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Ellen’s Review Corner: Holy Nation

By Ellen Michaud

Sarah Crabtree’s new book Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution is a gift that allows Quakers to see with fresh eyes what we do, how we’re perceived, and who we are.

Sarah Crabtree

Tossing Sarah Crabtree’s Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution on top of the pile of books strewn across my cottage’s dining room table, I picked up my coffee, leaned back in my chair, and wondered where on earth this author had come from.

The clarity of her writing was exceptional. Her intuitive understanding of when to shift the reader into a new space before he or she could get bored or tangled in historical minutia remarkable, and the book read like a fast-paced detective novel. But on every single page, I had filled the margins with questions, exclamation points, arguments, asterisks, and my own special notation system for what-the-heck?

I looked out the window into the forest, watched the light of a summer sun dancing through tall pines, and thought about what I’d been reading.

Until I’d picked up Sarah’s book, I had been packing up my “library”—about 400 books that lined the shelves of my dining room—in preparation for a move to California. Most of the books I was giving away. But the 100 or so books on Quaker faith and practice, memoir, history, sufferings, and Friends’ testimonies—plus several of Phil Gulley’s novels and a copy of A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook with Elizabeth Ellicott Lea’s 1845 thoughts on “domestic cookery”— all those books that I had particularly treasured through the years were on the table under Sarah’s book, ready to be packed.

Holy Nation by Sarah CrabtreeRandomly looking through the pile as I sipped my coffee, I puzzled over just how Sarah’s book was different from the rest, particularly the histories. It took awhile, but I finally realized that, drawn from nearly 10 years of scholarship within the Quaker collections at Swarthmore, Haverford, and Westtown, plus various historical collections both here and abroad, Sarah’s combination of research, thought, clarity and sheer writing ability had allowed me to see how others—particularly those who are not part of a Quaker community—may view Friends’ actions in the past, the present, and into the future. And although, as she writes, she did not intend her book to serve Friends directly, it is actually a gift that allows us to see what we do, how we’re perceived, and who we are with fresh eyes.

Focusing on the tumultuous years between 1754 and 1826, the questions she addresses within its pages are complex. Did the peace testimony evolve as an extension of our early Christian heritage? Or was it simply a politically expedient solution to the increasing anger among those in Britain who saw our deep beliefs and passionate activities as a threat to their own power?

Did Friends’ schools evolve out of a commitment to change the world? Did they come into existence to offer an alternative way of being in a violent, war-prone society? Or did they develop to proselytize and strengthen the foundations of the Religious Society of Friends?

And what about our social activism? Was our collaboration with “benevolent organizations” to effect social change after the American Revolution simply a post-revolutionary defensive ploy to smooth over conflicts with those in power who felt threatened by our lack of nationalism? Or was it a practical attempt to build an infrastructure that would allow others with a more acceptable public posture to move forward the social reforms to which we felt led?

These are fascinating questions. But although I appreciate the fact that Sarah’s work allows us to look at our past in fresh ways, that doesn’t mean that I think she’s right in some of the conclusions she draws from her scholarship.

For one thing, there’s very little acknowledgement in her book that Quakes are led in one direction or another by the Light, nor even an indication that she understands what following a leading entails. Instead, she often seems to attribute our efforts to create a more loving world to the notion that we’re doing it simply to make sure that we, as an organized religion—“a holy nation”—survive.

As you might suspect, that last postulation met with several pungent comments written into the margins of her book. Yet Sarah’s straightforward questions have allowed me to see us as others might. They have allowed me the grace of understanding why others perceive us as they do, and caused me to examine our actions over the centuries with new eyes, question those same actions myself, and see how the answers I discover might influence actions I take as a Quaker today and into the future.

A Holy Nation is highly recommended for book discussion groups that are not afraid to light a fire under their participants and have them re-examine who they are and where they’re going—both individually and as members of the Religious Society of Friends.

The book is pricey—around $45—so meetings may want to buy a few copies that can be shared among their members.

Ellen Michaud is the editor-­at­-large for Live Happy Magazine, and the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, which was named the #1 spiritual/inspirational book of the year by USA BookNews. She is also an alumna of the School of the Spirit’s program on contemplative living and prayer, a past writer­-in­-residence at Earlham School of Religion and the former book review editor of Friends Journal.

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