On this date in 1790, the Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, petitioned the U.S. Congress for the abolition of slavery. They were mostly ignored. Parliament reacted in similar fashion to British Quaker abolitionists. What went wrong?
The Quakers were for years one of the most doggedly determined groups in opposing the slave trade. In Britain, they collected over 7,000 pages of statistics. Quakers documented the number of ships involved as well as the percentage of slaves who died in overcrowded vessels making the transatlantic crossing. They bound this data in ponderous books delivered to Parliament. The M.P.s ignored them.
The problem was their prose. Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic insisted in using religious language. This included referencing the Quaker calendar as well as addressing M.P.s as “Thee” and “Thou.” British Quakers made no effort to translate their findings in metaphors or images that M.P.s might understand. “In these practices,” writes Adam Hochschild, a Lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley, “Quakers were unbending. No wonder M.P.s ignored them.”1
The Quakers were partly a product of the times. Their faith tradition dates from the Reformation, a movement that began in the early 1500s and continued until the 1650s. The Reformation launched many faith traditions, including Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and Anglicanism. As the Reformation faded, the Enlightenment emerged. Dating from roughly 1650 to the late 1700s, it had an influence on many of these Reformed traditions. In fact, the Enlightenment contributed to the Quakers’ incoherence.
Mark Johnson, Philip H. Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, believes the Enlightenment introduced a misguided idea – that truth is best expressed in “principles” or “concepts.” Images were considered imprecise and unreliable, which is why Harvard professor and American art historian Joseph Koerner believes the Enlightenment had an inability to accept the ambiguous or metaphorical. Everything had to be perfectly clear and unambiguous.2 As Enlightenment writings influenced Reformed traditions – including the Quakers – Quaker abolitionists chose to convey their information without the aid of images. They presented facts without frames. Their insistence on insider language only added to their incoherence.
I have a feeling a few of my Reformed friends won’t like hearing this, but their faith tradition might be a bit more influenced by the Enlightenment than they care to admit. Don’t get me wrong. The Early Reformers made some wonderful contributions to culture. But Schleiermacher said the Reformation and the Enlightenment have this in common, that “everything mysterious and marvellous is proscribed. Imagination is not to be filled with [what are now thought of as] airy images.”3 Findings from neuroscience are undermining this misguided idea. In his insightful book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Mark Johnson says language is tied to bodily experiences. These experiences create metaphors in our mind, and metaphors make facts meaningful. Learning goes from experiences to images to language.
My hunch is that few Reformed folks see themselves as beguiled by the Enlightenment. Quick example. A few months back I listened to a Reformed author and academician give a lecture on what the Bible says about human nature versus the Enlightenment take. He’s written a terrific book on this subject, noting that “we feel our way though life” – we don’t think our way through it. But he didn’t wrap his lecture around a metaphor. Several times he said we have to “think through” these issues. He never mentioned feeling our way along. In the Q&A period, a young man asked whether the author was using an Enlightenment approach to learning to critique an Enlightenment approach to learning. The author’s long and winding response never seemed to lead anywhere.
Mark Johnson believes “the history of Western philosophy is, for the most part, one long development of the dismissal of metaphor.”4 Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, claims the Enlightenment has trapped Westerners in “a hall of mirrors.” In elevating language over metaphor, Westerners speak and write using all sorts of lengthy language but can’t see the nose on the end of their face. As a friend of mine recently put it, the problem with this problem (i.e., the Enlightenment) is that most people can’t see this problem.
Fortunately, there were British abolitionists who didn’t buy the Enlightenment myth. They included the “patient saints of Clapham,” many of which were Protestants. As Adam Hochschild notes, their work was “one of the first great flowerings” of the belief that the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid depictions – images – of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings. For instance, at William Wilberforce’s request, Josiah Wedgwood made a plate that depicted a slave in shackles, asking the question, “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” The Clapham group used this image frequently at high society dinners to launch conversations concerning the slave trade.
In 1686, Boston minister Samuel Willard urged his church to imagine faithfulness to Christ in metaphors borrowed from things “well known” – familiar things such as business or merchandise. They make the best frames. Willard was echoing ancient wisdom, how meaning is found in metaphors. Jesus spoke in metaphors, in vivid parables about familiar things such as seeds and wheat and soils. These images made sense to the listener. We live in a world with boatloads of problems as daunting as the English Slave Trade, including the sex slave trade. Those who want to change this might benefit from remembering on this day why the Quakers were ignored and the Clapham group wasn’t.
1 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 107.
2 Joseph Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (Chicago: Chicago University Press), 2004.
3 Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. J. Oman (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truber & Co., 1893), p. 126.
4 Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 187.