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Category: Culture

A Portraiture


British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson set out in 1806 to tell the story of Quakers, to help the larger English-speaking world understand these foreign-seeming Friends. He titled the work, A Portraiture of Quakerism. Why Quakers? As Clarkson puts it, he had been “thrown frequently into the company of the people, called Quakers” in his work against the slave trade, and he “conceived a desire of writing their moral history.” But Clarkson’s explanation doesn’t quite work. This book – presumably conceived in 1787 – didn’t come to fruition for almost 20 years. If the subject – near to Clarkson’s heart – was as important as he claimed, then why did the inexhaustible writer, speaker, publisher, and organizer keep putting off the project?

Some historians have suggested that the book – published when it was – proved politically expedient.

Clarkson had founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He had interviewed 20,000 sailors as part of his research. He had ridden on horseback more than 35,000 miles in his search for artifacts and evidence. He had published essay after essay against the slave trade. He had convinced William Wilberforce to present legislation, year after year, that if passed, would have abolished the slave trade. But in 1794, war with France had largely ended the debate in Parliament, and Clarkson was tired. He retired from the movement, bought a home, married, and had a child. Then, 10 years later, as the war was coming to an end, Clarkson saw an opportunity for victory.

He wrote a book, a book that normalized Quakers in order to give public appeal to a cause that had largely been championed by this marginalized religious sect. And it worked. Within a year of the book’s publication, the Slave Trade Act was passed.

But what about the book? What exactly does Clarkson say about Quakers?

He says that no matter the issue, Quakers will consistently “reason on principle, and not upon consequences.” He says that Quakerism itself is a system that leads “towards purity and perfection.” He says that Quakers “never make a sacrifice of conscience.” He says that Quakers are “anxious for the moral improvement of mankind.” He says that “we seldom see a noisy or irascible Quaker.” He says that although Quakers are just as apt as others to enjoy wine with a meal, “neither drunkenness, nor any situation approaching to drunkenness, is known in the Quaker companies.”

Clarkson says that Quakerism, at heart, is “an attempt at practical Christianity . . . as far as it can be carried.”

Quakers “never make a sacrifice of conscience.”

Fringe Christians


A student described to me a debate — hosted by his church — in which two men attacked each other for almost two hours. The issue? Whether water baptism is required for salvation. This student, exhausted by the speakers’ anger, told me he’d decided it doesn’t really matter.

Another student told me about a Christian teacher — respected in the community — who made the claim that figure skaters, female gymnasts, and English teachers are prone to lesbianism. This student wanted to be an English teacher. Now she’s reconsidering.

A chapel speaker had students stand if they’d read any of the Harry Potter books. He told them that they’d opened themselves up to demonic influences and that they were in danger of experiencing the fires of Hell.

No wonder the Church is largely considered irrelevant and even destructive. Fringe Christians like these seem — more and more — to be stealing attention away from the majority. They claim that the only issues that matter are the sanctity of life (code for anti-abortion), the institution of marriage (code for anti-gay marriage), and other inviolable pro-family principles (code for anti-yoga, Halloween, public Ten Commandments displays, Supreme Court appointments, and any other politically-expedient social issues).

But these people don’t represent the thousands of pre-Civil War Christians who set their slaves free and hired them back as workers, paying them a fair wage.

They don’t represent the German Christians during World War II, who had to be told by their government — again and again in official announcements — to stop giving up their bus seats to Jews.

They don’t represent the community of Amish Christians who shocked the world in 2006, when they publicly forgave a man who had killed their daughters.

And I hope they don’t represent you.

No wonder the Church is largely considered irrelevant and even destructive.



I have a box in the basement utility room. It’s next to the washing machine, and it’s the place for stuff I just don’t need any more. When I checked the box this weekend, there were shoes, old gloves, a shirt, three books, a toy car, a ping-pong paddle, an insulated coffee cup. When the box gets full – about once every three weeks or so – I take it to a thrift store down the street. Add it up, and I’m giving away 16 or 17 boxes of stuff. Enough to fill up a minivan floor to ceiling. Every single year. And I’m not keeping up. At least twice a year, I do a major cleaning – move out old pieces of furniture, a rug, a pile of books, dead plants, broken tools, a television or a microwave.

I’ve been challenged to consider the temptation of the material, a temptation to collect and store and value, a temptation to have and to hold that can keep me from growing closer to Christ. Augustine likens these passions for the material to a serpent we must destroy. Teresa claims that our soul – having experienced spiritual reality – is no longer able to find pleasure in anything of the earth. De Caussade says that to delight in God, “we must strip ourselves naked, renounce all desire for created things.”

And I know that they’re right. But I fear they go too far, suggesting as they do that there is something wrong with the material, that there is something wrong with human passion for created things.

I have too much. In order to live a life with room for God, I must intentionally cast off what otherwise obstructs. But the truth is that there is also much value in the material: food for the stomach, a roof for the rain, a window, a cup of hot coffee, a book, a fire, a friend. For this reason, I’m grateful to C.S. Lewis’s noticing that “the attempt is not to escape . . . . It is more modest: to reawake . . . awareness.”

I fear they go too far, suggesting as they do that there is something wrong with the material

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