The limits of the light: silence and slavery in Quaker narratives of journeys to America and Barbados

Hilary Hinds

in George Fox and Early Quaker Culture

Published by Manchester University Press

Published in print August 2011 | ISBN: 9780719081576
Published online July 2012 | e-ISBN: 9781781702383 | DOI:
The limits of the light: silence and slavery in Quaker narratives of journeys to America and Barbados

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This chapter focuses on the seventeenth-century Quaker presence in transatlantic English colonies in the Caribbean and North America. Its starting point is a puzzling discrepancy between Quaker accounts of visits to Barbados and those to the American mainland: while the latter are detailed, complex and recognisably constructed around the same kinds of oppositions and alliances as are to be found in the accounts of English journeys, the former are short, general and often bland. Why, when the terrain, the social structures and the cultures must have been equally strange to visiting Friends, was there such a disparity of textual engagement? An answer is found in the ambivalent Quaker response to the Barbadian slave-owning economy, in which Friends themselves actively participated. While the commitment to spiritual equality was advocated as strongly as ever, there was, equally, a commitment to the status quo of the social order. Rather than the inward light dissolving the boundary between the social and the spiritual – such that the one is read as a dimension of the other, linked through the frequently reiterated assertion that God is no ‘respecter of persons’ (see Acts 10.34; Romans 2.11; Ephesians 6.9), as was more typically the case – here instead the assertion of spiritual equality is maintained separately from the upholding of a system manifestly dependent on an absolute ‘respect of’ or distinction between, persons. It is argued, therefore, that the capacity of the early Quaker conception of the inward light to dissolve boundaries and fuse categories here met an unusual and unwonted limit, with the result that the seamlessly continuous culture of the early Friends faltered in its unerringly inclusive remit.

Keywords: Quakers; Society of Friends; English colonies; Caribbean; North America; slaves; social order; spiritual equality; inward light

Chapter.  12493 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)

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