Esther & Quakerism
"With all due respet to thee, to thy age and distinguished career as a Quaker and citizen, and in no wise lessening the regard I have for thee as a friend, a neighbor and a kinsman, I must refuse to be made the buffer...for the very serious mistake thee made at the Yearly Meeting..."
-Esther Griffin White
Like many others, Esther Griffin White came into the Quaker tradition by birth rather than on her own volition. Indeed, she is described by one observer as having come from the “’Royal Family’ of Richmond Quakers,” with Quaker ancestors dating back at least to her great grandparents, who moved to Indiana from New Garden, North Carolina. Esther Hiatt, grandmother and namesake of Esther Griffin White, was an elder at her meeting for thirty years, and several of Esther’s relatives served as Clerk at the Indiana Yearly Meeting. Esther’s own father, Oliver White, was a Friends Minister. The Quaker tradition clearly had its place in Esther’s life, even in a professional capacity: due to her honest reporting and knowledge of Quaker traditions and practices, Esther was regularly chosen as the reporter covering the Indiana Yearly Meeting.
However, Esther’s personal relationship with the Quaker faith was extremely temperamental. Though she was a member of the South Eighteenth Street Meeting in Richmond, Esther would clash with the other members of the meeting, often insulting them. It’s also clear that she didn’t appreciate the effect Quaker values had on her family, particularly on her father. Reflecting on his life after he had died, Esther remembered, “…his brilliant intellect and artistic tendencies---these last nullified by his awful Quaker education that exalted a spurious piety and kicked every aesthetic instinct into the gutters.” At the very least, Esther’s artistic and creative sensibilities were in conflict with the humble plainness typical of Quakerism at the time.
But Esther’s issues with Quakerism went deeper than these stylistic differences, and even lay in the fundamental issue of faith, of which it is uncertain whether Esther had any. Writing in her journal, Esther would repeatedly emphasize the non-existence of God and the pointlessness of existence: “prayer has always seemed ridiculous to me. We are addressing---what? Nothing. It is a habit, it is attitudinizing, it is the verbal expression of hidden yearning…there is no God. Just a mocking, grinning, sardonic Fiend of Things that, with satanic pleasure, gloats over the defeat of its poor, helpless, writhing, defenceless [sic] creatures.” It should be noted that these comments were likely written in a state of despondency. At time of writing, all the male members of Esther’s family were dead, and her journal entries indicate that as a result she was coping with frequent bouts of intense depression. Thus, these quotes may not express the full scope of her opinion on religion. Certainly, regardless of whether or not she considered herself Christian, Esther had ideas about how Christians should act. For example, in an editorial that she wrote condemning the violence of WWI, she states that, “you cannot be a patriot and also a Christian.” This is a sentiment that is also very in line with Quaker pacifist sensibilities. In fact, many of the editorials that Esther wrote in The Little Paper, both in the ideals she defended and in the points she made doing so, betray a belief in universal humanity very in line with Quaker principles (see our entry on The Little Paper for more details).
From our current perspective, a complete picture of Esther’s relationship with Quakerism, as well as religion in general, is probably impossible. The image that seems to predominate, however, is of a woman who did not adhere to the beliefs of an institution, but rather remained passionately outspoken in the ideals she chose to hold to.