1. Can you share a bit about the "Holy Nation"? What is the main thrust of the book and what led you to this topic?
I actually planned to write a dissertation on the experience of traveling Quaker women, a study more in line with Rebecca Larson’s Daughters of Light. I started reading the journals and letters of 18th-century Public Friends, looking for ways in which male and female ministers' experiences ‘on the road’ were influenced by prevailing gender norms. Instead, however, I became fascinated by the frequent (Scriptural) references they made to a “holy nation,” and their warnings/pleas to audiences that Quakers could not allow themselves to be torn apart by worldly events.
My book grew out of my attempts to understand the meaning of this phase and its political implications in the 18th-century. Essentially, I argue that Friends saw themselves as part of a “holy nation”: a transnational community of like-minded believers united in opposition to unholy governments and laws.
Let me refer directly to the longer, but hopefully relevant passage in the book: "Quakers’ identities were thus not only separate from but in opposition to that of the nation during this critical period, and this positionality represented a triple threat to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century governments. First, Friends’ primary political identity was invested not in the nation or the empire but rather in a loose, transatlantic alliance of Society members. They maintained more intimate relationships with Friends thousands of miles away than with their nearest neighbors, thereby undermining the idea of a united citizenry. Second, Quakers were united in opposing many of the governmental practices used to secure and exert state authority. They universally refused to fight in or fund the revolutions and wars advanced by these politicians and instead offered financial, physical, and emotional support to one another across “enemy” lines. They also rejected emerging definitions of citizenship, refusing to heed calls for patriotic devotion and sacrifice. And finally, Friends’ activism often underscored the distance between the promise of democracy and the practices that violated it. Their continued and open resistance to militia musters and drafts, their refusal to pay wartime taxes and levies, and their public condemnation of the government’s tacit sanction of slavery exacerbated the tension between Society members and political authorities. In these three ways, Friends’ holy nation challenged the common supposition that religion and nationalism were mutually constitutive during this period and demonstrated instead the role of religion in questioning the form and character of the nation-state and offering concrete alternatives."
2. What relationship do you have with Friends, if any?
I don’t have any formal affiliation or relationship with Friends. After I finished my dissertation in 2007, my father made a passing comment regarding my choice to write about our ancestors. I was totally taken by surprise, as he had somehow never mentioned to me that his grandmother belonged to (his words) “the quiet people."
3. Why do you think this work is important for understanding this period of American history and/or for understanding Quakerism?
I firmly believe that this period in American (and Atlantic) history is crucial to understanding the modern world. Concepts that many people now take for granted – the state, citizenship, nationalism – were still being formulated during this period and, as such, were also hotly contested. And not just along the lines of which candidate to vote for or an insistence that “peace is patriotic.” People wondered whether or not one should participate in government at all or if patriotism was even something to which one should aspire. I think the range of political possibilities has narrowed since then and there remains something useful in remembering these alternatives. In Holy Nation, for example, I explore how a more transnational orientation would help us think differently about policies regarding citizenship, education, and social justice.
In terms of Quakerism, the events of this period had a lasting impact on the Society of Friends. Friends withdrew from formal politics and membership declined dramatically, greatly affecting those members who remained. I also don’t think it is a coincidence that the Orthodox-Hicksite split directly followed this period. I talk about this in Holy Nation, but I think the tension surrounding questions of trans/nationalism played an integral role in the schism.
4. How did you come across William Rotch, and what is important about him?
My dissertation advisor (Lisa Norling) mentioned Rotch to me after I had already started my work on Friends and transnationalism. She had run across his attempts to declare Nantucket neutral in the war and to relocate his whaling operations to France during her research for Captain Ahab had a Wife. I wrote a little about his story in Holy Nation, but I thought it deserved a longer and more in-depth treatment – partially because of its fantastic nature, but more because I think Rotch can reveal something important about the relationship between nationalism and political economy.
After reading a draft of my dissertation, a professor in grad school pushed me to think more about transnationalism and cosmopolitanism. Specifically, he argued that current interpretations of/efforts on behalf of transnationalism favor corporations seeking to avoid labor and environmental protections, paying taxes, etc. William Rotch was an incredibly wealthy man and he did often try to avoid paying tariffs and taxes! But he also sacrificed a great deal (personally and financially) to honor his religious principles. I therefore thought he would be a way of trying to understand the connection between religion, wealth, and the state at this crucial moment when modern transnational capitalism is still in its infancy.
5. What more can we expect out of your work on his history?
I am in the beginning stages of writing a graphic history (tentatively titled “Whaler, Traitor, Coward, Spy!: William Rotch, the Quaker ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism.”). It will focus on the period of Rotch’s life from 1775 – 1805 during which he moved from Nantucket to France to Wales to New Bedford,
6. Do you think the qualities you identify among Friends in this period are limited to that era?
No. Certainly, Friends today hold a wide range of religious beliefs and a broad set of political principles. But I do think there is an overarching commitment to social justice that has continued from this period to the present. I also suspect there remains a complex relationship with and to the state (both on the part of many Friends and on the part of the government!)
7. What might the Friends you have studied say to Friends today?
Again, I’m an outsider, so I know more about 18th-century Friends than 21st-century Friends. And I am always struck at the diversity of beliefs and practices among Friends today. With that said, I think that the people I write about would recognize and commend the continued commitment to social justice among modern Friends. At the same time, most of the Friends that I studied were involved in the so-called "Quaker Reformation” and thus perhaps the strictest adherents to (18th-century) Quaker faith and practice. I think that they would therefore be surprised at the degree to which Friends today are part of society.
8. Any thoughts on what comes after Rotch?
My next book-length project is about education in the early national period. I became very interested in Quaker guarded education when writing the third chapter of Holy Nation. I plan to write a book comparing them with other models of 19th-century education: early public schools, Sunday schools, the Lancastrian system, military schools, etc.