Questions for Howard: Being a Kind of Review of the New Biography of Howard & Anna Brinton

By Chuck Fager

“The time has come–indeed, it is long overdue–for a critical assessment of Howard’s major works: Friends for Three Hundred Years (1952) and Guide to Quaker Practice (1943), which continue to be best sellers among liberal Friends.”

–Anthony Manousos in Howard and Anna Brinton:
                                Reinventors of Quakerism in the Twentieth Century

Manousos is right: 2013 marks sixty years since Friends for 300 Years was published, and it’s past time for a critical look at Howard Brinton’s thought. His two most widely-read works have become so influential across the unprogrammed and even segments of the pastoral branches that many Quakers take his outlook for granted, as if it were wired into the Quaker DNA, part of what “goes without saying,” or examining.
The critical silence, Manousos continues, is remarkable, even alarming, for:

“ . . .even though Friends for 300 Years has become a classic, and has sold around 30,000 copies since 1965, and probably nearly that many from 1953-65, there has never been a serious study of this work. This lack of a critical assessment is truly astounding, given the fact that most Quakers are highly educated people who are quite critical in matters other than theology. If I were writing a biography of Karl Barth, or Reinhold Niebuhr, or just about any other major figure of Catholic or Protestant theology in the 20th century, I would have to sift through a mountain of articles, studies, doctoral dissertations, and books analyzing and assessing their place in the history of Christian theology.”

    I don’t echo this call in order to tar Brinton’s influence as harmful; to the contrary, I think for the most part, it’s worked to strengthen American Quakerism. Yet the truth is that no matter how salutary much of his work has been, Howard Brinton was no Robert Barclay, and his ideas were not a repetition of Fox, Penn and Woolman. In many ways, Brinton’s vision of the Society of Friends was quite different. Manousos is right to describe and Anna as “re-inventors of Quakerism.” Even if Manousos (and I) intend the phrase as a token of respect, or even an honorific (who’s afraid of re-inventing Quakerism? Not me), these ideas still deserve a careful re-examination. Time passes; many things change, while some that should have changed stay the same. As the Quaker poet Whittier wrote (and Howard Brinton, a poetry buff, must have read many times):

    I reverence old-time faith and men,
    But God is near us now as then…
    And still the measure of our needs
    Outgrows the cramping bounds of creeds;
    The manna gathered yesterday
    Already savors of decay….”

    Why contemporary Friends have so largely neglected the theological study that Brinton’s work calls out for is a troubling question. It is an issue Brinton himself tried to tackle; but it is one we must leave for another time. Manousos includes in his book three papers by Quaker scholars, including QT’s Associate Editor Stephen Angell, who from different angles take some preliminary steps toward an appraisal. I won’t try to summarize their points, which are well worth reading, but rather add a few items to the gathering agenda for such a reappraisal. Several issues come to mind, which can perhaps most usefully be expressed as annotated queries. These will be addressed directly to Howard, as if he were still here (which in spirit, he very much is):

Dear Friend Howard Brinton,

    Here are a few queries which your work, and Anthony Manousos’ new biography, bring to mind. I’ll be seeking answers in your work, and encourage input from others who have read and reflected on it. We’ll focus on four of them, so let’s begin:

    1. Can we still sustain your idea that something called “mysticism” is the basis of Quakerism, especially the unprogrammed variety?

    We already know that even in your time, there were many devoted Friends for whom “mystical experiences” were a closed book. For instance, your good friend Henry Cadbury, a distinguished New Testament scholar with a long “Quaker pedigree,” was candid in admitting that he had no such religious experiences in his long life, and built his religion on other grounds. Further, a noted  British Friend, William Littleboy, had published a pamphlet in 1916. “The Appeal of Quakerism to the Non-Mystic,” which has been widely read on that side of the Atlantic.

    Yet these two men, and many other men and women, were devoted, even weighty liberal unprogrammed Quakers. More recently, the rising visibility of non-theist Friends has added new voices to this chorus.

    Moreover, as I read the best accounts I can find of the spirituality of the founding Friends, “mystical” seems to apply in only a marginal and incidental way to what happened to them. Sure, Fox and company had “religious experiences” of various sorts. And especially on those occasions when Fox writes about openings that were “beyond what words can utter,” the term seems relevant. Yet these instances are comparatively few compared to the many more times when Fox insists that God showed him this or that, and gave him a word for a person or group – and such experiences are quite different from the “mystical” – more often what has traditionally been called “prophetic.”

    Besides, numerous scholars have long since debunked (no softer word is really accurate) the claims of Rufus Jones that Quakerism came into being as one in a long line of mystical sects that were linked across Europe and over time in some kind of transcendent chain. Your version of this “mystical chain” idea is perhaps more nuanced, but not really different. So for me at least, “mysticism” in Quaker religious life needs to be repositioned, and not at the center. Where does that leave your work?

    2. Now, about those “Testimonies” you “discovered,” or “refined” out of your reading of early Quaker writings. Anthony Manousos points out the originality, not only of the items on your list, but the fact of the list at all:

“Perhaps the most important innovation in [Brinton’s Guide to Quaker Practice] is its systematization of the Quaker social ‘testimonies’ A testimony is defined by Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice as ‘a public statement or witness based on beliefs of the Society of Friends which give direction to our lives.’ Interestingly, the word was not widely used in Quaker books of discipline prior to the publication of Howard’s pamphlet. Books of disciplines contained ‘advices’ and ‘queries’ and statements of ‘Christian doctrine,’ but seldom was there any mention of testimonies (except for the Peace Testimony).”[Emphasis added.]

    To me this fact is much more than “interesting”; it is startling. And Manousos is mistaken about the “Peace Testimony” being in early Disciplines. I have examined them, and it is not there. Instead, there were statements about steering clear of war and preparations for war; which bespeaks a very different stance. A distinct heading for a “Peace testimony,” does not appear in Quaker handbooks til late in the nineteenth century. Still less does your early rendering of it as “Harmony.”

    So to my mind, your work was indeed an innovation, a major one. By it, the “Testimonies” became a kind of social action agenda, and have since often become political footballs struggled over by factions pushing various favored causes. And while such jostling is not entirely new (Quakers for several generations put “Temperance,” meaning legal Prohibition of production or sale of alcoholic beverages, at or near the top of their social testimonies list, for example), such internal lobbying was given new legitimacy and push by your “innovation.”
And with this change has come a proliferation of “Testimonies” which I suspect would have had Fox and Woolman scratching their heads. From your four – simplicity, harmony, community and equality – we have now jumped to SPICE (switching out “Harmony” for “Peace,” and adding “Integrity”), and in some places it’s gone plural, with “Sustainability” for the second “S.” and I have heard others being agitated for.

    As a veteran, or may I say survivor, of several such struggles over newly-“discovered” (minted) Testimonies, I cannot deny that I wonder if your new impetus to this process was entirely for the better. As trenchantly noted elsewhere in this issue by Geoffrey Kaiser, I fear it has often made us more resemble “The Society of Trends.” And that’s even without venturing into the weeds of trying to agree on what they mean. Take Simplicity, for instance; is there any subject more complicated when Friends try to move from the general to the specific? And “sustainability”? No, we daren’t go there.

    Even more unsettling is that these developing Brintonian testimonies have spawned a brood of embarrassing urchins called “Quaker values,” which we hear invoked by many semi- or erstwhile Quaker bodies which want to keep the (mainly fundraising) cachet of “Quakerism,” but carefully shuck all the, you know, “religious” aspects. Thus I, for one, have been repeatedly embarrassed to hear representatives of such bodies claim “equality” and “peace” as if Quakers had invented them, utterly unconscious of the arrogance thus conveyed, and oblivious while brethren from, say, the ACLU and Iraq Veterans Against the War rightly seethe with resentment.

    How do we sort this mess out, Howard? Is it time to apply “Simplicity” to this gaggle of Testimonies and faux “testimonies,” and sift out the wheat from the cultural chaff?

    3. Your confidence in the underlying unity of all the world’s “major religions,” seen from the vantage point of 2013, seems, to put it mildly, over-optimistic. Besides terrorism wearing religious garb, in 2013 we Americans who still dare claim the name “Christian” are in deep, and seemingly intractable conflict. In addition, the large Mainline Protestant ecumenical projects, such as the National and World Council of Churches, whose launching you assisted at, have fallen on very hard times, and linger as but a shadow of their once hegemonic selves. Even worse, almost nobody misses them, and few people under sixty or so even remember their glory days.

    And what about when we broaden the horizon to encompass more than the chaos of the larger Christian constituency? I can do no better at this point than to quote my colleague Stephen Angell, from his paper, “Howard Brinton in Theological Context,” which is included in Manousos’ book:

    Brinton has found a deep unity between the world religions that belies the “multiplicity at the surface,” and it is strongest among the mystics of each religion, where each religion as its highest development. “There is a philosophical basis for this concept which appears in every great religion, though it is expressed in different figures. In terms of Quaker thought, the same Light from God shines into every human being and the more we ‘center down’ in that which we all have in common, the nearer we come to one another. . . .
    There is, of course, an alternative view well articulated in Stephen Prothero’s 2010 book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter. Prothero points out that each of these eight major religions diagnoses a different cause for the human predicament, and consequently each entails a different solution. While the Christian problem is generally seen as overcoming sin, and Christians do so by seeking salvation, for Muslims the core problem is human illusions of self-sufficiency and the solution is submission to God; for Confucians, the main problem is disorder in society and the cosmos, and the remedy is character-building education; for Buddhists, the principal problem is suffering, and the solution is nirvana, or the release from suffering, attained through following the noble eightfold path; and so forth.
For Prothero, unlike Brinton, differences are not merely surface divisions for humankind, but they really reach down to the most profound levels of meaning in human existence. In contrasting Buddhism and Christianity, for example, he poses these rhetorical questions: “Are Buddhists trying to achieve salvation? Of course not, since they don’t even believe in sin. Are Christians trying to achieve nirvana? No, since for them suffering isn’t something that must be overcome. In fact, it might even have been a good thing.”

    Well said. In sum, it’s not your fault, Howard, that the Ark of the 1950s ecumenical movement proved to be more leaky than the Titanic. But I’m afraid that bark is now pretty well sunk, and it seems to me we’re mostly floating around in choppy seas, clinging to one piece of driftwood or another. I still think ecumenical and interfaith cooperation are good ideas; but it looks to me like they’re being reconstructed amid the waves, on a very different basis from what your generation imagined.

    4. Next let me turn from talking about ecumenism, relations with other churches and faiths, to what theologians call “ecclesiology,” or the nature of the church. What kind of “church” is the Religious Society of Friends? What kind of  “church” should it be?

    Many Friends today have given little if any thought to this question: “Quakerism is the kind of church that happens when I go to Meeting on First Day,” is about as far as their thinking has gone. But a look around any community with several churches will present examples of very different ways to define and organize “church” from the top-down Catholic hierarchy, to the fiercely congregation-centered tradition of independent Baptists; and many other arrangements in between.

    Further, a glance at Quaker history will show that there has been more than one kind of church structure and governance among Friends. For more than 200 years, Quakers saw themselves as a “chosen people,” called by God to live apart from the rest of the world. Their church communities were two-tiered bodies, governed by “select meetings” of ministers and elders who served for life, and were charged with seeing that the meetings hewed to the “narrow path” of the traditional Quaker ways.

    But by the end of the nineteenth century, this traditional Quaker “ecclesiology” had been challenged and overthrown. By the early 1900s, many new independent meetings were sprouting up in its place. You, Howard, were a passionate advocate of this very different kind of Quakerism. You declared repeatedly that “The emergence of the new independent meetings in various parts of this continent is the most important event in modern Quaker history in America.” And for decades, as Anthony Manousos shows in detail, you were a key figure in spurring the growth and legitimacy of this independent Quakerism.
Still, when it came to giving the movement a conceptual base, Howard, your work is, I’m afraid, more vague than clear. Here again, I turn to Steve Angell, who notes that you described the church in two ways: In the first,

Brinton distinguishes the Quaker conception of the nature of the church from both the large established churches and the smaller, more congenial, free churches: The Quaker “belongs to a religious society which makes no claim to be a church in any sense of that term, or to be composed of the converted and the redeemed. It can be joined by persons convinced of its principles, but this is regarded only as a first step. Conversion as a real change of life is considered a life long process, including occasional success and occasional failure. The Religious Society of Friends is more like a family than a ‘church.’

    “More like a family.” It sounds nice, and clearly was for you and your wife, Anna. But when it comes to church, a family model has lots of limitations. Families, after all, are two-tiered and authoritarian: parents raising and supervising children; they are inherently non-democratic. They are also kinship-centered: who one is related to is always meaningful, and often more important than anything else. A family can be warm-fuzzy if you’re accepted as part of it and the family system is healthy. But if not – how many of us have ever felt frozen out of kinship-centered groups because we were not “one of us”?

    Hey, don’t get me wrong – I’m all for families. But they’re not the same as a church. So Howard, your family image leaves us with a lot of ecclesiological work to do.

    And so does your other idea of Quakerism as essentially “mystical.” You define a mystical religion as

“a religion based on the spiritual search for an inward, immediate experience of the divine.”  It tends to be relatively “independent of outward forms or organization and centered in the direct apprehension of God.” The category of religious experience holds the most importance for a mystic, and, for that reason, Brinton finds that tensions often arise “between the mystic or prophet . . . and the priest or theologian,” because religion for the latter is grounded in “doctrine and symbol.” (Brinton 1952, xii)

    But Angell points out that “Not all Quakers accept that a religion formulated in this free and sometimes nebulous fashion is a satisfactory description of either the faith that they follow or the faith that they wish to follow.”

    Sometimes nebulous? The longer I’m around it, Howard, the more abidingly nebulous the mystical notion seems as the basis for organizing and governing a stable church body. No, we don’t need any popes, or even bishops among Quakers. But what a tough-minded feminist thinker called “the tyranny of structurelessness,” is a continuing hazard for Quakers too. And, Howard, while I agree with your advocacy for the independent meetings, overall your discussion of “ecclesiology” as “mystical”is very thin, and not much help to Friends in the 21st century.

    There are some more questions lurking on the back burner – if your work addressed the bubbling issue of class, Howard, I missed it; and to the extent that you mentioned race, the views were rudimentary, pre-1950. But let these go for now; the first four here should be sufficient to get a discussion going, even among those of us who continue to be among the multitude of your admirers. And this landmark biography by Anthony Manousos should kick it off with the seriousness and energy it deserves.

Leave a comment