I feel duty bound to write a post defending the honor of 17th century Quaker grandees. Their reputation has suffered enough. The Quakers had (still have?) a tradition of discouraging intra-Quaker litigation in the secular courts. In England, Quaker eschewal of litigation was founded in part on the religious inaccessibility of the courts. Courts required oaths, and Quakers, taking Christ’s admonition in the New Testament to “swear not” literally, refused to take oaths. Once the Quakers started founding settlements in America, however, this problem went away, as Pennsylvania law allowed for “affirmations” in place of oaths, an explicit religious accommodation that eventually found its way into the Constitution. Nevertheless, Quaker sermons and pamphlets continued to insist that Friends should resolve their disputes amicably before the Monthly Meetings of the Society rather than sue in the secular courts.
In his book Of “Good Laws” and “Good Men”: Law and Society in the Delaware Valley, 1680-1710, William Offutt compared the records of the Monthly Meetings with the local court records to determine the extent to which Quakers actually lived up to their own sermons. What he found was that despite the nominal threat of excommunication for filing suit against another Friend, Quakers were quite enthusiastic about suing one another. Looking at the records of the Monthly Meetings, in turn, he found that congregational leaders were more likely to “sue” other congregational leaders before the Monthly Meetings but that Quaker leaders were perfectly happy to sue ordinary Quakers before the secular courts. Offutt rather archly suggests that the reasons for this had to do with the (hypocritical) desire of Quaker elites to maintain their images with other Quaker elites. Economics, however, suggests a more charitable reading of the actions of Quaker leaders.