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.
11 thoughts on “Do Quakers Drink Alcohol?”
Max was my Dorm head when I attended Earlham in the early 70s. It is a thrill to see him talk on these posts, as I always liked Max, and it’s such a pleasure to hear him talk. He was so tolerant of the things we did. Times were changing, and we were one of the first coed dorms on campus. We raised hell, but never suffered too many consequences from Max. He could have made my life miserable if he wanted, however he put up with me and my friends and we had a wonderful time at Earldom. Thank you Max! We all love you for that. I hope we didn’t put too much of a hamper on your family life. God bless you!
Do Quakers drink?
This one does. LOL
What is referred to as the Craft Beer Revolution has grabbed me.
I’m a homebrewer and I love drinking well crafted beers, though not in excess.
The question for me is, can we tolerate diversity in our Meetings when it comes to questions like these? Why do we ask if Quakers drink instead of, “do I choose to drink or do you choose to drink?”
A very nice thing about finding Friends is that my social circle is now full of people who don’t even blink (let alone mock) my non-drinking ways.
Many Friends were leaders of the Temperance Societies
A thoughtful and well-presented video, as far as it goes. However, it leaves Friends a century or two ago. This is a pity, because an underlying theme is that Friends have changed with the times, yet it fails to show how Friends’ views on drinking have continued to evolve. At a time when it’s not uncommon for non-Friends to think that Quakers are all dead, this sort of presentation does not serve us well.
The English word “temperance” as in “moderation or self-restraint, especially in eating and drinking” was seized upon by the Temperance Movement to mean “abstinence” which is actually a different concept. Abstain from eating and drinking, and you die pretty quickly. The NPYM query at the start of the video only asks if our use of alcohol is “addictive” whereas I’d say Quakerism is more about “temperance” in its purer sense: moderation in all things. This dharma applies to many more possible “addictions” besides alcohol. Addictions lead to “silliness” of the kind George Fox sought to avoid (alluding to the video) i.e. avoidance and escapism. Quakerism is not escapism; it encourages serious-mindedness. That’s my reading of our current advice on this topic.
A temperance bar has opened in Urmston, Manchester, UK, sparking interest in the ‘history of not drinking alcohol’. I am not a Quaker, I’m interested in history. I was under the impression that Quakers refuted alcohol originally because men were once deliberately intoxicated to get them to sign up for the (English) army in the 1600s. As Quakers are peaceful folk, alcohol was therefore to be avoided. Is this your understanding, too?
‘Early 1800s’ is not really correct. At that time the three largest breweries in London (and hence the world) were Quaker owned, along with many other famous breweries and wine-importers. They didn’t suddenly shut down. The abstinence movement did not hit Friends until Victorian times, and in Britain it was never a requirement for Friends to abstain. I have found reference to only three 18th century Friends who abstained. Can anyone find more than that?
I don’t understand the argument that alcoholic drink was used just because all water was polluted. If the water contained pathogens, boiling would fix that; if it contained toxins, then using it for beer wouldn’t help – you’d still get poisoned.
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