Quaker Theology - Summer-Fall 2013 Issue #23


Allan W. Austin, Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950 (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 257 pp. $55.00.

Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

    Friends often are at their best when they have visible opponents who are deeply entrenched, respectable, and powerful but support some odious practice – think slaveholders. But the reality is that partially through dramatic Quaker pre-Civil War and wartime pressure, President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery 150 years ago this year. Yet, though defeated, former slaveholders remained deeply entrenched, respectable, and powerful; they maintained control through a system of racial segregation, which lasted another 100 years. So Jim Crow’s residual effects are all around us today.
    What has happened to the Religious Society of Friends in the meantime is that we are in a long, gradual decline, both in numbers and relative influence. Something our Friendly ancestors testified against more than 350 years ago, outward, carnal weapons, we have not been nearly as successful in eliminating as we were against slaveholding. And fighting long predated slavery.
    Of much less importance but related to it is the decline of attention to Quaker history in the 20th and 21st centuries. Except what we remember, we know almost nothing about Friends in the 20th century: even the history of institutions and personal memoirs, often the earliest subjects to attract writers, have not appeared to any major extent. Part of this lacuna can not be laid directly at Quakers’ feet, for religion has not been taken seriously by modern scholars since the Civil War, a point made by our author, Allan Austin, on his publisher’s website.
    Which brings us to his book, Quaker Brotherhood, a valuable, if a bit wooden and plodding, study of the American Friends Service Committee’s on-and-off-again engagement with race and racial relations from its founding ninety-six years ago until a bit after 1950. Without explicitly exploring the problem of Quakerism’s decline, he inadvertently supplies information that addresses that ominously troubling reality. And he does so as he helps etch in some of the forgotten history of Friends in the 20th century. For this historically oriented Friend, the book makes me long for someone else to undertake an exploration of the many gaps in recent Quaker history.
    At the beginning, I must say that my enthusiasm for the book is tempered by two relatively minor but irritating habits that Austin, a professor of history at Misericordia University, should have learned to avoid in graduate school:
    1) Never, unless absolutely necessary, quote another scholar, however eminent, for eminence does not bring more insight than the present author is also capable of. I say this despite the fact that he quotes my brilliant published comments on two occasions, as well as those of numerous others.
    2) He loads his readers’ minds with name after name without identifying them, sometimes after they have appeared a half dozen times. That makes for poor understanding and a loss of continuity. My old professor used to say that one should not use Jesus’ name without identifying him.
    Those little rebukes behind us, let us applaud Austin’s deep research in AFSC’s archives, so much so that parts of his book read like the kind of bloodlessly innocuous prose that characterizes too many Service Committee reports. But the story he relates is a valuable one, even if the Committee could not always find the funds to finance its good intentions after 1924 or now, probably. That was the year that Rufus Jones, a founder, remarked that AFSC should not go on “unless we are sure we have a vital mission to perform” (p. 19) and then instanced “interracial relationship” as one likely area.
    Austin divides his book into five chapters, each covering a period of time not persuasively identified as different from the others. All the interracial efforts struggled with finding money to operate and flew under a variety of names: Interracial Section, American Interracial Peace Committee, Committee on Race Relations, Institute of Race Relations (which collapsed in 1938, leaving a vacuum for at least four years), Race Relations Committee, and Community Relations Committee. During the first years of World War Two, Austin pads his accounts with AFSC’s activities with European refugees from fascism, which had little to do with race. From 1942 until the end of the war, the book centers on assistance given Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated in “relocation camps” in arid regions of the west.
    Apparently almost any Quaker’s suggestions on race that made it to the archives merits mentioning; one of the most unexpected was Swarthmore graduate and muckraking columnist Drew Pearson who wrote to tie together race and peace as challenges to the Committee, but Austin fails to offer any explanation or background and presses on. More unknown was non-Friend and African American Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who pretty much held together the interracial work during the late 1920s and early 30s, and grew weary of struggling with white Quakers and raising money, never enough to maintain herself.
    After World War II, the Service Committee began to change and take on a less Friendly, more political, tone (although interestingly enough its pronouncements still partook of the old days, as late as 1952 a fund-raising appeal lamented “tragic denials of both our Christian faith and our democratic ideals” [p.178]). Even before the end of the war, its longtime secretary, Clarence Pickett, had opted for more professionals on the staff and fewer Quaker volunteers. Austin is certainly aware of and writes about this shift, and, perhaps unbeknownst to himself, echoes some of the criticism of AFSC being made from the 1970s to the 1990s by critics such as Kenneth Boulding, Chuck Fager, and others, but he does not focus on them.
    Austin is writing a broader book than one for Quakers, but his narrow focus on AFSC’s work on race relations means he does not focus enough on context and background for readers to fully understand the issues. Examples are too numerous to list, so Flanner House, a self-help housing program in a blighted area of Indianapolis, is one good example. AFSC became involved in 1944, when Cleo Blackburn, a black man interested in “Negro development” (p. 152), contacted the Committee, and staffers  thought his ideas sounded like what they had been doing with work camps in the south for a decade. (Background about Blackburn is sketchy, and nothing about previous work camps is offered.) Three years later as hoped-for funds from various foundations fail to appear, a highly critical report from an apparent Quaker couple, the Petherbridges, suddenly surfaces, and in 1948, the Philadelphia headquarters of AFSC drops out.
    Austin presents specifics from the Petherbridge report and mentions the problems of administering the Indianapolis project from Pennsylvania, but without more details about Blackburn, what the problems of distant administration were, where the Petherbridges came from, and why they were appointed, readers simply do not have enough information to make sense of all the machinations. What we have here is a kind of AFSC Archives-based institutional history, without enough background to understand the issues, either of the specific project or the AFSC as a whole.
    As an historian who is a non-Friend, Austin is not primarily (or even expected to be) concerned with whether the influence of Friends has declined since the victory of abolition in the Civil War, but readers here are. Quakers can read his book and fill in some of the blanks he has left us with:

    1) What do we do to roll back our decline in numbers?
    2) How do we recapture the fervor and commitment that fueled abolitionism into a nation-changing force?
    3) Why doesn’t the specter of outward weapons haunt us as much as it did our forbears? In this era of drones ours are infinitely worse.
    4) And most basic of all for those who think AFSC is not beyond salvation, what is the relationship between faith and practice?

Gerard Guiton, The Early Quakers and the Kingdom of God: Peace, Testimony and Revolution. San Francisco, CA: Inner Light Books, 2012. 506 pp. $45 hardback, $25 paperback.

Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

    This hefty work serves to introduce Australian Friend Gerard Guiton to the Quaker scholarly world concerned with the origins of the Religious Society of Friends. It is heralded with sparkling back cover endorsements by three distinguished Friends of a programmed orientation, recorded ministers all, Douglas Gwyn, Englishman John Punshon, and Arthur Roberts of Evangelical Quaker lineage. With the exception of Gwyn, whose three works appropriate the language and to some extent the approach of the 19th Century radical thinker Karl Marx, these accolades are appropriate given that Guiton’s main targets are those who have been influenced by what he labels the “Marxist school” of historiography.
    What especially bothers Guiton about the Quaker scholars seduced by Marx is what he sees in their alleged failure to understand the period from about December 1659 to January 1661. (He names but does not engage Rosemary Moore and me for appropriating some of the interpretation of Marxists Christopher Hill and Barry Reay in their books The World Turned Upside Down and The Quakers and the English Revolution.) To some extent, Guiton’s concerns may arise from the failure of the Quaker scholars he mentions to write as anachronistically as he is wont to do. He insists, persistently and irritatingly, on calling his chosen thirteen-month period the Friends’ “Pentecost-Paracletal moment’” (for this example, see p. 391) “paracletal,” a word absent from the Oxford English Dictionary.
    As Guiton views it, the much-hallowed Quaker “Peace Testimony” of January 1661 amounted to a restatement of Kingdom aims and hence a victorious summing up of the previous decade, rather than an example of Quakers turning-inward and becoming less involved with the broader world. (Even “Peace Testimony” is an anachronism, however popular, when speaking of early Quakers, for it was a phrase unused in Quaker vocabularies until almost the 20th century; until then it was more aptly the testimony against war or carnal weapons.) And he has no problem in placing some of the earliest Quakers, Richard Hubberthorne and George Bishop, in “the nonviolent army of the Friends (p. 100).”
    Let it be said, right up front, that Guiton has examined the most extensive list of sources, especially secondary, that I have ever encountered in a book on this period, including my own or Rosemary Moore’s. His research is nearly unsurpassed. Would that he had used this collection to better effect.
    His thesis is that the earliest Friends, from 1647 to 1663 –it remains a puzzle why he chose the latter date–sought to propagate their views that God’s Kingdom had come and that God’s followers were called to live the “Jesus Way” (another anachronism) by following Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Guiton’s basic problem is that he writes not as an historian but as one with an interest in theology so narrow at times that he is willing to limit his interpretations to the earliest Friends’ writings rather than examine their actions. To historians, past scribblings are of course vitally important, but they never tell the whole story; to flesh out meaning they insist that one must look at what people actually do.
    Guiton avers early on, on pp. 27 and 28, that modern Friends have little understanding of their early forbears, but hopes that this ignorance may change with a renewed interest in history. Yet lamentably, he opines, history is “merely a story, a thing from long ago,” that flippantly “can be set aside” and ignored. “Rather than a ‘history’, then,” he writes, “the first Friends initiated a continuing theology, which among its many attributes, identified the Kingdom/Rule of Love as a discrete entity.”Their theology, he holds, transcends mere time and space and awaited a subsequent observer like himself, more closely attuned to theological nuances than relating mere stories, so as to reintroduce the “singular pre-eminence for the Covenant of Peace” into modern day Friends’ teaching and preaching ministries.
    This rendering of the past, even the theological past, will simply not do and fails to convince. First, Guiton has ironically created the story he tells from the 1650s, a theological one to be sure, but history nonetheless. Second, and more critically, because of his lack of interest in stories, he cannot address how subsequent Friends strayed from the true theology that he posits at their beginning. Likewise he sees no evolution in Friends’ stance on war as they reacted to events beyond their control. He may call the first generation’s take on war the “Jesus Way,” but he has no interest in showing how they arrived at it or how they applied it or more significantly, whether they consciously and perversely chose to undercut and ignore it, so as to leave their descendants blinded to their past.
    He may have looked at Meredith Weddle’s seminal and nuanced Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century as well as other secondary sources, such as Moore’s and mine; they all add grace to his bibliography but he simply dismisses the details they elicit to paint a fuller and more complete study than he delivers or can conceivably deliver given his self-imposed blinders.
    Uninterested in history, Guiton takes liberties with factual details. Examples of this approach abound, but let’s look at one of the more egregious: on p. 76, he asserts that George Fox was “familiar” with the 1641 edition of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. There is absolutely no evidence that the Quaker Fox ever read this book, but in footnote 62 on the same page, Guiton allows that he “might have read this edition” before he marched into Lichfield crying “Woe unto the bloody city of Lichfield,” yet another supposition with no basis in fact. Nearly 400 pages later, in a listing of published Quaker condemnations of war and carnal weaponry, item number four turns out to be – you guessed it – Fox’s Lichfield screed, which has nothing on its surface to do with war.
    It’s as though Guiton is so anxious to prove his points about the centrality of the Kingdom motif that he is willing to go to any lengths to do so. Take his use of Sarah Jones, a relatively obscure woman about whom almost nothing is known, even where she was from, author of This Is Lights Appearance, in 1650. Because her book preceded the Quaker announcement of the Kingdom theme, Guiton has her meeting Fox (p.151), apparently to pass along her insights, even though not a shred of evidence exists to support any contact between the two. The fair-minded reader must ask if this is the kind of scholarship from which theological truth emerges.
    Despite all my numerous misgivings, there is nothing wrong with the idea that the earliest Quakers sought to establish the Kingdom of God. In fact, twenty years ago I published an article, “George Fox, Millenarian,” which made exactly that point and which Guiton finds obvious reasons to cite approvingly. What I have problems with is his steady insistence on treating this central theme nonhistorically and to suggest that Quaker perceptions about it and their opposition to war and carnal weapons never changed. Human beings simply do not operate in any such fashion. We live in space and time despite Guiton’s asseverations to the contrary and if we are anything other than automatons, we react to changes in our surroundings, and we revise the presuppositions that we bring to each day’s new and unanticipated developments. Hence the earliest Quakers zigged and zagged toward the 1661 testimony against war, they infiltrated the New Model Army to make recruits, and some of them disagreed for – nonpacifist reasons, let it be said – with the testimony. It is not Marxist to put it that way; it is the truth as we know it.
    Guiton and those who seek some kind of “spiritual” interpretation of the world that humans create may wish it otherwise, but that’s not the way this historian sees us living our lives, either past or present.

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