How accurately does the movie, The Friendly Persuasion, portray nineteenth-century American Quakerism?
For many American Friends, The Friendly Persuasion is their favorite film, at least about Quakerism. Based on Quaker author (and Whittier College alumnus) Jessamyn West’s collection of short stories of the same title, the film depicts the lives of a Quaker family, the Birdwells, in southern Indiana in the year 1863.
Jess Birdwell is a farmer and nurseryman, his wife Eliza is a recorded minister, and they have three children, sons Josh and Little Jess, and daughter Mattie. West based them on the family of her great-grandparents, Joshua Vickers Milhous and wife Elizabeth (Griffith) Milhous. Another great-grandchild was future President Richard Milhous Nixon.
Were I grading the movie as an historical documentary, I would give it a B. It gets many things right: the use of the plain language, most of the details of plain dress, the constant struggle of plain Friends to deal with the temptations that “the world” offered.
Some Friends in the 1950s and since have been troubled by the dramatic climax of the film. In July, 1863, a party of Confederate cavalry raided southern Indiana. The movie shows teenage son Josh defying his Quaker upbringing and his parents’ wishes to join the local militia and fight against the Confederates.
In fact, that is quite plausible, as many young Quaker men, motivated by antislavery and nationalist zeal, or perhaps simply not valuing the Peace Testimony, went into the Union army between 1861 and 1865. The conflicts within the Birdwell family, and the Meeting, doubtless reflect the experience of many Friends at the time.
Less accurate is the portrayal of a Meeting for Worship that opens the film. The first thing that the stickler for accuracy notices is that Eliza carries a Bible into meeting. At this time, Friends would have seen this as presumptuous, assuming that the Spirit would led one to read from the Bible during meeting.
Also, during worship several Friends speak very briefly—daughter Mattie, for example, asks for the prayers of Friends to preserve her from vanity. In fact, Quaker worship at this time would have seen few Friends speak. Those who did were likely to be the recorded ministers, who usually spoke at length.
Still, given this is Hollywood, it could have been much worse. Popcorn and a Quaker thumbs up are warranted.
Tom Hamm is a Professor of History at Earlham College, Curator of the Quaker Collection at Lilly Library, and Director of Special Collections.