Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004

Messiahs of Every Age:
A Theological Basis of Nineteenth-century Social Reform
Priscilla Elaine Eppinger

At the age of 87 Lucretia Mott attended the 1880 Philadelphia Quaker Yearly Meeting. The representative committee reported that although the issue of temperance had been before them, the "way did not open for them to take action upon it." After a lively discussion it was noted that a bill proposing the investigation of the effects of alcohol traffic had already been before Congress for two years. One of her daughters reported to another that Mott "quickly rose, and said ‘perhaps the way had not opened!’ This produced a suppressed titter of enjoyment while she went on to say, that she was tired of that phrase; it was a convenient excuse for doing nothing; she had heard it often enough in years past, . . ."(Hallowell 461-2).

Although Mott depended greatly upon the movement of the Holy Spirit to open the way to reform, she believed strongly that one way that the Spirit moved was through people. Mott’s theology–as evidenced by her sermons, speeches, and letters in addition to her life practices–was characterized not only by its contextual and participatory nature, but by her systemic analysis of structures of oppression.

Mott was aware of racial and sexual privilege, and of the fact that she benefitted from one ideology and was oppressed by the other. She critiqued an economic system which enabled the rich to become richer while the poor became poorer (Greene 250). Her theology required praxis: active involvement in the re-creation of the world of justice and righteousness which was God’s intent in creating. This participatory theology was foundational to Mott’s involvement in the myriad reform movements of the nineteenth century.

The Quaker hermeneutic taught Mott to read the justice and righteousness called for by ancient Hebrew prophets as eternal divine imperatives. When Mott looked upon the system of chattel slavery, clerical dominance of the Church, the inequities that women faced in comparison to men, and economic disparity between rich and poor, she perceived that conditions in the world did not fit with what she had learned as a Quaker about God’s intent for humanity. As she read her Bible, works of early members of the Religious Society of Friends, and contemporary religious writings, and was sensitive to the understanding given her by the Inner Light, she concluded that a faithful response required her to do all she could to reform the world.

As a result, she constructed a present-oriented eschatological vision which, overlaid onto her historical moment, contrasted with the dominant social order which did not resemble God’s intent for creation. Her participatory christology required personal involvement to bring reality into alignment with the eschatological plumb line.

In this paper I will show to what great extent Mott’s involvement in social reform movements was predicated on her understanding of truth as authoritative. I will then sketch briefly Mott’s eschatology and christology, as these are areas of her theology the application of which compels action to overturn oppression and to establish justice.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, fleeing slaves were increasingly pursued and arrested even in free states. A case of mistaken identity might result in a free person being sent into slavery. In other cases a person who had worked, bought property, and raised a family in a free state might be arrested years after his or her flight from slavery.

Such were the circumstances in 1859 when Daniel Dangerfield was tried before the U.S. Commissioner in Philadelphia. The new commissioner being of Quaker heritage, Philadelphia abolitionists had high hopes that he would not send Dangerfield to slavery.

Lucretia Mott was not satisfied merely to hope for the best and to pray for justice. Or rather, her prayer took the form of a word to the commissioner. She later related that a number of anti-slavery activists waited for the trial to begin, in the same courthouse room as Commissioner Longstreth. Mott wrote,

     "Knowing him as a birthright member of the Society of Friends, I ventured to step forward, and, in an undertone, expressed to him the earnest hope that his conscience would not allow him to send this poor man into slavery. He received it civilly; but replied that he must be bound by his oath of office,–or words to that effect,–as nearly as I can remember. This line of the poet came to my mind, which I simply repeated, and said no more,–

‘But remember
The traitor to humanity, is the traitor most accursed.’ "

The trial resulted in Dangerfield’s release. Mott claimed, "This is the only case in which I ever interfered in any trial by our courts, further than to shelter the fugitives." (Hallowell 388-9)

To Lucretia Mott, justice, truth, love, and peace were not merely theoretical ideals; putting them into practice in concrete ways, in everyday life, was the only meaningful way to express these principles. She held that justice, love, and truth are divine teaching and essential to true faith, and called them the "beautiful truths" of "pure religion." (Greene 363) For Mott, the practice of peace, justice, and mercy was more essential to a life of faith than was adherence to creeds and doctrines. (Greene 107-8, 240)

Lucretia Mott claimed that there was "one standard of goodness and truth" among the ancient prophets and that the "requirements of truth are the same in all ages–to do right[,] to give freedom to the oppressed . . ." (Greene 253, 256) These eternal principles, therefore, are neither individualized nor self-centered; their aim is the re-establishment of the harmony of God’s creation.

Mott believed that God’s revelation continued into the present, as much as in times past. (Greene 92) She believed that "true religion" is not "veneration of the past;" the word of God is manifested to us in our day, and teaches what is erroneous and what is true. (Greene 96) This contemporary revelation was made principally through the light within. It was the Inner Light which might give understanding regarding the scriptures; which could inspire unconventional or unpopular actions; which had guided Jesus throughout his lifetime and which made it possible for others to be Christlike if they would but be faithful to God’s revelation as Jesus had been.

Hence Mott accorded greater authority to truth revealed and confirmed by the Inner Light than to claims that phrases or ideas from the Bible were authoritative primarily because they had a place in Holy Writ. She cited as the cardinal doctrine of Quakerism, "the sufficiency of the ‘light within,’ and righteousness without,"(Hallowell 210) and adopted as her motto "Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth," in later years penning this statement with her name whenever her autograph was requested. (Hallowell 341-2)

The truth that appeared so clear to Mott was less so to others. Many who took a pro-slavery or anti-woman’s rights position justified their ideology through use (or as Mott would have it, mis-use) of scripture. Of this practice she declared, "Instead of taking the truths of the Bible in corroboration of the right, the practice has been, to turn over its pages to find example and authority for the wrong, for the existing abuses of society." (Greene 215-6) She was willing to accept that the Bible contains stories of wrongs, and of misunderstanding of divine intent as well as eternal truths. She held to her stand that human fallibility is more likely than divine changeability. (Greene 225; Hallowell 297, 307)

One may conclude from Mott’s understanding of authority and truth that truth may be known by anyone. She held that the "true gospel" is not equated with any particular theology, (Greene 254) and that considering Christianity to be the only source of Truth is a way of "[limiting] the Holy One of Israel." (Greene 275) The limits of her self and her context constrained her always to speak of "Christianity" as the way of truth; however Mott’s liberal thinking intended by "Christianity" a different concept from that embraced by most of her contemporaries. Her own practice of true faith and religion was Quaker Christianity; her language often echoed with biblical phrases; however, she did not wish to impose her style of piety upon others. Mott considered any seeker of Truth who worked for justice to be a fellow follower of true religion.

Eschatology

     "If the mission of Jesus was so emphatically to bring "peace on earth and good will to men" we must endeavor to carry it out, . . . Why, the millennium [sic] is here; the kingdom of God has come." 26 September 1858

Eschatology seeks to elucidate the telos of creation, and when, how, and by whom it will be realized. While to some this may appear to be matter for esoteric debate, for Mott the answers to these questions affected in very practical ways how one was to live one’s life, and were intimately related to her belief about Christ and the role of the Church.

Lucretia Mott’s eschatological vision coincided with what she termed the "kingdom of God." In light of God’s goodness and the goodness of creation (which we are sometimes unable to see because of our ignorance of natural laws) the telos of the world is the fulfillment of God’s intent in creating. To be sure, this vision is enough different from present reality to be able to speak of a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation. However, the new is really a return to what was original in intent, if never actually fulfilled in form.

Mott expected that at some point God’s realm would be total. She insisted on its potential realization, saying: ". . . the kingdom is now at hand, if only we will work for it in the right way." (Greene 377) And working for it in the right way did not mean adhering to dogma, converting to denominations, or interpreting signs in the skies. She explained to the Anti-Sabbath Convention of 1848 how to work for God’s reign: "The standards of creeds and forms must be lowered, while that of justice, peace, and love to one another, must be raised higher and higher. . . . We wait for no imagined millennium–no speculation or arithmetical calculation–no Bible research–to ascertain when this shall be. It only needs that people examine for themselves–not pin their faith on ministers’ sleeves, but do their own thinking, obey the truth, and be made free. The kingdom of God is nigh, even at the door." (Greene 67) For Mott, working for the kingdom of God in the right way meant participating in God’s actions to bring about the fulfillment of God’s intent for creation.

In her May 1872 address to the Free Religious Association, Mott made clear that she did not look for signs of a cataclysmic change in the world order, but sought evidence of God’s reign in the world as it was, saying:

     "The kingdom of God is always nigh at hand. It was nigh at hand when Jesus declared it eighteen hundred years ago, and it has been entered many and many a time since then. I believe that it is very near us; that it is with us–although some here have an idea that we are not to look for the entrance until after death, and pulpits mostly declare what shall be hereafter, forgetting what the Apostle says, that "now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be." (Greene 361)

Since Mott’s vision of the kingdom of God was based primarily upon the prophetic call for justice it is not surprising that she viewed reform movements as contributing toward God’s reign. In a moving speech to the fourteenth annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May 1848, Mott quoted a reformer, whom she called the Jesus of the present age, on the Mount Zion of Peace, [as saying]:

      "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old, thou shall war only in self-defence, but I say unto you, take not up the sword at all." The language is not now only in prophetic vision, as of old; it does not, . . . explain the prophecies of peace on earth, to refer to some future, far distant millennium, . . . remember how it was said by them of old time: "thou shalt drink wine moderately, and abstain from the unnecessary use of intoxicating liquors." What is the language now of the Saviour on the Mount Zion of Temperence? "I say unto you, drink not wine at all–practice ‘total abstinence’ from all intoxicating liquors." . . . Let the abolitionist, who should be as the Jesus of the present age on the Zion of Freedom, continue to say: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old, thou shall treat thy slaves kindly, thou shalt prepare them for freedom at a future day; but I say unto you hold no slaves at all, proclaim liberty now throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof." . . . Let us no longer be blinded by the dim theology that only in the far seeing vision discovers a millenium [sic], when violence shall no more be heard in the land . . . ; but let us behold it now, nigh at the door–lending faith and confidence to our hopes, assuring us that even we ourselves shall be instrumental in proclaiming liberty to the captive.(Greene 72, 76-7)

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