Prefatory Arrangements and Remarks


[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism.]Quaker meeting house


George Fox never gave, while living, nor left after his death, any definition of Quakerism. He left, however, his journal behind him, and he left what is of equal importance, his example. Combining these with the sentiments and practice of the early Quakers, I may state, in a few words, what Quakerism is, or at least what we may suppose George Fox intended it to be.

Quakerism may be defined to be an attempt, under the divine influence, at practical Christianity as far as it can be carried. Those, who profess it, consider themselves bound to regulate their opinions, words, actions, and even outward demeanor, by Christianity, and by Christianity alone. They consider themselves bound to give up such of the customs, or fashions of men, however general, or generally approved, as militate, in any manner, against the letter or the spirit of the gospel. Hence they mix but little with the world, that they may be less liable to imbibe its spirit. Hence George Fox made a distinction between the members of his own society and others, by the different appellations of Friends, and People of the world. They consider themselves also under an obligation to follow virtue, not ordinarily, but even to the death. For they profess never to make a sacrifice of conscience, and therefore, if any ordinances of man are enjoined them, which they think to be contrary to the divine will, they believe right not to submit to them, but rather, after the example of the apostles and primitive Christians, to suffer any loss, penalty, or inconvenience, which may result to them for so doing.

This then, in a few words, is a general definition of Quakerism. It is, as we see, a most strict profession of practical virtue under the direction of Christianity, and such as, when we consider the infirmities of human nature, and the temptations that daily surround it, it must be exceedingly difficult to fulfill. But, whatever difficulties may have lain in the way, or however, on account of the necessary weakness of human nature, the best individuals among the Quakers may have fallen below the pattern of excellence, which they have copied, nothing is more true, than that the result has been, that the whole society, as a body, have obtained from their countrymen, the character of a moral people.

If the reader be a lover of virtue, and anxious for the moral improvement of mankind, he will be desirous of knowing what means the Quakers have used to have preserved, for a hundred and fifty years, this desirable reputation in the world.

If we were to put the question to the Quakers themselves for their own opinion upon it, I believe I can anticipate their reply. They would attribute any morality, they might be supposed to have, to the Supreme Being, whose will having been discovered by means of the scriptures, and of religious impressions upon the mind, when it has been calm, and still, and abstracted from the world, they have endeavored to obey. But there is no doubt, that we may add, auxiliary causes of this morality, and such as the Quakers themselves would allow to have had their share in producing it, under the same influence. The first of these may be called their moral education. The second their discipline. The third may be said to consist of those domestic, or other customs, which are peculiar to them, as a society of Christians. The fourth of their peculiar tenets of religion. In fact, there are many circumstances interwoven into the constitution of the society of the Quakers, each of which has a separate effect, and all of which have a combined tendency, towards the production of moral character.

These auxiliary causes I shall consider and explain in their turn. In the course of this explanation the reader will see, that, if other people were to resort to the same means as the Quakers, they would obtain the same reputation, or that human nature is not so stubborn, but that it will yield to a given force. But as it is usual, in examining the life of an individual, to begin with his youth, or, if it has been eminent, to begin with the education he has received, so I shall fix upon the first of the auxiliary causes I have mentioned, or the moral education of the Quakers, as the subject for the first division of my work.

Of this moral education I may observe here, that it is universal among the society, or that it obtains where the individuals are considered to be true Quakers. It matters not, how various the tempers of young persons may be, who come under it, they must submit to it. Nor does it signify what may be the disposition, or the whim, and caprice of their parents, they must submit to it alike. The Quakers believe that they have discovered that system of morality, which Christianity prescribes; and therefore that they can give no dispensation to their members, under any circumstances whatever, to deviate from it. The origin of this system, as a standard of education in the society, is as follows.

When the first Quakers met in union, they consisted of religious or spiritually minded men. From that time to the present, there has always been, as we may imagine, a succession of such in the society. Many of these, at their great meetings, which have been annual since those days, have delivered their sentiments on various interesting points. These sentiments were regularly printed, in the form of yearly epistles, and distributed among Quaker families. Extracts, in process of time, were made from them, and arranged under different heads, and published in one book, under the name of Advices. Now these advices comprehend important subjects. They relate to customs, manners, fashions, conversation, conduct. They contain of course recommendations, and suggest prohibitions, to the society, as rules of guidance: and as they came from spiritually minded men on solemn occasions, they are supposed to have had a spiritual origin. Hence Quaker parents manage their youth according to these recommendations and prohibitions, and hence this book of extracts (for so it is usually called) from which I have obtained a considerable portion of my knowledge on this subject, forms the basis of the moral Education of the Society.

Of the contents of this book, I shall notice, while I am treating upon this subject, not those rules which are of a recommendatory, but those, which are of a prohibitory nature. Education is regulated either by recommendations, or by prohibitions, or by both conjoined. The former relate to things, where there is a wish that youth should conform to them, but where a trifling deviation from them would not be considered as an act of delinquency publicly reprehensible. The latter to things, where any compliance with them becomes a positive offence. The Quakers, in consequence of the vast power they have over their members by means of their discipline, lay a great stress upon the latter. They consider their prohibitions, when duly watched and enforced, as so many barriers against vice or preservatives of virtue. Hence they are the grand component parts of their moral education, and hence I shall chiefly consider them in the chapters, which are now to follow upon this subject.