Before the pandemic, the handshake was such a commonplace gesture that you’ve probably never thought much about where it came from. Steve Angell reminds us that, when 17th-century Friends took up the practice of shaking hands, it was a radical rejection of the social norms of English wealth and aristocracy.
Learn more about the history Steve discusses in this interview by reading his Friends Journal essay, “The End of the Quaker Handshake?”
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In an interesting reflection by Rendel Harris, who was a British Friend, he said that the handshake for Quakers is sacramental; that you can feel the love flowing out of the fingertips. I don’t know that everybody feels that way but it was, and it is, a form of human contact that has been not only acceptable but something that a lot of people have treasured as a greeting ritual.
The Quaker Handshake as a Sacramental Practice
I’m Steve Angell. I live in Richmond, Indiana, I teach Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion, and my meeting is Oxford Monthly Meeting in Oxford, Ohio, part of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting.
Quakers had a contentious wrestling over the issue of how to greet one another. George Fox in his journal says don’t say “Good morning” or “Good day” because the day is good without having to say it so. So, the customary– custom in 17th-century England for the rich people, the nobles, was to greet each other in a very elaborate fashion. So the need for was a more egalitarian kind of greeting. In the North country, the North of England where most of the Quakers came from, the plain people really took each other by the hand when greeting and when Quakers came to Pennsylvania, to other parts of the New World, they carried this custom with them. And more hierarchical customs were also carried — so the Anglicans who came to Virginia, they wanted to do the bowing and the scraping of the knuckles along the round that the nobles had done in the old country. But over the long run the simplicity of the Quaker practice of greeting and its egalitarian warmth won out.
Reevaluating the Handshake
I think the first week of March there was a letter sent out from Friends General Conference that addressed the ways that Quakers would need to adapt to the pandemic with the novel coronavirus. When my meeting in Oxford got that we pretty much adapted right away. We have the size of membership and the size of the meetinghouse that allows us to meet in person now with masks and social distancing so that’s what we’re doing, but we’re not– we haven’t resumed the handshake yet.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who’s not a Friend but somebody who many Quakers look up to as an authority, he says, well if I had my way nobody would ever do the handshake again ever because it’s a way of passing along germs. And so I don’t have a neat answer to the conflict that’s being set up between George Fox and Anthony Fauci. It’s really more of a question as to what we want — you know, do we want to resume the practice of the handshake? But what I’m suggesting is that Quakers really haven’t addressed this yet and it’s something that’s worth thinking about talking to each other about as we seek unity on this simple egalitarian practice that has been not often remarked about but still a central part of our fellowship– our religious fellowship for almost four centuries now.
- 1) Should we continue the practice of the Quaker handshake? Why or why not?
- 2) If we were to replace this greeting with something else, what would you suggest and why?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.