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Holy Nation

The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution

Early American Quakers have long been perceived as retiring separatists, but in Holy Nation Sarah Crabtree transforms our historical understanding of the sect by drawing on the sermons, diaries, and correspondence of Quakers themselves. Situating Quakerism within the larger intellectual and religious undercurrents of the Atlantic World, Crabtree shows how Quakers forged a paradoxical sense of their place in the world as militant warriors fighting for peace. She argues that during the turbulent Age of Revolution and Reaction, the Religious Society of Friends forged a “holy nation,” a transnational community of like-minded believers committed first and foremost to divine law and to one another. Declaring themselves citizens of their own nation served to underscore the decidedly unholy nature of the nation-state, worldly governments, and profane laws. As a result, campaigns of persecution against the Friends escalated as those in power moved to declare Quakers aliens and traitors to their home countries.

Holy Nation convincingly shows that ideals and actions were inseparable for the Society of Friends, yielding an account of Quakerism that is simultaneously a history of the faith and its adherents and a history of its confrontations with the wider world. Ultimately, Crabtree argues, the conflicts experienced between obligations of church and state that Quakers faced can illuminate similar contemporary struggles.

304 pages | 3 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

American Beginnings, 1500-1900

History: American History

Religion: American Religions


“This book makes a significant contribution to scholarly understanding of Quaker history and casts new light on religion’s role in the development of modern nations. Far from being the quietists portrayed in some scholarly accounts, Quakers responded to the new pressures of nationalism by becoming reformers of their nations. No one to my knowledge has done as much as Crabtree to unpack this interesting history.”

Amanda Porterfield, Florida State University

“Crabtree has presented a strong and compelling history of the Quaker challenge to emergent nationalism during the Age of Revolutions. Well-grounded theoretically and smoothly written, Holy Nation is highly intriguing, is deeply researched, and offers a creative and important intervention in the fields of religious and Atlantic history.”

Kate Carté Engel, Southern Methodist University

"This absorbing and important book reconstructs a radical challenge developed by leading Quakers during the Age of Revolution to emergent ideologies of nationhood and citizenship. Crabtree’s study provides a new and thought-provoking perspective on religious faith as an inspiration for political and social reform in the Atlantic World."

Richard Godbeer, Director, Humanities Research Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

“With rare insight, Crabtree examines the travails and perseverance of the transatlantic community of Quaker ministers during the tumultuous, war-torn years of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She shows how the Quakers’ rejection of violent patriotism often served to strengthen their resolve, and provided them a way to critique the divisive and burdensome concept of ‘citizenship’ that was sweeping the Atlantic world. The Quakers gained some stature and influence, but also generated tremendous controversy, by positioning themselves as a pacifist transnational community during the Age of Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Though Crabtree concentrates on the Quakers, her work has much broader significance, casting light on the politics of this formative era, and the ways religious affiliation could complicate the spread of nationalism.”

Geoffrey Plank, University of East Anglia

“Crabtree has written an original and paradigm-shifting account of Quakers’ relationships to nation-states during the Age of Revolution. Unlike other Christian denominations that shored up and were in turn supported by new governments, the Society of Friends challenged the authority of the nation and its claims to the primary allegiance of its citizens. Quakers gave their fealty to a transnational ‘holy nation’ of believers that superseded the demands of any secular polity, especially when those became exclusive, divisive, and aggressive. Crabtree vividly recounts how Quakers challenged the nation-state and offered a viable alternative. Friends’ primary allegiance to God and to one another put them at odds with nationalist projects that required demonstrations of patriotism on both sides of the Atlantic between 1750 and 1820. Much more than a sectarian history, this study makes a significant and highly important contribution to the scholarship on the intersection of religion and nationalism during the critical decades in which nations were recast and their boundaries of citizenship strengthened. This carefully researched and elegantly written study will interest scholars of religion, nationalism, patriotism, and cosmopolitanism in the revolutionary transatlantic world.”

Kirsten Fischer, University of Minnesota

“Crabtree has produced a provocative and, in most respects, compelling reinterpretation of Quaker history during the period 1750–1830. Most historians have presented this as an era of quietism, in which American Quakers withdrew from government in the U.S., emerging back into public view as humanitarian reformers, opponents of slavery, and advocates of the rights of American Indians, prisoners, and women. Crabtree argues that this was, in fact, a period in which Quakers in both the British Isles and the UK eschewed national allegiances to commit themselves to a vision of a Zion that, in its commitments to peace and eschewal of national loyalties, was at odds with the growing demands of the nation-states in which Friends lived. . . . An important book for historians of Quakerism and the Atlantic world. Highly recommended.”


“Crabtree’s provocative analysis of Quakers’ ‘holy nation’ has given scholars much to consider and to engage in future studies of Quakers in the Atlantic world.”


“Adopting a transatlantic framework, Crabtree claims that Quakers responded to the age of revolution by forging a transnational “holy nation” that transcended the geographical boundaries of emerging nation-states. Although the transatlantic context is not new, the book does provide a fascinating reinterpretation of Quakers in an important period in Atlantic history.”

H-Net Reviews

“Crabtree breaks fertile ground with her look at the Quaker-only schools that placed young Friends behind ‘walled gardens’ to provide an education that would promote Quaker values. Using students’ commonplace books and other school records, she reconstructs a curriculum that taught students to question authority and embrace their ability to change the world, an education that fledging republics were unlikely to embrace. . . . Cosmopolitism threads its way through the last part of the book, as Crabtree explores how the Society of Friends served French and British thinkers as a model for good government, rational religion, and moral economy, even when the reality of the society did not reflect those ideals. Quakers briefly offered an alternative to the inevitable march towards fixed national citizenry. Holy Nation offers a glimpse of what might have been had the Hicksite schism not divided the Society of Friends.”

Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Holy Nation  
Part I: Combat, 1754–89
1. Zion in Crisis: Friends as the Israel of Old 
2. Lamb-Like Warriors: The Quakers’ Church Militant
Part II: Compromise, 1779–1809
3. Walled Gardens: Friends’ Schools
Part III: Concession, 1793–1826
4. The Still, Small Voice: Quaker Activism
5. The Whole World My Country: A Cosmopolitan Society
Conclusion: At Peace with the World, at War with Itself

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