Holcomb on Crabtree, 'Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution'

Sarah Crabtree
Julie Holcomb

Sarah Crabtree. Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution. American Beginnings, 1500-1900 Series. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 304 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-25576-7.

Reviewed by Julie Holcomb (Baylor University) Published on H-Pennsylvania (June, 2017) Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward

Sarah Crabtree examines the response of British and American Quakers to the revolutionary events of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The chronological scope of Crabtree’s work (1754-1826) is bracketed by two significant events in American Quaker history: the “reformation of American Quakerism” and the Hicksite schism of 1827-28.[1] Adopting a transatlantic framework, Crabtree claims that Quakers responded to the age of revolution by forging a transnational “holy nation” that transcended the geographical boundaries of emerging nation-states. Although the transatlantic context is not new (Frederick B. Tolles wrote about Quakers in an Atlantic context in the 1950s), the book does provide a fascinating reinterpretation of Quakers in an important period in Atlantic history.

Crabtree examines the ways in which Quakers resisted and recast transatlantic nation building, thus challenging traditional historical arguments that describe “a cooperative and reciprocal relationship between religion and state power” (p. 6). Friends rejected the rhetoric of national identity and “objected to the ways that champions of nationalism and patriotism often infused their jingoistic rhetoric with religious imagery” (p. 7). Crabtree divides her study into three sections and five chapters examining how Quakers constructed their “holy nation,” a cosmopolitan transnational community of believers who pledged allegiance to divine law rather than any nation-state.

Crabtree is at her most persuasive in the first two sections of Holy Nation. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on the period of the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. Quakers’ political withdrawal during the 1750s freed them to create a new vision of nation, one that was spiritual and transnational in nature. This “holy nation” served as the basis of Quakers’ redefinition of heroism. The revolutions of the late eighteenth century introduced the idea of the citizen soldier, linking militarism and nationalism and deepening the connection between masculinity and citizenship. Quakers like William Savery challenged these ideas by describing true heroism as “resisting war and waging peace.” Yet, as Crabtree persuasively argues, these arguments failed “to sever or even challenge the connection between masculinity and bravery or between service, sacrifice, and citizenship” (p. 85). Instead, she asserts that Quaker ministers (the “church-militant”) continued “to explain and experience the ideals of bravery and sacrifice in profoundly gendered terms” (p. 87). Indeed, “much to the Society’s dismay,” the connection between “citizenship, military service, and masculinity persisted” even after the wars ended (p. 88).

The second section of Holy Nation, consisting of a single chapter, focuses on Quaker schools, which Crabtree describes as “walled gardens” that reinforced students’ connection to the Society of Friends. The unique curriculum and pedagogy of Quaker schools, like Westtown, “perpetuated the alternative definitions of citizenship and allegiance as well as the resistance to worldly law and authority espoused by the Quakers’ Zion tradition” (p. 105). In this discussion Crabtree contributes much to our understanding of Quaker education in this period.

Despite these strengths, Crabtree’s work is marred by imprecision. Although lengthy footnotes help document and amplify her argument in some areas of the text, there is in other areas a lack of documentation. For example, in a discussion of Quakers’ response to the American Revolution, the text cites individuals who were critical of Quakers’ disengagement from political matters, including named persons like Thomas Paine and unnamed “observers [who] decried the refusal of Quakers to participate in nonviolent demonstrations” (p. 74). She also notes the continued resistance of individual Quakers, including Henry and Elizabeth Drinker, Solomon Haight, and John Haddock, who suffered reprisals for not supporting the patriot cause. Yet none of this evidence is cited. In another instance, Crabtree mentions briefly the efforts of Quakers who refused to consume West Indian sugar and cotton. Crabtree neither cites her source for this information nor provides a reference to any Quakers who took such a stance against slave-labor goods. A reference  to Geoffrey Plank’s work on John Woolman would have been helpful for readers who were unaware of this form of Quaker activism. There are also several errors of fact or ambiguous references. This is particularly evident in her discussion of the Hicksite schism of 1827-28, which she describes as a “mid-nineteenth century” event (p. 70). She also mistakenly dates Henry Clay’s visit to Richmond, Indiana, to “the contentious years before the split” rather than 1842 (p. 207). Finally, numerous times Crabtree writes “several scholars” in the text but provides a footnote to only a single historian. For example, in her discussion of the “power of combination,” she cites only Christopher Leslie Brown’s Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (2006) (p. 145n29). This inexactness renders this work less accessible to nonspecialists and students.

These criticisms are not meant to dissuade readers from Holy Nation. Crabtree’s provocative analysis of Quakers’ “holy nation” has given scholars much to consider and to engage in future studies of Quakers in the Atlantic world.


[1]. Jack D. Marietta, The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748-1783 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984).

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Citation: Julie Holcomb. Review of Crabtree, Sarah, Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews. June, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48709

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