Quaker Theology #25 -- Summer - Fall 2014


Reviews



Chuck Fager, ed. Angels of Progress: A Documentary History of the Progressive Friends: Radical Quakers in a Turbulent America. Durham, NC: Kimo Press, 2014. Pp. 469.  $19.95.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Angell

This is part of a two volume set published by Kimo Press. While they are not formally numbered, what I regard as the first volume, Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism & Helped Save America, reviewed elsewhere in this issue by Isaac May, is a narrative history of a Quaker movement, Progressive (or Congregational) Friends, that split off from the Hicksite branch of Quakerism in the 1840s, over such issues as the propriety of Quakers taking part in abolitionist organizations (condemned by some as “mixed societies”, i.e., different religious sects were involved) and the need, or lack thereof, for select committees of ministers and elders, which took it upon themselves to judge these wayward abolitionist Quakers and disowned them in large numbers. The second volume, under review here, reprints many of the most important sources for the foregoing narrative, and is intended to allow the reader to form her or his own judgment of the movement.

How should we define “progress”?

This volume opens with a series of short quotations on the idea of progress, as it was manifested in the 19th century and before. Quotations from Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette, Penn, Woolman, and Thomas Paine are included. Fager succeeds in showing that an optimistic view that human progress was likely, if not inevitable was pervasive in Enlightenment circles. He is less successful in demonstrating to his readers the range of meanings that Quakers may have applied to the term “progress.” John Wilhelm Rowntree uses the term “progressive” to refer to the evangelical revivalists among Friends in the Midwestern United States: “the progressive or ‘fast’ Friends … concluded that the old conception of the Free Ministry was impracticable, and it became their aim to draw close to what they regarded as the successful Evangelical Churches. The ‘meeting-house’ became a ‘church’ with stained glass windows.” (Present Day Papers, 5 (Oct. 1902): 300)

By way of contrast, the Progressive Friends portrayed in Fager’s book favor a stronger orientation toward social reform and a reduction in church structures seen as oppressive. For example, he quotes Lucretia Mott that the “law of progress is most emphatically marked in our day, in the great reformatory movements which have agitated the truth-loving and sincere hearted.” (10)

In short, what the term “progressive” really meant for nineteenth-century Quakers, as a whole, was any new way of doing Quakerism that promised a positive departure from the widely despised Quietist system that had dominated the Society of Friends in the preceding century and a half. There was no agreement among Quakers on whether that positive direction would fall in the direction of a “holiness” Christianity similar to emerging denominations like the Nazarene Church, or in the direction of a proto-Social-Gospel Christianity with a slimmed-down church structure, possibly more like the Unitarian Church. It is the latter option that is solely explored in this volume, but nineteenth-century Quakers could, and did, use the term “progressive” to refer to either of these schemes for church reformation.

The term “congregational” also presents some ambiguities. Fager does not examine congregational Quaker precedents for the Longwood Friends of mid-nineteenth century Pennsylvania. The most intriguing precedent, to my mind, was the Free Quakers of Philadelphia, who split off during the American Revolution; these Friends wanted to maintain their Quakerism and liberty of conscience to fight for the Patriot cause at the same time. Legendary flag maker Betsy Ross was a member of the Free Quakers. The Free Quakers, like Progressive Friends, also wanted to do away the “discipline, tests for membership, established dogmas, and disownments” – in short, anything seen as “authoritarian.” (Barbour and Frost, The Quakers, 144) The parallels with the later Longwood Friends are numerous and uncanny – and not covered by Fager. (Of course, the existence of parallels between these two movements does not demonstrate that the Progressive Friends were consciously indebted to the Free Quakers. It would seem that the contrary might well be the case – in correspondence with this reviewer, Fager states that he does not recall seeing, in his sources, that Progressive Friends ever mentioned the Free Quakers. But parallels can still be interesting – what might it tell us that, aside from the great 1827 schism, in a 72 year time span, 1781 to 1853, in the Philadelphia area, those Friends who protested the power of Quaker elders also supported fighting in times of war, however ambivalently in the case of Progressive Friends?)

An 1848 manifesto by Congregational Friends in New York foreshadows the rebellion of evangelical “progressives” later in the century, as much as it exemplifies liberal protests for stronger stances on anti-slavery and women’s rights. This manifesto, among other things, states that liberty of conscience might lead some Friends to “practice Water Baptism, the ceremony of Bread and Wine, and kindred rituals.” (173) In so doing, it articulated what would become the basis of David Updegraff’s stand against Gurneyite Orthodoxy in the 1880s. Friends’ distinctives, as defined by Conservatives in both the Hicksite and Orthodox branches, were thus challenged not only by those who would differ specifically with those distinctives, but also by those who, more fundamentally, would pose a challenge as to who gets to define those distinctives.

Reform and Resistance

In both the Hicksite and Orthodox branches, the Quietist conservatives were abundant and powerful, and in neither branch, were they favorable to the innovations offered by the “progressives” of various types. The Orthodox story is covered in other books, (Hamm 1988) so Fager commendably steers clear of that here.

In Chapter Two, the Quietist conservative Hicksite opponents of the Longwood Progressives are introduced, especially the powerful figure of George F. White, who saw inter-denominational societies such as anti-slavery and abolition societies as “abominations before the Lord.” He used similarly strong language to denounce women like Lucretia Mott who traveled in the ministry. Letters from Lucretia and James Mott, whom the likes of White sought unsuccessfully to purge, are included, as well as reflections by Isaac Hopper and William Bassett, venerable abolitionists; one (Hopper) successfully targeted by conservative Hicksites, the other (Bassett) a target of conservatives in the Orthodox camp, resulting in their disownment. Another abolitionist Quaker included in these pages, Abby Kelley Foster, pre-empted the authorities by  “disowning” her New England Orthodox Meeting first. Fager includes some documents relating to their situations, and the letter of still another abolitionist Friend in New England, Elizabeth Buffum Chace, resigning her membership, can be found here. (105-115) (While their yearly meeting is not clearly identified as Orthodox in Angels of Progress, the identity of the persecuting yearly meeting is identified as Orthodox on page 34 of Fager’s companion volume, Remaking Friends.)

One gets a sense of the turbulence and the depth of the struggle over the extent of Quakers’ anti-slavery commitments in this section, and indeed the struggles that abolitionist Quakers had with conservatives in both the Hicksite and Orthodox settings were substantially similar, resulting in anti-slavery schisms on both sides of the Hicksite-Orthodox divide. Remaking Friends does briefly narrate this part of the story; the role of the Orthodox yearly meetings in persecuting their own abolitionist members, however, is obscured in Angels of Progress. It is best to use both of Fager’s volumes in order to get the fullest possible picture of the fallout from early to mid-nineteenth century conservative Quaker opposition to abolitionism.
In short, the distinction between Quaker abolitionist “come-outerism” in general with one of its subsets, that of the Progressive Friends who separated from the Hicksites, is not sharply drawn. Fager admits, in correspondence with this reviewer, that while their numerous connections with Progressive Friends may have justified the inclusion of (ex-) Orthodox Friends Bassett, Chace, and Foster in Angels of Progress, “the boundary [between Progressive Friends and Orthodox come-outers] did get muddy a bit in New England.”

Some of the oversights in this chapter are subtle, but telling nonetheless. Fager asserts that “by the mid-1830s, less than ten years after their emergence, the Hicksite Quakers faced growing internal discord.” (21) Arguably, however, the discord arose within Hicksite Quakerism within five years – Hicksite Friends in 1831 disowned a group of radical Hicksites sympathetic with the socialist schemes of interracial harmony promoted by Robert Dale Owen and Frances “Fanny” Wright, according to Lucretia Mott, that meeting’s “most active, benevolent citizens.” (Jordan, 13-14; Palmer, 113) The Friends disowned had even then criticized the powers of Quaker elders, foreshadowing the later Longwood Friends.

Fager gives some attention to Congregational (or Progressive) Friends among Hicksites in the Midwest, but here a book by Tom Hamm is of complementary usefulness. (God’s Government Begun, 1995) While Fager does cover some of the Progressive Friends’ lesser-known concerns, such as their interests in Spiritualism and dress reform, Hamm does a better job than Fager of tracing the connections of Congregation, or Progressive, Friends with so-called “universal reform,” especially certain short-lived communitarian efforts by these abolitionist Friends. This book by Hamm deals only with Midwestern Friends like the Green Plain Quarter in Ohio, however, not with the Progressive Friends of Longwood, where the strength of Fager’s two volume set lies.

I’m wondering how much deeper Fager could have taken his exploration of the anti-slavery and anti-racism of the Progressive Friends movement. For example, in 1859, the Progressive Friends of Longwood presented to the world a testimony against caste and racial prejudice. (Angell, 22-23) Were they in advance of other Friends and other anti-slavery and abolitionist activists in doing so? There were so many dimensions to anti-slavery and anti-racist work in this period, and any additional documentation that can be made of them would be most welcome.

And the War(s) Came

Part of the American Quaker concern, among the main branches of Hicksite and Orthodox, for not only the well-being of the slave but also tender solicitation for the slaveholder issued from the concern that, if slaveholders did not experience a profound spiritual conversion that would inspire them to free their slaves, that the inevitable result would be an American civil war. This concern is palpable in the pages of every Quaker periodical before 1860, and it is present in this volume in a lengthy and interesting 1842 epistle from Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Baltimore Hicksites could not find in Jesus’ example “any authority to compel people to do what we may believe to be right.” If Quakers or others persisted in attempts to procure the emancipation of slaves by “coercive” means, these Baltimore Friends predicted that the ultimate result would be “violence,” perhaps “bloodshed.” (62-64)

That said, when Fager confronts the actual Progressive Quaker record during the Civil War and, later, World War I, he does a fine job of showing their willingness to diverge from Quaker orthodoxy on the peace testimony. This is nothing new – as I have already noted, one of the Progressive Quaker’s principal antecedents, the Free Quakers, did the same thing during the American Revolution. Much of the outside world tends to admire Quakers as paragons of principled consistency, but one fears that Quakers are all too often the bundles of contradiction that they showed themselves to be during the immense changes that occurred in North America between the late 1850s and the mid-1860s. Not to be missed is the report of the conversation that Longwood Friends had with President Lincoln while he was mulling over his possible issuance of an Emancipation Proclamation – well, he didn’t tell them that, but he was (254-259)

Later, the Progressive Quakers were against the American occupation of the Philippines in the early twentieth century, (278-280) but they seemed generally favorable toward American involvement in World War I, (282-286) so their mixed record on the peace testimony continued, and Fager has the goods. Here, as in some other areas, so-called “progressivism” looks a lot like conformity to outward social norms – and not radical at all.

Progressive Friends’ Theology and its Effects

If by Progressive Friends, we mean the liberal and radical Quakers who became “come-outers” in the mid-nineteenth century on the issue of anti-slavery and other social reforms, they come to embody a very specific form of Quaker theology, and they pioneer a kind of liberalism that would spread extensively during the twentieth and twenty-first century, among unprogrammed Friends of the Friends General Conference and West Coast independent traditions, with some minor inroads elsewhere in the American Quaker world. This, at least, is Fager’s thesis, and it seems to be at the heart of his interest in the Progressive Friends phenomenon. Along these lines, he publishes excerpts from Lucretia Mott’s writings and an essay on the fall of humanity from Angelina Weld Grimke (like Abby Kelley Foster, a refugee from the Orthodox brand of Quakerism – not all come-outers were Hicksite by any means).

I feel distinctly underwhelmed by this part of Fager’s project. What Mott and Grimke had to say was definitely radical for their time period – and it is still radical for many Quakers in the Midwest.  But the ground that Mott and Grimke broke has now been plowed by liberal theologians for several generations, so that what they have written now is taken for granted in many circles. I would hasten to say that taking them for granted would be a mistake, and their exceptionally clear expositions of liberal Christian Quaker theology is still well worth reading.

Fager’s main thesis is more clearly stated in the subtitle of his first volume. He wants to demonstrate “How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism & Helped Save America.” I believe that Fager may well over-estimate the amount of change that Progressive Friends brought about. In the mid-nineteenth century, the parts of American culture that were open to liberal theology were few – most of the liberal theologians were Unitarians, and most of the allies of Mott and Progressive Friends were Unitarians, as Isaac May has shown in his review. But in the late nineteenth century, “New Thought,” sparked by Darwinism, historical critical study of the Bible, and the Social Gospel, entered the mainline Christian churches, and its influence after a few decades became quite pervasive. What made the reunion of east coast Quakers seem feasible by the mid-twentieth century was that the converging trends of liberal culture, as “New Thought” and old Unitarianism, bolstered each other in ways that no one a century earlier would have thought possible.

But Fager gives no attention to the multiple sources that bring about twentieth century Protestant, and Quaker, liberalism, he seems to attribute it all to the Progressive Friends’ influence. To give an example, he attaches great importance to the fact that Friends General Conference stalwart Henry Wilbur attended on some occasions Progressive Quaker meetings at Longwood, (311)  and apparently none at all to the fact that he read and quoted the staunch liberal Quaker theologian (but not Progressive Friend) Rufus Jones. At least, Fager does not highlight this at all, although it is possible to dig it out of the documents he excerpts. (458) His argument, while not entirely fallacious, is incomplete. In order to demonstrate that the Progressive Friends’ influence was the major force in spreading liberal Quakerism in the twentieth century, he also needs to make a convincing argument as to why that change at that time did not come from other plausible sources, such as the mysticism (stemming from New Thought) of Rufus Jones.

Conclusion

This is a very worthwhile volume, with lots of fascinating information. In fact, the two-volume set is well worth reading and consulting. (I concur with my colleague Isaac May’s mostly laudatory review of the first volume.) I do believe that both volumes could be better if Kimo Press had an internal review policy, and solicited prior to publication reviews such as May and I are writing now, so as to better the work before committing it to print. Surely this would be inexpensive enough so that it would not imperil Kimo Press’s considerable pricing advantages – as compared, say, to university presses. (In other words, we reviewers, whether pre- or post-publication, work for cheap – we often can be bribed with free books.) This book has sufficient enough heft (469 pages) that it would serve very nicely as a doorstop, but I would argue that purchasers would be much better advised to keep it on their shelves and to read it often. What this review has shown is that Progressive Quakerism is a very complicated phenomenon, and there are many angles left for future scholars to explore. But Fager has done enough with these two volumes to merit a wide readership. Read them – and enjoy!

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References

Angell, Stephen W. The Foundations of Liberal Quakerism. J. Barnard Walton Memorial Lecture. Melbourne Beach, FL: Southeastern Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 2008.

Barbour, Hugh and J. William Frost. The Quakers. 2nd ed. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1994. First published, 1988.

Hamm, Thomas D. The Transformation of American Quakerism: Orthodox Friends, 1800-1907. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Hamm, Thomas D. God’s Government Begun: The Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform, 1842-1846. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Jordan, Ryan P. Slavery and the Meetinghouse: The Quakers and the Abolitionist Dilemma, 1820-1865. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Palmer, Beverly W. Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Rowntree, John W  “A Study in Ecclesiastical Polity.” Present Day Papers 5 (Oct. 1902): 295-303.