Kate Peters's monograph examines manuscript and printed material produced by or about the Quakers in the earliest years of their existence. She demonstrates how Quaker leaders and preachers carefully orchestrated the production and dissemination of printed pamphlets proselytizing their beliefs and promoting godly reformation in the political and religious debates of the 1650s, thereby building a successful national movement. By reading the evidence of letters and other manuscripts in relation to contemporary printed tracts, Peters addresses the pre-denominational history of the Quakers and successfully argues for their political importance in the 1650s. The argument is conducted on two fronts: an intervention into the secular historiography of radical religious sects in the mid-seventeenth century and a contribution to the understanding of print culture in a period of extraordinary print production.
Quaker emphasis on inspired speech and silence and on the importance of personal, inner experience creates an ironic context for the textual production Peters traces. In her first three chapters, she analyzes how leading Quakers used both letters and printed tracts to coordinate and discipline the activity of a relatively large number of itinerant preachers. Letters could take the form of commendations, prescriptions, reports, sermons, or denunciations; pamphlets drew attention to Quaker beliefs and to the persecution of individual Quakers in local circumstances. A core group of eight men wrote or edited most of the printed tracts; their production, and the copying of letters, was similarly overseen by this select group. The texts themselves were often presented as inspired individual speech, sometimes substituting for the presence of an itinerant preacher, sometimes supplementing it. The editorial activity of the few functioned strategically to create a body of exemplary texts on which others might model their own writing, speaking, and behavior. At the same time, the oversight exercised by the de facto leadership allowed for a variety of texts to be carefully and differentially deployed. These general characteristics of the early Quaker use of print are more closely documented by a short case study of pamphleteering in connection with a missionary campaign in East Anglia.
In a second section, Peters focuses on two aspects of the content of the printed tracts. First, she shows how the writers appropriated the disparaging generic term of quaker as a positive signifier of their identity and practice. The appearance of "QUAKER" in large capitals on title pages promoted the identity of the group and instantiated the claim that writers spoke not from their carnal identities but from a divinely inspired "quaking" or "trembling." Second, Peters exposes the tensions around the important presence of female preachers among the early Quakers. The printed tracts consistently stress the spiritual equality of women and allow their fitness for public ministry, but they also reiterate the wife's duty to the husband in conventional terms. [End Page 271]
The careful control of printed representations of Quaker belief and activity allowed the dispersed and itinerant activity of Quaker preachers to seem, and sometimes to be, unified and consistent. The final and longest section of the book addresses the ways in which the printed tracts oriented themselves toward national debate. Rather than entering into debate with their detractors, Quaker pamphleteers refused the form of the debate; instead they promoted a general critique of false ministries and provided lists of questions readers might use to provoke and challenge their ministers. Actual prosecutions of Quakers became the means of presenting critiques of ungodly magistrates and ideals of godly reformation. Tracts written against the Quakers — often accusing Quakers of blasphemy — had the effect of emphasizing both Quaker identity and their commitment to questioning and challenging established authority. Hence both Quaker discourse and discourse about Quakers attest to their importance in setting an example of universal political participation. A final case study on the crisis of James Naylor's ministry and his parliamentary trial in 1656 once again shows how the Quaker print record of the affair carefully stages the consistency of...