“The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies”*

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies Too Expensive

Advice to Meetings: Don’t buy this book. The full retail price is $175, and Amazon only knocks it down to $128.48; even its paper-free Kindle edition is $99.99.

That’s just too much for one book. In these times, it’s likely more than many Meetings have for their entire library budget. And such prices are high even for the presumably exalted series of Oxford Handbooks on various religious topics: for instance, its volumes on both Evangelical Theology and the Holocaust are $45 paperback; the tome on Methodist Studies, which runs 150 pages longer, is $49.50 in paper, and a somewhat skinnier $31.49 for Kindle.  The Quaker Handbook costs more than each of the three volumes of Jewish studies, as well as the one on Islam and Politics; it is exceeded among the several dozen I surveyed only by the one on the Trinity, which came in at $142.50 on Amazon (but costs less at the full price of $150).

An aside: The Oxford  Handbook is hardly the only example of recent “scholarly” Quaker books costing a mint. Consider these titles:

The Collected Essays of Maurice Creasey;
The Creation of Quaker Theory;
The Liturgies of Quakerism;
Good & Evil; Quaker Persepectives;
Quakering Theology;

The average length of these five tomes is 260 pages. The total cost, from Amazon, not including taxes or shipping, would be $535, or $107 each. Add in the Oxford Handbook and the total jumps to over $650, for books that would take up less than a foot of shelf space in a meeting library.

These numbers, I believe, point to a serious and unhealthy disconnect between much current Quaker scholarship and actual Quakers. I have pointed this gap out before, in reviews of some of these titles, and the problem deserves special attention here. The disconnect comes down to this: while some of the scholarship being produced and published in these books is interesting, and occasionally very enlightening and challenging, it is rare to find all or even most of the titles above on the bookshelves of actual meetings, and thus in the hands (and minds) of actual Quakers. The exorbitant prices keep the books and their contents out of general circulation.

It’s true that many of the authors gather from time to time at professional society meetings, like that of the American Academy of Religion; there they talk shop, look for new jobs, deliver and listen to papers, and have a good time with their peers. But such meetings are quintessential in-groups; their proceedings filter out from their ranks into the larger Society of Friends slowly, if at all. And since these scholars make much of their most important published output so expensive, their work is put ever further out of reach. This dynamic, I suggest, is deeply dysfunctional, especially from the perspective that regards good research and hard thinking as necessary aspects of a healthy religion’s group life.

To be sure, the dysfunctionality in academic publishing extends far beyond the tiny field of “Quaker studies.” Indeed, a quick search of the internet discloses that a gathering publishing crisis is afflicting many fields of the humanities and science. In much the same way that new plants and genes are being patented and corporatized, more and more “intellectual product” is disappearing behind high corporate paywalls. In response, there are cries of outrage at the enormous prices charged for the books and journals that are the lifeblood of learning and education. Coalitions and lobbies are being organized to fight back against the burgeoning privatization/enclosure of knowledge, and the profiteering that goes with it. (Group blog; SPARC; Monbiot) In November 2013 a massive boycott by scholars was organized against one of the largest corporate academic publishers; it’s a big deal, even if most of us never hear about it. (Boycott of Elsevier)

The problems of academic publishing seem to revolve around two key issues: one is Open Access – bringing research and learning out of corporate lockboxes, so that students, scholars and the public can read, debate, and make creative use of it; and second, reining in the rampant profiteering, which only works to deepen the rapid decline of the American education system, especially its public sectors.

However, we’re not going to take on the whole global fiasco that is academic publishing. We’re interested here in just the tiny Quaker corner of it, and the question of how the thinkers and scholars among us can best serve the life of this strange yet oddly productive motley crew. And I will repeat that Quakerism is not served by their continuing to spit out books that most meetings cannot possibly afford to add to their libraries.

Fortunately, in tackling our part of this conundrum, it is not really difficult to imagine alternatives to this stifling status quo.

Free Open Access Publishing

Take, for instance, this Oxford Handbook. What could be done about it on the Open Access and cost reduction fronts?

At least two seemingly radical, but very practical alternatives have been opened up the by new technology of publishing.

OPTION ONE: An app on my cell phone, which cost all of $1.99, could take clear PDF images of all 650 pages of the  Handbook in about three hours. Then with free download word processing software, the pages could be compiled into a continuous document. And I know where it could be uploaded to the net for free.

And then – voilà! – Open Access, at no charge, would be achieved for anybody who can get to the net. The cost? Several hours of my time.

(An anti-capitalist fantasy? In fact, one report about the academic publishing crisis says that many scientists began doing something very much like that after corporate publishers kept locking up their research reports behind outrageously expensive journal paywalls – and the publishers kept all the money too! The researchers began posting their published papers on their own public websites. And after some struggle, many won the right to keep doing it. (Self-archiving) This is something we need more of in Quakerdom too.)

Then there’s OPTION TWO: This would entail obtaining good quality OCR software, to read and convert those PDFs of the Handbook’s pages into text that can be edited. Once compiled into a book-length document, it could be sent to Amazon’s Create Space (or one of several other similar services), which would print out copies on demand. The time investment would be considerably more, but at the other end, good quality paperback copies could be churned out for probably much less than twenty dollars apiece. That’s a price range most Meeting library committees could live with.

Either of these alternate formats would make the Handbook far more widely available as a practical resource for Friends. One supposes, however, that they would not serve the goals of career advancement and academic respectability that some contributors are striving to establish. There is even underway a push to have the American Academy of Religion create a subgroup for “Quaker Studies,” to join the scores of such subsets that have been established for other denominations and distinct traditions.

There’s nothing wrong with pursuing such academic recognition; yet, amid all this striving, where are the voices reminding them that the prime goal of a faith community like the Society of Friends is faithfulness to its calling? The Society’s ability to fulfill its evolving call depends in part on good research and incisive thinking, two things that Quakerism today has often lacked. When the research and thought goes on at a level so far removed from the base of the community, that only exacerbates the condition.

Having made this preliminary protest, we will now turn from the distracting price figures on the Handbook ’s dust cover, to the thirty-seven chapters between its covers. If your Meeting has a copious budget, is there enough in it to warrant adding it to the library?

Oxford Handbook Launch

At the launch for the Handbook, during the American Academy of Religion meetings in November, 2013, Co-Editor Pink Dandelion said that among the guidelines set by Oxford University Press was that the content was to present “settled scholarship” in the field. By this standard, how does the  Handbook perform?

As one might expect from a tome with forty contributors, and essays covering everything from Fox to sex in a 360 year span, it’s a mixed bag. Moreover, the phrase “settled scholarship” is a loaded one: there’s an awful lot about Quaker history, faith and witness where the scholarship, even when plentiful, is far from settled. After all, have we really “settled” the matter of what kind of movement early Quakerism actually was – politically radical? Apocalyptic? Ecstatic perfectionism? Early holiness revival? Puritanism’s logical conclusion? A reincarnation of perennial group mysticism?

All these interpretations, and more, are represented here, one alongside the other, without much debate.

Likewise for the century-plus of “Quietism” that engulfed the Society after Fox and the founders died and a measure of official toleration was achieved. Was it a time of “flowering”, a “golden age” of Quakerism (p. 248)? Or was it an arid and stultifying era of enforced silence, conformity and narrowness, as other writers suggest? Perhaps a mix?

In any case, there is agreement that Quietism was pretty much shattered by the several schisms that marked the Society after 1827, at least in the U.S. But what were they really about, especially the first and biggest, the Hicksite-Orthodox separation? Did it spring from Elias Hicks having “upset the delicate balance” (p. 147) among the Light of Christ, Bible and outward church doctrines? Or did it have more to do with “perceived Orthodox abuses of power” and a “blatant attempt to impose a creed” (p. 66)? The verdict:  “Historians, like Friends at the time, disagree on why American Quakerism irreparably fractured in the 1820s.” (p. 63) This from Thomas Hamm, perhaps the pre-eminent American Quaker historian currently active. Settled, indeed.
Still, pointing up the lack of “settled scholarship” regarding many (most?) aspects of Quaker history and thought only underlines the breadth of diversity in the movement today, which the  Handbook attempts, with some success, to portray.

Did I use that weasel-word “diversity”? Pardon me: contradictions are more accurate. There are numerous contradictions on show here. Perhaps the most glaring surface when writers yield to the temptation to speak of “commonalities” across the Quaker spectrum. For instance, one writer (p. 156) asserts that a “commonality is a “consensual, voteless form of decisionmaking.” But that is not so, as is acknowledged on page 555, where it is noted that Southwest Yearly Meeting permits its “community churches” to decide by voting. And Southwest is not the only one.

Again: on page 546, the writer quotes the phrase, “that of God in everyone,” as “probably the single theological statement shared by all branches of Quakerism.” Yet the naivete of such declarations is already made plain on pages 166-167, which cite Holiness Quaker leaders denouncing “an imaginary saving light of Spirit within them,” and Ohio Yearly Meeting’s statement that “we repudiate the so-called doctrine of the inner light . . . .” While these are from the 19th century, similar views remain widespread among the evangelical branches.

Other discrepancies concern interpreters of the history: On page 87 we are confidently advised that the distinguished British Quaker historian Geoffrey Nuttall concluded that “early Friends were not mystics”; while on page 142 it is affirmed that, au contraire, Nuttall indeed regarded early Friends as “the final product of radical mystical Puritanism.” (What’s the truth here? I’m not a Nuttall scholar; search me.)

Withal there is still much here that is intriguing and informative. I was especially taken by the chapters on “Plainness & Simplicity” (#22) by Emma Lapsansky, and the somewhat related, “Quakers & Visual Culture,” (#33) by Roger Homan. Lapsansky candidly acknowledges that “Of all the testimonies Friends have adopted . . . the concept of ‘simplicity’ has remained among the most elusive and difficult to define.” (P. 335) Yet it has also been one of the most persistent, at least in the liberal and Conservative  branches, even as many Quakers in time became wealthy and increasingly worldly.

Homan notes that for many early Friends, especially as Quietism took hold, a process that has come to be called “plaining” was widespread, and very concrete (p. 496-97), addressing not only clothing, but household furnishings, woodwork and curtains, and more. Yet while the ban on fashion and filigree faded, a concern survived that entailed less toward outward uniformity and more to a clearing away of obstacles to internal spiritual openness. And that impulse, however difficult to quantify or codify, remains widespread.

Homan also considers the unfinished and ambiguous evolution of formal Quaker attitudes to the visual arts. The struggles of Edward Hicks are familiar to many American Friends: the renowned painter of 60-plus versions of the Peaceable Kingdom, was weighed down by his conviction that being an artist was an unworthy calling for a Quaker; yet he couldn’t stop. By contrast, Homan introduces us to Joseph Southall, a British Friend born barely a decade after Hicks’s death in 1849, who took a very different and more confident artistic path: Southall (1861-1944), Homan says, “withstood the negative attitudes of his day in the way that Edward Hicks could not, and maintained a high profile both as a painter and as a peace campaigner.” He lived to see strictures on art lifted; and much of his art endures. His antiwar drawings from World War One, for instance, are very striking, and still apt a century later.

Similarly affecting was the chapter (#25) on penal reform. Despite such serious mistakes as helping create the penitentiary and solitary confinement, Friends have produced a long line of dogged and astute prison reformers, from Elizabeth Fry at Newgate to the “prison abolitionists” of today. The chapter ends with a poignant conclusion: “The abiding sense of other-worldly idealism which still imbues penal reform, its indelible optimism, may well be interpretable as a last surviving trace of the perfectionist spirituality that Friends brought to bear in this field.” (390)

“Quakers, War & Peacemaking” (Chapter #24) was also useful, particularly in that it did not gloss over the ambiguity of early Quaker relations to the English Revolution from which the movement emerged – many supported Cromwell’s dictatorship and its wars. Later their famous 1660 Declaration which forswore war-making for Friends, also endorsed “official” war-making by rulers (p. 364), though these sections do not get quoted in modern books of Faith & Practice, which present the declaration –erroneously– as totally pacifist. The Declaration cites the Epistle to the Romans where Paul insists that the ruler “does not bear the sword in vain” against “evildoers”. (Romans 13:1-7) The peace chapter is also clear about the increasing participation in U.S. wars by American Quakers, especially since the Civil War. This actual history is a sobering one, and while but a sketch, this chapter contributes usefully to the demythologization of it that is particularly in order among liberal American Friends.

Overall, there is much in the Handbook that is useful, and some matter that will be new, even for a confirmed Quaker history buff.

Some other sections, though, fell short. I was increasingly troubled plowing through “Leadings and Discernment,” (#16). It repeatedly praised the superiority of “group discernment” as a check on and test of authenticity for individual leadings, insisting that “When the worshipping community is gathered in the sense of divine presence, they arrive at a ‘high level of social communion,’ in which [quoting Rufus Jones] ‘the spirit of the group can with almost unerring accuracy test the value of the “opening” which finds utterance.” (254)

“Unerring accuracy”? Such statements in my view are so risky and unqualified as to be morally hazardous. They reflect a school of “spiritual nurture” which is built on a highly romanticized and uncritical view of particularly Quietist practice. It ignores or glides over, as does this chapter, the many major traumas in Quaker history which came out of abusive, manipulated, or just plain wrong group “oversight”; not to mention many cases of damage to individuals and families by such malpractice. They also reflect lousy theology: groups are just as prone to sins like pride, envy and anger as individuals – no, maybe more. Such group-centered “discernment” can be useful, but needs to be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. This balance is just about entirely missing here.

Even more disappointing was Chapter #30 on “Quakers and Sexuality.” It should have been titled, “The LGBTQ Upsurge Among Quakers Since 1963, and Especially the 1970s,” because more than half the text is devoted solely to that. Personally, I would have liked to see a chapter devoted entirely to LGBT issues; but that’s not what was decided. Unfortunately, this chapter is utterly unbalanced: it treats in only the barest summary fashion the reality that 90-plus percent of Quakers over 360 years have been heterosexual, the preponderance of who have been sexually active at some point in their lives, and who have had many issues and conflicts to cope with. And these matters have been often difficult, historically important, and many remain so today.

For instance, in the 1830s and 1840s when Lucretia Mott and the Grimke sisters dared to speak to “promiscuous” audiences of men and women on ending slavery or equality for women, they were not only brave, their actions were sexually transgressive: that is, despite their personal probity, they were doing something in public that only “shameless hussies” would dare to attempt. And they were, initially at least, treated as such. Further, their demands for women’s rights carried an undeniable component of expanding female sexual identity and agency. Yet this entire era of struggle goes unmentioned here.

One other anomaly comes in the focus on the 1963 publication of “Toward A Quaker View of Sex.” That booklet had four chapters, only one of which deals with homosexuality; the rest concerned sexual ethics and conflicts among heterosexuals. But the rest is essentially passed by here. Ditto for the work of several pioneer Quaker sex educators in the 20th century.

Is there another area of Quaker life where the “scholarship” (if there is any) is less “settled” than this one – for heterosexuals as well as LGBT persons? In which case, shouldn’t the editors have handled this topic with special care for breadth and depth?

One final point here: among the world’s largest Quaker constituency, in Kenya, polygamy was and still is a substantial and troubling issue. That makes it rather a big item on the agenda of Quakers and Sexuality; but it too goes unmentioned here.

That loud silence about African and other international groups in this chapter is echoed in many other parts of the Handbook. Indeed, the head of the Friends Theological College in Kenya, Ann Riggs, pointed out in her remarks at the book launch that while African Friends make up more than fifty per cent of the Society’s total, in the  Handbook overall they are dealt with in only five per cent of the text. Latin American and other groups in the Global South are likewise grossly neglected.

This Handbook is, she pointed out, a thoroughly North American/Euro-centric document, very much out of whack with the lives, worship and concerns of most of the world’s Quaker population. It is thus, she predicted, likely to be the last of its kind, as the center of gravity for the Society of Friends continues to shift away from the U.S. and U.K. (And talk about “open access”: if the book’s $128 Amazon price is too high for many American Meetings; it is completely out of sight for that Quaker majority.)

Successor to this Handbook

Which leads to speculation about a research agenda in “Quaker Studies” which would point toward an eventual successor to the present Handbook, in whatever form that might take. We’ll stipulate that it would put heavy stress on the life and witness of the now non-European/American Quaker majority. But what else might be added, on the basis of what is in the current one? Here are two more suggestions, albeit from a confirmed North American standpoint:

One: The theme of Quaker “peoplehood” is referred to in several of the chapters, but directly addressed in none. This seems to me a major oversight. The theme recurs in succeeding Quaker eras, whether it’s Margaret Fell in 1660, publishing “The True Testimony of The People of God” (p. 174); to Jesse Kersey in Pennsylvania a century later, declaring that “As certainly as the children of Israel were to dwell alone . . . so was the Society of Friends. They were called out . . . and they were to stand separate.” (64) And on to the boy Rufus Jones growing up in Maine another century later, feeling sure that he “belonged to God’s own people” (p. 441); it is confirmed as well by Elizabeth Fry’s futile protest that “I . . .can hardly bear to hear Friends make us out to be a chosen people, above others.” (P. 68)

But they did; often, in many places, and for a long time. This sense of called-out distinctiveness pervades Quaker thought and culture until the late 1800s. What were its sources? Its implications? What accounts for its decline? (Though it has by no means disappeared.) Does it have any value now? My own sense is that this lack of consideration–the seeing but not seeing– reflects the individualism of our European-American culture, which has sunk so deeply into us that we can hardly imagine this “alien” way of religious life and culture. But whatever the reason, it’s past time for today’s Quaker thinkers and scholars to “wake up” to and come to grips with it.

Two: Another phenomenon that needs attention is an additional Quaker testimony that has only recently been identified. This testimony would enlarge the currently popular “SPICE” acronym to “SPLICE”, and could broaden the Quaker horizons considerably.

The “L” to be added stands for Lying. But not just any old practice of prevarication. I’m talking about Lying For the Sake of Truth, or LST for short. What kind of lying? Let me count (some of) the ways identified in the  Handbook:

George Fox’s Journal was deliberately altered and falsified (p. 42); the works of James Naylor were likewise changed extensively (p. 49), as were other early histories and journals, including that of Isaac Penington  (p. 50, 485); Quaker printer William Bradford was censured and later jailed in Philadelphia in 1692 for printing books that offended the Quaker establishment there (p. 486); a century later, Job Scott’s Journal was also “corrected” (p. 164). We know from other sources (Moulton) that John Woolman’s Journal was likewise altered and falsified, more than once, by later committees and editors. The “beloved” Holiness Quaker author Hannah Whitall Smith had three chapters deleted from many editions of  her religious autobiography, The Unselfishness of God, because in them she articulated a Christian Universalist theology regarded by many evangelicals as heretical. (Smith)

In all these instances (and many more could be adduced), the objective appears to be what modern spinmeisters candidly call “message control”: falsifying the actual record to make it support later group or political objectives. In a word, lying; but here, Lying for the Sake of Truth. It is a phenomenon familiar to Americans, as one of the worst –and most widespread– aspects of the debased quality of much recent public speech and writing. But as the  Handbook amply shows, it was also a widespread, institutionally favored practice among the early (and not-so early) Friends, an additional Testimony in fact that confounds the long-cherished and carefully burnished myth of spotless integrity and truth-speaking among the protagonists of that golden founding age. And their successors.

As I say, numerous scholars in our time have noted various instances of this practice; some have even worked to restore authentic texts. But I am unaware of any serious grappling with the extent and implications of what can only be considered a venerable, if formally unacknowledged, Quaker testimony: LST, Lying for the Sake of “Truth.” Such engagement is overdue.

Much of Use in Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies

So despite its mixed-bag text and cultural narrowness, the Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies contains much that could be useful. Perhaps in a few years there will be a paperback edition, priced to make it plausibly affordable for the non-wealthy majority of Euro-American Meetings. How to make it accessible to the non-European Quaker majority, remains a major conundrum, unless some renegade Friend undertakes one of the radical options discussed earlier. But we will leave it now, with but one afterthought:

As is becoming general even in mainstream publishing, the proofreading here is approximate, and typos pop up on almost every page. This looseness has become so general (and this journal is hardly without sin in the matter), that it would not bear mention, except that some solecisms are hard to pass by.

For instance, on page 316 we are advised the Quaker African missions were a more lively affair than once thought, as the women among them “compromised” at least half of the expatriate staff. And in the chapter on war and peace, page 372, the upright action of one Joseph Pease is described. Friend Pease served as President of the British Peace Society until 1914, when its board endorsed England’s entry into World War One, whereupon he resigned. This witness was made the more remarkable because, by the dates given, Pease carried it out more than forty years after his death in 1872.

But let those go. In this ponderous, if often informative doorstop of a book, one was grateful for moments of comic relief, even if accidental.

Works Cited

Boycott of Elsevier:

Group blog on problems w/acad publishing:

Monbiot, George, “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/aug/29/academic-publishers-murdoch-socialist

Moulton, Phillips, Ed. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman. Oxford University Press, 1971.

Smith, Hannah Whitall. The Unselfishness of God. Fleming Revell, 1903.

Self-Archiving: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-archiving

SPARC: Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition.


*The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies. Edited by Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion. Oxford University Press. 660 pages, hardcover. $175.00.

Leave a comment