Quaker Theology #32 - Spring 2018
FOUR: Pickett vs. Chambers:
A Case Study of Elite Class Power
Reprinted from: An Early Assessment: U.S. Quakerism in the 20th Century. Papers from the Quaker History Roundtable, 2017.
H. Larry Ingle
story I am about to tell is not one that I take great pleasure in
relating. For one thing it deals with a Friend whose life was, in most
ways and as far as I know, admirable. For another, it presents a
challenge to the way I think Friends ought to act in their dealings
with each other. And finally, its revelation may sully the reputation
of the Religious Society of Friends more generally, beyond the
immediate facts of the case.
It suggests that some Friends in important places moved further from
its religious standard of integrity espoused by the early and later
founders and defenders than these worthies would have countenanced or
preferred; such a development may not be all that unusual in more
secular settings, making this appearance among Friends seem even more
(There have been other examples in Quaker history–
two come immediately to mind, the stance that Quaker founder George Fox
took toward the major dissident James Nayler in 1656, and the year and
a half trauma Friends endured during the Great Separation or Hicksite
Reformation in 1827-1828.) (Ingle, 1994, 128-35, Ingle, 1986) For these
three reasons I wish I had not found what I will relate, but as both an
historian and a Friend I am obligated to tell the truth. This is the
truth as I have found it.
story reveals is the way good Friends with good intentions go astray,
in this case because of their good intentions. The good Friend is
Clarence E. Pickett, a native Kansan about whom nothing would have been
written, certainly no paper like this one, had he not become executive
secretary of the American Friends Service Committee in 1929. Why this
almost unknown seminary-trained Quaker pastor, aged 44, was named to
this most important position in American Quakerdom remains a mystery.
He did not explain it in his 1953 memoir, (Pickett, 1953) and his
biographer, writing more than 50 years later, said little more to
describe what factors lay behind the choice. Finding a successor to the
retiring Wilbur Thomas, said a weighty Friend in a position to know,
“was a very delicate, difficult and important task” (Miller, 1999,
103-04). But darkness shrouds exactly how these adjectives applied,
even after surveying the most recent AFSC chronicle, though the change
may have resulted from Herbert Hoover’s 1928 successful presidential
bid (Barnes, 1016, 65-73).
service committee had been founded in 1917, just after the United
States entered World War I as a way of giving conscientious objectors a
way to contribute to the war effort as civilians (Frost, 1992). Over
the years as its mission expanded in response to depression, racial
segregation, World War II and conscription, and Cold War, the Committee
became so well known that its activities attracted the attention of the
Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, which awarded it (and its British
counterpart), both representing Friends, its prize in 1947.
By that time, it had also become more professional,
more centralized in Philadelphia, and much less representative of
Friends as a whole (Ingle, 1998). Its rather fashionable and
politically liberal approach to the problems it engaged served both to
isolate it even more from evangelical Friends and, by the 1970s, to
draw the ire of even some “liberal,” formerly Hicksite, Friends (Fager,
1998, Ingle, 2015).
AFSC’s slant toward liberalism, particularly during the long
secretariat of Clarence Pickett, which lasted until 1950, inevitably
gained for Quakers a reputation for the kind of political bias endemic
to the northeast. Although nurtured among midwestern programmed and
pastoral Friends, Pickett’s two decades long association with eastern
liberalism had long since purged him of any baggage left over from his
origins and made him an influential part of Philadelphia’s Quaker
elite. He–and his laudatory biographer– exploited the close ties that
bound him to Eleanor Roosevelt, wife and champion of the immensely
popular New Deal President (Miller, 1999, ch. 9) In some non-Quaker
quarters, he was known as a “very superior man (Kauffman, 2006, 78).”
in 1947 during Pickett’s administration of AFSC that it took one of the
most momentous steps in its history, the decision to employ
professionals of varying religions or none rather than relying almost
wholly on Quaker volunteers to staff its operations. As Pickett worried
before the decision, this move might further fray the weakened ties
that attached AFSC to Friends (Ingle, 1998). Only two months after this
May decision, Pickett got a letter from AFSC’s director in Calcutta,
complaining about an African American couple sent there who knew so
little about Quakerism that they could not answer queries from Hindu
inquirers accurately (Alexander).
“one of the greatest Quakers of the twentieth century,” by another
member of Philadelphia’s elite (Miller, 1999, xi), Pickett was
undoubtedly the best-known Friend in the country by the time he
retired, with the possible exception of former President Herbert
Hoover. In 1948 his stature certainly exceeded by many bounds that of
Whittaker Chambers, a practically unknown Quaker whose membership was
in Pipe Creek meeting in rural Maryland. Chambers was a senior editor
with Time magazine that year,
but what he brought to their conflict was his past: born on Long Island
in 1901, oldest son in a dysfunctional family, he had attended Columbia
University but dropped out when he joined the Communist Party in the
mid-1920s. When the party ordered him to go underground and serve as a
courier of stolen government documents, which he carried to New York
where they were shipped on to Moscow, he did so with little thought
other than that he was helping history in its movement toward a
grew disillusioned because of the purge of anti-Stalinist Communists in
the Soviet Union and in 1938 left the party and found a job at Time
as a book reviewer. A rather disreputable-looking person who dressed in
baggy, ill-fitting clothes, he seemed to have had little self-control
and, even though he was married with two children, he had engaged in
homosexual activities and used numerous aliases over the years
(Tanenhaus, 1997). One historian, John Diggins, implied that he was a
flitting “pilgrim who abandoned revolution for revelation” (Diggins,
August 3, 1948, he told the House Committee on Un-American Activities
that he had picked up retyped State Department documents from Alger
Hiss, another Communist, in the 1930s. Hiss had graduated from Johns
Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, clerked for famed Supreme
Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, joined the Roosevelt
administration in the Agriculture Department, and then moved to the
State Department; he seemed to have a stellar future stretching out
as President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of
course Hiss denied all Chambers’s testimony. It was not illegal to have
been a member of the Communist Party and the statute of limitations
having expired for espionage, the government brought perjury charges
against him in the fall; it required two trials to convict him for
lying in his denial (Weinstein, 1978). Hiss had also served as a
consultant to and speaker for the AFSC; Pickett, with approval of its
Board of Directors, testified as a character witness for Hiss at his
second trial, affirming, “he is of the very highest quality . . . of
integrity and veracity (Stenographer’s Minutes, 1949, 1857-59).”
Chambers had to sit there in the courtroom, enduring such measurements.
controversy over Hiss’s past and Chambers’s testimony did not end with
Hiss’ five-year prison sentence; indeed until Hiss’s death in 1996, the
periodic eruptions over who was telling the truth foreshadowed and were
a kind of curtain-raiser to the fabled culture wars of the 1990s. In
1952, Chambers published his memoir Witness,
a journal reminiscent of a staple of Quaker genre in the 17th century.
Suffused with the experience of God that he found within Friends’
meetings for worship, he started attending after he broke with the
Communist Party, his book rapidly became a best-seller and a classic
that too many saw as championing political conservativism rather than
his ineffable encounters with the divine.
reviewers failed to comment on his affirmation that once he had been
reached by Quakerism, “I felt a human completion such as I had never
known before–an adulthood, a maturity, that marked off the [first]
forty years of my life as a childhood (Chambers, 1952, 489).” Its
popularity, partially spurred by the tribute given it by a panel of
five leading intellectuals in Saturday Review,
the nation’s foremost book review, including historian Arthur
Schlesinger, Jr., novelist John Dos Passos, Senator Richard Nixon, and
philosopher Sidney Hook, smoked out Clarence Pickett, who had not been
included (Saturday Review, 24 May 1952, 8-14).
very next issue, Pickett had a letter that called Chambers’s basic
understanding of Quakerism into question, an almost unheard-of response
by one Friend to another’s experiences in such a secular public forum;
to signal some indication of the letter’s and its author’s importance,
the Review’s editors surrounded it with a dark border.
Pickett conceded that Witness
revealed that its author’s attendance at Friends’s meetings had given
him “moments of real peace and enlightenment.” But that was as far as
AFSC’s executive secretary was willing to go. Naming a cover story that
Chambers had written for Time
in March 1948 on Union Theological Seminary professor Reinhold Niebuhr
and his neo-orthodox theology, Pickett explained that Friends
encountered the divine within whenever they listened rather than having
to wait for the transcendent God to deign to come to them. “This all
leaves one feeling,” he solemnly concluded, pretty much ignoring the
book’s own witness, “that religious assurance is yet to come to this
troubled spirit, and that the race with catastrophe [for him] is not
over. (Saturday Review, 14 Jun 1952, 32).”
was not a totally damning indictment, but it was condescending enough
to have left Chambers smarting at its un-Friendliness. And it was a way
of discrediting Chambers’s claim to authentic Quakerism. Hearing about
the letter, he complained to a friend that Pickett was peddling around
that, despite his book, “I don’t represent the Quakers”; that the only
Hicksite publication, Friends Intelligencer, reprinted it in full telegraphed its editor’s agreement and desire to inform Friends further afield. (1)
as we know, Pickett met Chambers only once, a bit over a month after
his testimony before the House committee and months before Hiss’s
trials. They conferred at Homewood Friends meetinghouse in Baltimore
because Pickett wanted to prevent a public dispute from ending up as
one or more libel suits. Their conversation was amiable, with Chambers
insisting that he did not believe that Hiss would back down from the
determined stand that he had taken publicly about Chambers lying to the
committee. Pickett related to his journal that he judged his fellow
Quaker “a man of considerable brilliance” but speculated that he was
likely unstable emotionally.(2)
Underscoring how untoward his public rebuke of a fellow Friend was,
Pickett failed even to mention either Chambers or Hiss in his own
memoir, published the following year and most likely being written at
that very time he mailed his letter.(3) Pickett would certainly not
want to add to his nemesis’s reputation by calling attention to his
fellow Quaker’s best-selling memoir. Pickett’s fawning biographer also
tossed his own cloak over the matter, though he did mention Pickett’s
testimony in the perjury trial as a way of underlining his own
continuing admiration for Hiss.(4) Neither wanted to give too much
attention to something that could be easily seen as more than a little
embarrassing to a member of the elite. But Pickett’s conclusions about
Chambers lingered on for years among Friends; as late as March 1995,
four decades later, a writer in Friends Journal toed the line set by Clarence Pickett, “I have always felt that Alger Hiss was wrongly convicted . . . .” (5)
was driven to a kind of existential despair when he pondered the
implications of a Quaker elite, as represented by Pickett standing
behind Hiss no matter how compelling the testimony against him. It
seemed that Hiss almost commanded such people to echo his constant
assertions of innocence; and they fell into line. The West’s liberal
elite’s stance swept Chambers toward despair for its survival. “How can
any community,” he asked a friend without mentioning Friends, “in which
toleration and support of Hiss is each time automatic, irrepressible,
predictable–how can such a community find the force and virtue (it
comes to that) to save itself in greater matters?” (6)
not the place to explore the contours of Chambers’s thinking, but his
letter underscores the roots of his pessimism about the eventual
outcome of the conflict between the Communist East and the capitalist
West and why he thought his defection from the Communists amounted to
consciously choosing the losing side. (7)
Pickett’s reservations about Chambers were compounded of a number of
factors. Probably the most important was negative, that is, Chambers’s
insistent testimony before the House Committee on Un-American
Activities and before two federal juries that Alger Hiss was a
Communist and a spy, had slandered and ultimately produced a conviction
of a leading New Dealer and member of the eastern liberal
establishment. Choosing between Chambers and Hiss as a liar was hardly
difficult for one who was the leader of the American Friends Service
Moreover, Chambers’s background did not help him. His distant father, a
sometimes newspaper illustrator, was often unemployed, slept around
with women not his wife, and was a bit of a ne’er-do-well. Though he
had attended Columbia University, Chambers had not graduated. He
admitted to homosexual trysts. He came to Friends when he was in his
forties, and his meeting, Pipe Creek, was in rural Maryland and so
small that its members convened in private homes during the wintertime
when they were unable to heat their building. But the insecure Chambers
admitted to feeling unworthy of that tiny group’s fellowship. (8)
Chambers’s critics and supporters were legion, each segment tossing
around charges that bore little resemblance to reality. Consider the
Christian sect with which he affiliated, the Society of Friends.
Friends may debate fiercely among themselves about how Christian the
Society actually is. Not so partisans on both sides of the
Hiss-Chambers discussion, where Quakerism was just ignored. In a volume
devoted to a balanced sampling of each, Quakerism and Quakers are
mentioned in its index exactly one time. Instead the pen of one English
defender of Hiss, Kingsley Martin, has Chambers converting to a generic
and monolithic Christianity synonymous with authoritarianism. Martin, a
man of the Left, editor of one of the most prestigious journals of
political thought in the United Kingdom, glibly psychologized in 1952:
“Men of Chambers’s temperament desire a cause to which they can wholly
submit themselves. Any authoritative religion, Communism or another,
will serve.”(9) One might imagine Pickett leaping to defend his faith
and its openness; instead he sided with Chambers’s attackers,
commentators like Martin.
more than twenty years that Pickett was chief executive of the nation’s
leading Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee,
his position inevitably gave him entrée to Philadelphia’s upper class
Quaker culture. E. Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, published
in 1979 is an exemplary sociological study of the reach and force of
this culture; it tries to determine how leadership in a democratic
society is nurtured and takes place and concludes that the egalitarian
emphasis of Friends is a poor nursery for leaders.
uncovers a great deal about the values of the Quaker elite. The
relatively large upper class of Philadelphia – Balzell estimated it at
about 5000 families in 1940 and 1970 – shared among themselves ancient
lineages, inherited wealth, and position, professional men who usually
shunned government service and elected leadership. Their wealth tended
to center in business, medicine, legal affairs, banking, and insurance;
they of course sat on boards of trustees of colleges, schools, museums,
country clubs, and charitable organizations like the Service Committee.
They referred to themselves as “clans” as a way of testifying to their
historic and biologic importance. Their positions allowed them to
dominate the background forces that shaped the city’s life beyond what
they regarded as lowly and rather crass politics. (10)
aside, I heard Baltzell in the summer of 1979 when he spoke about his
new book at a conference held at Pendle Hill and sponsored by the
Friends Council on Education to explore how to remedy the lack of
leadership among Quakers. The convener of the group, Thomas S. Brown,
himself a member of the Quaker elite of that time, explained with a
story in the conference’s printed report why it was being held. It
seems that a Friend dreamed he opened an expensively prepared letter
inviting him to apply for a position of major importance at a Quaker
institution of some renown. Surprised, he woke himself laughing when he
saw the envelope was addressed to “Boxholder.” (11) When Baltzell spoke
near the end of the week to an audience advertised as open to
Philadelphia-area Friends, those in attendance exhibited no interest in
the provocative thesis of his path breaking book; judging from their
questions, they focused only on whether he had encountered the names of
members of their families in his research.
of Philadelphia’s Quaker elite was much like a millipede with one foot
firmly in the meetinghouse, but other feet rooted almost as
determinedly in the counting house, another in the court house, and the
cultural and humanitarian parts of the city, locales like the American
Friends Service Committee of course, but also the Library Company, the
Friends Hospital, and the American Philosophical Society. Because
Friends recognized no distinction between the secular and the
religious, any place could be a locale for Quakerly activity. (12)
another authority summed it up, Quakers were used to serving on boards
because they ran their meetings that way. “As a meeting could be
controlled by a few, with, of course, the consent of the many, so could
public and cultural affairs.” Hence the famous Philadelphia facade is,
wrote Nathaniel Burt, “a Quaker façade–subdued, careful, moderate,
puritanical but never ascetic, honest but shrewd, modest but firm.” The
“sense of the meeting” they used curbed individualism and produced
something of a “conformist mentality.” Because in a Friendly context
one listens but never argues, the resulting conformity bred a kind of
anti-intellectualism. Outside Pennsylvania, theology lay behind
creation of every American colonial college, but that colony’s, the
University of Pennsylvania, gave it no attention; Quakers founded
schools, true enough, but not a single college until Haverford two long
generations after the Revolution. Finally, belying the literal meaning
of the word “enthusiasm” at the heart of their religion, Friends
deprecated it and stressed caution and calmness. (13)
Jones, one of the most productive historians the Society of Friends
produced, was correct, characteristics such as calm and caution had
first come to Friends as fruits of their experience during the War for
Independence. Explaining his own world of 1911 by looking back to the
end of the colonial era, he wrote, the “Revolutionary War left
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting more moral internally, more devoted to
moral reforms, more conservative of ancient tradition, custom and
doctrine, more separate from the world, more introversive in spirit
than it found it.” Modern “Quakerism . . . in important particulars,”
Jones concluded, “had its origins here.”(14)
A half-century later, judging from the attitude of
Clarence Pickett toward Whittaker Chambers and his gripping experience
of Quakerism, this world that the aristocratic grandees sought to
preserve had to be protected against the influence of those who did not
buy into their definitions of the faith.
can ever know for sure, but Chambers’s biographer believed that his
subject was convinced that his daughter Ellen failed to gain admission
to prestigious Swarthmore College in 1951 because her father’s
reputation led to her rejection by members of the faculty and
administrators. Though determined to remain a Friend, he began to pull
back and soon “lost all enthusiasm for Quakerism.” (15) At least part
of this judgment was inaccurate, for as late as 1958, while a senior
editor of the conservative magazine National Review and only three years before he died, he was in its pages identified as a “Quaker.” (16)
impossible to tell how far-reaching Pickett”s influence in the Society
of Friends was, or how many other talented people, like Chambers, who
consciously rejected political liberalism, might have been sidelined
because their views did not match those held by Quaker leaders.
Whittaker Chambers, on the receiving end of Pickett’s animus and belief
that he challenged the status quo, seems to this observer to have been
one too many.
Chambers to Ralph de Toledano, 25 Jun 1952, Ralph de Toledano, ed.,
Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de
Toledano Letters (Washingtion: Regnery Publishing, 1997), 85-87.
2. Clarence Pickett
journal, 16 Sep 1948, Office Memorandum, Clarence Pickett to Elmore
Jackson, Stephen Cary, 21 Sep 1948, Pickett Journal, AFSC Archives.
3 Clarence E.
Pickett, For More than Bread: An autobiographical account of
twenty-two years’ work with the American Friends Service Committee
(Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1953).
Witness, 270-71. The section on Pickett and the Hiss matter was omitted
from the book and published in two articles, Larry Miller, “Clarence
Pickett and the Alger Hiss Case,” Friends Journal, 40 (Nov, Dec, 1994),
9-13, 12-15. Miller justified his omission when I asked him about
it by pointing to these articles.
5 George Nicklin to editor, Friends Journal, 41 (March 1995), 6.
Chambers to William F. Buckley, Jr., 9? May 1957, Odyssey of a
Friend: Whittaker Chambers’ Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr.,
1957-1961, ed., William F. Buckley, Jr. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s
Sons, 1969), 171-79, quotation 172.
7 For a fine
exploration of Chambers’s thought, see Hyrum Lewis, “Whittaker
Chambers: The Lonely Voice of Tragedy on the Postwar Right,”
History of Intellectual Culture, 9 (2010-11), 1-15.
8 Chambers, Witness, 91, 96-97, 487.
Martin, “The Witness,” in Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the
Schism in the American Mind, ed. Patrick Swan (Wilmington, Del.:
Intercollegiate Studies Books, 2003), 104.
10 E. Digby Baltzell,
Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and
the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1979), ch. 2.
11 Friends as Leaders: The Vision, Instrument, and Methods (Wallingford, Penn.: Pendle Hill, 1980), 3.
12 Frederick B.
Tolles, Meeting House and Counting House: The Quaker Merchants of
Colonial Philadelphia, 1682-1783 (New York: Norton Library,
13 Nathaniel Burt,
The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American
Aristocracy (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1963), 72-74.
14 Rufus M. Jones, The Quakers in the American Colonies (London: Macmillan and Co., 1911), 579.
Chambers, 474. Swarthmore undertook to determine the truth of
this allegation after Tanenhaus’s book was published but, forty years
on, could not find evidence one way or the other. See Whittaker
Chambers file, Friends Historical Collection, Swarthmore College,
16 National Review, 5 (18 Jan 1958), 71.
Alexander, Horace to
Clarence Pickett and Anna Brinton, 16 Jul 1947, General Administration,
1947: Individuals: Horace Alexander, American Friends Service Committee
Archives, Philadelphia (hereinafter cited as AFSC Archives).
Baltzell, E. Digby, Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958.
Barnes, Gregory A., A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee. Philadelphia: Friends Press, 2016.
Chambers, Whittaker, Witness, New York: Random House, 1952.
Diggins, John P., Up from Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History (New York: Harper & Row, 1975
Fager, Chuck, ed., Quaker
Service at the Crossroads: American Friends, the American Friends
Service Committee, and “Peace and Revolution”. Falls Church, VA: Kimo
Frost, J. William, “”Our
Deeds Carry Our Message”: The Early History of the American Friends
Service Committee,” Quaker History, 81 (Spring 1992), 1-51.
Ingle, H. Larry, “The
American Friends Service Committee, 1947-49: The Cold War”s Effect,”
Peace & Change, 23 (Jan. 1998), 27-48.
Ingle, H. Larry, First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994.
Ingle, H. Larry, Nixon’s First Cover-up: The Religious Life of a Quaker President. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2015.
Ingle, H. Larry, Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation. Knoxville, Tenn.: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Ingle, H. Larry, “Truly
Radical, Non-violent, Friendly Approaches”: Challenges to the American
Friends Service Committee,” Quaker History, 105 (Spring 2015), 1-21.
Kauffman, Bill, Look
Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch
Anarchists. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2006.
Miller, Lawrence McK.,
Witness for Humanity: A Biography of Clarence E. Pickett. Wallingford,
Penn.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1999.
Pickett Clarence E., For
More than Bread: An autobiographical account of twenty-two years with
American Friend Service Committee. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1953.
Saturday Review, 35 (24 May 1952), 8-14.
Saturday Review, 35 (14 Jun 1952), 32.
Stenographers Minutes, United States of America vs. Alger Hiss, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, 13 Dec 1949.
Tanenhaus, Sam, Whittaker Chambers. New York: Random House, 1997.
Teachout, Terry, ed.,
Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers,
1931-1959. Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1989, 184-93.
Weinstein, Allen, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.