“An Introduction to Quakerism” & “The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction”* Reviewed

Reviewed by Doug Gwyn

Over the past several years “Ben” Pink Dandelion has been party to a great deal of fresh Quaker research. His own sociological analysis of Friends in Britain has reframed our understanding of current liberal Quakerism on both sides of the Atlantic. It has also inspired a number of similar, sociological approaches. Much of that work has been advanced by his students at the Centre for Postgraduate Quaker Studies at Woodbrooke and the University of Birmingham.

Pink Dandelion’s approach does not reduce theological questions to sociological theories, but explores the social context and dimensions of theology. Given the worldwide array of Quakerisms today, that approach becomes very useful.

But beyond the work of Pink Dandelion and his associates, a remarkable abundance of Quaker historical research and theological interpretation has been published, by a variety scholars over the past 30 years. Pink Dandelion’s two new introductions to Quakerism are landmarks, particularly as integrations of recent Quaker theory and theology. They are not, however, introductions in the sense of light reading for the casually interested.

The most recent of the two (2008) is part of the Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press. It comes closest to serving as a guide for the curious seeker or the new Friend. This small book offers a distilled, balanced, lucid interpretation of Quakerism in its perplexing variety. It places issues of spirituality, belief, and practice in a balanced, historical perspective. Along the way, it includes 23 illustrations, with a timeline, suggestions for further study, a glossary, and an index. This little book demands – and will reward – careful, reflective reading.

The longer Cambridge University Press introduction (2007) is more challenging. It is written for students, scholars, and other motivated readers (of which there are many among Friends!). The book offers an amazing integration of modes and perspectives. It is organized into two parts: a historical overview, and a survey of present-day Quaker practices.

The latter is especially rich in excerpts drawn from the very different Quaker worlds co-existing today. The book overall is sprinkled with 20 illustrations, 26 figures, seven tables, and 28 boxed definitions and excursuses. It also offers a chronology, suggestions for further reading, references, and an index. The cover itself suggests the Quaker inversions and surprises that the book explores. The photo on the front cover shows the striking Live Oaks Friends Meetinghouse in Houston, Texas. The back cover features the Friends Church in Juli, Peru.

Pink Dandelion’s sociological approach to theology finds its richest expression to date in the overall structure as well as the analytical detail of the book. The constant shifting of presentational modes may cause readers to struggle for continuity at times. But this approach has advantages over the single explanatory framework seen in most introductions. The book is a novum in Quaker theory/theology. It summarizes a great deal of scholarship from the past quarter century. It may well influence Quaker thinking for the next quarter century.

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*An Introduction to Quakerism by Pink Dandelion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 277 pages, paperback, $ 19.99.

The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction by Pink Dandelion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 142 pages, paperback, $9.95.

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