Quaker Theology #8 Spring-Summer 2003

Milton Mayer, Quaker Hedgehog-- 3

Since 1947, AFSC had been moving to a more politically-oriented position, and its pamphlet series was a part of that approach. Fourteen well-known Quakers, including the black civil rights worker and homosexual Bayard Rustin (whose name was quietly not listed with other committee members in the published pamphlet), former AFSC executive Clarence Pickett, and professional peace agitator A. J. Muste, joined Mayer to produce the only one of the series that is remembered, and what was the most important pacifist statement ever composed in the United States.

One problem that dogged the committee was that it could not come up with a title its members liked when it met on the coast of New England during the summer of 1954 to hash out the statement. The morning they were to leave, Mayer had a revelation. "Speak truth to power," he proposed, and the committee embraced the four words with alacrity. The phrase has since come over into the language, many Quakers thinking it originated in the seventeenth century, but it was quintessentially Mayerish, capturing what Friends, as well as other prophets, had tried to do over the centuries. (Ingle, 1985, pp. 383-385)

Three years after, Mayer contributed "The Commencement Address" to Christian Century, a piece that seems to me to be one of the best short articles he ever turned out. The piece displays striking parallels to Hutchins’s 1935 address; in it, Mayer imagined that he had come back to speak to graduating seniors of the college where he had graduated twenty-five years before. His commencement address rang with soaring words, even as it forecast that the class was doomed to compromise and outright corruption, Mayer’s own word.

"As you are now," he began, "so I once was; as I am now, so you will be. You will be tempted to smile when I tell you that I am middle-aged and corrupt. You should resist the temptation. Twenty-five years from now you will be ineluctably middle-aged and, unless you hear and heed what I say today, just as ineluctably corrupt . . . .. (Mayer: 1964, 146)

"You have lived sheltered lives," he explained, "but you have had no one to shelter you from your parents or teachers. Your parents have done what they could to adjust you to the deplorable society to which they, as their advanced age testifies, have successfully adjusted themselves. (147)

In time, he warned, "You won’t even know that you are corrupt. You will be no worse than your neighbors, and you will be sure to have some that you won’t be as bad as." (Ibid., 149) He remembered that his own "education prepared me to say no to my enemies. It did not prepare me to say no to my friends, still less to myself, to my own limitless need for a little more status, a little more security, and a little more of the immediate pleasure that status and security provide." (151-2)

And Milton Mayer, the man who on his Who’s Who questionnaire, under religion, wrote "Jewish; member of the Soc. of Friends," advised his imagined audience to seek what Socrates had sought so long and hard but the thing that always eluded him: the gift of God. "In despair of your parents and your society, of your teachers and your studies, of your neighbors and your friends, and above all of your fallen nature and the Old Adam in you," he ended, "I bespeak for you the gift of God." (153)

As can readily be seen, Mayer combined his lack of faith in institutions with a concomitant, even instinctive, commitment to individualism. Indeed, these two themes fed each other. As a consultant for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, run by Hutchins, financed by the Ford Foundation, and centered in Santa Barbara, California, he wrote for its publications and published Man v. the State in 1966. For a reader who is familiar with the gist of Mayer, Man v. the State seems a sometimes tendentious exploration of what classical and more modern thinkers had to say about the powers of the state and individual rights and added little but illustrations to his thought. His dominant insight remained: in America’s highly advanced society, the conflicting claims between the state and the individual push citizens into an "unrelieved twilight as a prelude to ineluctable darkness . . . . In this twilight one tendency is clear: the state’s power waxes and the individual’s wanes." (Mayer: 1972, 91)

Like many near-anarchists, there was an irony about Mayer and his stance. He possessed a respect and very strong commitment to certain rules, not the one requiring payment of one’s income tax, surely, but ones that touched him, almost inexplicably, close to home. There were rules that one ought to abide by. A telling example was the conflict he had in the 1970s with the editor of Friends Journal about that Quaker periodical’s insistence that in articles for it he cease using gender-specific pronouns. He explained the long tradition of using pronouns like "he" or "him" to refer to both men and women, and he bluntly told the editor that he would write nothing for a publication that did not allow him to adhere to this hallowed tradition of journalism.

It was not that he was a "sexist"; it was only that, as an individualist, he demanded that the right be granted him to adhere to time-honored rules. One could sense here echoes of responses to his controversial 1942 article about Jews: he insisted on being a literalist about what a Jew was, citing the prophet Isaiah–those who obeyed God’s call to be righteous, a call that would, in Mayer’s eyes, assure them roles as dissenters–and if some wanted to label him an anti-semite for that, let them. Milton Sanford Mayer knew who he was.

Mayer’s moral and religious approach was highlighted in a debate he had with economist Kenneth Boulding, held at the Quaker study center at Pendle Hill, outside Philadelphia, in April 1966, during the height of the Vietnam War. (This was while he spent nine years as professor of English at the University of Massachusetts.) Published as a Pendle Hill pamphlet (#153) entitled, The Mayer/Boulding Dialogue on Peace Research, the discussion focused on how to avoid war and conflict.

Boulding, renowned as a social scientist and a Friend, wanted to seek out the causes of war and, once they were identified, attempt to avoid them so as to prevent further conflicts. Mayer would have none of this approach. Peace researchers, he said, were like architects and builders of houses who were employed to get a specific job done; the goal was set by the person desiring a house. We human beings must set the goal for peace and move toward it. Mayer exclaimed at the start, "Of my own knowledge I know only this: that man is corrupt unto death, that he is born corrupt and that life corrupts him and that the older and more rickety, envious, frustrate[d], and fearful he becomes the more furiously has he to mobilize his waning powers, not to overcome corruption but only to reduce the rate at which it is overcoming him." And he ended on the same note, ". . . I say that I know what to do, and what I need is to do it." (Mayer/Boulding: 5,30)

Boulding’s rejoinder was equally fluent and forceful: "Only a fool would want to argue with Milton; though Milton has a way of being wrong very beautifully." Ibid., p. 7)

"It’s all very well to indulge in Aristotelian gloom . . . . There is a certain amount of truth in this talk about corruption and original sin, but the plain fact is, we do learn things. There is an evolutionary process which goes on in the world and there is an evolutionary process which goes on in social systems. . . ."

Boulding argued that science had accelerated social evolution, to the point where, "There’s no use quoting Aristotle; he didn’t know anything about this . . . . We have to come to terms with another state of man altogether. Anybody who thinks that science is a tool for carrying out the values of ancient authorities is in a dream world."

Boulding expressed the scientist’s optimism: "I don’t really think the problem of war and peace is any more intrinsically difficult than the problem of unemployment. It is a question of how to introduce certain tricks, almost, into the system, and you solve the problem. This is highly characteristic of the history of invention. You struggle with a problem for generations and centuries and all of a sudden somebody thinks of a perfectly simple thing which solves it. . . ." (Ibid., 7,8,12)

Mayer was not convinced. "As I examine my own misspent life," he said, "I don’t see any point at which more knowledge would have enabled me better to confront its crises. It seems to me as I consider these crises, that in their confrontation I knew about as much at the age of two (perhaps we ought to say three, but I was precocious) as I did at any point thereafter, that would have been of any decisive use to me; and that my problem at the age of two was not to know something that I didn’t know, but to do something that I didn’t do, or to stop doing something that I was doing." (Ibid., 13)

And so it went, brilliantly, for two days.

One of the things he did do was to publicize the question of whether president Richard Nixon, also a Quaker, should be disciplined by the Evangelical Quaker congregation to which he had belonged most of his life, the East Whittier (California) Friends Church. In an article in late 1973 in Christian Century, Mayer surveyed the history of how Friends had dealt with what in the seventeenth century was quaintly called "disorderly walking" and presented a number of possibilities for dealing with the president, ranging from a formal admonition to outright disownment. (Reprinted in Mayer: 1975,.309-315)

Already widely discussed in Quaker circles, particularly eastern ones, this matter of a president being disciplined by his church provoked a response from Eugene Coffin, the pastor of East Whittier Church, in the first issue of the next year; he revealed that the group’s Ministry and Counsel Committee had already discussed the matter and decided that Nixon’s conscience was the final authority in the matter. (Coffin) No record exists that Mayer commented publicly, but he must have ruefully mused that Coffin’s stance only confirmed how assimilated Quakers had become within the broader Christian community.

Mayer was an odd bird and an odd Quaker, more than a little out of touch with the main drift of his times; for him, this disconnect would have hardly been a shortcoming. For example, when he died after a long illness in April 1986, in Carmel, California, where he and Jane had moved not long after the war, not a single obituary appeared in the papers of the United States, including even the newspaper of record, the New York Times, and in June the Progressive republished an old column that he himself had chosen for the occasion. Self-effacing, he kept his name out of Who’s Who in America until 1984. Determined to discharge his obligations, when he visited friends and had to make a long distance telephone call, he addressed a postal card to himself and insisted his host mail it when the bill arrived to show how much he owed.

But Mayer was an odder Quaker. He clearly accepted the notion that one could hear the voice of God if one listened long and carefully enough, and he also believed that God’s grace could touch a human being to bring salvation and empowerment. He also found the silence of Quaker worship exactly what he needed. The differences were not just those that flowed from his Jewish background, for other Jews have found and do find a spiritual home among Friends.

What made him different from most modern Hicksite and other liberal Friends was his central conviction that human beings are fatally and innately flawed, to use one of his–one he borrowed from Robert Hutchins–favorite words, "corrupt." He chose not to adopt the term "original sin," but that was what he was talking about nonethe-less. It is not a concept that one often finds among cosmopolitan Quakers these days. In fact, most adhere to a kind of fashionable "liberalism" that tends to elevate human beings to a status a little lower than the angels. Mayer exempted no one, not even himself, from the fatal flaw he saw lurking at the center of the human animal. Because he saw people failing to live up to their highest ideals, everyone being the same, his writings possessed the ability to speak to all kind and sorts and draw people into his net.

The same quality gave him his hedgehog characteristic. If people were corrupt, then their institutions were inevitably corrupt as well. Given their power and ability to define what was good and acceptable, they were to be feared and resisted by those who had been given, through the grace and virtue of God, the insight to see what was wrong. At that point they were called to act, by which Mayer meant to resist. In what its editors said was the greatest demand for reprints of any item they ever published, the Progressive reprinted in December 1953 the article he had done in February 1950, and then they issued it as a leaflet. Called "The Merry Christ," it dealt with the commercialization of Christmas. In a typically Mayerish twist, however, he specifically rejected calls of Christians to make Christmas less commercial. No: "Like all other sins," he wrote, "it can not be reformed; it has got to be abolished. . . . The blasphemy will creep back as long as men are pagans, just as sin will, but that is no reason why the Christians should not denounce it and disengage themselves from its practice."

So Mayer’s answer to the age of Bush-Ashcroft amounts only to an reiteration of his central insight: principiis obsta, resist the beginnings, lest institutions like the state overwhelm you. George Fox, the founder of Quakers in the seventeenth century, did not use these exact terms, but he certainly knew how to denounce and disengage from the apostasy he saw all around him, the one he believed stretched back sixteen centuries. He and Jewish Quaker Milton Mayer were two hedgehogs of the same water.


My account and analysis of Milton Mayer comes almost entirely from my reading of his books and shorter pieces, which are included below, listed in chronological order.

For the exchange of letters on Mayer’s alleged "anti-semitism," See Roger Draper, "Unfriendly Persuasion," response to Dexter Masters, New York Review of Books, November 6, 1986; on the web at:; and


What Can a Man Do? Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1964.

If Men Were Angels. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

The Nature of the Beast. Amherst, MA: U. of Massachusetts Press, 1975.

Biodegradable Man: Selected Essays of Milton Mayer. Athens GA: U. of Georgia Press, 1990.


They Thought They Were Free. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1955; paperback 1966.

Man v. the State. Santa Barbara CA: The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1969.

Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir. Berkeley CA: U. of California Press, 1993.

Pamphlets and articles:

"I Think I’ll Sit this One Out," Saturday Evening Post, (7 Oct 1939)

"Keeping Posted," Saturday Evening Post, March 28, 1942. On the web at:

Conscience and the Commonwealth (1944)

The Merry Christ (1953)

Mayer/Boulding Dialogue on Peace Research (1967)

"Disownment: The Quakers and their President," Christian Century, (10 Oct 1973)

I did not read the following books of Mayer’s and various co-authors:

Young Man in a Hurry: William Rainey Harper (1957)

The Revolution in Education (1958)

Humanistic Education and Western Civilization (1964)

Anatomy of Anti-Communism (1969)

The Art of the Impossible: A Study of the Czech Resistance (1969)


      <<< Back                                  Next >>>

<<< Back to Theological Resources Page

<<<Back to QUEST Home

QUEST, P.O. Box 82, Bellefonte PA 16823