Growing Up Plain, Conservative Quakerism

by Wilmer Cooper. Friends United Press/Pendle Hill,
195 pages

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Not far from where I live in central Pennsylvania, there is a lovely valley populated heavily by Amish and plain Mennonites.

Every Wednesday morning, in the valley’s main town, there is a farmer’s market which serves up a generous slice of true authenticity in our age of globalized shopping malls: a produce auction, stalls selling all sorts of home-sewn and baked goodies, seasonal fruits and vegetables, herbal remedies, tools, gospel tracts, reclaimed junk, and later on, livestock.

Outside, rows of tethered horses stand stamping and flaring their nostrils, harnessed to buggies of near-identical design but sharply different colors; black, bright yellow, and off-white. The buggies’ varied hues reflect some of the separations among the area Anabaptists, as fractious here as elsewhere, so I’m told.

These divisions are shown as well in their dress: the two-suspender Amishmen are not to be confused with the one-suspender variety, and both are quite distinct from the no-suspenderites (the latter’s trousers being held up with laces in the back).

The vivid, earthy images of this marketplace came back to me every time I opened Wil Cooper’s memoir of a Wilburite Quaker childhood, Growing Up Plain. The connection is not only my own: the frontispiece of this book reads:

“The term ‘plain people’ is usually applied to Amish, Old Mennonites, and some Church of the Brethren. Conservative Wilburite Friends historically constitute the ‘plain people’ of Quakerdom.”

Or at least, they did. “Today,” Cooper writes, “Conservative Friends represent a small and declining number of Friends with an uncertain future.” In that statement he is, as usual, putting it mildly. The Wilburite tradition as Cooper knew it, in fact, is all but gone. And after reading this book, I could only shake my head and say – good riddance, and not a moment too soon.

For that matter, if Cooper had not absorbed as much of the phlegmatic Wilburite temperament as he has, his book would say the same. Indeed, in other hands, the material in Growing Up Plain could easily have become one of those abusive-childhood memoirs which are so popular today, from the excruciating but often funny Angela’s Ashes, about Irish-American Frank McCourt’s triumph over degradation in Eire, to the mostly excruciating Ten Thousand Sorrows, Elizabeth Kim’s recounting of her suffering as a Korean-American orphan at the hands of fundamentalist Christian parents and a brutal husband.

Cooper, however, besides being invariably soft-spoken, is also something of a Quaker statesman, so no such horror story was ever in the cards here. Yet the reader needs peep only barely between the lines to see the elements poking through them.

Consider these items, from a longer list:

  • When a schoolmate told him about Santa Claus and young Wil enthusiastically hung a stocking on Christmas Eve, it turned up the next morning filled with lumps of coal, placed there by his father, to dash the boy’s interest in such worldly foolishness.
  • Or this incident, best left to Cooper’s own words: “Also in the tradition of early Friends, my parents refused to allow any music on our home….But my older brother Thomas somehow acquired a harmonica and brought it home. As soon as my father discovered it, he proceeded to throw it into the open fireplace in front of us children–a very painful experience I shall never forget!”
  • The ban on culture went beyond music: “Both at home and [in the Friends] school I was never exposed to the fairy tales and children’s stories with which most youth grow up. I was not allowed to take part in school plays, and theatergoing was forbidden.”
  • The ban on music dogged him again later, when forced by circumstance to attend a public school: Wil was instructed to sit through the daily music classes in silence, without a song book. “Somehow I endured and survived all that,” he writes, “but it is no wonder I can’t read a single musical note today!”
  •   When Wil wanted to spend his own nickels on ice cream cones, his mother made him first go into his room and “pray about it to see whether I could discern God’s will in the matter.”

I have hard Wil tell some of these anecdotes. He did so with an overtone of the good humor and detachment that age and wisdom bring, and I have chuckled at them along with him and others. But they take on a different, chilling flavor in print, especially cumulatively.

Of the transition from a tiny Friends school to the public classroom just mentioned, he says, it “proved to be an almost unbearable culture shock for me. I am convinced that the experience triggered my hand tremor, a trait which I probably inherited from my other’s side of the family.”

Is it any wonder he is into only the second paragraph of autobiography when he admits that “I chose to break away from that community and its expectations at a fairly young age.” Early indeed–at the age of seven, he attempted to run away from home. But the “worldly” education which was so hard to enter proved to be his ultimate escape route.

What was it Wil Cooper ran away from? Here’s a muted summary: “The life that my parents and the Conservative Friends community believed in was pretty hum-drum. The message I got was: life’s a serious business and you’d better be living every moment for the Lord….You were a little suspect if you laughed too much; life was a very sober kind of business.”(51)

Here again, Wil is a mild-mannered man speaking with habitual understatement. The testimony of his book is of a youth caught in an enclosed, stultifying subculture of almost unbelievable intellectual and cultural impoverishment, and an insular, self-imposed privation at that.

Why do I say this? Because the Wilburite Conservative culture from which Cooper emerged was based almost entirely on refusal and exile. From its beginnings, with John Wilbur’s campaign against Joseph John Gurney in the 1840s, it has been more about saying No to the world and other Friends than about saying Yes, to the richness and color of life, religion, and thought.

In theory, perhaps, it need not have been that way; Cooper pads out his text with chapters summarizing Wilburite theology and doctrinal statements which purport to constitute a positive platform. These will be useful to scholars, but none of them diminishes the force of Cooper’s personal testimony that in practice the balance was tilted much too far toward a cult of negation.

Cooper’s own family history is typical: as he notes, his uncle Cyrus, an elder and recorded minister, “who for all practical purposes was the patriarch of the family,” left Chester County, Pennsylvania for Ohio in 1897 because “the family was increasingly uneasy about some of the progressivism of Philadelphia Orthodox Friends….”

This was the Philadelphia Orthodoxy in which the echoes of Gurney were being succeeded by the voice of Rufus Jones. Cooper adds that they “were in search of a place among Friends where they could feel that the ‘ancient testimonies’ of Friends were honored and practiced.” In Ohio Yearly Meeting, the stronghold of Wilburism, “they believed they had found such a place.”

Cyrus first settled near Salem, Ohio, which had its own peculiar and revealing Conservative Quaker history, centered around a series of mini-separations that would do the Amish proud. Indeed, Bill Taber, Ohio Wilburism’s historian, notes in his book, The Eye of Faith, that one of these splits had left a single couple, the Knolls, to worship in their home.

When her husband died, Mary Knoll held meeting in her living room each First Day for ten years, entirely alone–as far as she knew, the last living member of the True Church of Jesus Christ on earth. She gave up this splendid isolation to return to Salem Meeting about the time Cyrus Cooper moved into town.

Yes, the Cooper patriarch concluded, this was their kind of Quaker community. Cyrus later lived two doors down from Wil’s family, and “it seemed that my father was frequently under the scrutiny of his respected elder brother, a recorded Friends minister, as long as he lived.”

There was a similar tangle of tension and exodus in the Middleton, Ohio Meeting where Cooper spent his boyhood; for instance, the gas station where he bought his divinely-approved ice cream was run by a renegade relative, which was another reason (besides the presence of tobacco and profanity), why his mother didn’t want him going there.

In one sense, none of this is surprising, or unusual for small, intense religious groups. To be sure, there are few such bodies who thought of themselves as more of “a garden enclosed,” to use a traditional phrase, than the Ohio Wilburites. But the key issue is not so much this sense of enclosure, but more what they brought into their “garden” with them. And that answer, as far as Wil Cooper is concerned, was: not enough. As he put it: “The puritanical and Spartan lifestyle counseled by Orthodox and Conservative Friends of nearly a century ago will seem extreme, maybe even unacceptable, to Friends today, including a majority of Conservative Friends.”

Actually, there are not a few among the “Neo-Wilburites” I have met who advocate something not far from this vision, at least in theory. But it was certainly unacceptable to Wil Cooper, and many others like him.

His opening came in 1939, when he left for Wilmington College, 256 miles and a universe away from Middleton. His home circle was completely against the whole venture:

“The community was very critical of me when I left,” he writes. “They thought I should stay there. That’s what you were supposed to do. Get a bit of education, come back to work in the community, and take care of your parents in their old age.” Indeed, while the rest of his family stood around in tears as he left, “My father was so opposed to my going that he did not show up to bid me farewell!”

His father’s opposition was not only personal: anti-intellectualism, especially in religion, was a cardinal point of Wilburite doctrine. “I never heard my father say that if you go to college you go to hell,” Cooper writes, “but I know he believed people went to hell, and…I think he really thought that was where people went if they got involved in higher education. My leaving for college was probably the end of his son’s way into heaven, in his terms.” Later, Wil notes, “we sent letters back and forth, but he must have felt that I was a lost son.”

If lost, the son was nonetheless resolute: “I had a hankering for more. I felt a sadness at leaving, but I knew that the time had come.” Later, when studying theology at Yale, he says that when writing letters home, “I never fully disclosed what I was doing in graduate school, or what my long-term plans were.” (Those long-term plans turned out to be for a distinguished career as a public Friend, culminating in the founding of the Earlham School of Religion.)

I’m sure there have been many similar departure scenes in the Amish valley near my home; that community is similarly suspicious of “higher” education. Yet there are also striking differences as well: above all, if some of their youths leave, many stay, and overall the Amish population is thriving, not just there but elsewhere.

Even for an outsider like myself, the reasons are not hard to descry: while many features of their culture are strict, perhaps even harsh, they nonetheless brighten their “enclosed garden” considerably with a rich culture: music, games, plenty of books–novels, too–and a social life that strategically provides for young men to leave it for awhile to taste of sinful pleasures among the “English” before making a clear decision to buckle down to Amish adulthood. And if they officially disdain worldly notions of beauty and fashion, they still pursue distinctive art in their quilts, furniture, and other forms of construction.

Further, many among them have become adept at relating to the wider culture just enough to prosper without becoming fatally ensnared in it: I attended an awards dinner at the local builders association a year or so ago, where most of the top prizes for house construction were taken by an Amish contractor, one of several in the area. As he came up to accept the second of his awards, he leaned over to the chairman and asked, in keeping with Amish custom, that the group’s photographer not take his picture. Earlier, he had arrived at the meeting, not in his buggy; rather, but in a truck driven by his foreman, which was how he got around to most of his jobs.

In the world but not of it? This seemed to work for him.

In sum, for the Amish there is much to keep them busy besides the “hum-drum” of work, silence, and more work that sent Wil Cooper–and almost all his Wilburite peers after him–fleeing from their stifling “garden enclosed” in search of fresh air and room to grow.

It is no wonder too that the large Amish settlements in Ohio are similarly thriving, while Cooper’s Middleton Meeting is long since gone, and indeed Ohio Yearly Meeting itself is now but a shadow, almost a wraith of what once was. For me the contrast is most stark when I visit the large, stately Stillwater Meetinghouse in Barnesville, Ohio on First Day. In a building which once held hundreds, to see the handful of people, mostly quite elderly, rattling around in its cavernous spaces is to watch something immensely sad, but surely inevitable.

Conservative Quakerism still has its champions, most notably William and Frances Taber, who wrote the Foreword to Growing Up Plain. They speak of its “living center” in a sense of divine presence transmitted almost invisibly from one generation to another, and elsewhere they have argued that this stream provides something of a Middle Way between the liberal unprogrammed and the pastoral-evangelical branches of today’s Society.

This is a tempting image, and there have been moments when I too thought it had promise. But this notion does not wear well in practice; the daily reality of surviving Wilburism has too often, in my experience, still been bound by what the Tabers rightly call “the husks of rigidity, literalism, and fear of change…” and its objective decline continues unabated.

The Tabers’ own witness in this dwindling community approaches saintliness in its steadfastness; but the testimony of Wil Cooper is emblematic of the fate of the “best and the brightest”this tradition had to offer in the twentieth century; they are almost all gone out from there into the larger world, some still among Friends, some not.

What will become of the conservative “remnant,” as many in it like to call it, is unclear; but my own suspicion is that any long-term contribution will depend not on its survival, or the normal mechanisms of a viable human society, but on resurrection and miracle.

As for Wil Cooper, even if he had been raised Amish, there’s no doubt he would have left them too; the drive toward Yale and Vanderbilt was just too strong.

But in the meantime, he would have had more fun, and Growing Up Plain would be a very different book; after all, he would have learned how to sing.


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