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Lucretia Mott, the Brazen Infidel

By Greta Anderson.

Born in 1793, Lucretia Mott was raised a Quaker in Nantucket, Massachusetts. The faith had made inroads on that island almost a century before when Mary Starbuck, a prominent woman merchant and civic leader, discovered that Quakers espoused the equality of the sexes.

Still, even the Quakers had something to learn from Lucretia. When she became a teacher at the Quaker boarding school she attended, she discovered that the girls received less education than boys, for the same tuition. She also discovered her salary was half that of her male colleagues. The administration was likely not surprised to hear her views on these matters. She had been known as a spitfire, and one whose passions were always focused on issues of justice.

Lucretia married at age 18 and moved to Philadelphia, where she set up her own Quaker school. Within a year, the student body increased from 4 to 40. Bearing six children of her own did not move her from this mission, but losing one of them did. She found herself sharing her grief at her congregation's worship times. In Quaker meetings, parishioners may speak at length on topics of the spirit. Lucretia's intelligence and passion had a new outlet in her eloquence. She was encouraged to join the ministry, and did, at the age of 25.

Lucretia became a minister at an exciting time in American religious history. The "Great Awakening" was underway, putting the Bible at the center of an emotion-driven Christianity. At the same time, William Ellery Channing, one of the founders of Unitarianism, was leading Christianity in another, more rational, direction. In 1818 he delivered his landmark sermon, "Unitarian Christianity," in which he proclaimed that the Bible was but a book, and should be interpreted in historical context. This belief resonated with Lucretia's developing conviction that Bible worship was a dangerous thing.

Nothing illustrated this idea more potently than slavery and its apologists. Lucretia was incensed to hear preachers justifying slavery on the basis of the Bible, and wrote, "It is the grossest perversion of the Bible." Yes, slavery was represented in the Hebrew scriptures (Yahweh even gave the Jews some rules about how to treat those slaves: for instance, freeing them every fifty years!). Yet that did not justify slavery forever and for always.

The more she preached against slavery, the more Lucretia felt the rifts in her own Quaker religion. Quakers are, and were, ardent promoters of justice, but they are also peacemakers. To some of her fellow Quakers, "peace" meant "neutrality" not stirring up trouble. But Lucretia could not remain silent on the most important moral issue of her day. She forged ahead, demanding immediate, rather than "gradual", emancipation of slaves, inspiring and forming alliances with the leading abolitionists of the day, such as Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Unitarian Lydia Maria Child.

Lucretia Mott preached of the inner light of truth, and lived by that light. Her husband had a business selling cotton cloth. Cotton was produced by slaves. Thus, his business was indirectly promoting the institution of slavery. At great financial sacrifice, they switched the business over to woolen goods. They had already stopped wearing cotton or using cane sugar.

As a woman, Lucretia could not join the American Anti-Slavery Association. Not to be deterred, she and others formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Men—even some prominent liberal preachers—howled in protest at this new public role for women. Some men went further than that. When the society gathered at Pennsylvania Hall for its annual meeting, a mob attacked the women on their way in and set fire to the hall.

Mott was demonized in the press, as well, particularly for walking in public with Blacks, inviting Black guests to her home, and other acts that were against city code. But this "brazen infidel," who preached at Black churches as well, had earned a special place in history.

Lucretia was the sole woman to speak at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, a role she did not particularly relish, as the rest of the women were forced to sit behind a curtain, literally out of sight of the male delegates. She, meanwhile, sat on a throne-like chair at the center of the assembly, a "lioness" as onlookers described it.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the women who were cordoned off and she approached Lucretia about helping her address this other great injustice. Their collaboration led to the Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls in 1848. Throughout the long campaign for women's rights, Mott found herself preaching against the same religious fundamentalists who thought the Bible justified treating women as property.

Mott died in 1880. At her funeral, there was a very long silence, as often happens in Quaker meetings. Finally, someone broke the silence, saying, "Who can speak? The preacher is dead."

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Last updated on Wednesday, November 9, 2011.

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