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From the North to the South

A month or so ago I stumbled on Cedric Cowing's The Saving Remnant: Religion and the Settling of New England in a used bookstore. I'd been thinking for a while about how religion seemed to shift when it crossed the Atlantic, but this book - which argues that there is less shift than I thought - actually had a greater effect on my thoughts about early Quaker history in England.

Cowing's basic premise is that:

A division in religiosity in England antedated settlement of New England. It was intensified by the spread of the textile industry from the Low Countries to East Anglia and the West Country and by the Reformation. A new rationalism was emerging in Southeast England while the Northwest retained its potential for evangelism and pietism. Using data on ancestry and religious responses of clergy and communities in New England, a cultural dividing line can be drawn across the homeland from the Wash to Exeter, via Bristol. Of course, beyond this line in the Northwest were some outposts of Southeast sympathy, such as Manchester and the English colony in Pembroke, Wales. On the other hand, southeast of the line, there were outposts of evangelical-pietistic influence in London, Norwich, the Isles of Ely and Wight, and some wealds and fens. (297)

While Cowing is most interested in how this played out in New England, as people from these parts of England migrated to a new continent and there had to grow together - or apart - his early chapters have a lot to say about Quakerism.

George Fox's hometown of Fenny Drayton has a prominent place on Cowing's map, just west of the boundary he draws for the Southeast. The North, where Quakerism first burst into a movement, and Bristol, where James Nayler made the entry that condemned him for blasphemy, are both on the Northwest side of the line. Cowing uses Quakers as markers of Northwest tendencies in New England, and writes briefly about Quakerism's roaring success in the 1650s in the North, contrasted with its less dramatic results in the South:

When Fox again traveled North from Fenny Drayton and crossed the Humber River, he found many people ripe for his message. Because the fields were "white for the harvest," he and his first converts, "the Publishers of Truth," were able to convince many groups and individuals in a short time. In this environment, Quakers were able to draw converts from several social classes. Even some younger sons of the lesser gentry felt the Inner Light. Young women were conspicuous when they witnessed in public or traveled unescorted. Itinerating was for the young and unattached but more mature converts and sympathizers offered hospitality to these young travelers....

The Quaker Galilee was in the North, chiefly Cheshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, and Westmorland, some of the highest ground in England. Quakerism found special favor with small farmers or shepherds descended from Vikings. The Norse custom was individual land-ownership, so they felt alienated from the Norman-French governing class, its political institutions, and lingering Catholicism. Fox's Quaker ideas and simplicity reinforced evangelical Protestantism in this region's pastoral people.....

The Society of Friends, as the Quakers called themselves, conducted missionary efforts in the Southeast during the Restoration, and Quakerism spread through the trading classes in towns, becoming more and more identified with a few strata of the population. Quakers turned inward, using less evangelism and seeking instead the small, still voice, retreating from a movement with universal claims to a sect. Quietism brought not only respectability and conservatism but sometimes a touch of deism. The followers of George Fox were still a peculiar people. Despite their inroads in the English Southeast there continued to be many more Puritans than Quakers, with the greatest disparity in East Anglia. Metropolitan London, however, remained a melting pot for religious belief as it had been earlier in the century.

The Quakers were the most successful survivors of the Civil War era. Yet in 1660, when the Quaker Seventy in the North went south to carry the Truth to the whole country, neither the time nor the place, the Southeast, was anywhere near as responsive as Westmorland had been in the 1650s. (120-2)

This adds a perspective that I hadn't thought hard about to the difficult question - if you accept it as a question - of why Quakerism changed after 1660. Politics changed, and Quakerism was seen as a threat to the re-established order, but something else changed: Quakerism itself moved south.

Using London as a center, even though it was a mix of everything going on in the country, took Quakerism out of the more pastoral upland settings where it had flourished, and brought it to the homeland of a more rationalist (often Ramist) Puritanism. Appealing to the Southeast meant recasting Quakerism in a style more appealing to those who lived there, and wild ecstasy was less welcome than cautious rationalism.

Cowing carefully avoids simple determinism, pointing out exceptions to his interpretations regularly and accepting that his line isn't a clear demarcation. I suspect there will still be people annoyed about being asked to consider the impact of geography on religious style and beliefs. Nevertheless, this seems like one piece of an ever richer story worth pursuing.


Doesn't this imply something about the current style of Quakerism, and why it fails so commonly to spread into the tv population?

I haven't seen your blog before and I really appreciate what you've shared here. The book sounds fascinating and does bring up things I haven't considered either. The subject of Quakers moving locations and the changes that incurred seems like a worthy scholarly pursuit.