“Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey”* A Review

Chuck Fager

It’s my fate to spend a fair amount of time on the larger Quaker-oriented Facebook groups.That is often a challenging, and even dispiriting experience, especially when talk turns to “what Friends believe,” and how that is evidenced in actual Quaker history. It’s a chore because the level of ignorance and misinformation about Quakerism seems bottomless. Responding to it often is like bailing out a canoe with a big hole in the bottom, through which a continuing steam of errors, rumor, legends and downwright fiction steadily gushes.

For instance, a few days ago, there once again popped up the name of Richard Nixon, the second Quaker U. S. president. But no sooner than he appeared, there followed a number of firm denials that he was, or ever had been, a Friend. Even though Nixon’s lifelong membership in East Whittier, California Friends Church is well-attested in several solid historical sources, both in books and online, this seemed to make no difference to many: pointing them out evoked such responses as: “He never was”; “Well, perhaps as a child, but not as an adult”; “Maybe as a young man, but when challenged as president over the Vietnam War, he left and never returned”; and other variations.

It’s even worse when it comes to those things called “testimonies”; to read social media, one might think George Fox invented the Prius, or at least he drove one. And no doubt wore tee-shirts emblazoned with “SPICE” (or was it “SPICES”?).

It’s an uphill slog to point out that, oddly enough, when printed Books of Discipline appeared, about 1806, 120-plus years after Fox’s death, and in many editions over several decades, not only “Peace” but also “Equality,” and even “Simplicity” were not found in their indexes or subject headings. (If one doubts, check this careful compilation of Old Disciplines here: http://www.qhpress.org/texts/obod/) To be sure, if one digs deep enough, seeds of some modern witness can be found in the rich humus of early Quaker writings; but as actual shoots of corporate expression, they broke the surface only much later.

And there were counter-currents: for instance, while Quaker women could preach, travel as ministers, and had their own meetings, all of this was still subordinate to the men’s meetings. And as for “equality,” one ought to review Proposition 15 of Robert Barclay’s Apology , in particular the paragraph beginning, “Before I enter upon a particular disquisition . . .” in which he makes crystal clear that Friends’ “peculiarities” about “hat honor,” against bowing and scraping, and insisting on saying “thou” to a social superior – all this was to have absolutely no undermining effect on the inequality “betwixt prince and people, master and servants . . . nay not at all.” Furthermore, “that these natural relations are rather better established than anyways hurt by it.” (Emphasis added.

But, but, sputter some, then whence cometh Quaker equality, if not from the tablets Fox carried down from atop Pendle Hill?

There’s a double answer to that: first, things changed and evolved over 300 years. For instance, Fox and Penn accepted slavery; but over four generations, this acceptance became a definite refusal. And textually, Disciplines changed too, but even more slowly. Second, research thus far points the finger at the venerable Howard Brinton, and pamphlets he issued in 1941 and 1942, in which he listed equality, “harmony” (including peace) and simplicity as, not even “testimonies,” but Quaker “social doctrines.”

Further, Brinton acknowledged that his list had taken form, not full-blown, but after long experience and reflection – and some with no little struggle. He described these evolving “social doctrines” in his Guide to Quaker Practice, which is still in print, and has been, I am told, the best-selling Pendle Hill pamphlet in the 75 years since its issue. That durability and wide distribution evidently turned Brinton’s rather tentative and qualified formulation into something of a liberal Quaker dogma. And forgetting the source, too many now assume that “social doctrines” equals “testimonies,” and Brinton’s list came direct from Firbank Fell and the First Publishers; one labors largely in vain to set them into a broader context, either of theology or history.

More formal presentations are hardly better. In 2011, the American Friends Service Committee produced a new pamphlet, sent to Meeting Clerks entitled, “An Introduction to Quaker Testi-monies,” which listed the “SPICES” version (The second “S” being for “Stewardship,” a bow to the environment). This six-letter agenda is the most recent elaboration of Brinton’s formulation, and it came printed on 100 per cent recycled paper – and it was also 100 % free of either historical framing or theological context.

So, besides continuing to wipe clear spots in the fogged-up windows of social media and organizational self-promotion, one would welcome any popular resource that might help Friends, old and new, find some clarity on these matters. And now comes, in this effort, Our Life Is Love, by Marcelle Martin.

In the book, which she says is based on long study and wide personal engagement, she draws on “acquaintance with the lives of seventeenth-century Quakers, combined with the experiences of dedicated Quakers today.” From this mix, she believes she has “unveiled ten essential elements in the process” of Quaker spiritual life. She chose the term “elements” carefully, insisting that the ten features are not to be taken as stages in a definite procession, or prescribed rungs on a spiritual ladder. Nevertheless, she begins from her own early sense of religious longing, as the first element, and the ten are grouped into three categories of Awakening, Convincement and Faithfulness, which certainly appear progressive, and reasonably so.

To illustrate her ten elements, she draws in quotes from numerous Friends, from early times and now. She also labors to include among them voices from across the theological spectrum and around the Quaker world, including Friends of color, Latin Americans and Africans. Linguistic and cultural differences make this effort feel strained at some points, but it’s a noble one, and basic to developing a Quakerism for our time, and not just for our local parochial place.

The book is evidently attracting considerable attention in FGC-oriented Quaker circles. One Friend praised it to me as a surefire discussion starter in meeting reading-discussion groups. I can see that potential, and anything that can get Friends talking about actual Quakerism, in its past and present settings rather than their feelings about what are often no more than urban legends and rumors about it, is an asset.

At the same time, there are areas where the treatment of the elements was disappointing. Early Friends, for one, are typically presented as superhuman heroic and saintly figures. No doubt some were, at some times; yet from early on, the new movement also suffered through numerous internal conflicts and struggled with the impact of human imperfections. They included, to take only a few, Fox’s seemingly ego-driven feud with James Nayler; William Penn’s slaveowning; conflicts over removing hats during meeting, and even schism over setting definite times for meeting at all. Further, it took Fox years to quell fierce internal opposition to having women’s meetings: Penn’s “Primitive Christianity Revived” was by no means, a “Primitive Christianity of Equals.”

For that matter, what we now call the “Peace Testimony” (in fact a much more recent usage) was by no means as clear and unequivocal then as many now would like to believe. Isaac Penington, who is one of this author’s particular early role models (her title comes from him), was by no means a fan of pacifism. I don’t say all this to denigrate early Friends; for me, learning of their feet of clay has only made them more real and accessible. But all that has no real place here.

From later times, Martin mentions the schisms that scattered the Society in the nineteenth century, but doesn’t dwell on them. In one sense that is proper; this is not a history. Yet polarization and schism are by no means safely behind us. And there is essentially no mention here of the distressed condition of many Friends and meetings today, among whom some of the same forces are still tearing Quaker communities apart. This gives the text a parochial cast. It leaves one wondering if the author’s many years of travel have brought her through any of those times of serious internal trouble, which are regrettably very much part of the Quaker experience today.

This lack gains importance when she speaks of “the Cross” as one of her elements. It surely belongs on such a list, but here too the book underplays a crucial aspect of the experience, that of group betrayal. After all, Jesus was sold out to the Romans by one of his inner circle. And in my time among Friends, those who seem most spiritually mature have borne scars that come not only from an unredeemed world, or from bold and costly witness, but also from within the circle of meeting, the community on which we depend. That hard experience of the cross is not really represented here, or at least not in any depth.

One other deficiency was that the book’s admirable effort at inclusiveness seems to have missed both the large segments of non-mystic Friends, and the others gathered under the capacious umbrella of “non-theism.” Such “mysto-chauvinism” is a common failing among both liberal Quakers and many otherwise progressive programmed Friends, too many of whom seem still to be following Rufus Jones and Howard Brinton in the belief that Quakerism is a kind of mystic sect, part of a fancied hidden “apostolic succession” of such groups that goes back presumably to Jesus himself. This notion has long since been thoroughly debunked by historians of religion; and its newest version, the evangelical “Holiness mysticism” of Carole Spencer, is no more convincing.

To be sure, Quakerism includes and perhaps produces mystics, as do many religions. Indeed, perhaps their presence, in measure, is indispensable to the health of the body. But Brinton-Jones-Spencer mysticism is much too narrow and dated a category to encompass all, or even all the greatest, Friends, then or now. Fox may have had “mystical experiences”; but he also had religious experiences of many other sorts, as recounted both in his Journal and the once-was-lost-but-now-it’s-semi-found Book of Miracles. And many dedicated Quakers are like the British Friend William Littleboy, who exactly a century ago published The Appeal of Quakerism for the Non-Mystic, a concise, classic apologia:

Can I who never consciously heard the inward voice,” he wrote, “who am not of those to whom it is given to see visions and dream dreams – dare I believe that a real and intimate relationship exists between God and my own dull and earth-clogged soul? Upon the answer to our question stated in this personal form, depends I believe the hope and peace, the character of the whole outlook, of multitudes of anxious spirits. . . .

God is above all the God of the normal. In the common facts and circumstances of life He draws near to us, quietly He teaches us in the routine of life’s trifles, gently and unnoticed. His guidance comes to us through the channels of reason, judgment and determining circumstance.

Exceptional experiences of revelation or guidance are not necessarily signs of deep spirituality. . . . We know that to some choice souls god’s messages come in ways which are supernormal, and it is natural that we should look with longing eyes on these; yet such cases are the exception, not the rule.”


Note that Littleboy is not making his case as an agnostic nor non-theist. He is a believer, but of an undramatic, everyday sort. Nor was he lukewarm; he bore a strong witness for peace in World War One. And he is not alone. One of my Quaker heroes, Lucretia Mott, a faithful Friend her whole eighty-eight years, admired not only for eloquence but also physical courage, was likewise a resolutely anti-mystical Friend.

It’s worth noting that Littleboy’s plea is cited here by an advocate for non-theist Friends. They too deserve their place in Martin’s book, but they do not find it. The book’s Quaker vision is broad; it should be broader.

Fortunately, in today’s publishing industry, a book is not, like Moses’ tablets, carved in stone. It is relatively easy to update and enrich a text like this. I hope Martin and Inner Light Books will rise to that challenge, to make it all the resource it still could be.

For that matter, kudos are due to the publisher for producing a carefully-proofread text. This may seem a minor technical point; but it really isn’t any more. The hunt for typographical errors used to be an almost religious rite, a quiet but relentless crusade for publishers and editors. But such attention to detail is vanishing, even from many eminent academic presses. Typos and other textual solecisms abound increasingly in books; and as an editor myself, I am mindful of my own shortcomings here. But this book was almost typo free; that bespeaks devotion as well as professionalsim, and deserves recognition and reinforcement.

With some further work, Our Life Is Love could reach its full potential. Perhaps– on can still hope– it could even help us tame and shed light in the wildlands of Quaker Facebook.


*Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey. Marcelle Martin. San Francisco: Inner Light Books, 238 pages. Paperback, $17.50.
Reviewed by Chuck Fager

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