“They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance.”

The term “Quakers” refers to members of a Protestant Christian sect, The Religious Society of Friends, founded by George Fox in 17th-century England. They received the name Quakers because they “tremble at the name of the Lord.” As very religious individuals that have direct communion with the Lord, they live by strict statutes involving dress, speech, and behavior. After suffering religious persecution in England, they were among the first groups to cross the Atlantic and settle in New England (for instance, in Nantucket). Unfortunately, in the new world, the Quakers were met with persecution, especially at the hands of the Puritans; however, they were also met with increased tolerance in places like the Rhode Island colony.

After they immigrated to North America, some Quakers broke with traditional standards by assimilating with whaling culture, which resulted in changes in speech and behavior. They began to “talk shark a bit” and curse using a mixture of archaic language and whaling/sailing lingo. For example: “‘Out of the cabin, ye canting, drab-coloured son of a wooden gun—a straight wake with ye!‘” (That’s Captain Peleg, from Chapter 16 of Moby-Dick.) Melville describes this new breed of Quaker as comprised of “men anomalously modified [unusually altered] by things altogether alien and heterogeneous.” They had become living, breathing, swearing and praying oxymorons. Their great religious fervor morphed into a fiery passion for whaling, its affairs and industry. These pacifists-of-the-land turned warriors-of-the-sea were “fighting Quakers.” The whaling industry also inexorably led the Quakers into a preoccupation with money, business, material property and wealth: all contrary to their doctrine about refraining from storing up treasures on earth, based on the book of Matthew (which Captain Bildad quotes under his breath even as he offers the smallest portion of profit, or lay, possible to Ishmael). Essentially, “Quakers with a vengeance” (Those character in Moby-Dick which we must count among them include Peleg, Bildad, and Ahab.) are fiery little bundles of contradiction.

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