Friends for 350 Years Howard H. Brinton. Historical update and notes by Margaret Hope Bacon.

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

There is really no honest way to say this but straight out:

Except for its handsome new cover design, this reissue of Howard Brinton’s Friends for 300 Years is an utter embarrassment. For the sake of Pendle Hill’s reputation, and out of respect for Brinton’s decades of service to that institution, it ought to be withdrawn for revision and correction.

I say this as one who had eagerly awaited the appearance of this volume. This publication matters, because Brinton’s work, despite its limitations, is still the best one-volume overview of Friends’ faith and practice available. Howard Brinton’s stature as a preeminent Quaker scholar and religious thinker of the twentieth century continues to grow, and rightly so, while other once-prominent names slip further into obscurity. This reissue was ostensibly meant as a tribute to Pendle Hill’s one-time, and clearly most distinguished, Director; alas, he would doubtless be ashamed and saddened by the shoddiness it displays.

This edition consists of Brinton’s original text, supplemented with a new Foreword, a 12-page “Historical Update” of the period since 1952, fifty-five notes on Brinton’s text, and two appendices. The Foreword, “Update” and notes are by Margaret Hope Bacon.

A listing of the problems of this volume can usefully begin with the numerous factual errors in the new material. For instance, early on Brinton’s career chronology is garbled, leaving out a very important stint in Canada. One such slip might be overlooked; but in the “Historical Update” they multiply rapidly and egregiously:

– The New Call to Peacemaking, a short-lived project of the 1970s, is erroneously identified as “Turn Toward Peace,” (p.273) which was a secular, rightward-leaning peace project begun a decade earlier.

– The Friends Committee on Unity With Nature is mistakenly called “Friends of the Earth,” (p.277) which is a secular environmental organization.

– A nonexistent “Quaker Luddite movement” (p. 277) is said to have held several annual sessions at an equally nonexistent “Sweetwater Friends Meeting” in Ohio. (Two such neo-Ludddite gatherings, of a decidedly non-sectarian and anarchistic sort, were held at, but not sponsored by, Stillwater Meeting in Barnesville, Ohio.)

– A “Friends Fellowship in the Arts” (p. 277) is now said to “offer prize (sic) to beginning artists.” But there is no such group, and as Clerk of the very real Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts, I regret to advise that we do not award prizes.

This list could be longer, but that would be piling on, and you get the idea. Such persistent solecisms point to a slapdash effort, unhindered by research, fact-checking, or meaningful editorial oversight, most likely cranked out to meet a deadline.

The same unhappy features crop up in the “Notes” which purport to bring us up to speed on what is referred to as “the dramatic rise in Quaker scholarship and in the publication of books on Quaker history [which] has brought to light some new material which must be considered in examining [Brinton’s] text.”.(p.vii)

Bacon is absolutely correct in this statement; indeed, her excellent biography of the eminent Quaker scholar Henry Cadbury, Let This Life Speak, contributed significantly to this “new material.”

Unfortunately, there is no bibliography of this “new material” here, and the Notes do not explore it. Instead, we are treated to a series of bland, un-sourced declarations that “Quaker historians today believe” (p.284), “recent scholarship has shown” (p. 285), “It is questionable that”(p.286) or “modern historians think”(p. 288) that one or another of Brinton’s statements may need revising.

But in only three of the fifty-five notes is there reference to a specific historian or scholarly work. This leaves an interested reader with no help in exploring any of these topics further. And contrary to Bacon’s un-referenced comments, several of these points are in fact very much in dispute among “modern Quaker historians.”

Finally, there is the matter of perspective. In the brief “Historical Update” tacked on to Brinton’s text, Bacon observes that Brinton wrote from the standpoint of “the silent worship tradition” and “Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in particular,” and notes that “To write about the Religious Society of Friends from the vantage point of either Philadelphia Yearly Meeting or London Yearly Meeting in 1950 was not remarkable. Today,” she insists, “most Friends strive to be far more inclusive.” (p.273)

Actually, we need to pause here to note that there is considerable doubt whether “most Friends” strive to be more inclusive today. Take, for instance, the attender’s list from the 2000 Triennial Session of the Friends World Committee for Consultation, which undertakes to bring together Friends from all the branches. the list shows that there was not a single attender among the 250 present from any American evangelical yearly meeting. A similarly skewed turnout at other such events could easily be established. Likewise, a number of these groups have set about to purge even the term “Quaker” from their corporate identities and culture. (Cf. my Without Apology, Chapter Ten, for documentation.)

In any event, whatever aspirations Bacon has to be more inclusive fall far short of realization here. Consider:

– In the twelve pages of the Update, her home Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is mentioned eight times.

– Five other yearly meetings, all primarily unprogrammed, are named once each. Four of them are in the eastern U.S. (London is the fifth.)

–Two more yearly meetings, both evangelical, are referred to, and in each case their name is incorrect (p. 278)

– By far the most frequently cited Quaker body in the Update, evidently the centerpiece of the last half-century in Bacon’s estimation, is the American Friends Service Committee. It has fifteen mentions, more than one per page. Is it accidental that Bacon worked for many years in the Philadelphia public information office of the AFSC?

To repeat, this “updated reissue” is a bitter diasppointemnt. That Pendle Hill has printed seven thousand copies of it is a testament to what astute observers have identified as a regrettable decline in its publications program over the past two decades. What should have been an occasion of tribute and celebration is in fact a cause of lament and chagrin.

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