Volume 27, Issue 1/4, 2011
Including a Special Section
“For This Is the Naked Truth”
The Early Quakers and Going Naked As a Sign
Dozens of records attest to the fact that during the mid-seventeenth century politicized public nudity or “going naked as a sign” as it was known to early modern
subjects proliferated. This practice captured so much popular attention that Sir Charles Sedley along with other royalist libertines notoriously stripped in front of 1,000 spectators in 1663 and delivered a mock sermon in a grotesque parody of religious sectarians. I examine Quaker approaches to signification, focusing on their deployment of incarnational signs to advance a revolutionary challenge to the empty reified signs of a burgeoning secular and commercial culture. Although both men and women went naked as a sign, the creative potential of women’s bodies, I argue, constituted a doubly-threatening specter to observers. In the midst of a period that witnessed what James Holstun has characterized as “the sundering of human life from providential history,” women openly exposed their bodies in order to visually underscore their creative potential and to call attention to the sacred and incalculable promise of life itself.