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American Quaker Romances (review)

Sue Friday
On Healers (September 2023)
American Quaker Romances
written by Carolina Fernández Rodríguez
reviewed by Sue Friday

The scholarly study American Quaker Romances: Building the Myth of the White Christian Nation examines a relatively small subgenre of novels characterized as American Christian historical romances. The thirty-nine novels included in this book met the criteria of presenting Quaker heroines and using Quakerism in their plots. The book illuminates ways that Quakers have been commodified to promote specific cultural values and ideas that might not be consistent with Quakerism.

Rodríguez begins with an introduction to Quakerism and Quaker history, as well as a survey of scholarship on historical secular and Christian romances. She notes that the books in her study are all set between the 17th century and World War II. By the end of that timeframe, Quaker distinctiveness regarding speech and dress had almost completely disappeared. Some of the novels were intended to be “inspirational.” A large percentage were published in the late 20th century by evangelical presses; others were published by secular presses. The largest number were published in the early 21st century, dominated by non-Quaker evangelical authors.

A large market for secular romance novels had developed in America by the mid-1980s, characterized by steamy sex scenes. Socially conservative Christian authors reacted by producing family-friendly, inspirational, historical romances. These were occasionally set among communities of Quakers, a denomination known to have been historically morally upright and “White.” Quaker heroines could exhibit a greater level of agency than other “White Christians,” giving the heroines more scope in roles to allow for dynamic plots. (The book’s entire second chapter examines the novels’ treatment of gender roles, “Straddling the Border between Conservative and Progressive Ideas.”) Quaker women traveled about without male escorts, and they are described as having come to the rescue of Blacks, Native Americans, and Jews. According to Rodriguez, these romances appropriate Quaker culture to promote the myth of an exemplary “White Christian” national past.

The Christian right is a loose coalition which has championed many causes over time, including Bible reading and prayer in schools, prohibition of abortion, opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (written by Quaker Alice Paul), opposition to gay rights, proselytizing to Jews and other non-Christians for conversion, and opposition to arms limitations. They have also been vigorous in promoting a federal tax exemption for donations to segregated schools. According to historian Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, Whites in certain parts of the country flooded into segregated private schools. The “charitable” status of these schools was eliminated by a court decision in 1969, and the religious right has been fighting that decision and using that issue to grow its base since the early 1970s.

Rodriguez examines the issue of racism in the novels’ plots and in the ways that Blacks are treated (or ignored) as characters without depth. This analysis leads her to the conclusion that “historical romances offer a way of articulating present-day conflicts . . .that were inadequately or unsatisfactorily closed in the past . . .” Whitewashing or ignoring real issues in novels (such as racism) puts the conflicts to rest for readers. Of course, among real Quakers today, racial discrimination remains an active issue that we must address.

In many ways, early Quakers exhibited traits and behaviors that coincided with the “Christian” values promoted by the religious right. Quaker women were known to be chaste. In early New England, Quakers had significantly lower rates of pre-marital pregnancies than were found in other communities. However, the authors of most of these romances chose what they wanted from Quaker culture and left the rest behind. While Quaker women did have relatively greater freedom to choose their own spouses, many of the non-Quaker male heroes described in these novels would have been profoundly unappealing to most Quaker women – men outside the faith, military men, and former slave-holders.

Among the books examined in this study are a few written by actual Quakers. This allows for an instructive comparison. In the novels by Quakers, the authors typically attempt to educate the reader about Quakerism and sometimes provide information about the historical sources they used. Non-Quaker authors often conflate modern evangelical religion with historical Quakerism and make factual errors in their descriptions of Quaker practice, belief, and behavior.

We can thank the Carolina Fernández Rodríguez for showing us how the selective appropriation of Quaker culture distorts our history.  ~~~

Sue Friday is a Quaker historian in Berkeley, California.

Quaker history Quaker image Carolina Fernández Rodríguez

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