Quaker Universalist Voice

Speaking truth in the global public square…

Quakers Half Right

A Book Review of Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England

Keith Thomas, in  In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England (2019) provides the information upon which Quakers can conclude that Quakers in the 17th century were half right on plain speaking and half wrong.   Quakers were right in emphasizing the heart courtesy and sincerity in their practice in speaking and bodily deference gestures, but Quakers were wrong in denying the validity of the human solidarity values of the many false words and ritual courtesies that bind humans in community. In this vindication for Quaker half-humility, this book is a valuable contribution to Quaker discernment.

This book is full of insights and reader occasions for reflection about human community building for peace and justice. Do the ends of civil peace justify sustained, ritual lying in informal and formal social interactions? The author says, “Yes!” What canst thou say? 

The author is pro-civility and anti-Quaker insight, but appreciates the Quakers’ historic role in pressing against the excesses of the then-hierarchy of manners and class-defined rituals of social intercourse.  Quaker contributions in emphasizing sincerity and egalitarianism and opposing the excesses of social hierarchy were valuable and had beneficial cultural effects.

The English held odd and evolving beliefs about civilized behavior, contrasting with their views of the barbarous/savage behavior of the many others.  The upper social classes tried to separate themselves from their local social inferiors by distinctive ways of moving, speaking, and comportment.  Their social inferiors developed their own forms of civility.  Together, the civility consequences were bloody for their relations with the “savage” Welsh, Scots and Irish nearby and all foreigners, including native peoples of North America, India, and Australia.  They believed fervently in the superiority of their civilization and, with this myopia, forged and lost an empire.

So, the next time you greet a teacher, police officer, principal, or physician (or write a letter using Dear, Yours truly, and Sincerely), remember this book and the Quakers who linked faith and practice into heartfelt sincerity at a huge social price.

The book provides a good index and detailed, but slightly frustrating, endnotes.  The Table of Contents is clear and helpful for the reader in following the argument.  The picture on the book cover deserves repeated meditation.

This is a really valuable book.

Quakers: Quakers have a significant role in this book as clarifiers of the application of civility in 17th century Britain. Quakers were prominent and scandalous cultural disruptors. Quaker testimonies and witness were consequential for the culture of Britain and beyond.


  • How do we justify knowing and using falsehoods in our daily social interactions?
  • What are the consequences of abandonment of Quaker plain speech?
  • How do Quaker parents teach Quaker youth about social comportment values and practicality in modern culture?


Add a Comment