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Image Delaware Sport Ways: The Quaker Idea of Useful Recreation

Libertarian as the Quakers may have been on many questions, they were exceptionally intolerant on the subject of sport. The statutes of Pennsylvania forbade many forms of sport outright, under threat of severe criminal punishment. Its laws agreed upon in England banned “all prizes, stage plays, cards, dice, may games, masques, revels, bull-baitings, cock-fightings, bear-baitings and the like.”1

Most colonies in British America enacted laws on the subject of sport, but none were quite as strict as those of Pennsylvania. The legendary blue laws of New England paled by comparison with those of the Quaker province, which gave their courts unlimited power to punish any sort of amusement “which excites the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness and irreligion.”2

Quaker meetings also acted to restrain their members from idle pursuits of every kind. The Yorkshire quarterly meeting warned its members “to shun all publick diversion (of the bowling green, long room or any other places for plays, gaming or dancing) or any vain sights and shows whatsoever not agreeable to the gravity of our profession.”3 Morley meeting added an anathema against the “running of races” as “unfruitful works of darkness.”4

Quakers also deeply disliked the ball games that flourished in New England. Anne Cooper Whitall was much provoked when the men in her family amused themselves with a ball. “O how I have been grieved this day because of their playing at ball,” she wrote in her diary,”[I] do believe that they [don’t know what] ‘tis to be a Quaker.”5

Much as they detested these “needless” games, the Quakers reserved their deepest disapproval for blood sports. They insisted that no person had the “right to make a pleasure of that which occasions pain and death to animal-creation.”6 Killing for the pot was permitted; killing for pleasure was absolutely condemned. The York quarterly meeting delivered a testimony against unnecessary hunting as “not only vain but cruel … inconsistent with the feelings of humanity and the duties of Christians.” It warned darkly that Friends who continued to hunt would be “dealt with.”7

Quakers also opposed horse racing, mainly on the grounds that this sport was cruel to the animals by “over-forcing creatures … beyond their strength.”8 They condemned even exhibitions of captive animals as hurtful to their feelings. When a traveling showman exhibited a baboon in a barrel to the people of Pennsylvania, Quaker diarist Elizabeth Drinker took a peep and wrote, “ … it looked so sorrowful, I pity’d the poor thing, and wished it in its own country.”9

During the eighteenth century, underground blood sports began to appear in Philadelphia. Butchers in the Northern Liberties even introduced bullbaiting. But that brutal sport was stopped by a courageous mayor of Quaker upbringing, “Squire” Wharton, at some considerable risk to his own skin:

He went out to the intended sport seemingly as an intended observer … when all was prepared for the onset of the dogs he stepped suddenly into the ring, and calling aloud, said he would, at the peril of his life, seize and commit the first man who should begin; at the same time calling on names present to support him at their peril, he advanced to the bull and unloosed him from the stake. He then declared that he would never desist from bringing future abettors of such exercises to condign punishments. They have never been got up since.10

For all their hostility to blood sports and needless games, the Quakers were not totally opposed to physical diversion. Though they generally condemned the idea of “sport,” they encouraged other forms of “recreation” which they regarded as “useful” and “needful.”

Quakers gave much encouragement to recreation as a form of physical exercise. William Penn urged that “children can’t well be too hardy bred: for besides that it fits them to bear the roughest Providences, it is more masculine, active and healthy.”11 Quaker schools required physical exercise as part of the curriculum. George Fox at his death left the Philadelphia meeting sixteen acres, partly to be used “for a playground for the children of the town to play on.”12

For similar purposes, Quakers also encouraged “needful” and “useful recreation” among adults. They were among the first people in America to take up swimming and bathing. They also cultivated ice-skating in the winter, a recreation which became immensely popular on the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. “During the old fashioned winters,” Watson wrote, “ … the river surface was filled with skaters of all colours and sizes mingled together and darting about here and there.”13

Quakers also allowed hunting and fishing for subsistence, and made a point of extending opportunities to the entire population. The “laws made in England” guaranteed to all inhabitants “liberty to fowl and hunt upon the lands they hold, and all other lands therein not enclosed; and to fish in all waters in the said lands … with liberty to draw his fish on shore on any man’s lands.”14

Perhaps the most characteristic form of recreation among the Quakers was gardening, a “gentle recreation” which attracted many members of this culture. They argued amongst themselves in their accustomed way about the comparative morality of raising vegetables, fruits and flowers, but many devoted themselves to horticulture with an extraordinary passion. Historian Keith Thomas writes that “the early Quakers were often buried in their gardens” and that the Society of Friends produced “a quite disproportionate number of botanists, plant-collectors and nurserymen.”

Quakers such as Peter Collinson and John Bartram became leading horticulturalists in both England and America.15 But even with their interest in “needful” and “useful” diversions, Quakers never imagined that avocations were the important things in life. William Penn, as always, summarized their attitudes in an epigram. “The best recreation,” he wrote, “is to do good.”16 These people also found their higher forms of “re-creation” in activities which other cultures called work.

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