Whittier as Quaker

John Greenleaf Whittier was first and foremost a Quaker. The isolation from the congregational activities of his peers led to the extreme closeness of the family which was to be recreated in his greatest work. He found books on Quaker history and doctrine, including William Sewel’s History of the Rise, Increase, and Progress of the Christian People Called Quakers, to read in his home and use in later narrative poems.

Old postcard showing Amesbury Friends’ Meeting House in the 19th century.When there was room in the carriage (they had to take turns) he would travel with his family to Amesbury on Thursdays and Sundays for Meetings that consisted of long periods of silence broken by anyone who felt inspired. Whittier continued his preference for this type of meeting throughout his life, in spite of changes in the services of many Quaker congregations.

The Quakers gave him love and tolerance, anti-slavery convictions, and a liberal outlook on life that was to infuse his life and work. Looking back on the Quaker meetings he attended at a child he wrote “Abram Morrison” about one of the member of the congregation, and he amused a group of clergymen by describing how some bored Quakers passed a resolution that one inspired speaker should remain “silent until such time as the Lord should speak to him more to their satisfaction and profit.” (Woodwell 372)

When Whittier’s brother married a non-Quaker the family knew that it would be impossible for her to live with the family, and without Matthew, John Greenleaf could not run the farm. The boys sold the Haverhill homestead where they had been born, and with his share John bought a house in Amesbury near the Friends’ Meeting House. He moved there in 1836 with his mother, aunt, and younger sister.

 In 1850 he served as chairman on the committee in charge of building a new meeting house, and he assured a simple structure would be built by employing a Quaker minister and two elders to design the building that still stands in Amesbury today, a block from the Whittier Home. Whittier continued to attend the Amesbury Meetings when he was in town, often serving as a representative to the Monthly, Quarterly, and Yearly Meetings of the Quakers. But after the Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends in 1837 voted not to permit anti-slavery lectures at Quaker Meeting Houses, Whittier said he could never again be the representative to the Yearly Meeting.

One of Whittier’s earliest poems was about an Amesbury family persecuted for sheltering a Quaker, “The Exiles.”  He returned to the subject of persecuted Quakers (and friends of Quakers) in “Cassandra Southwick,:” who was sentenced to be sold into slavery, “A Missive from the King” about a Royal pardon for Quakers sentenced to be executed, and “How the Women Went from Dover,” about Quaker women driven from Dover, NH.  All of these poems are about Quakers who are saved by the decency of outsiders. Although all contained historical inaccuracies, Whittier’s belief in the effectiveness of non-violent resistance was clear.  It is easy to see how he identified the past persecution of the Quakers with the present evil of slavery, making his transition to an Abolitionist poet a seamless one.

Whittier called himself an “old-fashioned Quaker” when Quakers, including the Amesbury congregation, underwent a series of schisms that brought them into greater conformity with the broader evangelical culture. He preferred the old ways of worship but appreciated the social involvement of the evangelicals.

Although he did not believe Quakers should sing in Meetings, he wrote over 100 hymns, mostly for other denominations, many of which are still sung in Protestant churches today. Some of the hymns that appear in Protestant hymnals are stanzas taken from poems in which other passages indicate his strong objections to the practices in most Protestant denominations. In an unidentified letter, quoted in Woodwell (508) Whittier wrote, “Quakerism has run into Methodism, and the Quaker singing is dolefully bad.  I am too old--fashioned to bear it with patience; but I suppose the singers mean well, and perhaps like the speakers of “unknown tongues” in Paul’s day they “edify themselves.”

Amesbury Meeting House todayAlthough Whittier would not engage in debate over the changes in Quaker practices, he made his beliefs clear in poems such as “First Day Thoughts,” “Our Master,” “Worship,” “The Brewing of Soma,” “In Trust” and “The Eternal Goodness.” Both his poems and the Amesbury Friends’ Meeting House remain a testimony to his faith.

Read the poems & commentary >