“The Quakers definitely emerged from the slavery controversy with the best PR out of all the religions, it seems.” I was hunkered down under a tree across the way from the commuter rail. This was the only time both Dr. G and I had free to talk, and I wanted to disturb my fellow commuters as little as possible with this phone call.
“That’s true,” she replied. “The Quakers were early abolitionists which dovetails nicely with the narrative of their persecution in Massachusetts. But history is always much more complicated than that. Quakers weren’t persecuted everywhere.”
“There did seem to be some prominent Rhode Island Quakers. Moses Brown being the clearest example,” I quickly added on. I was hoping to show I’d done at least some of my homework.
“Actually, there was a very powerful Quaker elite in Providence,” Dr. G. clarified. “Roger Williams was a dedicated Puritan and really didn’t like the Quakers. However he believed they should have the freedom to worship, just like everyone else in Rhode Island. So he let them and they became a very socially and economically powerful group.”
“So Moses’ Quakerism wasn’t a liability down there?”
“Not at all. In fact, it’s likely Moses grew up surrounded by Quakers. John Brown’s wife, in fact, very well may have been a Quaker with a family connected to Providence’s Quaker elite.”
I sat up. I hadn’t heard anything about this. “Really? I hadn’t heard anything about this.”
“There’s not much about it. She doesn’t appear in any of the Quaker rolls, but that’s only because they were limited to male Friends. Either way marrying such a woman would have been a coup for John, and at least some of his in-laws and extended relatives were Quakers. As a prominent member of Providence society he would have had contact with Quakers. Finally, remember that John Brown was raised Baptist. Back then there wasn’t a big difference between Quakers and Baptists.”
“Because they were both still dissenting sects?” I was glad to remember at least some of Max Weber.
“That’s right. Both still felt some kinship due to their mutual opposition to the ceremony of Anglicanism. Besides, back then being a member of a religion wasn’t a simple matter of attending a given church as it is today. You weren’t considered a Baptist or a Quaker or a Methodist unless you actually experienced a moment of divine grace. In fact John Brown’s aunt wasn’t considered a Baptist until she was in her 50s because she didn’t feel ‘grace’ until then.”
“So John Brown’s hostility towards his brother had more to do with abolition than Quakerism.” The train was approaching. I hung back from approaching the platform as long as possible.
“Yes. Quakers weren’t always anti-slavery, but they did come out against it. Shortly before the Baptists, in fact. When the Baptists do, John Brown breaks with them.”
“Was John Brown a committed Baptist before then?”
There was a noticable pause. “Eh, nominally because his family was, but personally not so much. Like most of the patriots his faith was fairly Enlightenment-based.”
“Divine clockmaker?” I was now fighting my way through the crowd to board the train.
“Exactly. Not exactly fire and brimstone. He didn’t care what was in people’s hearts any more than Roger Williams did. However, that religious conviction did allow him to be pro-slavery.”
In our next installment . . . Brown family dirt! Aaaand . . . my interview with one of my favorite academic authors!