When people think about religion in politics, they usually associate it with the right-wing. But there are other religious traditions that have spoken out against oppression and authoritarianism, and one of the most prominent, from the movement to abolish slavery to movements against war and for civil rights, has been the Society of Friends, or Quakers.
The Kendal Sparrow, a fictionalized life of early Quaker Elizabeth Fletcher, explores the roots of Quakerism and shows how its resistance to the powers that be was part of the reason that the movement spread.
In mid-17th century England, fresh out of civil war, there was no separation of church and state; the newly ascendant Presbyterians (whom we know in U.S. history as Puritans) required church attendance and financial support by the common people. Churches were controlled by local landowners, who endorsed a gospel of acquiescence to authority.
In this setting, all political argument was religious. A number of dissenting religious groups that were more radical than the established church had formed during the civil war. One of the most militant was the Friends, followers of George Fox, who preached that the Bible was not the ultimate source of truth, and that instead one must pay attention to the voice of God as you heard it inside yourself.
Fox was a radical who believed that God spoke to women and men equally, to the poor as well as the rich. He rejected all signs of deference, whether in speech, doffing hats, or having servants take their meals in the kitchen. The gospel he preached was one of voluntary simplicity, ostentation being a sign of pride and class distinction. Quaker meetings and process were democratic and noncoercive, the opposite of established religious organizations.
One of those convinced by Fox was Elizabeth Fletcher. At the age of 15, she set out to preach this new religious philosophy, covering hundreds of miles across the length of England, eventually traveling to Ireland — a distant and dangerous place in those days — to spread the word. For a woman to preach in public was challenging enough. But Fletcher and her fellow Friends didn’t confine themselves to preaching in the marketplaces and town squares; they walked into church services and spoke against the authority of the ministers, telling the standing parishioners (only the rich could sit in pews) that they’d be better off listening inside themselves and that they didn’t have to attend the compulsory services. Fletcher and her fellows had chosen to confront religious authorities in what now would be called nonviolent civil disobedience.
Punishment was usually swift – Quaker preachers, male or female, were harassed by vigilantes and sentenced in court to be horsewhipped and jailed in dire conditions, often for long periods of time. Women were stripped in public as a form of humiliation. Quaker families were sanctioned, with their property confiscated and their goods excluded from local markets.
Despite the repression, the new philosophy spread. Fletcher was harassed, jailed, groped, horsewhipped, concussed, and received a stomach injury she never fully recovered from, but she also found sympathetic people who had heard her and other Quakers and who were willing to help her, nurse her back to health, and support her. One could speculate why enough people were attracted to Quaker philosophy that the group survived and grew in spite of repression – Luetke portrays a combination of compassionate argument, sympathy sparked by the harsh treatment the Quakers received, and a social situation in which people were ready to listen to arguments for class and gender equality and religious freedom.
All these elements are present in the novel, but don’t completely explain the degree of commitment that Fox and his followers sparked among people. One might think of the movements of the 1960s as comparable — a time when, unexpectedly, subversive ideas caught fire among youth and the general population.
Elizabeth Fletcher was an active preacher for only a few years. Then she was laid low by ill health from unhealed injuries, and possibly tuberculosis contracted during a time in jail. Because of the shortness of her career, the arc of the story seems truncated. Fletcher has barely come into her own when her career is over. This is a danger in a biographical novel, especially one that avoids flashbacks and sticks to the chronological order of events.
Not much is known about the historical Elizabeth Fletcher. Luetke’s straightforward prose serves well to fill out what Fletcher’s life outside her ministry may have been like, providing details of 17th century life and imagining that as a poor, illiterate farmer she may have drawn more on her experiences with the natural world than on a Bible that she couldn’t read. Luetke creates a family that could raise a person like Elizabeth Fletcher.
The novel is carried by this account of a teenage, unmarried, peasant woman being moved by the idea that her insights were not only as valid as anyone else’s, but cause to challenge established authority in spite of the severe consequences.
In that, she could be a model for all of us.
Read the full Jan. 1-7 issue.
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