FOUR: Pickett vs. Chambers: A Case Study of Elite Class Power

H. Larry Ingle

Reprinted from: An Early Assessment: U.S. Quakerism in the 20th Century. Papers from the Quaker History Roundtable, 2017.

The story I am about to tell is not one that I take great pleasure in relating. For one thing, it deals with a Friend whose life was, in most ways and as far as I know, admirable. For another, it presents a challenge to the way I think Friends ought to act in their dealings with each other. And finally, its revelation may sully the reputation of the Religious Society of Friends more generally, beyond the immediate facts of the case.

It suggests that some Friends in important places moved further from its religious standard of integrity espoused by the early and later founders and defenders than these worthies would have countenanced or preferred; such a development may not be all that unusual in more secular settings, making this appearance among Friends seem even more shocking.

(There have been other examples in Quaker history– two come immediately to mind, the stance that Quaker founder George Fox took toward the major dissident James Nayler in 1656, and the year and a half trauma Friends endured during the Great Separation or Hicksite Reformation in 1827-1828.) (Ingle, 1994, 128-35, Ingle, 1986) For these three reasons I wish I had not found what I will relate, but as both an historian and a Friend I am obligated to tell the truth. This is the truth as I have found it.

What the story reveals is the way good Friends with good intentions go astray, in this case because of their good intentions. The good Friend is Clarence E. Pickett, a native Kansan about whom nothing would have been written, certainly no paper like this one, had he not become executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee in 1929. Why this almost unknown seminary-trained Quaker pastor, aged 44, was named to this most important position in American Quakerdom remains a mystery. He did not explain it in his 1953 memoir, (Pickett, 1953) and his biographer, writing more than 50 years later, said little more to describe what factors lay behind the choice. Finding a successor to the retiring Wilbur Thomas, said a weighty Friend in a position to know, “was a very delicate, difficult and important task” (Miller, 1999, 103-04). But darkness shrouds exactly how these adjectives applied, even after surveying the most recent AFSC chronicle, though the change may have resulted from Herbert Hoover’s 1928 successful presidential bid (Barnes, 1016, 65-73).

The service committee had been founded in 1917, just after the United States entered World War I as a way of giving conscientious objectors a way to contribute to the war effort as civilians (Frost, 1992). Over the years as its mission expanded in response to depression, racial segregation, World War II and conscription, and Cold War, the Committee became so well known that its activities attracted the attention of the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, which awarded it (and its British counterpart), both representing Friends, its prize in 1947.

By that time, it had also become more professional, more centralized in Philadelphia, and much less representative of Friends as a whole (Ingle, 1998). Its rather fashionable and politically liberal approach to the problems it engaged served both to isolate it even more from evangelical Friends and, by the 1970s, to draw the ire of even some “liberal,” formerly Hicksite, Friends (Fager, 1998, Ingle, 2015).

The AFSC’s slant toward liberalism, particularly during the long secretariat of Clarence Pickett, which lasted until 1950, inevitably gained for Quakers a reputation for the kind of political bias endemic to the northeast. Although nurtured among midwestern programmed and pastoral Friends, Pickett’s two decades long association with eastern liberalism had long since purged him of any baggage left over from his origins and made him an influential part of Philadelphia’s Quaker elite. He–and his laudatory biographer– exploited the close ties that bound him to Eleanor Roosevelt, wife and champion of the immensely popular New Deal President (Miller, 1999, ch. 9) In some non-Quaker quarters, he was known as a “very superior man (Kauffman, 2006, 78).”

It was in 1947 during Pickett’s administration of AFSC that it took one of the most momentous steps in its history, the decision to employ professionals of varying religions or none rather than relying almost wholly on Quaker volunteers to staff its operations. As Pickett worried before the decision, this move might further fray the weakened ties that attached AFSC to Friends (Ingle, 1998). Only two months after this May decision, Pickett got a letter from AFSC’s director in Calcutta, complaining about an African American couple sent there who knew so little about Quakerism that they could not answer queries from Hindu inquirers accurately (Alexander).

Dubbed “one of the greatest Quakers of the twentieth century,” by another member of Philadelphia’s elite (Miller, 1999, xi), Pickett was undoubtedly the best-known Friend in the country by the time he retired, with the possible exception of former President Herbert Hoover. In 1948 his stature certainly exceeded by many bounds that of Whittaker Chambers, a practically unknown Quaker whose membership was in Pipe Creek meeting in rural Maryland. Chambers was a senior editor with Time magazine that year, but what he brought to their conflict was his past: born on Long Island in 1901, oldest son in a dysfunctional family, he had attended Columbia University but dropped out when he joined the Communist Party in the mid-1920s. When the party ordered him to go underground and serve as a courier of stolen government documents, which he carried to New York where they were shipped on to Moscow, he did so with little thought other than that he was helping history in its movement toward a brighter future.

But he grew disillusioned because of the purge of anti-Stalinist Communists in the Soviet Union and in 1938 left the party and found a job at Time as a book reviewer. A rather disreputable-looking person who dressed in baggy, ill-fitting clothes, he seemed to have had little self-control and, even though he was married with two children, he had engaged in homosexual activities and used numerous aliases over the years (Tanenhaus, 1997). One historian, John Diggins, implied that he was a flitting “pilgrim who abandoned revolution for revelation” (Diggins, 1974, 10).

On August 3, 1948, he told the House Committee on Un-American Activities that he had picked up retyped State Department documents from Alger Hiss, another Communist, in the 1930s. Hiss had graduated from Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, clerked for famed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, joined the Roosevelt administration in the Agriculture Department, and then moved to the State Department; he seemed to have a stellar future stretching out before him.

In 1948, as President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of course Hiss denied all Chambers’s testimony. It was not illegal to have been a member of the Communist Party and the statute of limitations having expired for espionage, the government brought perjury charges against him in the fall; it required two trials to convict him for lying in his denial (Weinstein, 1978). Hiss had also served as a consultant to and speaker for the AFSC; Pickett, with approval of its Board of Directors, testified as a character witness for Hiss at his second trial, affirming, “he is of the very highest quality . . . of integrity and veracity (Stenographer’s Minutes, 1949, 1857-59).” Chambers had to sit there in the courtroom, enduring such measurements.

But the controversy over Hiss’s past and Chambers’s testimony did not end with Hiss’ five-year prison sentence; indeed until Hiss’s death in 1996, the periodic eruptions over who was telling the truth foreshadowed and were a kind of curtain-raiser to the fabled culture wars of the 1990s. In 1952, Chambers published his memoir Witness, a journal reminiscent of a staple of Quaker genre in the 17th century. Suffused with the experience of God that he found within Friends’ meetings for worship, he started attending after he broke with the Communist Party, his book rapidly became a best-seller and a classic that too many saw as championing political conservativism rather than his ineffable encounters with the divine.

Most reviewers failed to comment on his affirmation that once he had been reached by Quakerism, “I felt a human completion such as I had never known before–an adulthood, a maturity, that marked off the [first] forty years of my life as a childhood (Chambers, 1952, 489).” Its popularity, partially spurred by the tribute given it by a panel of five leading intellectuals in Saturday Review, the nation’s foremost book review, including historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., novelist John Dos Passos, Senator Richard Nixon, and philosopher Sidney Hook, smoked out Clarence Pickett, who had not been included (Saturday Review, 24 May 1952, 8-14).
In the very next issue, Pickett had a letter that called Chambers’s basic understanding of Quakerism into question, an almost unheard-of response by one Friend to another’s experiences in such a secular public forum; to signal some indication of the letter’s and its author’s importance, the Review’s editors surrounded it with a dark border.

Pickett conceded that Witness revealed that its author’s attendance at Friends’s meetings had given him “moments of real peace and enlightenment.” But that was as far as AFSC’s executive secretary was willing to go. Naming a cover story that Chambers had written for Time in March 1948 on Union Theological Seminary professor Reinhold Niebuhr and his neo-orthodox theology, Pickett explained that Friends encountered the divine within whenever they listened rather than having to wait for the transcendent God to deign to come to them. “This all leaves one feeling,” he solemnly concluded, pretty much ignoring the book’s own witness, “that religious assurance is yet to come to this troubled spirit, and that the race with catastrophe [for him] is not over. (Saturday Review, 14 Jun 1952, 32).”

True, it was not a totally damning indictment, but it was condescending enough to have left Chambers smarting at its un-Friendliness. And it was a way of discrediting Chambers’s claim to authentic Quakerism. Hearing about the letter, he complained to a friend that Pickett was peddling around that, despite his book, “I don’t represent the Quakers”; that the only Hicksite publication, Friends Intelligencer, reprinted it in full telegraphed its editor’s agreement and desire to inform Friends further afield. (1)

As far as we know, Pickett met Chambers only once, a bit over a month after his testimony before the House committee and months before Hiss’s trials. They conferred at Homewood Friends meetinghouse in Baltimore because Pickett wanted to prevent a public dispute from ending up as one or more libel suits. Their conversation was amiable, with Chambers insisting that he did not believe that Hiss would back down from the determined stand that he had taken publicly about Chambers lying to the committee. Pickett related to his journal that he judged his fellow Quaker “a man of considerable brilliance” but speculated that he was likely unstable emotionally.(2)

Underscoring how untoward his public rebuke of a fellow Friend was, Pickett failed even to mention either Chambers or Hiss in his own memoir, published the following year and most likely being written at that very time he mailed his letter.(3) Pickett would certainly not want to add to his nemesis’s reputation by calling attention to his fellow Quaker’s best-selling memoir. Pickett’s fawning biographer also tossed his own cloak over the matter, though he did mention Pickett’s testimony in the perjury trial as a way of underlining his own continuing admiration for Hiss.(4) Neither wanted to give too much attention to something that could be easily seen as more than a little embarrassing to a member of the elite. But Pickett’s conclusions about Chambers lingered on for years among Friends; as late as March 1995, four decades later, a writer in Friends Journal toed the line set by Clarence Pickett, “I have always felt that Alger Hiss was wrongly convicted . . . .” (5)

Chambers was driven to a kind of existential despair when he pondered the implications of a Quaker elite, as represented by Pickett standing behind Hiss no matter how compelling the testimony against him. It seemed that Hiss almost commanded such people to echo his constant assertions of innocence; and they fell into line. The West’s liberal elite’s stance swept Chambers toward despair for its survival. “How can any community,” he asked a friend without mentioning Friends, “in which toleration and support of Hiss is each time automatic, irrepressible, predictable–how can such a community find the force and virtue (it comes to that) to save itself in greater matters?” (6)

This is not the place to explore the contours of Chambers’s thinking, but his letter underscores the roots of his pessimism about the eventual outcome of the conflict between the Communist East and the capitalist West and why he thought his defection from the Communists amounted to consciously choosing the losing side. (7)

Pickett’s reservations about Chambers were compounded of a number of factors. Probably the most important was negative, that is, Chambers’s insistent testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and before two federal juries that Alger Hiss was a Communist and a spy, had slandered and ultimately produced a conviction of a leading New Dealer and member of the eastern liberal establishment. Choosing between Chambers and Hiss as a liar was hardly difficult for one who was the leader of the American Friends Service Committee.

Moreover, Chambers’s background did not help him. His distant father, a sometimes newspaper illustrator, was often unemployed, slept around with women not his wife, and was a bit of a ne’er-do-well. Though he had attended Columbia University, Chambers had not graduated. He admitted to homosexual trysts. He came to Friends when he was in his forties, and his meeting, Pipe Creek, was in rural Maryland and so small that its members convened in private homes during the wintertime when they were unable to heat their building. But the insecure Chambers admitted to feeling unworthy of that tiny group’s fellowship. (8)

Chambers’s critics and supporters were legion, each segment tossing around charges that bore little resemblance to reality. Consider the Christian sect with which he affiliated, the Society of Friends. Friends may debate fiercely among themselves about how Christian the Society actually is. Not so partisans on both sides of the Hiss-Chambers discussion, where Quakerism was just ignored. In a volume devoted to a balanced sampling of each, Quakerism and Quakers are mentioned in its index exactly one time. Instead the pen of one English defender of Hiss, Kingsley Martin, has Chambers converting to a generic and monolithic Christianity synonymous with authoritarianism. Martin, a man of the Left, editor of one of the most prestigious journals of political thought in the United Kingdom, glibly psychologized in 1952: “Men of Chambers’s temperament desire a cause to which they can wholly submit themselves. Any authoritative religion, Communism or another, will serve.”(9) One might imagine Pickett leaping to defend his faith and its openness; instead he sided with Chambers’s attackers, commentators like Martin.

In the more than twenty years that Pickett was chief executive of the nation’s leading Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, his position inevitably gave him entrée to Philadelphia’s upper class Quaker culture. E. Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, published in 1979 is an exemplary sociological study of the reach and force of this culture; it tries to determine how leadership in a democratic society is nurtured and takes place and concludes that the egalitarian emphasis of Friends is a poor nursery for leaders.

Baltzell uncovers a great deal about the values of the Quaker elite. The relatively large upper class of Philadelphia – Balzell estimated it at about 5000 families in 1940 and 1970 – shared among themselves ancient lineages, inherited wealth, and position, professional men who usually shunned government service and elected leadership. Their wealth tended to center in business, medicine, legal affairs, banking, and insurance; they of course sat on boards of trustees of colleges, schools, museums, country clubs, and charitable organizations like the Service Committee. They referred to themselves as “clans” as a way of testifying to their historic and biologic importance. Their positions allowed them to dominate the background forces that shaped the city’s life beyond what they regarded as lowly and rather crass politics. (10)

As an aside, I heard Baltzell in the summer of 1979 when he spoke about his new book at a conference held at Pendle Hill and sponsored by the Friends Council on Education to explore how to remedy the lack of leadership among Quakers. The convener of the group, Thomas S. Brown, himself a member of the Quaker elite of that time, explained with a story in the conference’s printed report why it was being held. It seems that a Friend dreamed he opened an expensively prepared letter inviting him to apply for a position of major importance at a Quaker institution of some renown. Surprised, he woke himself laughing when he saw the envelope was addressed to “Boxholder.” (11) When Baltzell spoke near the end of the week to an audience advertised as open to Philadelphia-area Friends, those in attendance exhibited no interest in the provocative thesis of his path breaking book; judging from their questions, they focused only on whether he had encountered the names of members of their families in his research.

A member of Philadelphia’s Quaker elite was much like a millipede with one foot firmly in the meetinghouse, but other feet rooted almost as determinedly in the counting-house, another in the courthouse, and the cultural and humanitarian parts of the city, locales like the American Friends Service Committee of course, but also the Library Company, the Friends Hospital, and the American Philosophical Society. Because Friends recognized no distinction between the secular and the religious, any place could be a locale for Quakerly activity. (12)

As another authority summed it up, Quakers were used to serving on boards because they ran their meetings that way. “As a meeting could be controlled by a few, with, of course, the consent of the many, so could public and cultural affairs.” Hence the famous Philadelphia facade is, wrote Nathaniel Burt, “a Quaker façade–subdued, careful, moderate, puritanical but never ascetic, honest but shrewd, modest but firm.” The “sense of the meeting” they used curbed individualism and produced something of a “conformist mentality.” Because in a Friendly context one listens but never argues, the resulting conformity bred a kind of anti-intellectualism. Outside Pennsylvania, theology lay behind the creation of every American colonial college, but that colony’s, the University of Pennsylvania, gave it no attention; Quakers founded schools, true enough, but not a single college until Haverford two long generations after the Revolution. Finally, belying the literal meaning of the word “enthusiasm” at the heart of their religion, Friends deprecated it and stressed caution and calmness. (13)

If Rufus Jones, one of the most productive historians the Society of Friends produced, was correct, characteristics such as calm and caution had first come to Friends as fruits of their experience during the War for Independence. Explaining his own world of 1911 by looking back to the end of the colonial era, he wrote, the “Revolutionary War left Philadelphia Yearly Meeting more moral internally, more devoted to moral reforms, more conservative of ancient tradition, custom and doctrine, more separate from the world, more introversive in spirit than it found it.” Modern “Quakerism . . . in important particulars,” Jones concluded, “had its origins here.”(14)

A half-century later, judging from the attitude of Clarence Pickett toward Whittaker Chambers and his gripping experience of Quakerism, this world that the aristocratic grandees sought to preserve had to be protected against the influence of those who did not buy into their definitions of the faith.

No one can ever know for sure, but Chambers’s biographer believed that his subject was convinced that his daughter Ellen failed to gain admission to prestigious Swarthmore College in 1951 because her father’s reputation led to her rejection by members of the faculty and administrators. Though determined to remain a Friend, he began to pull back and soon “lost all enthusiasm for Quakerism.” (15) At least part of this judgment was inaccurate, for as late as 1958, while a senior editor of the conservative magazine National Review and only three years before he died, he was in its pages identified as a “Quaker.” (16)

It is impossible to tell how far-reaching Pickett’s influence in the Society of Friends was, or how many other talented people, like Chambers, who consciously rejected political liberalism, might have been sidelined because their views did not match those held by Quaker leaders. Whittaker Chambers, on the receiving end of Pickett’s animus and belief that he challenged the status quo, seems to this observer to have been one too many.


1  Whittaker Chambers to Ralph de Toledano, 25 Jun 1952, Ralph de Toledano, ed., Notes from the Underground:  The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters (Washingtion:  Regnery Publishing, 1997), 85-87.

2. Clarence Pickett journal, 16 Sep 1948, Office Memorandum, Clarence Pickett to Elmore Jackson, Stephen Cary, 21 Sep 1948, Pickett Journal, AFSC Archives.

3  Clarence E.  Pickett, For More than Bread:  An autobiographical account of twenty-two years’ work with the American Friends Service Committee (Boston:  Little, Brown and Co., 1953).

4   Miller, Witness, 270-71. The section on Pickett and the Hiss matter was omitted from the book and published in two articles, Larry Miller, “Clarence Pickett and the Alger Hiss Case,” Friends Journal, 40 (Nov, Dec, 1994), 9-13, 12-15.  Miller justified his omission when I asked him about it by pointing to these articles.

5   George Nicklin to editor, Friends Journal, 41 (March 1995), 6.

6   Whittaker Chambers to William F. Buckley, Jr., 9? May 1957, Odyssey of a Friend:  Whittaker Chambers’ Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1957-1961, ed., William F. Buckley, Jr. (New York:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969), 171-79, quotation 172.

7  For a fine exploration of Chambers’s thought, see Hyrum Lewis, “Whittaker Chambers:  The Lonely Voice of Tragedy on the Postwar Right,” History of Intellectual Culture, 9 (2010-11), 1-15.

8   Chambers, Witness, 91, 96-97, 487.

9   Kingsley Martin, “The Witness,” in Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Mind, ed. Patrick Swan (Wilmington, Del.:  Intercollegiate Studies Books, 2003), 104.

10  E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia:  Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1979), ch. 2.

11  Friends as Leaders:  The Vision, Instrument, and Methods (Wallingford, Penn.:  Pendle Hill, 1980), 3.

12   Frederick B. Tolles, Meeting House and Counting House:  The Quaker Merchants of Colonial Philadelphia, 1682-1783 (New York:  Norton Library, 1963), viii.

13  Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians:  The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Boston:  Little, Brown and Co., 1963), 72-74.

14  Rufus M. Jones, The Quakers in the American Colonies (London:  Macmillan and Co., 1911), 579.

15  Tanenhaus, Chambers, 474.  Swarthmore undertook to determine the truth of this allegation after Tanenhaus’s book was published but, forty years on, could not find evidence one way or the other.  See Whittaker Chambers file, Friends Historical Collection, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Penn.

16   National Review, 5 (18 Jan 1958), 71.

Works Cited

Alexander, Horace to Clarence Pickett and Anna Brinton, 16 Jul 1947, General Administration, 1947: Individuals: Horace Alexander, American Friends Service Committee Archives, Philadelphia (hereinafter cited as AFSC Archives).

Baltzell, E. Digby, Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958.

Barnes, Gregory A., A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee. Philadelphia: Friends Press, 2016.

Chambers, Whittaker, Witness, New York: Random House, 1952.

Diggins, John P., Up from Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History (New York: Harper & Row, 1975

Fager, Chuck, ed., Quaker Service at the Crossroads: American Friends, the American Friends Service Committee, and “Peace and Revolution”. Falls Church, VA: Kimo Press, 1988.

Frost, J. William, “”Our Deeds Carry Our Message”: The Early History of the American Friends Service Committee,” Quaker History, 81 (Spring 1992), 1-51.

Ingle, H. Larry, “The American Friends Service Committee, 1947-49: The Cold War”s Effect,” Peace & Change, 23 (Jan. 1998), 27-48.

Ingle, H. Larry, First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994.

Ingle, H. Larry, Nixon’s First Cover-up: The Religious Life of a Quaker President. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2015.

Ingle, H. Larry, Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation. Knoxville, Tenn.: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1986.

Ingle, H. Larry, “Truly Radical, Non-violent, Friendly Approaches”: Challenges to the American Friends Service Committee,” Quaker History, 105 (Spring 2015), 1-21.

Kauffman, Bill, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2006.

Miller, Lawrence McK., Witness for Humanity: A Biography of Clarence E. Pickett. Wallingford, Penn.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1999.

Pickett Clarence E., For More than Bread: An autobiographical account of twenty-two years with American Friend Service Committee. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1953.

Saturday Review, 35 (24 May 1952), 8-14.

Saturday Review, 35 (14 Jun 1952), 32.

Stenographers Minutes, United States of America vs. Alger Hiss, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, 13 Dec 1949.

Tanenhaus, Sam, Whittaker Chambers. New York: Random House, 1997.

Teachout, Terry, ed., Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959. Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1989, 184-93.

Weinstein, Allen, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

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