Sarah Crabtree is Assistant Professor of History at San Francisco State University. This interview is based on her new book, Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2015)
JF: What led you to write Holy Nation?
SC: Initially, I had planned to write my dissertation on the influence of gender ideology on the Quaker ministry, but I changed my focus for two reasons. First, as I combed through Public Friends’ private and public writing, the language of “holy nation” kept appearing and re-appearing as they attempted to sort through the radical changes in their spiritual and political lives. It was clearly an important scriptural touchstone for these eighteenth-century ministers and I wanted to understand the concept and its political implications more fully. At the same time, contemporary debates also shaped my analysis as conversations about religion and national identity and patriotism and dissent dominated the political landscape in the mid-aughts. The deeper I got into my primary sources, the more I became convinced that the Friends’ holy nation – a transnational community of committed pacifists – provided a way of re-casting the foundations of the geopolitical nation-state, the people that governed them, and the obligations of citizenship.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Holy Nation?
SC: I argue that during the Age of Revolution and Reaction, the Religious Society of Friends forged a “holy nation”: a transnational community of like-minded believers committed first and foremost to divine law and each other. Quakers declared themselves citizens of this cosmopolitan nation to underscore the decidedly unholy nature of the nation-state, worldly governments, and profane laws and, as a result, campaigns of persecution against them escalated over this time period as those in power moved to declare them aliens in and traitors to their respective countries.
JF: Why do we need to read Holy Nation?
SC: I attempted to speak to several different audiences with Holy Nation. First and foremost, I wanted to enter into dialogue with those political and religious historians who have examined how the ideologies of (as well as the adherents to) religion and nationalism co-existed with and even complemented one another during this time period. As I argued, however, there has been relatively little focus on the ways that religious people attempted to challenge both the exclusive nature of emerging definitions of citizenship and the increasingly narrow boundaries of community. I therefore hope that Holy Nation will contribute to a growing conversation about alternative, more cosmopolitan visions of identity available to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century peoples as well as to the acknowledgement of a broader spectrum of political engagement in revolutionary politics than typically explored.
Holy Nation is also an Atlantic study, as it follows over 110 itinerant ministers (almost evenly divided between men and women) across the Atlantic World. When I first started researching this project, I had a map hanging on my wall with different colored pushpins and yarn to mark their journeys. It quickly turned into a knotted mess, but it provided a visual analogy for my study. I wanted to bring to life the interconnected nature of this religious society and to demonstrate the ways it existed outside of the somewhat artificial and arbitrary boundaries we sometimes impose on the past. An Atlantic framework allows me to demonstrate the diasporic and cosmopolitan nature of their identity and community.
For those interested in nineteenth-century reform movements and/or network theory, Holy Nation argues that the Friends’ transatlantic community provided the ideological and logistical foundations for the anti-slavery movement as well as universal peace, public education, woman’s rights, and a host of other benevolent organizations and causes. Quakers, I argue in the latter half of my book, provide a useful example of the potential for a small, marginalized, and diasporic community to effect significant political change.
Finally, I really, really hope that Holy Nationwill dispel the idea once and for all that eighteenth-century Quakers were passive and neutral (at best) or secret Anglophiles (at worst). I argue against these mischaracterizations in my book, highlighting the ways that Society members continued to be very much engaged in worldly politics. The image of the silent, drab, withdrawn Friend needs to be erased from history books (and oatmeal boxes)!
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SC: I was an early convert (pun intended). I had the fortune to study with wonderful and smart teachers and professors at every level of my education who helped me understand the power of the past to interpret the present and to change the future. I am impassioned by my work with students, and I try to help my students connect with all of the very ordinary people in the past who have set in motion very extraordinary change.
I also love primary source research, and I continue to be so energized and inspired by the enthusiasm of archivists and librarians at the places I work.
JF: What is your next project?
SC: I am writing a graphic history tentatively titled Whaler, Traitor, Coward, Spy: William Rotch, the Quaker ethic, and the Spirit of Capitalism. William Rotch, who I discuss only fleetingly in Holy Nation, was a wealthy and (in)famous whaler from Nantucket who was accused of treason by four different governments in three different countries in less than two decades. It begins by highlighting my argument about Friends’ transnationalism – Rotch understood himself to be a citizen of the world and refused to recognize the authority of any of the wartime governments under which he lived – but it then also seeks to integrate this worldview with the new, globalized understanding of political economy that emerged alongside of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wars for independence and empire. I am particularly interested in whether Quakerism complemented or challenged the ideology of capitalism. Did he reflect the era’s belief that the market economy would assure peace and equality as a way of integrating these logics? Or was Rotch, essentially, an early transnational capitalist off-shoring his business empire to avoid paying tariffs? Or did he envision a more radical stance in which religion challenged the very logic of capital?
JF: This sounds great. Thanks for participating in The Author’s Corner!