Wanna’ rent a movie from Amazon? How ‘bout Quakers—That of God in Everyone, a 2015 documentary co-produced by Cincinnati Friends Monthly Meeting. The film begins with the stars of Quakerdom—George Fox and William Penn. As I heard how Penn bought land from the Indians and established freedom of worship in Pennsylvania, well-known historical facts, I prepared myself for a narrative that would bore me with what I already knew. And, in fact, most Friends will be familiar with the basic “plot” of the documentary, which characterizes Quakerism by its anti-slavery and peace testimonies. However, because the documentary does not dwell on the most famous American Quakers but concentrates on lesser-known figures from Cincinnati or southwest Ohio, the presentation of these two historical strands was fresh and interesting.
Quakers was quite accurate but lacked the qualifications and subtlety of well-done historical writing. Although Friends were universally opposed to slavery after the late 1700’s, not every Quaker farmhouse was a stop on the Underground Railroad; the film undervalues the efforts of the slaves themselves as they escaped, often with little help from others. And although the peace testimony is foundational for Quakerism, there have always been Friends who reject absolute pacifism. The tone of the documentary might lead the uninitiated to believe otherwise.
However, the only serious historical defect in Quakers is its treatment of Indian boarding schools. Although Friends were undoubtedly well-intentioned, their education of Native Americans was not the humanitarian success depicted by the film. In fact, Friends committed a kind of cultural genocide by attempting to civilize the Indians. They wanted to save the children by destroying the Indian in them, and that traumatic experience has reverberated through generations of Native Americans. (See this article by Paula Palmer.)
Technical aspects of the documentary are well done. The content is presented with old photographs or film clips supplemented with line drawings. The commentary by various members of Cincinnati Meeting is informative; and Thomas Hamm, professor of History at Earlham College, succinctly summarizes the film’s message: “If it were proper for Quakers to be proud, I think we’re entitled to be proud for the many ways that we work to try to make the world a better place….”
Quakers: That of God in Everyone can be rented for $2.99 from Amazon Prime Video, but the complete film may be accessed free of charge HERE on YouTube.
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