devotional act. For the subject, which occasions it, is always of a serious or religious nature. The workings in the mind of the meditating person are considered either as the offspring of a solemn reflection upon that subject, suddenly and almost involuntarily as it were produced by duty, or as the immediate offspring of the agency of the spirit. And an habitual silence is as much the consequence, as if the person present had been at a place of worship.

It may be observed, however, that such pauses seldom or never occur in ordinary companies, or where Quakers ordinarily visit one another. When they take place, it is mostly when a minister is present, and when such a minister is upon a religious visit to families of a certain district.  In such a case such religious pauses and exhortations are not infrequent. A man however may be a hundred times in the company of the Quakers, and never be present at one of them, and never know indeed that they exist at all.




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 Manners