Historically, Quakers are known for abstaining from drinking alcohol. What was the reason behind Quaker teetotalism? Was that always the case?
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- As Max Carter tells it, Quakers became opposed to alcohol when it became the “opiate of the masses” during the industrial revolution. What areas of our lives might this apply to today?
- Does your Quaker faith lead you to abstain from any of society’s “excesses”? What does that look like for you?
Do Quaker Drink Alcohol?
That’s an interesting question, as well. For a long time, probably from the early 1800s well into the mid 20th century, if you heard the term “Quaker” you thought abstemious, you thought teetotal. And that was largely the case, but early Quakers drank because it was about the only healthful drink you had available to you.
Drinking in the 17th Century
The water was polluted; it’s what did in the Brontë sisters. Milk you couldn’t cool sufficiently; you’d get rubella from it. So, early Quaker boarding schools actually had breweries on the premises to provide healthful drink for the scholars. And when the Barclay family of Quakers in the 1700s bought the Anchor Brewing Company and Samuel Johnson heard about it, he coined the famous phrase: “This will make them richer than the dreams of Croesus.”
So Quakers had breweries, and they drank alcohol, but in moderation. George Fox himself drank, but one of his early openings, when he was in a tavern and his friends were encouraging him to get into a drinking contest, he said, I’m just not going to be in that silliness. It wasn’t an opposition to drink, it was the silliness of having drinking contests.
Opiate of the Masses: Alcohol in the Industrial Revolution
By the early 1800s, Quaker on both sides of the Atlantic recognized that alcohol was having a devastating impact on society. In England it was a gin-sodden society. People who were suffering—read Marx sometime, Das Kapital—the whole critique of industrial revolution and the crushing lives that people led.
What was that opiate of the masses? For some it was religion. For others it was alcohol, and for some it was opium. In America, it was “the whiskey republic.” And not only because of the crushing—read John Woolman sometime—how he talks about how people who oppress their labor often forced them into drowning their sorrows in drink at the end of a long crushing day of labor. Or, how rum was used to defraud Indians of their pelts and their land. So, he stops selling rum in his store.
But also because, as people settled in the great heartland, the breadbasket of America, on the other side of the Appalachians, before there was an adequate transportation system, they were growing all this corn, wheat, and barley. How do you ship it to those markets in the east? You distill it into hogsheads of alcohol. And we were just awash in whiskey and with all the impact of that: people drinking away their wages, and abuse, and violence.
So, by the early 1800s, as part of a broader Evangelical Christian reform movement, Quakers had become teetotal abstemious, and it’s still a testimony of many Friends not to use alcohol.
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.