“The Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives,”* A Review

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

The title of this book resonates with irony at several levels. On the surface, as the “insiders” who contributed to it are mainly academics, or serious scholars; the pages exude a guild mentality. Moreover, its contributors, at the one actual forum where three preliminary papers were delivered by three contributors from widely different perspectives, interacted like clubby insiders, favored members of a convivial discussion group, exhibiting what the editor calls “a surprising lack of direct conflict.” (2)

More mundanely, the book’s readers are likely to be a very small number of confirmed “insiders” indeed – limited to those who, like reviewers, can get copies without charge, or have regular access to the very few Quaker libraries well-endowed, or reckless enough, to pay $99.95 for a single slim volume.

The editor’s surprise at the lack of overt conflict or even controversy among contributors when face-to-face did not fit the book’s original premise. It was supposed to bring together rival views of “The Truth About Quaker History,” based on what is described as the “huge growth in the number of Quakers working within the academy on Quaker topics,” whose work is said to have produced a “flow of theses and theories about Quakerism [that] are divergent and at times incompatible.” (1)

Indeed, despite the insiders’ bonhomie, divergent views are expressed in these pages, and even a couple of brickbats tossed, but mainly at “outsiders,” Friends who were not invited. Thus the “theories” of Quakerism expressed here represent a rather severely truncated spectrum of available serious views, but are various enough withal.

At one end, there is the nature-feminist mysticism of Michele Tarter. She recounts how her efforts to be a diligent grind amid the British Library’s ancient manuscripts were disrupted by a voice, which no one else in the studious gloom heard, shouting at her to leave the books and “Go North!” to the Quaker 1652 Country in the midlands. There she underwent a quaking theophany lying atop Firbank Fell. Small wonder she has focused on recovering the voices of ecstatic women in the early movement, and their experience of being inhabited by Christ’s body in a way that turned their own into “celestial flesh.”(83-99)

Tarter’s theory is supplemented by that of Canadian Richard Bailey, whose research interest is theosophical and esoteric; he argues provocatively that “early Quakerism displayed all the characteristics of a charismatic movement led by one who claimed divine status as the Son of God . . . .” (65)

Elsewhere there are reflections by several historians, among them Thomas Hamm, Hugh Barbour, John Punshon and Rosemary Moore. Of these, Hamm alone is favored with two bites at the apple, and in his second essay, “Theoretical Reflections of a Skeptic about Theory,” he describes his own personal-professional-spiritual journey. As perhaps the most distinguished active American Quaker historian, his willingness to learn from various theoretical perspectives, while being bound to none, is refreshing. Indeed, he candidly admits that, “In all honesty, I am not sure just what a purified and prosperous Quakerism would look like.” (187)

No such doubts trouble Martin Davie, who earns his place at the other end of this spectrum. A Friend who is also an evangelically-oriented Anglican (go figure), he rejects just about everything Tarter and Bailey and all their “liberal” ilk represent, insisting instead on a sternly orthodox version of Quakerism. Behind these modern views, he also dismisses almost all the distinctive Foxian notions that he mentions, from the idea that mainstream churches had sunk into apostasy, to Barclay’s detailed doubts about the “inerrancy” of the Bible, to Quaker rejection of the outward sacraments, etc. (188-206) One wonders what the practical difference between Davie’s notion of “Quakerism” and a conservative Anglicanism might be; perhaps he would at least permit us to forego bishops. Though actually, I doubt it.

Davie makes a few valid points, however, decrying the studied lack of engagement by most leading late twentieth century Friends with the broader streams of theological debate (201). He also points out how this widespread theological illiteracy has limited our ability to make constructive use of many of the ecumenical opportunities open to the Society.(Ibid.) And he, of all the writers, breaks with the general good humor to actually attack another Friend’s theory as “fundamentally flawed, (198) thrice repeating the charge for emphasis.

Alas for us, however, Davie’s target is not one of the “insiders.” It is Janet Scott, former Clerk of London (now Britain) Meeting for Sufferings, who delivered the prestigious Swarthmore Lecture at the Yearly Meeting in 1980. In so doing she set Davie, who had listened to her in a state of shock and awe, careening off into orthodoxy in response.

It seems that Scott’s lecture legitimated the feminist and theologically pluralist trends which, on this side of the Atlantic, are often lumped under the rubric of “universalism.” I say “it seems,” because we only have Davie’s horrified summary of the lecture, and she is not in the book to defend it or her views. We are left with Davie’s conclusion that Scott epitomized and legitimized a modern Quakerism that he feels has “gone so tragically wrong.” (199)

It is too bad the book’s criteria of academic “insider-ness” did not include Scott; but she is only one example of the many recent exponents of “Quaker theory” who did not make the cut. George Fox tartly insisted that one did not have to be bred at a university to be a minister of the gospel, and it might be just as apt to assert that today one need not be an academic to produce serious theories of Quakerism. The list of recent theorists of Quakerism that were thus omitted from this project is long and, to this reviewer at least, impressive. Their absence makes this project much more suggestive than actually illuminating.

Many voices could be found on such a vagrant list, at least in the U.S. For instance, from the Conservative stream there is the recently passed Bill Taber, and Lloyd Lee Wilson, who is still with us. Taber’s unjustly neglected book, The Eye of Faith, presents this stream through the medium of a history of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Wilson’s Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order comes at this tradition from a more thematic angle.

More idiosyncratic, but still reflecting a clear theory, is Exiles in Babylon, a book by Larry Kuenning, which revives the early Quaker apostasy-of-the-church model, but applies it above all to modern Friends; Kuenning is as critical as Davie, but from a more singular standpoint. One might here also mention Dean Freiday, whose Nothing Without Christ, puts a strongly Orthodox gloss on his unprogrammed background.

More systematic is Wilmer Cooper’s A Living Faith, the distillation of the Quakerism course he taught for many years at Earlham school of Religion. And from out of New England has come Elizabeth Cazden, whose pioneering researches into the course of Quakerism in that region, titled, The Modernist Reinvention of Quakerism, has much relevance to all who are coming after, even if her perspective is more Gurneyite than appeals to this reader.

The liberal camp has not been silent either. If American Quakers have no counterpart to Janet Scott, there is the remarkable figure of Jim Corbett, the Arizona goatherd-turned sanctuary activist, who also happened to be a Harvard-trained philosopher. His Goatwalking combines a kind of desert radicalism with keen biblical insight and a no-nonsense approach to an ecumenical sense of the Church as a “people of peoples,” among which Friends had a definite place. I will not conceal my admiration for Corbett’s thought and example; there is really nothing like it in recent Quaker experience, and we have yet much to learn from him.

For that matter, we likewise have much to gain from the work of the Bouldings, Kenneth and Elise. Kenneth, a distinguished systems thinker, put forth highly fertile views in several Pendle Hill pamphlets, particularly The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism, while Elise brought together sociology, feminism, family and mysticism in such essays as Born Remembering, to name only a few of their many works. And there are other names that could be mentioned.

Some of these persons are or were in the academy; the Bouldings, indeed, were certified stars of that circuit. Others were at the margins, and still others, like Corbett, shook the dust of the ivory tower from his feet and took to ranching. In these pages, only Douglas Gwyn pays tribute en passant to Corbett’s “brilliant combination of biblical study and political analysis – from an avowed nontheist” (134), his only mention there. Yet all these “outsiders” have important and quite varied “theories” of Quakerism to be reckoned with by thoughtful Friends. The absence of such names from this volume often made it seem, quite frankly, rather thin and more than a bit parochial.

There is another dimension of this myopic thinness which deserves mention: the fact that the book presents us “theories” of Quakerism, rather than what the top scholars of most other Christian denominations would be expected to produce, namely theologies of, and for, their church.

To be sure, there are theologies here: that’s what Davie sets forth, as has Carole Spencer, an American evangelical whose focus is the Holiness tradition.. Theological perspectives also underly most of the other views, though mainly disguised as “theory.” My sense is that this partly reflects the traditional stance of antipathy to theologizing (even while doing it) that is a characteristic conceit of so much Quaker thought. It also likely reflects a rather dated modernist academic prejudice in favor of the social sciences and historical research, as somehow more definitive for religious studies than such abstractions. It’s hard to be too critical of the title, thoughj; one wonders if a book project to be titled, The Creation of Quaker Theology would attract enough avowed living contributors, especially from the academy, to be larger than a pamphlet.

At its best, this skeptical outlook can root theology in the concreteness of the world, which can make it more accessible and productive. (Jim Corbett’s work, I believe, reaches this level.) But at the other end, where it too often has lingered among Friends, it reflects an arrogant and ultimately foolish presumption that Friends have outgrown “all that.” In truth, of course, iognoring theology only leaves a faith group uncritically in the grip of whichever fashions are most current in their subculture, be it liberal, fundamentalist, or an academic guild.

One other feature that nagged at this reader was that among all these very modern “theorists” of Quakerism, the mention of the peace testimony in its pages was rare almost to invisibility. In a typical work of theory, one might forgive such avoidance of the concrete. But this is a book of Quaker theory, and in this setting – not to mention in this time – such neglect simply does not wash.

To be sure, there are a few stray mentions: Hugh Barbour closes his survey of recent Quaker historiography by asking whether that “common core of Quakerism can again provide the unity and strength we found we needed” to face the era’s continuing succession of wars and rumors of war (30). Thomas Hamm, by contrast, mentions his work on the decline of pacifist sentiment in Indiana Quakerism (181).

Only Douglas Gwyn speaks at any length of this, in recounting his own liminal pilgrimage among the fringes of academic, pastoral and nonpastoral Quakerdom. (127-148) “I write,” he notes grimly, “as the Antichristian forces of finance-driven capitalism, multinational corporations and technomilitarism have reached a decisive stage of conflict with the basic needs of the world’s majority of people . . . .” (127)

This glance out the library window at what the old elders decried as “worldly tumults” is a whiff of realism in this rarefied atmosphere. Yet Gwyn cites this backdrop mainly to place himself as an exile in it, and within Quakerism. He spent twenty-five years producing a series of deeply-researched and thought-out books about how early Quakerism was forged in another revolutionary struggle – a struggle he thinks the Society mainly lost, in both worldly and spiritual terms, even while surviving as a sect.

Moreover, for all that his writing was driven by an effort to plumb the roots of Quaker tradition for resources with which to cope with the current crises, the outcome was unequivocally equivocal, leading him to the weary conclusion that his work “does not offer ready made formulas for renewal in any present day [Quaker] stream . . . . Nor does it engage easily with the deepening malaise of social and political life . . . .” (147) He finds himself still a pilgrim, like Abraham, moving toward a new country he cannot, and may never, see.

Could such melancholy candor account for the lack of attention shown to the peace testimony by most of the other writers here? In any event, Gwyn’s admission is an indicator that there isn’t much in this collection of Quaker theories to equip outsider Quakers to meet the trials that the times may hold for us. My own view is that some of the “outsider” theories hold much more promise in this crucial regard. Their exploration, however, will have to await a different project.

Postscript: As in my review of another book overseen by the same editor for the same academic press, (Fager) I must again, and more vigorously, protest the fact that this book was published in a manner that required a price of a hundred dollars for 275 pages. Such absurdly expensive publication processes are entirely unnecessary and counterproductive. If the thinking in these volumes is intended to be of benefit to any but the tiniest circle of “insiders,” it is imperative that some more economical approach to publication be adopted for future efforts.


Boulding, Elise. Born Remembering, Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1975.

Boulding, Kenneth. The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1964.

Cazden, Elizabeth, The Modernist Reinvention of Quakerism: Independent Meetings in New England, 1920-1950, Master’s Thesis, Andover-Newton Theological School, 1997.

Cooper, Wilmer. A Living Faith. Richmond IN: Friends United Press, 1990.

Corbett, Jim. Goatwalking. New York: Viking, 1991.

Fager, Chuck. “Review of Towards Tragedy/Reclaiming Hope. Pink Dandelion, et al.,” in Quaker Theology #10, Vol. 6 No. 1, Spring-Summer 2004, pp. 63-69.

Freiday, Dean. Nothing Without Christ. Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 1984.

Kuenning, Larry. Exiles In Babylon. Cambridge, Mass: Publishers of Truth, 1978.

Taber, William P., Jr. The Eye of Faith. Barnesville: Ohio Yearly Meeting, 1985.

Wilson, Lloyd Lee. Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.


*The Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives. Edited by Pink Dandelion. Burlington VT: Ashgate, 272 pages, cloth, $99.95.

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