Was Walt Whitman a Quaker?

by Howard Nelson
Poplar Ridge Meeting


When asked if he was a Quaker, Walt Whitman said “No,” and added, “I was never meant to live inside a fence.”  But he had strong Quaker roots and connections. His maternal grandparents were Quaker, and his mother was greatly influenced by her Quaker background. She brought that influence with her when she married and became the mother of a large family—eight children, the second of which was Walt. Walt’s father, also Walter, was more of a free-thinking anti-religionist, but that didn’t stop him from being an admirer of the most well-known Quaker of his day, the traveling minister and reformer Elias Hicks. Quakers will recognize Elias Hicks as the namesake of one of the factions of the schism in Quakerism that began in the 1820s and in some ways carries down to this day.


Hicks surfaces in Walt Whitman’s life very early and very late. When he was almost seventy, he wrote an essay on Hicks, which begins with a memory from when he was ten.  The family had moved to Brooklyn, where Father Whitman was working building houses:  “I can remember my father coming home toward sunset from his day’s work as carpenter, and saying briefly, as he throws down his armful of kindling blocks with a bounce on the kitchen floor, ‘Come, mother, Elias preaches to-night.’”  Whitman adds, “As I had been behaving well that day, as a special reward I was allowed to go also.”  What the ten-year-old boy saw and heard stayed with him for life. In the essay he presents Hicks as ‘Exhibit A’ for the religious element in humanity, pointing to “the fountain of all naked theology, all religion, all worship, all the truth to which you are possibly eligible.” 


Back to the fence. Was it Quakerism itself that Whitman objected to, or was it religion in any form? Or that thing that many people don’t like to think of themselves as being part of—even as they are partaking of it, participating in it, perhaps planning the next potluck supper—organized religion? 


It might have been Quakerism itself. One of the things that Elias Hicks had strong feelings about was whether Friends should be involved in the world of worldliness. His image was not of a fence but of a hedge, and he was in favor of keeping the hedge that surrounded Quakerism well maintained. He wrote: “I fear there is a considerable number under our name of this description, who not only love the world, but also its friendships, manners, maxims, policies, customs, fashions, vanities, pleasures, and amusements, yet like to bear the name of Quaker because it has become honorable among men. Alas! How much better would it be for the Society and the promotion of Truth if it was still a name of reproach among men!” Whitman was a boy when he was mesmerized by Hicks’ preaching, and when he was an adult he loved to be mesmerized by all of those things on Hicks’ list. You could find him in Pfaff’s beer cellar, a Manhattan restaurant that was a gathering place for writers, artists, and bohemians. You could find him at the opera, about as far as you can get from simplicity and silence: “I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,/ Ah this indeed is music—this suits me….The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,/It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possessed them….” Not for Whitman a lifestyle that denied such pleasures and amusements, and not for him a Society that defined itself by being set apart, a reproach among men. 


Elias Hicks died almost 200 years ago, and Quakerism has taken down many (most?) of its hedges. Hicks had other qualities beside his tendency to sternness and moral judgment. Whitman always admired him, and when he came to set down his old-age thoughts about religion, he set him alongside George Fox as a paradigm of the essence of it. Where was that “fountain of all naked theology”? Whitman said, “in yourself.” It is “the light within,” the “inner light.” He struggles a bit in his essay to define it, but he believed, as fervently as Hicks and Fox, that we all have it.


Quakers and Quakerism are not mentioned much in Whitman’s poetry—hardly at all.  In his big poem “Song of Myself,” in Section 33, one of Whitman’s long lists, he gets on a roll with the word “pleas’d,” and right after the line “Pleas’d with the homely woman as well as the handsome,” comes “Pleas’d” with the quakeress as she puts off her bonnet and talks melodiously.” A little later, in Section 43, Whitman gives a truly wild account of the history of religion world-wide, and in it, among references to things Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, and to traditions and practices older than any of them, quietly slip in the lines, “sitting patiently in a pew” and “waiting dead-like till my spirit arouses me.”  I think those are Whitman’s nods to Quakerism.


He was not a Quaker, did not belong to any denomination, and was not a church-goer. (If you want to see Whitman in church, see “Sunday with the Insane,” in his prose collection Specimen Days.) But Whitman honored the religious impulse, and when he mentions or evokes Quakerism he does so with respect and affection. In the introduction to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, he gives what we might call his “advices.” Some have a Quaker ring to them, such as “take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men,” and “nothing is better than simplicity.” Another one—not sure if this is Quakerish or not—is, “Argue not concerning God.”  That might be one where the practice of silence is especially helpful.