Reviewed by Isaac May
In his introduction to Remaking Friends, Chuck Fager informs his readers that his book “attempts to answer a question… How did the liberal branch of Quakerism become what it is in the early 21st century?” (p. 3). He takes on this rather considerable task principally by examining an important historical antecedent of modern liberal Quakers, the Progressive Friends, a group that broke away from Hicksite Quakerism around the middle of the nineteenth century. The work covers the creation of that group up until about World War I, when the Progressive Friends largely disappeared, many of them joining Friends General Conference. The book is not a definitive explanation of the roots of liberal Quakerism, but it is a valuable history of a neglected part of this movement, focusing especially on the Longwood Progressive Friends Meeting near Philadelphia, and its sometimes stormy relationship with the Hicksites.
Remaking Friends, it should be noted, is something of an unconventional text, which may, unfortunately, mean that it escapes the attention of scholars. It has been self-published by Fager through his Kimo Press label, and the result is a less finished presentation than might be expected from a heavily revised university press book. Much should have been caught with editing; quotes often seem to stretch on too long, there are some misspellings in the footnotes, and several times one parenthesis appears in the text and another never appears to close it. There are a few grammar issues; one problematic sentence reads simply “And Quakers” (p. 130). When images appear in the text, formatting issues cause the spacing between letters in the words on the rest of the page to widen. These errors are minor, but they should not have made it into the book.
Fager’s work also has a certain playful style that is uncommon in academic texts. The writing occasionally has conversational asides. The images, which appear far more frequently than in most academic works, sometimes are supposed to be humorous. For instance, Fager edited an image of Lucretia and James Mott, to include a cartoon word bubble where James mocks their critics. These attempts at levity do not hinder the readability of the text, and, at times, it serves as a refreshing reminder that Fager is writing outside of confining academic strictures. Yet it also makes it harder to demonstrate that this sort of denominational history should be taken seriously by religious studies scholars and historians who are outside the Quaker Studies orbit.
The material that Fager presents deserves to reach a wider audience. Many contemporary historical works on Quakerism, such as Rebecca Larson’s Daughters of Light, a study of Quaker women’s ministry from 1700 to 1775, portray the denomination from a disproportionately rosy perspective as egalitarian and progressive. In contrast, this work makes clear that the denominational hierarchy and leadership of Hicksite Quakerism could be hostile towards women’s rights or abolition – or even to the exercise of power outside established channels controlled by ministers and elders.
Whereas many less specialized histories seem to portray Hicksites as temporally displaced modern political liberals, Fager makes clear that the reality was much messier. Remaking Friends provides a useful explanation of why many Progressive Friends felt the need for a separate organization, and it makes clear that Hicksite Meetings often disowned the most radical members from their own tradition. Fager, drawing heavily on Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits, also observes that Progressive Friends were integral to the foundation of Christian Spiritualism.
One of the most useful aspects of Fager’s work is that it demonstrates the connection of Quakerism with a larger network of nineteenth-century reformers. The Yearly Meeting of the Longwood Friends seems to have been a magnet for abolitionists and radicals, hosting abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and radical minister Theodore Parker among others. It was a place where practical political organizing over topics like abolition, temperance, and women’s rights existed alongside discussions about liberal theology and the beginnings of religious pluralism.
Some of these reformers were not Quakers. Unitarian figures appear in the narrative constantly. Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson are prominent; Longwood’s Yearly Meeting was actually led in later decades by “a succession of Unitarian ministers” (p. 149). Many of the Quakers that Fager focuses on also have connections with the Unitarian-dominated Free Religious Association (FRA), an intellectual hotbed where various New England activists explored ideas of agnosticism, higher criticism of the Bible and investigated other world religions.
A weakness of Fager’s text is that it mainly relies on secondary sources on Quakerism or primary sources that are available online, neglecting to draw on the broad scholarship about liberal religion and Unitarian denominational history. Examining the work of scholars of liberal religion like Leigh Schmidt, who examined the FRA in the context of the development of the concept of American spirituality, and Dan McKanan, who offers an innovative take on radical Christian nonviolence in the antebellum era, would have deepened this work. Even denominational histories of Unitarianism by John Buehrens or Conrad Wright could have provided much-needed context for Fager’s work on the Quakers. Nor is there much reference in Remaking Friends to non-Quaker trends in liberal theology, something that often serves to make the Quakers sound more religiously innovative than they sometimes were. Other scholars will have to uncover what the information that Fager has presented means beyond the Quaker denominational context.
Remaking Friends is clearly a book with noticeable flaws, but this should not deter interested parties from reading and benefiting from it. Fager has looked at an underexplored topic in Quakerism and understood the denomination far better than a number of scholars with more academic polish. The evidence Fager amasses here if applied more broadly would be important to the historical understanding of the development of religious thought in America. As it is, the study of Quakerism’s past is richer because of Fager’s contribution.
Buehrens, John A. Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books, 2011.
Larson, Rebecca. Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
McKanan, Dan. Identifying the Image of God: Radical Christians and Nonviolent Power in the Antebellum United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Wright, Conrad. A Stream of Light: A Sesquicentennial History of American Unitarianism. Boston, MA: Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, 1975.
* Chuck Fager. Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism & Helped Save America, 1822-1940. Durham, North Carolina: Kimo Press. 2014. Pp. 240. $10.