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Image Delaware Time Ways: The Quaker Idea of “Redeeming the Time”

Closely related to these attitudes toward work were Quaker ways of thinking about time. In place of the Puritan idea of “improving the time,” and the Anglican notion of “killing the time,” the Quakers thought in terms of “redeeming the time.” This concept of temporal redemption had a complex meaning. Fundamentally, Quakers tried to purge time of sin and corruption. They also sought to raise time above the world.1

The Quaker idea of “redeeming the time” began with a reform in the way that time was reckoned. One of the distinguishing features of the Society of Friends was the special way in which it recorded the passing of the months and days. Quakers abolished the ancient calendar of the Christian West, and adopted a new system which was carefully purged of every vestige of what they regarded as pagan corruption. The traditional names of months and days were abolished as “needless” and “unscriptual.” In Quaker calendars (after the Gregorian reform was adopted), January became merely “First Month,” and December was simply “Twelfth Month.”2 The week began not with an Anglican Sunday or a Puritan Sabbath but a Quaker “First Day,” and it ended on “Seventh Day.” In Quaker diaries and letters, events were dated with the utmost simplicity by this method. “Eleventh of eleventh month, 1758, this day I set out,” wrote John Woolman, in a typical passage.3

During the seventeenth century, these customs had been kept by many sects of Christians, including English Puritans, who disliked the pagan origin of the calendar and found a warrant for their numbering system in the Book of Genesis.4 But this custom of numbering rather than naming the months and days took root specially among the Quakers. For many years after the founding, court records and other public documents in Pennsylvania and West Jersey continued to be dated in this manner.5

In company with other groups of radical Christians, including the Puritans in New England, Quakers also abolished many religious holidays. They did so partly because these celebrations seemed corrupt and “needless” to them, and also for a deeper reason. “All days are alike holy in the sight of God,” Robert Barclay declared. William Penn agreed, “ … we utterly renounce all special and moral Holiness of Times and Days.”6

Quakers also condemned traditional English folk festivals such as May Day, which they regarded as a corrupt and pagan event, inconsistent with “Truth.” Even Christmas was excised from the Quaker calendar, as it had been by the Puritans. The Leeds meeting,for example, urged its members in 1702 not to keep Christmas as a family holiday:

Friends of this meeting having under their serious consideration of days and times set up in the times of darkness and ignorance, which since we were a people we have born testimony against; but whereas some amongst us have not been so cleare in their testimony against the observation thereof as they ought: Therefore in the love of god and zeal for the Truth we advise all friends of our meeting that they be zealous in their testimony against the holding up of such days. And that they keep their servants at work, as also they do not go themselves nor suffer their servants to visit their relations at such times.7

The redemption of time had yet another meaning. Like the Puritans, Quakers were deeply interested in making the best use of time, which they regarded as a precious and perishable gift. They marveled at the ways in which other people squandered time. William Penn’s writings included many disquisitions on the value of time. On one occasion, he wrote:

There is nothing of which we are apt to be so lavish as of time, and about which we ought to be more solicitous, since without it we can do nothing in this world. Time is what we want most, but what, alas, we use worst, and for which God will certainly most strictly reckon with us when time shall be no more.8

On another occasion he argued:

What would such be at? What would they do? And what would they have? They that have trades have not time enough to do the half of what hath been recommended. And as for those who have nothing to do, and indeed do nothing (which is worse) but sin (which is worst of all), here is variety of pleasant, of profitable, nay, of very honorable employments and diversions for them. Such can with great delight sit at a play, a ball, a masque, at cards, dice, etc., drinking, reveling, feasting, and the like, an entire day; yes, turn night into day and invert the very order of the creation to humor their lusts. And were it not for eating and sleeping, it would be past a doubt whether they would ever find time to cease from those vain and sinful pastimes till the hasty calls of death should summon their appearance in another world. Yet do they think it intolerable and not possible for any to sit so long at a profitable or heavenly exercise?9

Like the Puritans, the Quakers tended to seek precision in their reckoning of clock time. In the inventory of Edward Astell, a Cheshire Quaker who died in 1680, the most valuable item of personal property was a “brass clock” worth two pounds ten shillings—twice the total value of his plate.10 From as early as 1670, Quakers in the Pennines were making wooden clocks for households unable to afford any other instrument.11

More than their neighbors, the Quakers were morning people. They carefully organized their daily routines and kept schedules which contrasted sharply with the time ways of Virginia gentlemen. Edward Shippen in 1754 described the temporal routine of his household as follows:

My son Jo [Joseph Shippen] and myself rise every morning at about Sun rising, having prepared over night some dry hickory for a good fire—we then sit close to our business til close to 9 o’clock and we find that we can do more by that time than in all the rest of the day. …

We eat so moderately, without tasting a drop of liquor, that the whole day seems like a long morning to us. …

That we may be sufficiently refreshed with sleep, we have agreed upon ten o’clock at night for going to bed and so after eating a light supper and drinking a little wine we lay ourselves down with light stomachs, cool heads and quiet consciences.12

This Quaker idea of a routine which made “the whole day seem like a long morning” would have filled many an English gentleman with horror.

In some of these temporal attitudes, Quakers and Puritans were very much alike. But there were also important differences between the two Protestant denominations. Quakers were at special pains to avoid what they called the idolatry of time. It was not a Quaker who said that “Time is Money,” but the Boston-born son of New England Puritans. To become totally absorbed in the affairs of the world was for a Quaker to lose sight of the main thing. They often reminded themselves of “the uncertainty of temporal things.”13

They did not believe that one should devote every possible minute to one’s calling. A Quaker naturalist named John Rutty often upbraided himself in his diary for devoting too much time to his work. One day he wrote: “Instituted an hour’s retirement every evening, as a check to the inordinate study of nature.”14

Quaker aphorisms also generally condemned haste. William Penn’s proverbs had a distinctly different tone from those of Poor Richard:

Have a care therefore where there is more sail than ballast.

It were happy if we studied nature more in natural things. … Let us begin where she begins, go her pace, and close always where she ends.

Be not rash, but firm and resigned.

Busyness is not our Business.

Choose God’s Trades before men’s.

So soon as you wake, retire your mind into a pure silence, from all thoughts and ideas of worldly things.15

Time, for Quaker moralists, was too important to be squandered on haste. The American Quaker John Woolman, on a visit to England, was shocked by the obsession with speed which he observed in that society:

Stagecoaches frequently go upwards of one hundred miles in twenty-four hours; and I have heard Friends say in several places that it is common for horses to be killed with hard driving. … Some boys who ride long stages suffer greatly in winter nights, and at several places I have heard of their being frozen to death. So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth the creation at this day doth loudly groan.16

Quakers took a longer view of their temporal condition. They were deeply conscious of their place in the continuum of generations, and described themselves as “trustees” of the world.

Do we feel an affectionate regard to posterity? And are we employed to promote their happiness? Do our minds, in things outward, look beyond our own dissolution? And are we contriving for the prosperity of our children after us? Let us then, like wise builders, lay the foundation deep …,17

The time ways of the Quakers were closely linked to their faith, and to the forms of a culture which they planted in the New World. The rhythms of life among Friends in the Delaware Valley differed from those of Massachusetts Puritans and Virginia Anglicans, but were similar to the time ways of England’s North Midlands.

A leading example was the season of marriage. In the seventeenth century, every Western culture had its “marrying time,” which was deeply embedded in its temporal folkways. In New England, as we have seen, the season of marriage showed a single peak in the late fall and winter—much as in East Anglia and the south of England. But the Quakers came in large numbers from the North Midlands, where the pattern of marriage had long been different, with two peak periods in the spring as well as the fall.18 This Midland pattern was transplanted to the Delaware Valley, where the marriage cycle also became bimodal, with two high seasons from March to May and September to November.19

Other differences in Delaware time ways appeared in the conception cycle. In the households of New Jersey Quakers, fertility varied less through the year than among Virginia Anglicans or New England Puritans. Magnitudes of monthly variance in conceptions (and probably in coitus) were much lower than in other cultures, with only a vestigial trace of the spring peak and summer nadir which appeared throughout Christian Europe. In the jargon of social science, Quakers “deseasonalized” fertility before other people. This pattern was connected to Quaker attitudes toward sex within marriage: particularly to sexual asceticism and to their exceptionally early adoption of fertility control. Here again, the Quakers differed from their neighbors to the north and south.

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