Simplicity, Equality, and Slavery

An Archaeology of Quakerism in the British Virgin Islands, 1740-1780

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John M. Chenoweth
Florida Museum of Natural History: Ripley P. Bullen Series
  • Gainesville, FL: 
    University of Florida Press
    , March
     266 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John Chenoweth is a historical archeologist whose recent book offers important insights on the history of Quakers in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), particularly in regards to the tenets of pacifism and simplicity, and in relationship to the institution of slavery. Specifically, “the goal of this project is to tell the story of the community that came together in 1740 but moreover to help us understand how they negotiated the contradictions of religion, race, economics, geography, and social status through their daily lives” (18). Chenoweth successfully and vividly brings this community to life, unearthing its shared fellowship as well as its tensions and contradictions. These insights shed important light on a small group that has long fascinated Quaker historians.

The author found the Society of Friends in Tortola a particularly fruitful group for study, as they were a marginal religious sect in a marginal British colony. BVI inhabitants, Chenoweth argues, were “later, sparser, and more informal and unrecorded than the colonial core” (40). Also important to his analysis is the fact that these plantation owners were poorer than many of their counterparts in other British colonies, and certainly poorer than those in the metropole. Chenoweth persuasively demonstrates the importance of these aspects of the community, highlighting the ways in which Tortola Friends often felt isolated, ostracized, and persecuted. He also casts necessary light on the economic tensions within the small community and argues persuasively that the end of the group in Tortola could have resulted from a disagreement about Friends’ relationship to non-Quaker white colonists and enslaved people.

Chenoweth gleans important insights about this small and short-lived Quaker community through his adroit reading of material evidence, and his careful speculations when there is a lack of material evidence. He mines much of his evidence from the plantation of the Lettsom family, of special interest to anyone familiar with famed British physician and philanthropist John Coakley Lettsom. He also incorporates findings from preliminary digs at the Friends’ meetinghouse and burial ground, comparing these sites with information recovered from both non-Quaker sites on the island and Quaker sites on the mainland. I found his juxtaposition of the gun spalls, butt plates, and gun loops found on Quaker sites with members’ writings about and experiences with the Friends’ peace testimony in chapter 5 to be particularly fascinating. Similarly, in chapter 7, Chenoweth offers surprising and compelling insights regarding Quaker ideas about and the practice of the tenet of simplicity by contrasting the wear patterns on porcelain fragments used by white Quakers’ with those used by enslaved peoples. Finally, his judicious reading in chapter 6 of the absence of writing materials in the archeological evidence provided important insights about the overlapping hierarchies of power inside and outside of the meeting. His reflections on simplicity and equality are thus essential for Quaker historians, and demonstrates how essential archaeological evidence is to a proper understanding of Quaker history.

The last piece of Chenoweth’s title refers specifically to changing Quaker attitudes toward the institution of slavery, and it should be noted that the book contains only brief discussions of the lives of those enslaved on Quaker-owned plantations. His discussion of Friends and race (whiteness) is original, sophisticated, and important. In a particularly deft section, “Walking in Two Worlds: Public and Private Quakerism,” Chenoweth perceptively explains how Quakers—a sect famous for its commitment to equality and its later involvement in abolitionism—embedded themselves within a culture and identity of whiteness (164).

These windows into the lived practice of Quakerism are essential for religious historians and reveal important truths about how members both interacted with one another and enacted Friends’ doctrine in their everyday lives. In this way, Chenoweth’s work is more than a community study, serving as a broader meditation on “the nature of the religious group itself, as a composite of action and idea” (18). In his introduction, he explains his book “is an extended example” of applying practice theory to religious identity (2). Engaging with Catherine Bell’s theory of ritualization, he is particularly interested in exploring the distance between a religious sect’s rules of discipline and the routine behavior of its adherents, asking important and probing questions about how practitioners interpreted and navigated their faith in their everyday lives. “What is done by those who are seen as members,” he argues, “continually defines and changes what it is to be a member” (174). This approach allows for a more dynamic and adaptable understanding of the interplay between religious adherents’ faith and practice, reminding scholars that religion is not “static sets of beliefs that members do or do not enact correctly” (174). Chenoweth asks similar questions about religious community, exploring the ways that coreligionists actually enact and experience it. His focus on what he calls the “daily moments of community” (191) is particularly persuasive, with extensive and thoughtful analysis of why the Quaker community might have appealed to eighteenth-century BVI residents.

Simplicity, Equality, and Slavery locates itself at the intersection of religious history, Caribbean history, and the history of British slave-holding. Scholars pursuing any of these topics will find Chenoweth’s work useful and interesting, although it will be helpful to have some degree of background in these subjects. Chenoweth familiarizes readers with Quaker history, faith, and practice and offers an effective overview of BVI history, but the specialized topic of the book may require some readers to refer frequently to the extensive appendixes.

As a historian, I found compelling Chenoweth’s insistence that “the study of religion must be archeological. It must concern itself with what people, in different unique and situated moments, actually do as a result of (and thus creating) their religious community” (17, emphasis original). I think scholars of religion will find his methodology, evidence, and argument thought-provoking and persuasive.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Crabtree is associate professor of history at San Francisco State University.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John M. Chenoweth is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.


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