Quaker Theology #25 -- Summer - Fall 2014
Chuck Fager. Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism & Helped Save America, 1822-1940.
Durham, North Carolina: Kimo Press. 2014. Pp. 240. $10.
Reviewed by Isaac May
In his introduction to Remaking Friends,
Chuck Fager informs his readers that his book “attempts to answer a
question… How did the liberal branch of Quakerism become what it is in
the early 21st century?” (p. 3). He takes on this rather considerable
task principally by examining an important historical antecedent of
modern liberal Quakers, the Progressive Friends, a group that broke
away from Hicksite Quakerism around the middle of the nineteenth
century. The work covers the creation of that group up until about
World War I, when the Progressive Friends largely disappeared, many of
them joining Friends General Conference. The book is not a definitive
explanation of the roots of liberal Quakerism, but it is a valuable
history of a neglected part of this movement, focusing especially on
the Longwood Progressive Friends Meeting near Philadelphia, and its
sometimes stormy relationship with the Hicksites.
, it should be
noted, is something of an unconventional text, which may unfortunately
mean that it escapes the attention of scholars. It has been
self-published by Fager through his Kimo Press label, and the result is
a less finished presentation than might be expected from a heavily
revised university press book. Much should have been caught with
editing; quotes often seem to stretch on too long, there are some
misspellings in the footnotes, and several times one parenthesis
appears in the text and another never appears to close it. There are a
few grammar issues; one problematic sentence reads simply “And Quakers”
(p. 130). When images appear in the text, formatting issues cause the
spacing between letters in the words on the rest of the page to widen.
These errors are minor, but they should not have made it into the book.
Fager’s work also has a certain playful style that is uncommon in
academic texts. The writing occasionally has conversational asides. The
images, which appear far more frequently than in most academic works,
sometimes are supposed to be humorous. For instance, Fager edited an
image of Lucretia and James Mott, to include a cartoon word bubble
where James mocks their critics. These attempts at levity do not hinder
the readability of the text, and, at times, it serves as a refreshing
reminder that Fager is writing outside of confining academic
strictures. Yet it also makes it harder to demonstrate that this sort
of denominational history should be taken seriously by religious
studies scholars and historians who are outside the Quaker Studies
The material that Fager presents deserves to reach a wider audience.
Many contemporary historical works on Quakerism, such as Rebecca
Larson’s Daughters of Light
a study of Quaker women’s ministry from 1700 to 1775, portray the
denomination from a disproportionately rosy perspective as egalitarian
and progressive. In contrast, this work makes clear that the
denominational hierarchy and leadership of Hicksite Quakerism could be
hostile towards women’s rights or abolition – or even to the exercise
of power outside established channels controlled by ministers and
Whereas many less specialized histories seem to portray Hicksites as
temporally displaced modern political liberals, Fager makes clear that
the reality was much messier. Remaking Friends
provides a useful explanation of why many Progressive Friends felt the
need for a separate organization, and it makes clear that Hicksite
Meetings often disowned the most radical members from their own
tradition. Fager, drawing heavily on Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits,
also observes that Progressive Friends were integral to the foundation of Christian Spiritualism.
One of the most useful aspects of Fager’s work is that it demonstrates
the connection of Quakerism with a larger network of nineteenth century
reformers. The Yearly Meeting of the Longwood Friends seems to have
been a magnet for abolitionists and radicals, hosting abolitionist
William Lloyd Garrison and radical minister Theodore Parker among
others. It was a place where practical political organizing over topics
like abolition, temperance, and women’s rights existed alongside
discussions about liberal theology and the beginnings of religious
Some of these reformers were not Quakers. Unitarian figures appear in
the narrative constantly. Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson are
prominent; Longwood’s Yearly Meeting was actually led in later decades
by “a succession of Unitarian ministers” (p. 149). Many of the Quakers
that Fager focuses on also have connections with the
Unitarian-dominated Free Religious Association (FRA), an intellectual
hotbed where various New England activists explored ideas of
agnosticism, higher criticism of the Bible and investigated other world
A weakness of Fager’s text is that it mainly relies on secondary
sources on Quakerism or primary sources that are available online,
neglecting to draw on the broad scholarship about liberal religion and
Unitarian denominational history. Examining the work of scholars of
liberal religion like Leigh Schmidt, who examined the FRA in the
context of the development of the concept of American spirituality, and
Dan McKanan, who offers an innovative take on radical Christian
nonviolence in the antebellum era, would have deepened this work. Even
denominational histories of Unitarianism by John Buehrens or Conrad
Wright could have provided much needed context for Fager’s work on the
Quakers. Nor is there much reference in Remaking Friends
to non-Quaker trends in liberal theology, something that often serves
to make the Quakers sound more religiously innovative then they
sometimes were. Other scholars will have to uncover what the
information that Fager has presented means beyond the Quaker
is clearly a
book with noticeable flaws, but this should not deter interested
parties from reading and benefiting from it. Fager has looked at
an underexplored topic in Quakerism, and understood the denomination
far better than a number of scholars with more academic polish. The
evidence Fager amasses here, if applied more broadly, would be
important to the historical understanding of the development of
religious thought in America. As it is, the study of Quakerism’s past
is richer because of Fager’s contribution.
<< Back to Contents QT #25
Buehrens, John A. Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History.
Boston, MA: Skinner House Books, 2011.
Larson, Rebecca. Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775.
Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
McKanan, Dan. Identifying the Image of God: Radical Christians and Nonviolent Power in the Antebellum United States.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality.
New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Wright, Conrad. A Stream of Light: A Sesquicentennial History of American Unitarianism.
Boston, MA: Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, 1975.