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Are we, Quakers, ready?

The first place I encountered Quakers as more than obscure historical figures was in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I read it while looking for a college, and somehow wound up at a (culturally) Quaker college - which of course planted many more seeds that took me here.

The world Atwood describes is harsh, and Quakers play a role somewhat like their earlier Underground Railroad work - though with more severe penalties. A few excerpts illustrate her telling:

"Five members of the heretical sect of Quakers have been arrested," he says, smiling blandly, "and more arrests are anticipated."

Two of the Quakers appear onscreen, a man and a woman. They look terrified, but they're trying to preserve some dignity in front of the camera. The man has a large dark mark on his forehead; the woman's veil has been torn off, and her hair falls in strands over her face. Both of them are about fifty. (Section 14).

Why would Quakers be so dangerous? Well, they help people. The wrong people.

I also believe that they didn't catch him or catch up with him after all, that he made it... found his way to a nearby farmhouse, was allowed in, with suspicion at first, but then when they understood who he was, they were friendly, not the sort who would turn him in, perhaps they were Quakers, they will smuggle him inland... (Section 18)


"I chose them because they were a married couple, and those were safer than anyone single and especially anyone gay. Also I remembered the designation beside their name. Q, it said, which meant Quaker. We had the religious denominations marked...

"So these people let me in right away.... as soon as I was inside the door, I took off the headgear and told them who I was. They could have phoned the police or whatever, I know I was taking a chance... Anyway, they didn't. They gave me some clothes, a dress of hers, and burned the Aunt's outfit and the pass in their furnace; they knew that had to be done right away. They didn't like having me there, that much was clear, it made them very nervous. They had two little kids, both under seven. I could see their point.

"... Then the woman made me a sandwich and a cup of coffee and the man said he'd take me to another house. They hadn't risked phoning.

"The other house was Quakers too, and they were pay dirt, because they were a station on the Underground Femaleroad. After the first man left, they said they'd try to get me out of the country...." (Section 38)

Quakerism clearly isn't centered on smuggling people, and even as I watch various conflicts today I wouldn't claim this country resembles Atwood's Republic of Gilead.

Are we ready, though, to help those in need?


(Reading Atwood's The Year of the Flood, with a sort of Quaker-like group that sings Anglican-ish hymns, reminded me of her earlier Quaker discussion.)



Thank you for sharing about this book. I've shied away from it for years, because I knew from reviews how troubling it is. How I will read it and shine more light on my wary Quaker heart.