William Lloyd Garrison’s description of English Quaker philosopher Jonathan Dymond overflows with the hyperbole that typified that great Abolitionist’s enthusiasms:
Dymond is - alas! (for he is now dead) was a prodigy among mankind - the Lord Bacon of our times. His mind was like the sun in its glory, seldom showing the least obscuration. Its amplitude was vast, its power almost super-human, its perception wonderful. The field which he occupies in his essays covers the globe, and embraces the whole human race.1
Given that the name and work of Jonathan Dymond are now primarily relegated to footnotes, the world-historic magnitude that Garrison profusely bestowed on him requires a more precise historic understanding. Despite - or perhaps because of - Dymond’s youthfulness when he wrote his Essays on the Principles of Morality, he captured the fervour and fever of 1820s England: its heady brew of Romanticism mixing with the increasing cultural relevance of the dissenting sects, and underlying rapid agricultural and industrial change. His ardent tone in the Essays, combining moral certitude with sympathy for the oppressed, provided philosophic rationales for numerous nineteenth-century movements for social change in the United States: the abolition of slavery, the education of women, the movement against capital punishment and, above all, the cause of peace. Dymond’s thought fitted the moment, but, to do so, it had to transcend sectarian bounds. The story of how his writings seeped through transatlantic channels, ecumenically diffusing into moral reform movements, involves an interesting cast of characters, from high-profile figures such as Garrison to people often invisible to history: young white and African-American women.
Jonathan Dymond was born in Exeter in south-west England in 1798. His family line had long Quaker roots, ranging from ancestors punished for conscience’s sake to apostates who joined the armed forces.2 Both of his parents - John Dymond and Olive Hitchcock - were public ministers.3 Jonathan Dymond attended Quaker schools and the family’s social life was ‘almost exclusively among those who were “in the Society”.’4 In 1822 he married the Quaker Anna Wilkey. They had two children: a daughter, Mary Anna, and a son, Charles Jonathan.5 But this strong Quaker milieu did not prevent Jonathan, his brothers and their father from engaging with the Bible Society’s efforts; in this they were part of a growing rapprochement between evangelical Christians and Quakers around social reform issues, including the abolition of slavery.6
Never strong of body, indeed ‘delicate and puny’, Jonathan was teasingly dubbed ‘the philosopher’ by his brothers when young; he made good on that moniker when he produced his first essay, ‘An Inquiry into the Accordancy of War with the Principles of Christianity’, in 1823.7 This pamphlet attracted attention, going through two revised and enlarged printings in 1824. Dymond attended a General Meeting of the London Peace Society in May 1824, where he made enough of an impression to be nominated as a ‘Non-resident Member of the Committee’, a position he held for the remainder of his life. The following year he helped found the Exeter Auxiliary of the Peace Society.8 The throat disease that would take his life had its onset in 1826, when he was working on his Essays; his sickness often left him mute. When he died in May 1828 the Essays were essentially complete, but still in need of editing, which his brother William and his widow Anna undertook.
This wisp of a life - not even 30 years long, with few outward events marking it - strums some tragic Romantic-era chords. But it was the content of the Essays, not Dymond’s biography, that made him significant for the era. Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind constitutes a Quaker-infused, yet universal, systematic moral philosophy.
As the Essays started to circulate, influential ‘thought-leaders’ - both inside and outside the Friends - gave their approbation. The most noteworthy British review came from poet laureate and stalwart Tory Church of England conservative Robert Southey. Writing in The London Quarterly Review, Southey opined that
the present work is one which the society (of Friends) may well consider it an honor to have produced; it is, indeed, a book of such ability, and so excellently intended, as well as executed, that even those who differ most widely, as we must do, from some of its conclusions, must regard the writer with the greatest respect, and look upon his death as a public loss.9
What were the contents of Dymond’s moral philosophy, and what was his method that merited this level of respect from as notable a cultural broker as Robert Southey? Dymond’s ethical code eschewed epistemology, preferring to unapologetically and unreservedly accept God’s will as the measure of our moral parameters. But for any Quaker - even one from an evangelical-leaning branch like Dymond, whose family was involved in Wilberforce’s Bible Society10 - the will of God is not expressed solely in imperatives. The introspective nature of the Inner Light allows for a modicum of latitude. While America’s Immediate Abolitionists insisted on the absolute nature of slavery’s evil, they did so through a strategy of ‘moral suasion’ that called on people to engage in soul-searching in renouncing slavery and racial prejudice. Dymond’s thought, with its balance between a strong external moral code and internal divine voice, would provide rich fodder to the intellectual and emotional rationales of American reformers.
Dymond’s position on war, for instance, influenced Garrison’s radical non-resistance.11 Taking as his ground the fact that Jesus prevented violence during his arrest at Gethsemane (Matt 26:52), Dymond asks ‘if, in defence of himself from the hands of bloody ruffians, his religion did not allow the sword to be drawn, for what reason can it be lawful to draw it?’12 Dymond further argued that ‘defensive war’ was an empty category, philosophically:
with whatever motives of defence one party may have begun the contest, both in turn become aggressors. In the fury of slaughter soldiers do not attend, they cannot attend, to questions of aggression. Their business is destruction, and their business they will perform. If the army of defence obtains success, it soon becomes an army of aggression. Having repelled the invader, it begins to punish him.13
Dymond wrote that for people to renounce war and the means of violence entirely would be a form of Christian witness (even if also an invitation to martyrdom): ‘Christianity … wants men who are willing to suffer for her principles.’14 Dymond’s logic, via the amplification of his thought by the Abolitionist movement, made an impact on an all-star cast of pacifists, including Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Norris Groves (and, through him, the Plymouth Brethren), Alexander Campbell, Rufus Jones, Charles Sumner and, of course, William Lloyd Garrison.15
On most moral issues Dymond staked out positions with clear-cut distinctions between right and wrong. His perspective on abolition was quoted approvingly by Garrison and Lydia Maria Child:
The supporters of the [slave] system will hereafter be regarded with the same public feelings, as he who was an advocate of the slave trade now is. How is it that legislators and public men are so indifferent to their fame? Who would now be willing that biography should record of him, - This man defended the slave trade? The time will come when the record, - This man opposed the abolition of slavery, will occasion a great deduction from the public estimate of weight of character.16
This frank disdain for the slow pace of social change fits within the central intellectual battle in the Essays: Dymond’s explicit desire to unseat the prominence given to William Paley (1743-1805), whose moral philosophy had become standard in academies and colleges.17 Paley, imbued with Lockean notions, famous for his ‘watch-maker’ God analogy, was a political realist who did not look for the same level of morality from nations as from individuals. Most centrally, Paley had endorsed expedience as a defensible moral choice in most circumstances. Dymond, by contrast, cleaved to the example set by Jesus, rejecting any expediency that would place mere human reasoning before the dramatic example of Christ’s own rejection of violence and acceptance of self-sacrifice, whether for individuals or nations. This proved appealing to jaded Romantics such as Southey, radicals such as Garrison and women activists, for whom claims to a moral higher ground constituted their primary source of political capital.
The transit of Dymond’s work to North America occurred along two apparently parallel tracks: Southey’s essay and Quaker transatlantic networks. Boston served as the entry port, with multiple notices of the London Quarterly Review in local newspapers in late March and early April of 1831. By the end of the summer the Philadelphia Quaker’s ‘Religious and Literary Journal’ The Friend excerpted Dymond’s views on women’s education, but buried it on page four with little fanfare.18 However, someone did notice.19 By November a few newspaper notices demonstrated that editors had obtained copies of the book and read it. From this point, sparks from Dymond’s philosophy jump to radical thinkers, primarily in networks that were not Quaker.
The first major effort was made by Abner Kneeland (1774-1844), a genuinely free thinker whose later rejection of revealed religion led to his being the last person convicted of blasphemy in the US (1838). He edited the Boston Investigator, a fearless newspaper, specialising in the farthest edges of religious heterodoxy. Probably he had read the excerpt in The Friend, but he gave that text considerably more prominence when, in early November 1831, the front page of the Investigator featured Dymond’s views on women’s education. The Unitarian Christian Register followed later that week with the same excerpts, albeit less prominently placed.20
In the passages cited by these radical newspapers, Dymond argues bluntly for women’s education: ‘There does not appear any reason why the education of women should differ, in its essentials, from that of men. The education which is good for human nature is good for them.’ He blithely dismisses patronising male attitudes, declaring that a true man is one ‘who evinces his respect for the female mind’. His proto-feminist perspective highlights, with evident pride, that Quaker women have favoured substance over style, with ‘intelligence, sound sense, considerateness, [and] discretion’. He even has the perspicacity to note how Quaker governance, with its separate men and women’s meetings, meant that women learned how ‘to think and to judge’ with wisdom. 21
What his readers did not know, though, was that Dymond lived a more heterosocial life than most men of his time. While respecting the voices of women was always a possibility among Friends, it was not universally realised by Quaker men. In Dymond’s case, however, the fragmentary evidence of his life and the far-ranging reception of his work speak to genuine (and genuinely complex) practical, intellectual and spiritual associations with women. As previously mentioned, his mother was a Public Friend. Dymond worked as a linen draper in Exeter, and therefore was in daily contact with women customers. Most social events recorded in his diary and in the memoir written of him are mixed gender gatherings, and his closest friend and correspondent was a Quaker woman, Susan H. Balkwill, with whom he had no known romantic connection.22 The correspondence between Balkwill and Dymond is earnest and, while personal, it is deeply intellectual too. Thus, Dymond’s assessment of women’s intelligence was borne out by his life’s experience.
The American reception of Dymond’s writings continued apace with the esteemed Unitarian William Channing. Sometime in 1831-32 he read Dymond’s work and then lent the three volumes he had to George Benson, Sr., co-founder with the venerable Quaker Moses Brown of the Rhode Island Peace Society.23 Benson Sr. had left Rhode Island and moved to eastern Connecticut, where he co-founded the Windham County Peace Society with his young ally, Unitarian minister Samuel J. May. Benson gushed that Dymond’s work is ‘profound, luminous, cogent, and irresistible’, as he shared it with both Brown and May.24 Through this connection, the Windham County Peace Society can claim pride of place as the first organisation in the United States to publish a full essay by Dymond. In the spring of 1832 one thousand copies of Dymond’s The Applicability of the Pacific Principles of the New Testament to the Conduct of States issued from Brooklyn.25
George Benson Sr. was the father of eight children - two sons and six daughters - who lived together in a religiously diverse household. He had been a Baptist for a time but, leaving that denomination over an unspecified disagreement, he was never again a formal member of a church. While Benson agreed with Quakers on many issues, two of his daughters, Anna and Mary, took the formal step of becoming Quakers by convincement. His wife and others among his children became Unitarian. All members of the family were politically engaged in anti-slavery and other moral reform causes, making the Benson family the very embodiment of an activist, ecumenical Christianity.26
Benson’s daughters gained direct access to Dymond because their father had them sew the pamphlets that the Windham County Peace Society circulated!27 All of Benson’s daughters were involved in the local Lyceum and, later, Sarah and Anna participated with their brother George Jr. in the communitarian Northampton Association, while Helen married William Lloyd Garrison; all stayed active in anti-slavery, pacifist and gender equity causes.28 So here we have evidence for Dymond’s broadening appeal in radical New England circles, from Boston to Providence to Brooklyn, Connecticut; to men and women; to famous and anonymous alike. The links happen largely outside of the Quaker network - from the Anglican Robert Southey in England to Abner Kneeland, the Unitarian establishment, Channing, Benson Sr. and family and Samuel J. May. Only Moses Brown and some of the Benson daughters fall within the Quaker Atlantic world, and while Moses Brown is clearly supportive of Dymond’s work he did not take the lead in its dissemination. That task would fall to the enthusiastic young women and men of the Immediate Abolition movement, and a few stalwarts of the peace movement.
Indeed, by the end of spring 1832, Garrison himself had joined the band of eager Dymond acolytes, featuring the English Friend’s vivid denunciations of slavery just below the masthead and alongside the list of Liberator agents - many of whom were free Black men, who were thus being introduced to Dymond.29 The rhetoric of Garrison’s abolitionism waged a two-pronged battle against any who cooperated with slavery. On the one hand he bluntly challenged the conscious dishonest hypocrisy of the callous; on the other, he sought to awaken well-intentioned people who simply did not yet perceive the sinfulness of slavery. As he famously said, he had to be ‘all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt’.30
Dymond’s pithy philosophic reinforcement of this strategy is precisely what Garrison shared with his readers: ‘that whosoever forcibly withholds liberty from an innocent man, robs him of his right, and violates the moral law, are truths which no man would dispute or doubt, if custom had not obscured our perceptions, or if wickedness did not prompt us to close our eyes’.31 The two possible reasons for supporting slavery are here reduced to the lulling of conscience by tradition, and blatant wickedness. For Garrison, whose inaugural Liberator editorial had thundered ‘I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse!’, Dymond offered an absolute law that disallowed expedience while still leaving room for conscience and introspection - an echo of Dymond’s Quaker ethos. The ‘peculiarities’ of the Friends are, through Dymond, here universalised, in what scholar-activist Staughton Lynd dubbed the ‘philo-Quakerism [that] pervaded the intellectual community of the North’, rejecting the Enlightenment’s separation of sacred and secular. While British Friend Elizabeth Heyrick was in the vanguard of articulating ‘immediate emancipation’, Dymond provided a systematic discussion of civil disobedience and peace that the movements for radical change needed. For three particularly intractable issues - slavery, women’s rights and war - Dymond helped shape a religio-philosophic methodology for the most radical Americans. For Garrison, Dymond became a favourite author and philosophic anchor.32
Take, for instance, the next development in the diffusion of Dymond’s ideas through the American political left, this time initially centered on pacifism, but with tentacles far beyond that. This concerns the unlikely person of a slave-holding white Southerner and colonisationist, but radical pacifist, with a familiar last name: Thomas Smith Grimké (1786-1834). Scion of a storied South Carolina family, Thomas was particularly solicitous for his sister Sarah (1792-1873), encouraging her intellectual self-development by sharing schoolbooks with her.33 After attending Yale he returned to South Carolina, where he became a prominent lawyer and intellectual in the Charleston aristocratic milieu, associating with the likes of John C. Calhoun, Joel Poinsett, Robert Barnwell Rhett and Hugh Legaré.34 While he remained close to his sister, they diverged in their views on slavery. Sarah and their younger sibling Angelina (1805-1879) had modulated their youthful repugnance against slavery into a defiant removal from the South, resettlement in Philadelphia, and joining the Quakers by convincement. Thomas, by contrast, despite having ‘concerns’ about the institution, contributed his energies to the American Colonization Society.
By early 1832, two events unsettled Thomas Grimké: the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina and the impact of reading Jonathan Dymond.35 Asked to address the Connecticut Peace Society, he prepared what became the pacifist equivalent to Garrison’s first Liberator editorial, flinging down the gauntlet of absolutes. On May 6 his address shook the distinguished audience gathered to celebrate the first anniversary of the state-wide Connecticut Peace Society.36 Some Peace Society members, having cultivated a non-controversial public face, squirmed as Grimké’s logic unfolded. From the earliest schoolbooks (Homer and Virgil) to, most disruptively, the American Revolution, Grimké condemned all warfare as contrary to Christianity.37 Particularly contentious was his condemnation of the Revolution as unnecessary; he claimed that principled non-resistance would have achieved the same result.38 This pacifist manifesto generated divisive responses: the newspaper of the peace movement, The Calumet, published the address without endorsing it a few months later.39 But within two years the Connecticut Peace Society published glowing reviews of Dymond’s work.40
The alleged impracticality of pacifist principles can best be answered by the counterweight of strong examples. A few short weeks after Grimké dropped the bombshell of absolute non-resistance in his May 1832 speech, opportunity literally knocked on his door. The Nullification Crisis, provoked by South Carolina’s objection to federal tariffs, had been a controversial issue for years; the state’s intellectual leader, John C. Calhoun, suggested that a minority of states could protect themselves by nullifying - declaring unconstitutional and thereby disallowing - federal laws that they found repugnant. President Andrew Jackson saw this as rebellion, which pushed South Carolina to the brink of armed civil war.
As this crisis deepened the South Carolina legislature called for the formation of a military force and Thomas Grimké, who had taken a Unionist side in the Nullification debates, decided, on pacifist principle, to request an exemption. At his age (47) this was clearly intended as a symbolic gesture, but it won him few friends in a hot-headed, aggrieved South Carolina: his request was denied.41 Popular reaction took vigilante form, and in late May 1832:
a mob descended on Grimké’s home to call him to account. He appeared, unarmed, on his front porch and proclaimed himself willing to die for the Union. He looked out at the crowd defiantly … the would-be lynchers dispersed - not because they were persuaded by Grimké’s arguments, but because they did not have the stomach to hang one of the state’s most prominent politicians.42
Whatever motivated the attackers to stand down, Grimké maintained that his attackers needed to be educated to see the Christian truth of his perspective.43 With this dramatic showdown, pacifists in the north-east gained what they interpreted as a particularly potent example of the effectiveness of nonviolence. But, just as crucially, the vital link between Thomas Grimké and his famous Abolitionist sisters ensured that Dymond’s thought passed directly into the intellectual history of women. After Thomas’ sudden death in October of 1834 the Grimké sisters saw through to publication a pamphlet edition that he had prepared of Dymond’s thoughts on war, specifically for use in Sunday Schools. The sisters still used traditional anonymity as modesty, describing themselves only as ‘His Afflicted Sisters’.44 It was their first major public venture aside from correspondence.
Another critical instantiation of nonviolence was developing in the midst of the Windham County Peace Society, encompassing the intractable issues of race and gender. This was the Canterbury Academy, run by former birthright Quaker Prudence Crandall, who had studied at the Moses Brown School but converted to an activist Baptist form of Second Great Awakening piety in 1831. This white woman teacher was introduced to The Liberator by her household staff person, a Black woman from Boston named Anne Maria Davis. Davis’s future sister-inlaw, Sarah Harris, then asked if she could enroll in Crandall’s select Academy for young women. Faced with this request, Crandall engaged in a personal introspection that included the talismanic practice of opening the Bible randomly; she chanced on Ecclesiastes 4:1:
I felt in my heart to adopt the language of the Sacred Teacher when he said - ‘So I turned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and, behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of the oppressors there was power, but they had no comforter’.45
This passage combines justice and emotion, emphasising the human need to be supported; it led Crandall to not only admit Sarah Harris but to remain steadfastly loyal to her through the ordeals that followed. The local white population in this small eastern Connecticut town shrieked at the thought of an integrated school and tried to dissuade Crandall from including Harris among her pupils. Faced with this ongoing opposition, the ill-named Prudence then made the even bolder decision to reopen her Academy for Black women and girls only. She sought out William Lloyd Garrison as an ally and developed a network of Abolitionist contacts, both Black and white. From April 1833 to September 1834 upwards of two dozen young Black women (mostly teenagers) came to this hostile white rural town for the purposes of developing their minds. Most white Canterburians greeted them with contempt: constant low-level harassment, strong-armed government action against their school and intermittent vigilante violence or threats thereof. The state Assembly passed a Black Law making it illegal to harbour out-of-state Blacks specifically for the purpose of education; three times the students were involved in legal proceedings where they had to defend their citizenship, freedom to travel and desire to learn.46
The students and Crandall did, however, have significant white allies in Brooklyn, Connecticut - namely, the Windham County Peace Society principals: Samuel J. May, George Benson, Sr. and his extended progeny. With the Windham County Peace Society and the Liberator publishing Dymond, it is likely that Crandall imparted these fresh philosophic perspectives to her students as part of their curriculum in Moral Philosophy.47 Indeed, the Black students were modelling a version of Dymond’s expression that Christianity needed those willing to suffer for its principles when they faced the first trial under the Black Law in August of 1833. An anonymous Black student published in The Liberator demonstrates this quite convincingly:
We as a body, my dear school-mates, are subject to many trials and struggles, and we all know to what they are attributable - it is the prejudice the whites have against us that causes us to labor under so many disadvantages. They are so prejudiced against us that they will not suffer us to come up and be sharers in any of their privileges. Oh, prejudice! prejudice! - Heaven grant thy reign may be short. My friends, although the white people may be so enraged against us as to try to break down every benevolent effort that is made in our behalf, and put every obstacle they can in our way to prevent our rising to an equal standard with themselves - I say, notwithstanding all their endeavours to do us hurt, let us be careful that we do not return evil for evil, but recompense it with good … you are aware that ever since we have been under Miss Crandall’s instructions, it has been her utmost care to persuade us not to indulge in angry feelings towards our enemies - with unceasing and untiring earnestness has she plead with us to forgive them - and now let us try to abide by her counsel, and feel at peace with all men.48
These teenage women not only held their own and kept their demeanour at the trial; their testimony, their piety and their manifest intelligence convinced enough members of the all-white jury to vote against conviction that this trial ended in a hung jury. The following year, their stalwart discipline led to the acquittal of a Black man who had been cynically framed by white opponents to the school.49
Reading Dymond for their moral philosophy would have held immediate relevance for Crandall’s students. Dymond outlines a theory and rationale for civil disobedience - one that would explicitly influence Thoreau in his articulation of the practice - and one that the students were practising in their daily life in Canterbury.50 The students at Crandall’s school were subject to legal harassment (in addition to vigilante violence) from the moment the school opened. Dymond’s writings would have enabled them to see themselves living a version of the New Testament story, while simultaneously achieving a strong education for themselves and the benefit of their communities - which was also in line with Dymond’s enlightened views on equality of intellect across the genders.
Crandall often sought refuge for herself at the Benson household and in the company of the women there, such that the residence was dubbed ‘Friendship Vale’.51 Leading up to the first trial, Crandall’s opponents arrested her for breaking the Black Law. May and Crandall had decided not to post bail, and allies of the cause were likewise advised. The result was a night in jail for the young teacher, in the town of Brooklyn, close to the Benson residence. But Crandall did not spend her night in prison alone: Anna Benson (1801-1843) joined her, self-motivated ‘to stay with Prudence for the duration, “be the term long or short”’.52 It seems no stretch to imagine these intelligent women discussing the arguments and sources for their actions - like Dymond - while in the very act of practising nonviolence. Anna had become a Quaker by convincement, and befriended Moses Brown through her father.53 Garrison was particularly close to Anna among his siblingsin-law, writing her very candid and emotionally open letters both before and after his marriage to Helen, evincing great respect for her mind.54 Anna Benson helped to bring Olive Gilbert into the Abolitionist movement during the Canterbury Academy. Gilbert, who was part of the Brooklyn Female Anti-Slavery Society, and probably another woman who read Dymond, went on to become the amanuensis for the first version of Sojourner Truth’s Narrative in 1850.55
Crandall and her allies consciously performed her night in prison as an example of nonviolence. At the last minute before her being placed in the cell, Samuel Joseph May took Crandall aside and asked her if she still intended to continue. She responded with a martyr’s defensiveness: ‘I am only afraid they will not put me into jail. Their evident hesitation and embarrassment show plainly how much they deprecate the effect of this part of their folly; and therefore I am the more anxious that they should be exposed.’ After the sheriff and associates swore at May and Crandall, they locked her up, and May recognised the moment: ‘as soon as I had heard the bolts of her prison-door turned in the lock … I bowed and said, “The deed is done, completely done. It cannot be recalled. It has passed into the history of our nation and our age.”’56 Crandall was bailed out the next day by George Benson, Sr., but her arrest set the stage for the series of trials discussed before. The engagement of the principal leaders of the Windham County Peace Society, as well as Anna Benson and Prudence Crandall, marks a stirring episode that probably emerges partially from the influence of Dymond.
The presence of Dymond’s works in the Canterbury school house and their accessibility to students is no mere conjecture. The wealthy Abolitionist Arthur Tappan and Samuel J. May cooperated to start an Abolitionist newspaper in Brooklyn, dubbed The Unionist, ‘dedicated to the advocacy of all human rights in general, and to the defence of the Canterbury school, and its heroic teacher in particular’.57 It was edited by talented newcomer Charles C. Burleigh (1810-1878), who would go on to a storied career as an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. His father and siblings were deeply involved in all the moral reform movements. Like the Benson family, the Burleighs’ Christian affiliations spread across numerous denominations and affinities, but their moral fibre was consistent. Two of Charles’ siblings, Mary and William, were co-teachers with Crandall at the Academy, meaning they were in daily visible contact with African-Americans - a risky proposition for any white person at this time - and they would probably have been sharing their political and philosophic reflections with the students. One Black student extolled the Christian character of William Burleigh:
My teacher was ever kind: with him I saw religion, not merely adopted as an empty form, but a living, all-pervading principle of action. He lived like those who seek a better country: nor was his family devotion a cold pile of hypocrisy, on which the fire of God never descends. No, it was a place of communion with heaven. … If all were taught to love their neighbor as themselves, to do to others as they would be done unto, there would be no disposition to repeat the crime of him who slew his brother, and men would abhor to imbrue their hands in the blood of men.58
Here we see a seamless union of nonviolence that incorporates race and gender, an echo of Dymond’s insistence on principle, with religion as ‘a living, all-pervading principle of action’, and all of this noted by a perceptive young African-American woman.
Meanwhile, Charles Burleigh was using his newspaper to publish the actual writings of Dymond in advance of or simultaneously with the publication of an American edition of the Essays. An issue from March 1834 contains what is probably an ongoing excerpt on political philosophy, prominently featured on the front page.59 The Black students at the Academy would undoubtedly have had copies of The Unionist in the school house; by this time, in fact, William was co-editing the paper with his brother Charles. The link between practice and theory was vividly alive in the daily trials that Crandall and the Black students
While this daily heroism by Black women and their white allies was playing out in Canterbury, white men across the political spectrum in the United States were buzzing about the new American edition of the Essays in 1834. With a circumspect, academic introduction from George Bush, a professor at New York University, the attempt by colonisationists and social conservatives to rein in the radical potential of Dymond’s writings was underway. Southey had hinted at such a recourse, but the paucity of available copies of Dymond in the United States, and the radical reformers’ quick comprehension of Dymond’s utility to their cause, had given them a substantive head start. Establishment voices would now attempt to reappropriate Dymond, primarily by trying to place him in the colonisationist camp and quibbling with his Quaker ‘peculiarities’. Rev. Prof. Bush and William Leete Stone, the editor of the conservative New York Commercial Advertiser, led the charge. Bush defended the colonisationists against the rhetorical broadsides fired at them by Garrison and other Immediatists:
It is doing a manifest violence to every thing that bears the name of liberty or of charity to denounce as dangerous and incendiary the attempts of calm and enlightened philanthropists (who view the subject of slavery entirely in its moral aspects) to disseminate correct opinions respecting it, or to brand sober discussion with the opprobrious title of officious intermeddling.60
Stone seconded this, and went even further, essentially reinscribing expediency to the particular question of slavery:
[Dymond’s] views of slavery … however right as a principle in a code of morals, are rendered in some states of society altogether inapplicable by existing and unalterable circumstances.61
Stone hereby rather undisguisedly reasserts pragmatism over principle, adding to it the vagueness of ‘some states of society’. Eager status quo searchers unearthed what they took as a pro-colonisationist position in Dymond and used it to flog Garrison for endorsing him.62 But these attempts to wrangle Dymond into a more conventional sphere of thought were doomed for two reasons - the author’s underlying Quaker character, and the methodology behind his absolute rejection of war. His call for people willing to suffer for Christian principles belied any sort of expediency, especially that of colonisation. ‘Calm and enlightened philanthropists’ were not the stuff from which martyrs are made.
The underlying Quaker tenor of the Essays is not always easy to descry. Nowhere in his Essays does Dymond speak of the Inner Light or invite that level of individual subjectivity into moral matters. This is not atypical for an English Friend of the early nineteenth century. But this doesn’t mean that individual subjectivity was absent, or that his more radical readers couldn’t infer the presence of independent personal insight when, for instance, he investigates what it means to say that ‘God communicates his will to the mind’ of individuals.63 In a passage whose philosophic abstraction hints at Emersonian mystic paeans, Dymond wrote that for ‘the real prostration of the soul in the Divine presence, it is necessary that the mind should be still … it needs not - perhaps in its purest state it admits not - the intrusion of external things’.64 Thus, Garrison’s stalwart band of Immediate Abolitionists were ready to hear the radical Dymond when he declared:
That our exclusive business is to discover the actual present will of God, without enquiring why his will is such as it is, or why it has ever been different; and without seeking to deduce, from our notions of the Divine attributes, rules of conduct which are more safely and more certainly discovered by other means.65
Dymond intentionally pitched his Essays as a work of universal applicability (at least to Christians), but in a letter to Susan Balkwill he added a startling admission. While noting that the ‘Cause of Peace is surely gaining ground’, he asserts that this is because
the principles of Quakerism are the principles of unchangeable Truth. To many this may now be the language of bigotry. Be it so. I have no desire to cease to be a bigot at the expense of such an assurance. I am inclined to hope that (after the approaching day is passed when slavery shall be abolished) the attention and the labours of Friends will be more conspicuously and publicly directed than they have hitherto been, to the question of War … . I doubt not that now is the time for Anti-slavery exertion. The time will come for anti-war exertion.66
Barely a wisp of this Quaker ‘bigotry’ comes through in the pages of the Essays; Southey aptly characterised this as Dymond’s ability to write in ‘the best spirit of his sect, but not in a sectarian temper’,67 though many non-Quaker readers noted the ‘peculiarities’ of Dymond’s views on oaths and capital punishment. What Garrison and the other radicals picked up on was precisely what Dymond had intuited: the sudden relevance of Quaker ideas to world-historic issues of ethical urgency such as slavery, the marginalisation of women and the morality of war. Prudence Crandall’s own morphing, from a Quaker to a Second Great Awakening Baptist, stands as an example of this, one that a contemporaneous writer described in hybrid terms as ‘the meekest, non-resistant, Quaker-Christian spirit’.68
Once the percolation of Dymond’s writings had broadened, his thought seeped through everywhere. For instance, he was cited in Robert Rantoul’s definitive 1835 legislative statement against capital punishment, and less creditably by Richard Rush, son of Benjamin Rush, in a pique of anti-Masonry.69 In the 1840s Caroline Kirkland produced a new edition of Dymond’s Essays intended for use in female Academies; she also visited Dymond’s grave in Exeter, and shared with his family the high esteem in which the author was held in America.70 That high esteem gained another amplifier through the rise of Massachusetts Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner. The renown of Dymond’s name spread throughout America, judging from bookseller advertisements through the 1830s, including in places as distant from Quaker and Abolitionist centres as Nashville, New Orleans and even Natchez, Mississippi.71
Ultimately (though perhaps ephemerally) Dymond’s thought achieved what he had boasted of - a universalisation of Quaker values. But it may have done so only by erasing or suppressing Friends’ distinctiveness. Indeed, Southey sensed this when he wrote how Dymond’s Quakerism issues forth in moderation, without the ‘volumes of vituperation’ of George Fox.72 When American Quakers vacillated in their response to Immediate Abolition Lydia Maria Child, one of Dymond’s most influential admirers, recounted this story:
When I remember what a remarkable testimony the early Friends bore (a testimony which seems to me more and more miraculous, the more I compare it with the spirit of the age in which they lived), I could almost find it in my heart to weep at the too palpable proofs that little now remains of that which was full of life. I was saying this last winter, to George Ripley, a Unitarian minister of Boston. He replied beautifully, ‘Mourn not over their lifelessness. Truly the dead form alone remains; but the spirit that emanated from it is not dead, the word which they spake has gone out silently into everlasting time. What are these Temperance, and Peace, and Anti-Slavery Conventions, but a resuscitation of their principles? To me it is a beautiful illustration of the doctrine of the resurrection, when I thus see the spirit leaving the dead form and embodying itself anew’.73
Dymond’s name may have faded, but the spirit his thought imparted to American radicals moved with the confident moral clarity that he prized.
Jennifer Rycenga is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies in the Humanities Department at San José State University. She is finishing a comprehensive cultural biography of white Abolitionist educator Prudence Crandall (1803-1890). She is co-editor of The Mary Daly Reader (with Linda Barufaldi, NYU Press, 2017), Queering the Popular Pitch (with Sheila Whiteley, Routledge, 2006) and Frontline Feminisms: Women, War, and Resistance (with Marguerite Waller, Routledge, 2001). Her areas of interest include Abolition history; women’s religious history; feminist theories of music; and philosophies of immanence and panentheism.