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Quaker Theology #6 -Spring 2002

                                                        Herrymon Maurer and the Tao of Quakerism

by Anthony Manousos

"When I first read Herrymon’s version of the Tao The Ching, I was bowled over," recalls Steve Penningroth, a biochemist from Princeton University. "What struck me was the commentary. Without it I was lost. Herrymon’s commentary helped me because I had the sense that he was on to something and that he grasped the problems of the world from a non-dogmatic, spiritual and loving perspective."

"The book changed my life in many ways," says Glenn Picher, who was 24 years old and had just been graduated from Princeton University when he first encountered Herrymon and his Tao The Ching. "Herrymon had the voice of a prophet. Being a political radical at the time, I found the jeremiad aspect of this work very attractive."

Even though many twentieth century Quakers have been drawn to Taoism, 1 Herrymon Maurer’s Tao The Ching is the only book-length work by an American to explore Taoism from a Quaker/Hasidic (or as Herrymon would say, "prophetic") perspective. (The work of the Korean Friend Ham Sok Hon also deals with Taoism, but from a very different perspective.)

Herrymon’s interest in Taoism and China was lifelong and deep. From 1938-41, during the Sino-Japanese War, Herrymon taught English in West China, where he first became acquainted with Taoism and experienced first-hand the brute facts of modern combat.2 Deeply impressed by Chinese culture and spiritual wisdom, he wrote a fictionalized life of Lao Tzu in 1943.

Herrymon also had broad-ranging experience in the business world and among Quakers. He was on the staff of Fortune magazine from 1942-45, and afterwards was a contributing writer until 1968. He wrote articles that appeared in Fortune, Life, Reader’s Digest, the old Commentary, the New Leader, and other magazines. He wrote books on topics ranging from Gandhi to big business that were published in Britain, France, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the United States. He also edited a book and wrote a pamphlet for Pendle Hill, a Quaker study center, and was known and respected by "weighty" Quakers, such as Anna and Howard Brinton.

After a lifetime of intense and sometimes compulsive seeking, Herrymon finally achieved, in the last few decades of his life, a measure of hard-earned wisdom, tempered with deep compassion, that was of enormous help to those seeking inner peace and clarity for their lives.

I came to know Herrymon when I first began attending Princeton Meeting in 1984. At that time, Herrymon had turned seventy and had recently become a recorded minister. This distinction was lost upon me as a newcomer to Quakerism. I have since learned that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting –of which Princeton Meeting is a part –virtually gave up the practice of recording ministers nearly fifty years ago. 3 Herrymon’s ministry was considered so important, however, that Princeton Friends felt that it needed to be acknowledged.

I learned about "the Way" of Taoism and Quakerism through a small group that Herrymon helped to establish. It was called "The Surrender Group." Around one third of its members were AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) "graduates"; the rest were recovering ego-holics, of whom I was (and still am) one.

The "Surrender Group" was started in the early 1970s a few years after Herrymon joined AA and turned his life around. Its format was simple: AA’s Twelve Steps were re-cast, in deference to Quaker practice, as "Ten Queries." Each week participants would focus on a single query: "Are you willing to make Truth the center of your life?" or "Are you willing to give up compulsions and devices?" The questions were simple, but the responses were often deep and challenging. Participants were encouraged to share from their personal experience, and to help others to understand how we could in fact change our lives. I had never experienced anything quite like it before, or since.

What made the "Surrender Group" dynamic was the presence of recovering alcoholics deeply committed to spiritual transformation, and the presence of Herrymon, whose wisdom and humor pervaded the gathering.

"I don’t think I’d be here today if not for Herrymon and the Surrender Group," says Harriet, one of the group’s original members. "When I first went to the group, I was 29 years old and had just found out that my husband was manic-depressive. Herrymon helped me get through this crisis spiritually as well as psychologically."

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When Herrymon died in August of 1998, his passing was deeply felt by his family and Princeton F/friends, but went mostly unacknowledged elsewhere, even in the Quaker world. Herrymon seemed very much like the low-profile Taoist sage.

When I learned of Herrymon’s death, I felt led to write about him, but found very little material to work with. I was surprised to learn that no memorial minute had been written about him. There was apparently no obituary about him even in Friends Journal.

To find out more about this man whose life was as elusive as the Tao, I decided to interview his wife Helen, who still lives in Princeton. From Helen, I gleaned a picture of Herrymon’s life and realized how little about himself he had revealed during the period that I came to know him.

In 1914 Herrymon Maurer was born in Sewickly, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Pittsburgh. His father was a high school teacher who died in the great influenza epidemic of 1917. Herrymon was sent to Ohio to live with relatives for several years while his mother went back to school. At age seven Herrymon was sent to Pittsburgh to live with his mother and aunt, both school teachers. Herrymon met his future wife, Helen Singleton, when she was 13 years old; and they soon became friends. The Maurer household was dominated by two very strict and formidable women. In contrast, the Singletons were vivacious and easygoing. Among them Herrymon learned to dance and to appreciate the joys of life. Herrymon became best friends with Helen’s brother, as well as with Helen.

Precocious and gifted, with a penchant for sculpture as well as writing, Herrymon was accepted by Dartmouth College. During his freshman year he contracted rheumatic fever and was sent home. He spent a year in bed recovering. He eventually completed his B.A. in English at the University of Pittsburgh.

Seeking fame and fortune, Herrymon moved to New York, where he stayed at the apartment of Helen’s brother. He was soon joined by Helen, and they were married in 1937.

The newlyweds eked out a living doing various jobs, as was common during the latter days of the Great Depression. Helen had been a social worker since 1933, but she ended up working at the New York World’s Fair. Herrymon wrote advertising copy and did public relations work. Helen recalls that at one point their apartment was full of the latest girdles, complete with new-fangled zippers, about which Herrymon had to write something catchy. He hated that job.

When Herrymon was offered the chance to teach English at the University of Nan-King in Western China in 1938, he leaped at the opportunity. Helen was a bit more cautious, but went along with Herrymon’s enthusiasm and ended up teaching at Jin-Ling, a prestigious women’s university. Traveling to China was a long and arduous journey that took six weeks because of stormy weather, and the stay in war-torn China was no less challenging. It was in China that their first child, Mei-Mei (meaning "Little Sister"), was born in 1939.

China made a deep impression on Herrymon, who eventually wrote two books on the subject, The End is Not Yet: China at War (McBride, 1941) and A Collision of East and West (Regnery, 1951). He also wrote a fictionalized life of Lao-Tzu called The Old Fellow (Doubleday, 1943). The End is Not Yet describes the Sino-Japanese war with a keen journalistic eye and celebrates the dogged, down-to-earth determination of the Chi-nese in the face of Japanese aggression. The Collision of East and West is a philosophical as well as historical reflection on the "four-cornered war between China and Japan, between Japan and the United States, between Japan and Russia, and the cultu-ral and political war between China and the United States." 4

When the Maurers moved back to the United States in 1941, Herrymon began working on these books as well as writing articles for Fortune and Commentary.

They lived for a while in Westchester county, NY, where Herrymon became a member of Chappaqua Meeting in 1943. Here his daughter Ann was born, to be followed by his son Tom in 1945. As Herrymon’s commitment to pacifism and Quakerism deepened, he wrote Great Soul: The Growth of Gandhi, which was published by Doubleday in 1948.

In 1949 he and his family went to Pendle Hill to head up the publications program. There Herrymon edited The Pendle Hill Reader, a collection of essays by Thomas Kelly, Douglas Steere, Rufus Jones, Arnold Toynbee, Howard Brinton, et al. He also edited a selection from John Woolman’s writings called Worship (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #51, 1949) and wrote a pamphlet called The Power of Truth (Pendle Hill Pamphlet # 53).

During this period Herrymon came to know personally Fritz Eichenberg, the Brintons, the Steeres, the Bacons, and numerous other Friends who passed through this unique Quaker "hotbed" for study and contemplation.

In 1950 Herrymon moved to Princeton and became one of the founding members of Princeton Meeting, when it was resuscitated after WWII. 5 There he continued to write about spiritual matters. In 1953 his cogitations on philosophy and religion, What Can I Know? The Prophetic Answer, was published. This turned out to be the last book that Herrymon published about religious matters for nearly thirty years.

Most of Herrymon’s books were written and published before he turned forty. His religious writings are full of what Yeats called "passionate intensity." In his Pendle Hill pamphlet, The Power of Truth, Herrymon grapples with the question of the "end of the world" from nuclear holocaust. Herrymon argues that if humanity annihilates itself, it is because we have failed to heed the voices of prophets who are been warning and exhorting us to give up our self-destructive egocentrism. 6

Herrymon derides those who put their faith in social engineering or the Social Gospel–no man-made scheme or panacea will save us if there is no inward transformation. According to Herrymon, we must seek "liberation from our own lies and fears and egotism, and thus liberation from the outward pestilences provoked by inward ills. This liberation has many names. It has been called love, non-violence, non-action, pure wisdom. Gandhi gave it a new name, Satyagraha, the Power of Truth" (12). As a solution to America’s racial problems, Herrymon proposes using the same techniques that Gandhi used, thereby anticipating Martin Luther King’s non-violent Civil Rights movement by several years. 7

In Herrymon’s view, Truth is universal, and so are prophets. He sees Lao-Tsu, Isaiah, Jesus, Muhammad, George Fox, John Woolman, and Gandhi as all espousing the same universal Truth. He writes: "I am also struck to find that God as Lao-tzu, the great Chinese Taoist, encountered him is in no sharp contrast to God as the great prophets of Israel encountered him" (p. 56). Herrymon acknowledges that universal Truth may be perceived and interpreted differently because of different social and historical circumstances. 8

For Herrymon, the great prophets are eternally contemporary. He sees Quakerism and Hasidism as "most successful in preserving prophetic vitality" (p. 62). 9

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