How many times have you seen a Quaker in a television program or movie? How often have Quakers, the Amish, and Mennonites been conflated into stock characters? We are thrilled to share this guest post from Stephen D. Brooks who is researching representations of Quakers in television and film as part of a PhD in Quaker Studies at the University of Birmingham (UK). If any readers would like to discuss Stephen’s post, or if you have suggestions where he may find representations of Quakers in film or tv, please drop him a line at [email protected].
Verifying a Quaker Presence in American Television Westerns
Stephen D. Brooks
At first glance it would appear that representations of Quakers in the mediums of film and television are sparse. Collectively, James Emmett Ryan’s Imaginary Friends (2009) and David N. Butterworth’s Celluloid Friends (2015) found forty-nine cases of either motion pictures or television programs that included some portrayal of Quakers. These vary from significant Quaker characters, or some reflection on Quakerism, to secondary or walk-on characters who can be identified as Quaker. These include silent-era features and shorts, plus those that use Quakers to provide one-liners and jokes such as Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973).
Miles Monroe (played by Allen): “I’m telling you. You got the wrong man. I’m not the heroic type. Really. I was beaten up by Quakers.”
This was my starting point. From there I cross-referenced these forty-nine instances with the web-based resource The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) along with self-compiled lists put together by Quakers online. These lists included the “Friends Media Project” and “Quakers On Film” from pendlehill.org plus the michiganquaker.org entry of “Quakers in Popular Culture.” This resulted in 171 examples, ranging from a quarter of a reel (no more than three minutes) silent comedy called Topsy-Turvy Dance of Three Quaker Maidens (1900) up to the BBC TV series Fleabag (2019).
These representations of Quakers also covered numerous genres: romance, comedy, adventure and drama to crime thrillers, science fiction, and musicals. In this post I am focussing on the western genre, especially American television westerns. According to the IMDb, between 1958 and 1970, Quaker characters appeared in nineteen different episodes of various shows. I am currently in the process of tracking these shows down and verifying the presence of a Quaker. There are three types of validation that I have found so far: explicit, implicit, and negative.
To establish that a character is actually a Quaker in any of the examples I’ve examined, I look for explicit confirmation either by the character themselves or by another character. In the case of silent movies, I look for a title-card. The reason for an explicit verification is because it has become apparent that descriptors on the IMDb will use “Quaker” when a character may exhibit one or more of the following tropes: identifying as pacifist because of religious beliefs, using plain language, or wearing plain dress. Careful viewing has demonstrated that the character in question may not be a Quaker at all; they could be Amish, Pennsylvania Dutch, or a member of another Mennonite group.
An example of an explicit confirmation can be found in Wagon Train: The Patience Miller Story, NBC, first shown 11 January 1961. In the opening scenes, a wagon train is attacked. There is a close-up of a family—a man, a woman, and a child. The man is killed. It transpires that this is the Miller family who are missionaries on their way to Arapaho territory to open a school for indigenous children. Some of the men on the train urge wagon master Flint McCullough (Robert Preston) to convince the widowed Patience Miller (Rhonda Fleming) and her young daughter (Terry Burnham) to abandon her plan to continue to the mission without her husband. He replies, “ever tried arguing with a red-headed Quaker?” Patience for her part uses plain “thee” and “thou” language, dresses plainly, and often quotes William Penn.
An illustration of what I term as implicit confirmation occurs in Bonanza: The Hopefuls, NBC, first shown 8 October 1960. Here a religious group is crossing the Ponderosa as settlers on their way to new territory. A wagon train is carrying both the community members and the money they had pooled to pay for the land. Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts), who is smitten by the daughter of the group’s leader, and his stepbrother Hoss (Dan Blocker) escort the train across the Cartwright’s territory. In turn, they are stalked by a gang intent on stealing the community’s money. Members of the group display the familiar traits associated with depictions of Quakers: they are a pacifist religious group and they dress plainly and use the term “Friend.” Yet, at no point is there a verbal verification or use of the word “Quaker” by them or any other character.
Finally, a negative confirmation is evident in The Restless Gun: Strange Family In Town, NBC, first shown 20 January 1958. Here, a family of new settlers—the Hoffmans—fall foul of the locals when their belief in non-violence is misinterpreted as cowardice. Along with their pacifism they do dress plainly. However, they do not use plain language, and, at no point as with Bonanza or The Hopefuls, is there any verbal confirmation by them or any other characters that they are Quakers. Moreover, they have a German-language Bible, speak German at home, eat ‘hasenpfeffer’, and are insulted by the local townspeople as “squareheads.” So, despite the listing on the IMDb including this as a Quaker family, it appears after viewing that these characters are more likely (although of course, there is no explicit confirmation) to be members of a Pennsylvania Dutch community.
As I continue to look through the results from IMDb, it will be interesting to see just how many films and programs will contain explicit confirmation that characters are Quakers rather than members of another religious group. The other side to this of course that merits consideration, is the possibility that listings stating that a story contains an Amish, Anabaptist, or another non-conformist representation of characters is in fact a Quaker?
Butterworth, David N. (2015) Celluloid Friends: Cinematic Quakers real and imagined (1922-2012) USA, Amazon Press LLC.
Ryan, James Emmett. (2009) Imaginary Friends: Representing Quakers In American culture 1650 -1950. Studies in American Thought and Culture. Series editor Paul S. Boyer. Madison, Wisconsin, The University of Wisconsin Press.
Bonanza: The Hopefuls. October 1960 [TV] James Nielsen dir. USA. National Broadcasting Corporation.
Restless Gun, The: Strange Family in Town. January 1958. [TV] Earl Bellamy dir. USA. Window Glen Productions.
Sleeper. 1973 [Film] Woody Allen dir. USA. Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions.
Topsy-Turvy Dance of Three Quaker Maidens. 1902 [Film] George Albert Smith dir. UK. George Albert Smith Films.
Wagon Train: The Patience Miller Story. January 1961 [TV] Mitch Leisen dir. USA. Revue Studios.