Nope, nope, nope!

When I was about 10, my parents became Quakers. Later I found out that we have Quaker ancestors on both sides of the family. I did not ever join the Quakers myself, but I am an admirer of that bunch.

There’s a new book I’ve been hearing about, by Marcus Rediker — a biography of Benjamin Lay, who was an early (and fierce) abolitionist in the States, and yes, a Quaker. You can find a condensed version of his biography in the September issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Benjamin Lay — painted by William Williams in 1790

Before the Revolutionary War, many Quakers in Philadelphia were slave owners. As a matter of conscience, Benjamin Lay began to regularly disrupt their meetings with his protests.

One Sunday morning he stood at a gateway to the Quaker meetinghouse, knowing all Friends would pass his way. He left “his right leg and foot entirely uncovered” and thrust them into the snow. Like the ancient philosopher Diogenes, who also trod barefoot in snow, he sought to shock his contemporaries into awareness. One Quaker after another took notice and urged him not to expose himself to the freezing cold lest he get sick. He replied, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.”

He came up with many creative and non-violent forms of protest.

It came as no surprise, to Lay or anyone else, that ministers and elders had him removed from one gathering after another. Indeed they appointed a “constabulary” to keep him out of meetings all around Philadelphia, and even that wasn’t enough. After he was tossed into the street one rainy day, he returned to the main door of the meetinghouse and lay down in the mud, requiring every person leaving the meeting to step over his body.

He never gave in.

Disowned and denounced, Lay still attended worship services and argued about the evils of slavery. But he also began to build a new revolutionary way of life, a broader, more radical vision of human possibility.

He built his own home, selecting a spot in Abington “near a fine spring of water” and erecting a small cottage in a “natural excavation in the earth” — a cave. He lined the entrance with stone and created a roof with sprigs of evergreen. The cave was apparently quite spacious, with room for a spinning jenny and a large library. Nearby he planted apple, peach and walnut trees and tended a bee colony a hundred feet long. He cultivated potatoes, squash, radishes and melons.

Lay lived simply, in “plain” style, as was the Quaker way, but he went further: He ate only fruits and vegetables, drank only milk and water; he was very nearly a vegan two centuries before the word was invented. Because of the divine pantheistic presence of God he perceived in all living things, he refused to eat “flesh.” Animals too were “God’s creatures.” He made his own clothes in order to avoid the exploitation of the labor of others, including animals.

In addition to boycotting all commodities produced by slave labor, Lay by his example and his writing challenged society to eradicate all forms of exploitation and oppression and live off the “innocent fruits of the earth.”

The Quakers have a way of making group decisions that I’ve been interested in ever since my father first described it to me when I was a child. Supposedly, they make all important decisions by consensus. Not until every person in the meeting agrees to a plan can it move forward. The burden is on a person convinced of the rightness or wrongness of something to convince all the others before the meeting can act as a whole. Benjamin Lay eventually had an effect on those he tried for 40 years to convince.

But I don’t think it always works. I’ve heard of other cases of people just leaving in disgust, or being thrown out of a meeting for good. That’s one way to arrive at consensus — eliminate the opposition! In my own experience I’ve noticed that Quakers, for all their talk of “tolerance,” tend to excel at passive-aggressive manipulations and guilt-mongering. And yet, for such a small group, if you read up on their history, it is truly amazing the number of issues that they have considered and taken strong, decisive leadership on, long before the general public got around to it.

Somebody in my inner congregation keeps saying “Nope, nope, nope!” to my plan to work for LL Bean in one of their new retail stores. I’m supposed to start tomorrow. But I’m thinking it might not happen, even after we have listened ad nauseum to all of the convincing arguments in favor of it.

This is how it goes with me. And this is why my family members and friends know they can never take me seriously until they see what I actually do. Maybe it’s a mental illness I’ve got. Maybe it’s the result of sitting through all those Quaker Meetings as a kid. Maybe it’s ok, whatever it is. Hard as I try to shortcut the process and JUST DECIDE, DAMMIT, the seesaw effect still prevails every time there’s a decision for me to make.

What can I do?


It’s a nice day, inside and out.

The sun is shining through my kitchen window,
but the road to tomorrow is foggy.

Road in Fog — Marc Bohne



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Sarah Mohan

Sarah Mohan

I’m probably just making it up