Do Quakers Drink Alcohol?

By Brian Lemay No comments

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. 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. 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.

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