A Review, “Personality and Place, the Life & Times of Pendle Hill”

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

“Sometimes I look around and think, Pendle Hill is God’s little joke on the Society of Friends.”

– Janet Shepherd, former Dean

NOTE: From one perspective, it’s a conflict of interest for me to review this book. After all, I’m described in it, because I was on staff at Pendle Hill for three years (1994-1997); more recently I spent nine months in residence there as a research scholar. Furthermore, the author is a friend of mine.

But having disclosed these items, there’s a problem with this otherwise quite proper standard. In point of fact, legions of thoughtful Friends would be similarly compromised. Pendle Hill is, after all, a principal Quaker crossroads: hundreds, or more like thousands of Friends, from many countries and just about all the Society’s branches, have spent meaningful amounts of time there, if not on staff, then at conferences, retreats, or as students, artists, authors, or other kinds of contributors. Surely there must be some perspicacious Quakers somewhere with no such connections; but life is short and deadlines are near; so Friends are advised.

Besides, the book soon became an absorbing read – and how often can one honestly say that about an “institutional history”?

Except Gwyn has not set out to write an institutional history. “My training,” he says (vii) “is in biblical theology.” Hence, his slant is both different and more ambitious: the book is “probably best described as historical theology [his italics]. It examines how religious ideas, ideals, and practices have evolved over time through a particular institution, interacting with changes in the wider culture.”

Hence the subtitle, the “Life & Times” of Pendle Hill. Beyond the comings and goings, the highs and the lows, the book “ventures a theology of history.” [His italics again.] And in its eighty-plus years, Pendle Hill has been favored (and cursed) to have been through very interesting times, historically and theologically: not only wars and rumors of war, boom and bust, but also vast cultural changes in its Quaker constituency, with a theological evolution hardly less sweeping.

And yes, Doug Gwyn sets out to comprehend and grapple with it all.

Does he bring it off? Not entirely. But close enough to make this one of the most revealing and thought-provoking Quaker titles I’ve seen in a long time. And to repeat, I like projects with ambition.

I can still remember when, as a new attender in the late 1960s, the appearance of each new Pendle Hill Pamphlet was a Quaker news event. Friends rushed (sedately) to get a copy, and passed it rapidly hand to hand. “Have you read it?” was the buzz query, followed by “Well, it . . .” Often discussion groups were organized to dig into the concise, but packed booklets. Many meetinghouses had special pamphlet racks for the series, which then numbered 150 titles.

In 1950, Gwyn records, the pamphlet series had more than 3000 subscribers, and thousands of individual copies were sold each month. That’s a lot for Quakers, and the impact of the series was huge: it made Pendle Hill, even for many who never set foot on its campus in Wallingford PA, the conversational center of unprogrammed Quakerism, with ripples traveling outward far and wide.

Those were the days.

Gwyn notes sadly that by the middle of this past decade, the series’ subscription list had dwindled to several hundred, even as the number of titles has passed 400, and new ones still appear several times a year. He insists the quality remains high; there I can’t agree. Most seem to me eminently forgettable, as now, it appears, is the series.

The fate of the pamphlets is a capsule of the trajectory of the “life and times” of Pendle Hill Doug Gwyn charts in his pages. Opened in 1930 near Philadelphia, its founders included Friends from both sides of what was then a still-deep divide between Orthodox and Hicksite Friends, who saw the new center as a way of promoting healing of the century old split.

For nearly a generation, it thrived, and its influence steadily explanded. Besides the far-reaching pamphlets, Friends and others crowded in to take part in its programs. Gwyn quotes Dan Wilson, Director from 1952 to 1970, recalling to the board that Pendle hill was “packed, at times literally from cellar to rafters” much of the time during World War Two: “In all, over 80 individuals were bedded down on the same night . . .up to 90 in the summertime when army cots were set up in the screened-in breezeway . . . .Still others were farmed out for sleeping as guests of Friends in the neighborhood.” (188)

Then again, in the 1960s, with better dorm facilities, students still came in large numbers: “the 1967-68 year saw 43 students in the resident program for one term or more.” (241) And “Pendle Hill hosted 58 resident students the 1968-69 year, the largest group in Pendle Hill’s history to date.” (243)

But resident student class size diminished slowly but surely in the following decades: it was down to the teens per term when I was on staff in the mid-1990s. Last year (2013-2014) it was about half that; and for the current year, the program has been put on hiatus, its future uncertain.

Less material, but similarly striking, changes occurred in Pendle Hill’s sense of mission and program. The founders envisioned it as, among other things, a “Laboratory of Ideas,” a “School of the Prophets,” and a “Haven of Rest.” An initial brochure promised it would maintain a “rigorous ‘graduate standard’ of educational search,” because

“The path of religious and social renewal, it claims, is not ‘through ancient authority or sacred tradition but rather through study, fearless experiment, and the sincere and teachable spirit on the part of each for himself.’ The new center hopes to “make some contribution to the discovery and verification of truth in this realm of supreme value to mankind.”

Today, in an alcove off the main room of its library, one can still find several shelves of venerable notebooks, filled with papers written by students based on their studies there.

But Pendle Hill gave no credits and awarded no degrees; the goal was righteousness flowing like a mighty stream, not a trickle of academic credentials. And by the 1960s, this practice was set aside, sloughed off by an unmistakable shift in student demand from interest in studying and changing the world to studying and changing themselves, and particularly their inner conditions.

The shift was noticeable as early as 1950, when a conference on depth psychology brought in one of the largest crowds of participants ever. And once the turn was made, it became seemingly irresistible. Staff and board members repeatedly voiced concerns about this. Douglas Steere, a philosophy professor and pioneer in interreligious encounter, became Chair of the Board in 1954, and in that same year he wrote to the Dean, Gilbert Kilpack, to protest that

[L]etting people drift in their own way is simply not enough. … Of course much of this is actually effected unconsciously by the permissive and enriching corporate life of work and worship and loving fellowship. But there should, I am convinced, be more. … [Otherwise] we shall always be a second-rate, relaxed educational center where we cultivate the same kind of relaxed, well-adjusted-to-this-world sort of life that marks contemporary Quakerism to its shame, and that others will look at us with mild approval but without passion. (178f)

But Steere, who was often far away traveling and studying, lost that round to Director Dan Wilson, who was on the ground in Wallingford day in and day out. The next year, Wilson wrote in the bulletin to supporters that:

There are no standards set up in advance as to what the outcome of a year at Pendle Hill should be. The hope is to see things in a different way. We are not primarily occupied with the outer improvement of the conditions of life, important as this is for those who do not have enough to eat. No amount of outer improvement alone will ever satisfy man. We are looking to that which has the power of altering our standpoint about others and their needs . . . .Pendle Hill is not a movement with a program. It must be a place where movements may arise or be strengthened, where people are allowed to come and go without becoming dependent.

Gone was any notion of “rigorous, graduate standard study.” By the 1980s, Gwyn notes, “Pendle Hill’s rejection of academic standards had generalized among some to become a reflexive distrust of intellectual activity.”(335) And in 1960, the motto on the sign by the entrance to Pendle Hill was changed from “A Center for Religious and Social Study” to “A Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation.”(x)

By 1964, Howard Brinton, long retired but still living and teaching on campus, noted that “Due to the demands and subjective temper of the times, there have recently been more courses along the line of psychology and psychiatry” at Pendle Hill.

In 1977, the noted organizational consultant Robert Greenleaf, author of the influential book, Servant Leadership, spent five days at Pendle Hill, interviewing and observing. He later sent a five-page letter to the Board with detailed observations. One of them noted that increasing numbers of students were arriving “wounded,” and required much tending and counseling. He wondered, “has this become too much of a preoccupation”? He urged the Board to refine Pendle Hill’s stated mission, with an emphasis on “leadership training,” both for Friends and in the outside world. As Gwyn notes sadly, the Board ignored Greenleaf’s counsel.

Yet concern over the distressed mental state of many students, and a therapeutic cast to actual programs, began cropping up with some frequency. In the 1980s, Gwyn notes,

Many conversations between the board and staff in this period posed the question: “Are we a hospital or a medical school?” That is, is our mission mainly to tend to those on retreat from a depersonalizing society, or to send out personalist agents as healers and reformers? . . . As the problem went unaddressed, it fostered not only exhaustion but a similar sense of “woundedness” among staff.

But despite these concerns, the personal and inward focus only deepened, and the horizons of many participants became steadily foreshortened. In a 1986 Board report, an unnamed member was recorded as lamenting that Pendle Hill had become a “navel observatory.” An effort in the late 1960s to turn the campus into a self-sustaining radical activist commune was decisively turned aside; the inward turn continued, accelerated as the art program, which began in a basement in 1960, finally moved upstairs in 1993 and became in many ways the center of campus activity. It has only been rivaled by an absorption with PH’s large garden that has increasingly become something of an obsession. With this has come a nutritional politics that has turned composting and locovore veganism into the closest thing to an ongoing, coherent social activist program to be found there.

Ecology has also in many ways eclipsed theology. Gwyn shows how Pendle Hill’s emergence was shaped by personalism, a once-influential philosophical-theological movement in U.S. Protestantism. Among figures shaped by it were Rufus Jones and Martin Luther King, Jr. Its adherents believed that

. . . the person is ultimate reality, the only thing that cannot be explained by something else. Consciousness, . . . cannot be accounted for on an impersonal basis, but everything else can be described from the reality of the person. One might easily assume personalism to be individualistic and subjective, but it is strongly communal and political. [In fact, as one major personalist thinker argued], “individualism is the very opposite of personalism and its dearest enemy.” [Another personalist insisted that] “the person is understood to be “theomorphic,” or “in God’s image” (Genesis 1:26). That is, human personality participates in divine traits of love/compassion, reason/intelligence, and intention/action. The person is also “cosmomorphic,” a microcosm of the larger macrocosm. Historically, personalism has generally been a Christian religious philosophy, affirming both theomorphism and cosmomorphism, but it may also be nontheistic or atheistic, affirming only the latter. In either case, personalism strongly affirms the inviolable dignity of persons. (3f)

Personalism has long since been displaced by other movements, though it still has presence in groups like the Catholic Worker. Yet among the Quaker constituency of Pendle Hill, the current successor, while hard to classify with precision, resembles an evolution of personalism into a kind of expressive, privatized seekerism, seemingly highly individualistic.

When Gwyn finished his book a few months ago, he spoke of Pendle Hill as being in a “struggle for viability.” (457). The struggle remains in doubt as this review is written, in early 2015. If it does survive, it is likely to emerge different from what it has recently been, and even further removed from what its founders envisioned.

Howard Brinton once remarked sardonically (or was it wearily?) that “the idea creates the organization, and then the organization kills the idea”. (275) Yet Doug Gwyn has not penned a jeremaid, aimed at simply lamenting Pendle Hill’s decline, or forecasting its doom lest it repent. As he said, in Personality and Place he is undertaking a theological history, through the lens of this one institution, of both the Quaker community from which it emerged, and the twentieth-century American society in which it has persisted. Both the Quaker and the American parts of this landscape have been decisively shaped by capitalism.

Gwyn is very mindful of this backdrop, and takes what is essentially a Marxist view of it: capitalism turns everything into commodities, including people and ideas; and it runs in cycles, in which one capitalist center (usually an empire) rises has its day (or decades) in the sun, then decays, to be succeeded by another. In Pendle Hill’s span, he sees the British empire fade, followed by the rise of American hegemony, which is now waning before a tide of eastern rivals.

This view he borrows from various writers, and we need not dwell on its sources here. Its real interest comes from what light, if any, it can shed on Pendle Hill’s trajectory. To approach this interpretive task, Gwyn in his concluding chapter posits no less than nine frames through which Pendle Hill’s history can be interpreted, ranging from the biographical, how lives of eminent figures like Rufus Joes and Anna and Howard Brinton shaped it; to generational, how the concerns and outlooks of those born twenty, forty, and sixty years after its founding vary recognize-ably, with disparate impact on the institution; to administrations, how succeeding Directors and their leading board members wrestled with the problems of their day, and the questions of its future; to the succession of impressive writers who have left a paper trail of their lives and thought as shaped there.

These frames present a valiant effort to capture some of the conundrums of the Pendle Hill experience, and there is much food for thought in them. Yet, for a Marxist, there was one crucial frame which was not on his list, and its absence jumped out at me. I speak, in Marxist idiom, of the material substrate: that is, how (and by whom) Pendle Hill was paid for, from its beginning to the present. The answer, as best I can descry it, is provocative, and shows several distinct phases:

First, as the book makes plain, Pendle Hill was initially an artifact of Philadelphia Quaker capitalist philanthropy. As he puts it, “the dream of Pendle Hill was . . . a conscious intention among a few wealthy and influential Philadelphia Quakers.” They talked about it, thought it was a good idea, had the wherewithal to write checks that make it possible, and did so.

Of this group, Gwyn suggests that D. Robert Yarnall was pivotal. Yarnall, from the Orthodox branch, was also a successful industrialist. Perhaps more important for today’s readers to note, Yarnall and his peers, while outwardly modest, in keeping with traditional Quaker plainness, were not ashamed to put their wealth to work for what they considered good causes. Their involvement might today be called paternalistic; Gwyn notes that “Pendle Hill lore has it that [Anna Brinton] turned to Robert Yarnall at the end of a board meeting and said, ‘If thou wilt write a check, Robert, we can pay the staff this month.’” (103f).

As these founders loosened their grip (Yarnall retired from board in 1954), Pendle Hill began a long and, it appears, often difficult transition to being a typical non-profit organization, which did fundraising to stay afloat: seeking out and cultivating new donors, with increasing support of technical means like direct mail. The transition was fitful: Pendle Hill did not have a capital campaign until 1977, in preparation for its fiftieth anniversary.

Yet for many years, this patchwork fundraising succeeded, and the campus showed it: more land was purchased, buildings built and renovated, the number of staff grew.

But then, by the 1980s, with student numbers falling, something changed. Those responsible must have felt that the money flow was guaranteed in perpetuity, because it became almost standard practice to expend more funds on generous financial aid packages than student fees actually brought in. The resident student program had become a kind of sacred cow, seen as needing to be preserved and populated no matter what.

There were staff members keeping the books who pointed to trouble ahead, with increasing alarm. Business Manager Denny O’Brien produced an overview of this pattern in 2000, disclosing that for every dollar of student fee income, Pendle Hill was spending $4.15, and was drawing on designated funds to cover this huge shortfall. Such tapping of designated funds for operating expenses was, he said candidly, “dangerous” and “scary.” (361) Yet the pattern continued, even as succeeding recessions cut into income and forced painful staff cuts.

This habit of profligacy was well-established when I was on staff in the mid-1990s. I never understood why it continued, given Friends’ long reputation for thrift and economy. It reminded me of a group of heedless heirs to a family fortune, running through their inheritance willy-nilly. Nor were they the only ones: now we know that in the same years, similarly wasteful and irresponsible management was characteristic of those two other legacy institutions nearby, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and the American Friends Service Committee.

And now we also know that, just as a few unheeded Cassandras had warned, the party could not go on forever. In the late 2000s, all three groups hit the wall, and for two of them, the yearly meeting and Pendle Hill, the debris is still falling and the outcome is uncertain.

It is tempting to point fingers and look for scapegoats; and while Gwyn’s text does not shrink from describing the missteps of leading staffers and board members, his text also makes clear that this crash was a culturally-induced one, not the fault of some convenient, departed executive.

In any event, the financial crisis at Pendle Hill arrived in 2005, with budgets slashed, staff layoffs, and associated trauma. In the decade since, Gwyn says somberly, “Pendle Hill continues to struggle for viability at the time of this writing,”(15). Moreover, its struggle for survival is taking a course that is, in light of staff outlooks for many years, a drastic departure, namely that of capitalist enterprise. While non-profit status remains, and fundraising continues, Pendle Hill has set out to remake itself as a conference center, catering primarily to non-Quaker groups, touting its lovely grounds, quietist atmosphere, and (to some) highly esteemed cuisine. Profits (or rather, revenue) from the conference enterprise will, it is hoped, pay the staff, maintain the physical plant – and, with donor help, support some Quaker-oriented programs on the side.

At least in theory, this strategy ought to be, as the MBAs say, doable. Philadelphia is a large market, and Pendle Hill has 80-plus years of “brand identity” to build on. Moreover, as Gwyn points out in a case-study appendix, the conference center reinvention is one their British counterpart, Woodbrooke, seems to have managed successfully, to cope with a similar crisis of their own in the late 1990s.

Nevertheless, as I finished my research residency at Pendle Hill in the spring of 2014, safe harbor was still far off: more staff layoffs were pending; the centerpiece resident student program was about to go into suspension; and the financial reports I heard indicated that deficits were well into six figures, and breakeven was still years away even in the optimistic scenarios.

Suppose the conference center plan falls short? What if Pendle Hill as many of us know it turns out to be no longer viable? This is not a prediction; but even if uncomfortable, thinking the unthinkable may now be a responsible exercise. I see three options for post-Armageddon:

One is the equivalent of Chapter seven bankruptcy. Pendle Hill as a project is laid down, the property sold (it should bring millions), and the proceeds distributed to some galaxy of Quaker and presumably good causes.

A second would be a takeover by some nearby larger institution (say, Swarthmore College), which would turn it into their own conference center or a scholarly institute.

The third is a back-to-the-future fantasy: the tycoon manager of some One Percenters’ hedge fund (or a techie app billionaire) happens upon it, is smitten, whips out a checkbook, and buys it, for preservation as a Quaker center-theme park.

A fantasy? Perhaps. But this is, after all, what happened to the Washington Post: Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos bought it with his own pocket money – $250 million. And, remember – it is how Pendle Hill got started, as an artifact of unashamed philanthropy by people of wealth.

But again, none of these is a prediction.

Besides, despite the importance of this overview of profit and loss both for Marxist analysis and capitalist success, Gwyn’s bottom line here is “theological history,” not merely of Pendle Hill itself but of the Society of Friends that has populated and preserved it to this point; so what of that?

Here it is important to note that the founders saw Pendle Hill not only as a place for research into topics of current and future concern to Friends and the world. They also wanted it to be, as Henry Hodgkin put it, “a school of the prophets.”

In one sense it surely was that in the first few decades: many key figures in mid-20th century social movements associated with Friends concerns such as peace were in residence there for a term, or a year, or two: A.J. Muste and Richard Gregg, architects of active pacifism and nonviolent action, were among them; Dorothy Day came through there, as did lesser-known but commanding figures such as Wilmer and Mildred Young, and Teresina Rowell Havens. Several of the many more in this company get welcome sketches in the book, which could help rescue them from an undeserved obscurity of time.

Yet few of the most prophetic of this band, with one exception, stayed very long. Why not? For one thing, like most prophets, they were restless, wanting to be out delivering their messages and stirring things up. This feature also made them less interested in the steady, usually undramatic work of community-institution building and maintenance. So the relative transience of so many notable figures is not a sign of failure on Pendle Hill’s part.

Moreover, what was soon evident in the early years, remained so in the latter decades: Pendle Hill’s leaders throughout repeatedly recorded their desire to be actively involved in racial reconciliation work, both on the campus and in surrounding communities. Yet the record also shows that Pendle Hill has had only fitful and sparse success at getting outside its base in an overwhelmingly white constituency. Rarely have such consistently noble intentions had so little real success; and the issue remains before it, unresolved.

The great exception to the brief tenures of those in its “School of the Prophets,” was Howard Brinton. He brought together a contemplative personality with a clearly prophetic vision. Many of his writings still yield startling insights, decades after their publication. Further, with his wife Anna, the Brintons formed a team that was able to hold the young institution together and maintain an atmosphere of intellectual credibility as well as welcoming hospitality. The Brinton years from 1934 to 1950, were probably the acme of Pendle Hill’s coherence and influence among Friends (recall that it was 1950 when the pamphlets were selling 3500 copies per moth).

There have been notable figures there since, but the list gets sparse after the tenure of Parker Palmer into the mid-1980s, now thirty years past. What has happened?

That same year of 1950, the sunset of the Brinton era, was also when a conference on psychology packed the house and marked the turn toward psychology, a path which led soon enough to the individual psycho-spiritual seeking of late.

This turn was not a programmatic blip; it reflected a sea change in the Quaker constituency. What was that about? Gwyn’s account of the evolution is the best I have yet seen, but it outlines the mystery rather than solves it. Yet whatever the reasons (which Gwyn takes a stab at but are worth further dispassionate exploration), fewer and fewer Friends (or others) were (and are) willing to come to Pendle Hill and pay good money for programs on social justice or serious thinking.

I don’t fault Gwyn for not having figured out all the reasons for this shift. He has done yeoman service in making its rise and course so plain. But there is one part of the larger picture where his book falls seriously short.

He says, as noted earlier, that Pendle Hill was begun by Friends from both the separated branches of Philadelphia Friends, and was intended to serve as one vehicle for finding ways to heal the split.

That goal was ultimately achieved. But unfortunately, after mentioning this ecumenical aspiration. Gwyn tells us nothing more of whether, and how, Pendle Hill actually helped bring it about. Indeed, he does not even advise us that the Board Clerk for the first 25 years, Robert Yarnall, was from the Orthodox side. And who represented the Hicksites? On page 104 we are advised that Clement Biddle headed the finance committee into undertaking organized annual fund appeals beginning in 1948; but we are not told that Biddle was a prominent member of the other, Hicksite branch; I uncovered that from other archival sources. Nor is the reunification of the two yearly meetings, in 1955, ever mentioned in Gwyn’s pages.

This lack of followup is a puzzle and a disappointment. Reunification was one of the landmarks of American Quakerism in the past century; Pendle Hill was supposed to, and was uniquely-positioned to aid in the work. But did it? Some other historian must provide this answer.

In the meantime, Doug Gwyn has given us a rich and rewarding study of how an unprogrammed American Quaker venture has evolved and struggled for over three generations. The book also provides many insights which deserve further discussion and exploration.

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