Friday, June 22, 2007

It's been a longer, stranger trip that we may have realized

The Friend to whom I gave a ride to Northern Yearly Meeting mentioned to me that the recent edition of Quaker History had two articles she thought would interest me. One, by Mitchell Santine Gould, was entitled "Walt Whitman's Quaker paradox" and discussed Whitman's closeness to, but non-membership in, Quakers. The short of it is that, in Whitman's own words, "I was never made to live inside a fence."

The article discussed four aspects of Quakerism, of the Hicksite flavor especially, that Whitman shared:

1. Like Whitman, many radical reformers were culturally recognized as "Quaker" without being members. This trend reflects a general diffusion and secularization of Quaker testimonies in society.
2. Like Whitman, Quakers could sometimes be sexual liberals.
3. Like Whitman, Quakers based their liberality upon "liberty of conscience."
4. Like Whitman, the Hicksite schism itself defended the sanctity of human "passions or propensities."
Though there was little new or surprising in the article, it does tie things together and make connections that I hadn't made before, and I enjoyed it.

But the article that really caught my eye was by Mary K. Matossian and entitled, "Why the Quakers Quaked: The Influence of Climatic Change on Quaker Health, 1647-1659." Not what I'd call a snappy, engaging title, but the topic was fascinating.

In sum, the author conjectures that much of the quaking and other unusual mental, physical, and behavioral states exhibited by Quakers in the mid-17th Century were symptoms of a central nervous system disease called ergotism, a form of fungal poisoning from a fungus that grows on rye grain and flour. Because of generally cooler winters and warmer summers and adequate rainfall during this time period (caused in part by reforestation and a decline in population), rye flour was particularly susceptible to ergot, and this being the primary grain in the areas of England and classes from which Quakers were drawn, the author's hypothesis is that many of these early Quakers were affected by ergotism and thus exhibited the strange behavior often observed during that time.

When I first heard of the article, a whole series of light bulbs went off in my head. I had often thought that many of the descriptions of early Friends meetings sounded to me an awful like LSD and mescaline experiences I have had, and how much the massive social (and political and religious) upheaval in Britan 1650s and '60s reminded me in general of the 1960s in the US and elsewhere. And here's the explanation that puts the two together: The Early Quakes were on low-level doses of LSD (which, of course, is derived from rye ergot) and this enabled them to break through the prevailing paradigm to a radically different quality of life and experience, just as it did for millions of my generation in the 1960s.

The article doesn't fit my hypothesis precisely; the author focuses more on the quaking, epileptic-type symptoms of ergotism than on the integrative, peaceful, insightful ones experienced with psychedelics. But there is enough data here to persuade me to keep my mind open at least that there may have been a psycho-chemical aspect to the Quaker movement that explains not only their radical vision but also their gradual (though incomplete) assimilation into the fabric of English Protestantism.


David S. said...

"Ergotism" you say, I thought they were Quaking because of "egotism" -- or more precisely the conviction therof by that Light which showed it to them.

Paul L said...

Yeah, I noticed the similarity of "ergotism" to "egotism", too.

Also, to "argotism", a condition where a group uses language in peculiar ways to keep their communication unintelligible.

Liz Opp said...

As a peculiar people, we sure do seem more and more peculiar as we get to know ourselves better!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up