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Quakerism is more than a type of Christianity. Its popularity rose in the United States at a particular moment in time, and the Quakers have been making an impact on U.S. history ever since. Keep reading to get an overview of this group, their historical context, and their significance in U.S. history for the APUSH exam.
What is Quakerism?
This blog post is not entirely about theology (the study of religion). Some theological points will be necessary in order to understand historical importance, but I am not a theologian, nor is the APUSH exam about doctrine (the rules and texts of a particular religion). With that in mind, I will provide a brief overview about the beliefs of Quakers.
Quakerism (also known as the Society of Friends) began in England, much the same as Puritanism. Quakers found religious refuge in the colonies from the authoritarian rule of the Anglican Church; but the rise in Quakerism’s popularity in New England was not met kindly by Puritans. Puritans believed that the Quakers were unorthodox: unlike the hierarchical Puritans, Quakers believed that they could – and should – have a direct access to God. This was only some of the Puritan orthodoxy that Quakers shunned, and these tensions rose to a violent pitch.
In 1656, several women preachers in the Quaker tradition began to preach and convert individuals to Quakerism in Maryland and Massachusetts. The Puritan leaders of Massachusetts violently persecuted these Quakers, putting four of them to death by 1661.
Eventually, Quakers would have a colony of their own in Pennsylvania (charted by William Penn). Penn was especially interested in governing Pennsylvania under Quaker ideals, specifically pacifism and religious tolerance.
Portrait of William Penn.
What impact did the Quakers have on U.S. history?
One of the biggest impacts Quakers had on U.S. history was in the abolition movement against slavery. In fact, four quakers openly denounced slavery as early as 1688 when they established Germantown in Pennsylvania. In their petition against slavery, several of the Germantown residents argued that the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) was the moral foundation for abolition and universal human rights. This early antislavery spirit is not to say that Quakers never owned slaves – some did – but the rates of slave ownership were much lower among the Society of Friends than in other religious sects.
While abolition was gaining more national attention in the 1820s and 1830s, some Quakers had established aid societies and were actively assisting runaway enslaved individuals through the Underground Railroad. Most notably, Quaker Levi Coffin assisted enslaved people seeking freedom as a child in North Carolina and eventually became President of the Underground Railroad when he moved to Ohio. Because of their pacifism, Quakers were among those who were conscientious objectors to war, a philosophical position that came under ridicule during World War I.
One of the most enduring ways that Quakerism has impacted society in the United States is through their Friends Schools. These schools promote Quaker ideals, if not Quaker religious beliefs that have endured for decades. In fact, the desire for education was a foundational philosophy that governed Quakers’ abolitionism and pacifism.
What kinds of questions will I be asked on the APUSH exam about the Quakers?
Please use the excerpt to answer the multiple choice questions that follow.
“The Slavery which now largely [exists] in the American Colonies, is another mighty evil, which proceeds from the same corrupt root as War; for, however, it may be granted that some, otherwise, well disposed people in different places, particularly in these provinces…fell into the practice of buying and keeping Slaves, thro’ inadvertency, or by the example of others;- yet in the generality it sprang from an unwarrantable defire of gain, a lust, for amassing wealth, and in the pride of their heart, holding an uncontrollable power over their fellow-men. The observation which the Apostle makes on War, may well be applied to those who compelled their fellow-men to become their slaves, they lusted, for wealth and power…”
John Wesley, 1774, “Thoughts upon Slavery”
1. In this excerpt, Wesley argues that slavery exists in the colonies because
A. It is a tradition passed on through various generations.
B. Slaveowners believe that enslaved people are better off being enslaved.
C. Individuals who own slaves are greedy.
D. Slavery is ordained and justified by God.
You may not receive a question about Quakerism explicitly, but questions regarding abolition more broadly and the views that abolitionists had to confront.
“[T]he condition of the African race throughout all the States where the ancient relation
between the two [races] has been retained enjoys a degree of health and comfort which
may well compare with that of the laboring population of any country in Christendom;
and, it may be added that in no other condition, or in any other age or country, has the
Negro race ever attained so high an elevation in morals, intelligence, or civilization.”
John C. Calhoun, political leader, 1844
2. Which of the following most directly undermines Calhoun’s assertions?
A. Many slaves adopted elements of Christianity.
B. Many slaves engaged in forms of resistance to slavery, like running away.
C. Abolitionist societies encountered difficulty organizing in Southern states.
D. A majority of White Southerners were not slaveholders.
About Allena Berry
Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.
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