Quaker Theology #14

Leigh E. Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 2005. 336 pp. $14.95 (paperback).

Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

In the last two or more decades the word "spirituality," as a substitute for religion, and even "spirit" has taken on a slightly "new age" connotation, with its vague usage making deep inroads among Friends. I haven’t heard anyone propose that the Religious Society of Friends change its name to the "Spiritual Society of Friends," but it would not surprise me, and I suspect it might have wide support.

Religion suggests more than spirituality; it has overtones that point to a reality outside oneself, that is less individualistic than something as ill-defined as spirituality and spirit. Religion is rooted in the Latin language where it meant, according to my American Heritage Dictionary, "to tie fast," something that many modern Quakers seek to avoid, even abhor: the last thing they want is to be tied fast; instead they want to be free. For one example, consider the recent to-do over the old, quite descriptive, and to some of us still useful Quaker word "overseer." Few modern Friends want to be "overseen," so the word has to go, particularly when those opposing racism find that overseer was adopted by slaveholders for people, sometimes black, who exercised controlling power over their human property.

If you, dear reader, find yourself questioning whether these are not too broad as generalizations, consider the book’s opening page, on which the author quotes a 1998 cover story headlined "Designer God" from the Utne Reader, a contemporary periodical aimed at an affluent, well-educated clientele that most of us affluent, well-educated Quakers have perused at one time or the other:

"In a mix-and-match world, why not create your own religion?"

Indeed, why not? We refuse to be bound by the Bible, a 2600 year-old document of too little relevancy for us; we have no use for a hierarchical institution called the "church" that presumes to exercise its control over our minds and, yes, spirits. Within Quakerism, few constraints are left after we’ve forsaken church and Bible.

But withal this "spirituality"-centered outlook did not fall finished from the sky; it too has a history, and now comes Leigh E. Schmidt, professor of religion at Princeton, to give us the first exploration we have thereof, an account of the American free spirits seeking refuge from organized religion. He hands his readers a fast-paced, six-chapter, significant introduction to the phenomenon in the United States; he nestles them between a twenty-four page introduction and a twenty-one page Epilogue, all making for crisp reading and yielding a plethora of remarkable insights.

For Friends, not to mention historians of Quakerism in the 20th century, Schmidt’s sixth chapter will be the most interesting. Here he dwells on Quaker thought in that period and includes a long section on Rufus Jones, Douglas Steere, Thomas Kelly, and Pendle Hill, with fascinating tidbits about them thrown in for added reward. Given that this history is by a non-Friend and published by a secular press, this chapter alone will stand as the introduction to 20th century liberal Quaker thought until someone bestirs herself within the Society to produce a history to elaborate on what he includes.

As a history, Schmidt’s book carries the tale back as far as he can, far before the 1960s when our modern notion of spirituality received its mightiest impetus. He rightly roots it in the central Protestant idea of the right of the individual Christian to read and understand the Bible by his own lights, a principle that opened the door to a potential myriad of interpretations. (Our author does not mention First Friend George Fox here, but he could easily have done so.)

Add to this heady base a healthy dollop of philosophical deism – quoting the Quaker-reared Tom Paine as affirming that "My own mind is my own church" (p. 5) – and it’s not long until we come to Schmidt’s heroes in this saga, transcendentalist essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Walt Whitman, who never got over a sermon he heard from Quaker reformer Elias Hicks, a family Friend. Both were eager to let the church go, and manufacture (note the Latin roots of that word: "hand" and "made"!) their own faiths – or none. The rest, as they say, is history.

This venture started on May 20, 1838, when the Transcendentalist Club consisting of a New England coterie of liberal ministers and intellectuals convened in Medford, Massachusetts, to consider what Emerson called "the question of Mysticism" (p. 29). (No one noted it, but that word, as one wag said, begins in the mist, ends in schism, and has "i" in the center.) A virtual roll call of influential thinkers were soon joining Emerson in trumpeting the glories of mysticism around the country, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, to name only three. In July of that year, Emerson himself advised each of the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School "to see himself as ‘a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost’ so he could ‘acquaint men at first hand with Deity’" (p. 33).

Others, like the first "green" Henry David Thoreau, sought to cultivate the inner life in solitude, something that Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier also came to easily, for he knew already the Christ within and how to "[m]ake the truth thine own, for truth’s own sake" (p. 81). Even social reformers like feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton were pulled into this orbit because women, they realized, had too little room to carve out solitude in a male-dominated society. Quaker rationalist Lucretia Mott, although agreeing with her friend Stanton on other issues, remained aloof from this type of mystical appeal.

Schmidt makes Walt Whitman, after Emerson, the central messiah-like figure to the spirituality that he describes. (A not very difficult transformation in fact: consider the 1850 photograph of him shown on p. 103 that depicts the poet as a long-haired, bearded Christ.) When he announced in Leaves of Grass that "My faith is the greatest of all faiths and the least of faiths,/ Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern" and "Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,/You must travel it for yourself, (p. 104)" he was giving expression to words that would inspire and invigorate generations of religious liberals, including Quakers.

Emerson and Whitman set the ball rolling, and it has not come to rest since. By the end of the 19th century, the definition of spirituality was becoming so fluid that its denizens expanded its reach beyond solitude to embrace other religious sensibilities than those of the Christian traditions, something that would increasingly push Quakerism toward liberalism.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Unitarian minister, fervent advocate of abolition, and colonel of a black regiment during the Civil War best known by his name, penned an 1871 essay, "The Sympathy of Religions" that swept the civilized world; it was translated into French in 1898. Active in the Free Religious Association, founded in 1867 for religious radicals (Lucretia Mott was a member), he proposed dealing with other faiths on equal terms and uniting religious disciples into one. He moved in circles with seminal figures like Mott and Whittier, and the thesis of "The Sympathy of Religions" is both a summary and manifesto of one of the main streams of liberal "theology.

Schmidt’s narrative also brings out well the tensions and paradoxes of this faith, issues that persist and remain unresolved well over a century later.

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