(Adapted from a presentation at the Conference of Quaker Historians & Archivists, Sixth Month 2012)
I want to say a few things about the 19th century Progressive Friends as a movement.
Ten things, to be exact. Few Quakers today are familiar with this yeasty group. And that’s a shame, because without question, Progressive Friends are the most interesting and significant Quakers that most of us have never heard of.
Progressive Friends? Who were they? And why are they important?
Brian Wilson’s essay, which follows this introduction, recounts what I believe was the first major Progressive insurgency, based in Battle Creek, Michigan. There were similar uprisings among Hicksite Quakers in Ohio, western New York, Pennsylvania and probably elsewhere. My own researches thus far have looked most closely at the Pennsylvania Progressives, whose meetinghouse still stands in Kennett Square, southeast of Philadelphia.
As for how important they were – let me count the ways – well, I can’t really, because there’s too many aspects to cover in a mere introduction. But I can offer you my Top Ten, more or less. As I recall, these Top Ten lists are supposed to count backward, but that’s too complicated for me. So:
Number One, the Progressives started a revolution in Quaker ecclesiology, undermining and finally bringing down the established hierarchical, top-down church structure that had stood for two hundred years. Some may regard this change as a disaster for Quakerism; nevertheless they pulled it off, and whatever your theological spin on it, the Progressive insurgency was a fascinating piece of history.
Number Two, in defiance of almost all mainstream Quaker writing up to their time, they spoke plainly and vividly, especially as to what they didn’t like about a hidebound Quaker status quo. When I read their 1853 “Exposition of Sentiments,” (Pennsylvania) I found the language reverberating down the years with compelling, bell-like clarity and vividness. Permit me to read to you a few excerpts:
DEAR FRIENDS: Having been led, as we trust, through obedience to the revelations of truth, to form a Religious Association upon principles always too little regarded and often trampled under foot by professing Christians and popular sects, we are constrained to address you in explanation of our leading sentiments, purposes, plan; and hopes.
If, as we believe, the basis of our organization, and the arrangements we propose for the culture of man’s religious powers, are in harmony with the Divine laws, and adapted to the wants of human nature and the demands of the present age, it is certainly incumbent upon us to diffuse true knowledge thereof as widely as possible; and if, on the other hand, “the light that is in us be darkness,” it is proper that we should invoke your earnest efforts to redeem us from our errors, and turn our feet into the highway of holiness and truth. . . .
In our efforts to apply the principles of Christianity to daily life, and to social customs and institutions which we deemed subversive of individual and national morality, as well as in conflict with the laws of God, we encountered the hostility of the popular sects, to one or another of which most of us belonged . . . . Mingling with the chime of church bells and with the tones of the preacher’s voice, or breaking upon the stillness of our religious assemblies, we heard the clank of the slave’s chain, the groans of the wounded and dying on the field of bloody strife, the noise of drunken revelry, the sad cry of the widow and the fatherless, and the wail of homeless, despairing poverty . . . and when, in obedience to the voice of God, speaking through the holiest sympathies and purest impulses of our Godlike humanity, we sought to arouse our countrymen to united efforts for the relief of human suffering, the removal of giant wrongs, the suppression of foul iniquities, we found the Church, in spite of her solemn professions, arrayed against us . . . .
The leaders of the Church, instead of retracing the false step which they had taken, grew more and more hostile to the cause of Christian Reform, while there was not found in the body enough of moral principle to reject their counsels and repudiate their impious claims to a Divine warrant for their criminal apostasy. Inflated with spiritual pride, and claiming to be the anointed expounders of God’s will, they mocked at Philanthropy as no part of religion, exalted in its place the Dagon of man-made Disciplines, charged obedience to the decisions of Yearly Meetings or other ecclesiastical assemblies, as the sum of human obligation, bade us stifle the gushing sympathies which link us to our kind, and passively “wait God’s time” for the removal of the evils that afflict and curse our race; as if God had not revealed his purpose of doing this work by human instrumentality – as if there were times when deeds of charity and mercy are offensive in His sight – as if the cry of suffering Humanity and the emotions it stirs within us were not a sufficient revelation of His will, and we were bound to wait in listless inactivity for some supernatural or miraculous manifestation of His authority and power!
. . . When we refused to obey the mandate of our ecclesiastical rulers, choosing to hearken to the voice of God rather than unto the voice of man, we found our worst foes in our own religious households; the rod of ecclesiastical power was lifted above our heads, and some of us were made to understand that excommunication was the price to be paid for the exercise of that liberty which Jesus proclaimed as the birthright of his disciples. . . . and the strange spectacle was witnessed of bodies, claiming to be God’s representatives on earth, excluding from their pale, men and women of blameless lives for loving peace, purity and freedom so devotedly, as to be willing to co-operate with all whose hearts prompted them to labor for the promotion of those heavenly virtues. . . . .”
Now admittedly, that’s not exactly concise; and there’s several more pages of it. But by golly, it’s calling a spade a spade. The “Exposition” is not only eloquent, its plainness is extremely rare in my reading of Quaker history. My hat is off to them for telling us where they stand and what their grievances were. It’s an example I wish more Friends would follow.
But they did much more. So we come to Number Three on my list: the Progressives brought into the Society of Friends the spirit of expanding democracy that had been spreading throughout American society for decades, and which had been doggedly resisted by an entrenched Quaker establishment, in both the Orthodox and Hicksite branches. Lucretia Mott expressed this restless spirit as well as anyone, in an 1847 letter:
“Long years’ reflection and observation have convinced & confirmed me in the opinion that our Select body, as also the Hierarchy or ecclesiastical establishments, & privileged orders in all sects, are the main obstacles to progress– and until the true Freedom of Christ – the equality of the Brethren is better understood, we shall do little by organizing & re-organizing.” (Mott: 2003)
Wow. “Freedom” and “Equality” – inside Quakerism as well as outside; what a concept. Or rather, what a pair of concepts. They eventually became part of the Liberal Quaker gospel, and have spilled over into many of the pastoral groups – though there is still resistance in some places.
Next, Number Four, despite the Progressives being consigned to the dustbin of historiography, they both planted the seeds for and then shaped the growth of modern liberal Quakerism in the U.S. This is especially and demonstrably true in the case of Friends General Conference, and the other groups in its orbit. After all, while many of the Progressive groups didn’t last long, the one in Pennsylvania persisted til 1940, almost ninety years.
Number Five on my list, they manifested a refreshingly non-mystic band of Quakerism, and Lord knows, the Society was way overdue for a break from the stifling, anti-rationalist Quietist spirituality. In the Orthodox Midwest Yearly Meetings, similar unrest was building, only there it took a Wesleyan turn.
Then, Number Six, the Progressives nurtured and helped launch the founding Quaker feminists and key women’s suffrage activists, including Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, even Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and later Alice Paul. As these familiar names suggest, this achievement was not simply an internal Quaker one – it changed American history.
And as these names suggest, when some of our more daring scholars take on gay and lesbian Quaker history, there is much rich ore in the Progressive vein. After all, Anthony and Paul at least were derided as the contemporary equivalent of “lesbian,” and are now claimed by some feminist scholars as such. The actual evidence so far appears to be inconclusive, but they were certainly “woman-identified,” and set examples that have continuing value to women (and men) today.
Another door the Progressives opened was to intentional interfaith contacts and cooperation. So that’s Number Seven, because that opening had been closed and locked for Quakers, remember, through two long centuries of sectarian isolationism. One of their spinoffs was called the National Federation of Religious Liberals, whose head was Henry Wilbur, a Quaker from New Jersey. Wilbur was also the first paid staffer of FGC, until his untimely death in 1914. This federation included Reform Jews as well as Unitarians and embattled liberals from more traditional Christian denominations. And as part of this initiative, the Progressives were open to the evolving humanist perspective among many Unitarians (shared in part by Mott and increasingly by some later prominent Progressives) which was a clear forerunner of what we now know as non-theist Quakerism.
In place of the old creeds, what Lucretia Mott dismissed as “all the nonsense that is preached of Trinities & Atonements Divinities and Satanities, Depravities & Regenerations” (Palmer:159), the Progressives believed instead in – well, Progress, the notion that life could get better and was in fact getting better.
Ah, “Progress.” That’s a big Number Eight. But wait – let’s take a moment to acknowledge how innocently quaint the term sounds – what a naive and even antique ring it has today. Didn’t all that “Progress” idealism sink into the mud and death of the trenches of World War One? Then again, didn’t it go up in the smoke of the Twin Towers, not to mention Iraq, Afghanistan and – oh yes, didn’t it melt with the arctic icebergs under the merciless glare of global warming?
Yep. Yes it did. And yet – I don’t know about you – but I often wonder: how are we doing, day to day and year to year without a belief in Progress, or at least some hope of it?
Well, the answer for me is – not so good. What’s the substitute for Progress? Hmmmm. How many euphemisms does one need for “despair”? “Denial,” “distraction,” “discouragement,” and “depression” will do for starters. So maybe that has something to do with the fact that when I read the Exposition of Sentiments, I remembered, for a little while at least, that once it was different. And I felt better. For a while.
Now to Number Nine – and not least on this list, the Progressives were the first Quaker New Agers, with their headlong leap into Spiritualism that Brian Wilson describes in Battle Creek. It was a fever which spread to every corner of the Progressive network, and then spilled over beyond it.
Many may titter at this. I don’t blame you; I’ve laughed at it too. In fact, I have posted on the internet two such “spirit messages” to a leading Progressive Friend (and spiritualist medium) Isaac Post of Rochester New York. They’re taken from his 1852 book, Voices from the Spirit World (excerpts online here ).
The two excerpts purport to be from Edward Hicks– yes, the painter of the famous “Peaceable Kingdom” series of paintings, and from George Fox. The message from Hicks, by the way, reflects the fact that he was better known in his lifetime as a traveling Quaker preacher and recorded minister than a painter. He was rather a conservative Hicksite, who died in 1849, and as such he was not fond of Progressives such as Lucretia Mott or Post.
But in his postmortem testimony, Hicks says, in effect, “Isaac, death has opened my eyes, and now I see it all – and I was wrong, and you were right.” Or, in his own spirit words:
“Oh the inconsistency of man, as exhibited in my own case, being in my younger life so oppressed by the usages of a society that I loved as my own soul, and feeling the weight of some of its oppressive rules and usages. Yet when I came to be looked to as one of its standard bearers, my own course or weight of character was given to sustain those crushing sectarian usages.”
And amazingly, George Fox gives Post the same verdict. (According to Isaac’s book, Post also conversed with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, William Penn and Voltaire, among many others. But we will not intrude upon those conversations here.)
Such psychic phenomena and even mediumistic messages didn’t disappear from Quaker circles with Post (who died in 1872) and the notorious spiritualist superstars, the Fox sisters (who said in 1888 that they’d been faking it). And it is by no means gone from among us today – it’s only been re-packaged. (For instance, if you took a survey in FGC meetings about, say, the book A Course In Miracles (which was purportedly dictated by “Christ” via “scribes”), I predict confidently that you’d find it has been read in most, and is still on the bookshelves of many.) For that matter, I occasionally toss coins to do a reading from the I Ching myself.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that the whole psychic strain in Quakerism goes back a long way (see for instance, the statements by an Ohio Friend about his conversations with angels (Fager 1989), and John Calvi’s report elsewhere in this issue), and at some point it runs into landmarks such as George Fox’s suppressed Book of Miracles. However embarrassing all this might seem to respectable and career- minded scholars, it is a strain that deserves much more attention than it has been given, and which the Progressives, while they did not invent it, certainly brought to the fore.
If all this is not enough to draw historians’ attention to the Progressives, even their undeniable failings are worth attention. That’s Number Ten on my list: the interesting Progressive Problems. There’s more than one of them, so I’ll only highlight three. After all I said my list was give or take:
First, their anti-institutionalism. Those few historians who have noticed them (usually quite briefly), point out that their insistence on absolute equality, combined with a rejection of anything like a church hierarchy, kept them from developing a lasting institutional base. And when the Civil War abolished legal slavery, they lost the primary issue that had brought them into existence and had given them such cohesion as they had. Further, the plunge into spiritualism, while meaningful to some, drove away the many, and evoked the scorn of many more.
But wait: their organizational ephemerality did not seem to lessen their long-term impact on Hicksite Quakerism. That’s because there was a hidden strength in their weakness: since they had no formal membership lists, Progressive activists like Lucretia Mott could stay in her Philadelphia Hicksite Yearly Meeting even while working actively with the Progressives. In fact she spent years going back and forth between the groups, all the time “spreading the virus” ever wider among the Hicksites, outliving and out-talking her major opponents. And she was not alone in playing this “double-agent” role.
The second Progressive shortcoming, and the more important to me, is that I suspect many were very mushy on the Peace Testimony. The Progressives emerged in a decade when the tensions that led to the Civil War were nearing the boiling point, and violent incidents between supporters and opponents of slavery were increasing. Take for instance, the split in Pennsylvania’s Kennett Monthly Meeting, from which the Pennsylvania Progressive Yearly Meeting sprang: it occurred less than a year after a violent clash between slave-catchers and abolitionists in Christiana PA, near the border with slave state Maryland. That confrontation had led to gunplay, a slaveholder’s death, and 38 indictments for treason. Christiana is less than twenty miles away from Kennett.
When the Civil War began in earnest ten years later, a great many younger Quakers from that region joined the Union Army. (I have traced this process through the minutes of nearby Baltimore Hicksite Yearly Meeting, and the defections there were likewise substantial. (Fager: Speaking Peace) I suspect that many Progressives felt a strong pull toward involvement in the war; their later influence deserves to be drawn out in detail.
Finally, there is the paradox that a movement which was permeated at the beginning with calls for bringing rational analysis to matters of religion, an outlook epitomized in the voracious reading and endless discussion of Lucretia Mott, has now morphed into a corporate culture, particularly within FGC, that is determinedly amnesiac about religious history, including their own, and proudly flaunts ignorance of theology, or the Bible. This paradox is deepened by the fact that FGC Meetings are heavy with members and attenders who bear multiple degrees and pursue occupations demanding high levels of learning. How did this retreat from reason and history come about? And how might it be changed?
Good questions all. Important questions too, because the movement which raises them was no obscure backwater; it was rather, the key shaping factor in current Liberal Quakerism. Yet to date the Progressive heritage been almost entirely unexplored. Which leads to one more question: if the Progressive Friends are even half as significant as I’ve portrayed them, why have they been so completely ignored by Quaker historians til now?
Hmmm. This should have been in the Top Ten, I think. Well, we know they weren’t very good about keeping records and minutes, so the easily accessible archival materials are skimpy.
But I have another thought: look at the major Quaker histories produced in the U.S. in the last century: all of them were written by scholars shaped by the Orthodox traditions. I’m not sniffing a conspiracy here, but I do sense a bad habit: the authors’ horizons were crowded with other trends and movements, and the Progressives simply didn’t make it onto their radar screens. Yet no matter how inadvertent the neglect, it’s time for that to change.
So let me close by repeating more seriously what I began with, that it is time for Quaker historians to follow Brian Wilson’s example here, bring the Progressive Friends out of the shadows, and take a close and careful look at them and their many-sided, and in many ways decisive impact on what has become Liberal Quakerism in America. In understanding these nearly forgotten prisoners, we will understand ourselves much better, in at least ten ways. Give or take.
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: In the standard histories, when they are noted at all, the Progressive Friends are seen as a minor, mid-nineteenth century separation out of some of the Hicksite yearly meetings, an ephemeral tendency which soon dissipated. Consider their treatment in some of the standard histories: Elbert Russell’s History of Quakerism gives them one paragraph (370-71), as does Barbour and Frost’s The Quakers (181). Rufus Jones, in The Later Periods of Quakerism, Vol. II, relegates them to a summary footnote (596), while neither Punshon’s Portrait in Grey nor the evangelical Walter Williams’s The Rich Heritage of Quakerism mentions them at all. Most surprisingly, Howard Brinton, whose ancestral Chester County turf includes Longwood, states flatly – and erroneously, in Friends for Three Hundred Years that, “no further separations occurred among [the Hicksites].”(191)
In the past ten years there have been some new histories, not all of which I have been able to review. However, the distinguished scholar Thomas Hamm, in his 2003 survey, The Quakers In America, continues this tradition, devoting only two paragraphs to the movement.
Fager, Chuck, A Friendly Letter, #101, 9th Month 1989, http://www.afriendlyletter.com/AFL-archives/AFL-archives/101-AFL-9-1989.pdf
Fager, Chuck. Speaking Peace, Living Peace: http://quakerhouse.org/civil-war-01.htm
Mott, Lucretia. Letter to Nathaniel Barney, dated June 7, 1847. Reproduced in the Lucretia Coffin Mott Correspondence, Winter 2000, 3. Pomona, CA: Lucretia Coffin Mott Project.
Palmer, Beverly Wilson. Selected Letters of Lucretia Mott. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends, “Exposition of Sentiments,” 1853. Online at: http://quakertheology.org/progres1.htm