Liberal Friends Discover Fox
(A Paper delivered at the Conference on the Legacy of George Fox
at Swarthmore College, in Tenth Month 2002)
American liberal Quaker attitudes to George Fox have formed a pattern in which three strands recur, overlap and entwine. I call these strands or themes the Psychic, the Mystic, and the Skeptic. At the documentary level this trifold pattern is relatively easy to trace, at least from 1851. In that year, the bicentennial of Fox’s evangelistic debut, the themes were laid out by none other than Fox himself.
How? Through a conversation with a prototypical modern liberal, Isaac Post of Rochester, New York:
As Post recorded it, Fox explained that “I labored earnestly to gather together a people that I hoped would regenerate the world. I endeavored to so form our agreements that none could feel restricted by our articles of faith.
“These were only intended to set bounds to outward conduct; always intending that progression should be our motto–advancement our life; and wherever an evil was perceived, duty called us to assail it . . . . The Christian’s life must be a progressive one, and when any association of men so bind themselves, either by rules or usages, that they set bounds to the onward aspirations of the seeking soul, then their God is made subservient to their sectarianism . . . . “
“I am earnestly desirous that the sectarian shall experience a change in his love, for when he admits the pure christians light to shine in his mind, he will look upon his brother for his manhood’s sake[,] for his capacity of becoming formed in the image of God, spiritually, without enquiring whether Jesus died to save sinners, or whether he believes in water baptism, or that of the Holy Ghost; none of these cherished beliefs will the pure christian allow to separate him from his brother. Jesus said, ‘if a man says he loves God whom he has not seen–while he loves not his brother who he has seen, he is a liar, and the truth is not in him . . . .’”
Fox closed with an admonition to modern Friends that,
“Instead of taking my writings for a guide, they should be considered as helps[,] marks for encouragement, and never for a moment as laws to govern others. No written code, however it may be adapted, will be wholly suited [even] to the time and circumstances for which it was designed, [or] will be wholly suited as an ultimate christian standard . . . .”
Well; this is quite a mouthful. How was Isaac Post able to talk so substantively with George Fox 160 years after his death? You have probably guessed already: Post was a psychic, a Progressive Friend who had become a spiritualist medium, and this message was recorded in his book, Voices From the Spirit World, published the following year.
Post’s mediumship – is that the proper term?– was a fertile one in Quaker terms: Besides Fox, the book included messages from Penn, Job Scott, Nicholas Waln, Samuel Fothergill, both Elias and Edward Hicks, among others. And that’s not to mention such secular worthies as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Voltaire.
Some readers may be dubious about the authenticity of Post’s special communications faculties. Indeed, among the unbelievers were his good friend Lucretia Mott, who worried aloud about his sanity (Palmer: 223), and, of lesser note, myself. Doubts are raised not least by the way Post’s Fox conflates two verses from different chapters of the First Letter of John (2:4 and 4:20) and then misattributes them to Jesus; the Fox of 1651 would surely have kept these texts straight.
But whether Isaac Post actually talked with George Fox in 1851 is not our main concern here; rather, it is the themes which Post “heard” him articulate: This “Fox” was individualist, dogmatically anti-creedal, and devoted to spiritual and especially worldly progress and reform through earnest human effort. And if the words came in fact from Isaac Post’s wish-fulfilling subconscious –well, the same could be said of much later liberal thought about the pioneer of the Society, so Post’s “Fox” was prescient all the same, in more ways than one.
This “prophetic” character is confirmed if we leap ahead almost fifty years, as we must to keep this paper within reasonable bounds, to an August day when William W. Birdsall, the President of Swarthmore College, rose to speak to the Friends General Conference at Chautauqua, New York.
General conferences of Friends from the seven Hicksite liberal yearly meetings had been held biennially since 1892; but now, in 1900, FGC had become a distinct body, a formal alliance.
FGC and its satellite constituencies will be my principal organizational focus here, again for reasons of economy. Let me also add, for truth’s sake, that the disciplined study of modern American liberal Quaker history and theology is as yet in its infancy–or perhaps still gestating–and the contours I will outline here are to be understood as informed but provisional impressions, rather than full-fledged and tested scholarship.
But to return to William Birdsall. His topic was, “What Quakerism Stands For,” and his message was straightforward:
“More than any other thing,” he declared, “Quakerism maintains the importance of the individual. ‘The Kingdom of God,’ declared the Master, ‘is within you,’ and the Quaker accepts this declaration as constituting every individual a citizen of that kingdom. He may be unfaithful, he may, if he will, fling away his birthright and abandon the privileges of his citizenship, but it is a possession of which no man can rob him.
“But the individualism of the Friend,” Birdsall continued, “goes further than this. The sixty evangelists who, in 1654, went out of the north of England to preach a spiritual religion, proclaimed a single great spiritual truth. Upon it they based their religious system; it has been from the time of George Fox to the present the fundamental doctrine of Quakerism. It pronounces the worth of the individual to be supreme, holding that each human soul is imbued with the divine, and that every human being may drink for himself of the water of life.”
FGC’s first paid staff person, Henry W. Wilbur, was an indefatigable advocate for these convictions, summed up for him under the headings of the Inner Light, opposition to creeds, the reality of evolution and progress, and their application to religious thought and practice. He was as able as others to find these features in Fox and the First Publishers. In a 1908 treatise on doctrine and discipline, however, Wilbur took pains to point out that these “highly favored and undoubtedly inspired persons were limited by the general knowledge of their time. . .” and “were not able to rise entirely above the current superstitions of the age in which they lived.”(Wilbur: 3)
To this all-too-brief sketch of the 1900 vintage liberal image of Fox there still another stroke is needed, by way of foreground, namely the rise of the skeptics and the dismissal of theology. This attitude has already been foreshadowed by Isaac Post’s Fox, though in fairness, Henry Wilbur felt otherwise, and wrote repeatedly on doctrinal and theological issues.
But Wilbur dropped dead, probably from overwork, in the middle of the 1914 session of FGC, in Saratoga, New York. And with him went, as far as I can tell, the main liberal energy for engagement with what could broadly be referred to as theology. And with that, I contend, also went much of the liberal Quaker impetus to examine Fox and his colleagues in any depth, at least for the next several decades.
In my reading, two of the most articulate and important exponents of this dismissal soon came to the fore. One was Jesse Herman Holmes, a legendary figure on the Swarthmore campus for close to forty years. The other was Jane Rushmore, who only had two years at Swarthmore, but became equally legendary, just a bit later and based in downtown Philadelphia.
In the first third of the last century, Holmes was nearly ubiquitous in FGC circles: appearing at conference after conference, speaking and leading workshops; writing prolifically in Friends Intelligencer, and traveling widely among eastern Friends, unmistakable in his goateed vitality, preaching his various causes, including civil rights, peace, Prohibition, and Debsian socialism. He was also the last Clerk of the Longwood Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends in Kennett Square, that font of all things forward-looking or just plain peculiar (and a spiritual heir to Isaac Post).
In 1924, while many in Quakerdom were celebrating the 300th anniversary of Fox’s birth, Holmes observed the occasion by publishing four articles on doctrinal issues in Friends Intelligencer, the liberal organ. Three were a series on “Christian Theology,” and the four are worth tarrying over, because they lay out the basis of what became the reigning FGC ethos in this field.
He began by setting the scene: “The controversy which is rending several of the so-called ‘orthodox’ or ‘evangelical’ churches,” he wrote, “is just an old conflict in a new form. It sets in opposition once more authority and intelligence; tradition and the spirit; a static and finished statement and the ever new and ever growing truth.”
And then Holmes decided to tell us how he really felt: “It will not do to lightly set aside this recrudescence of superstitious creed, for it is a symptom of the larger swing of a frightened and almost despairing humanity away from democracy and the faith in man implied in democracy, and toward autocracy with its finished codes and its supermen who hand out the predigested truth to the world of lesser men.” (Holmes, 19)
He also heaped scorn on the calls for an inerrant Bible as “no more than an absurdity.” (Ibid., 556) But his heaviest artillery was aimed at “the general theological scheme which has been erected in the slow development of the great Christian church machine.”
In Holmes’ view: “This theology is neither Jewish nor Christian. It is a curious mixture of these elements with much larger importations from Greek philosophy and Oriental pessimism.” By contrast, Holmes declared, “It should be plain that early Christian theology assumed a world fundamentally good created by a benevolent deity who is also a loving father to mankind. His character is revealed through the life and teaching of Jesus . . . .” Holmes insisted that in this simple schema, minus a few fillips, “Friends will hardly fail to recognize . . .the essential and characteristic faith of their own people.”(Ibid., 557)
Holmes summed up his argument thus:
“Reduced to its simplest form, our theology involves a choice of a way of life which centers on the general good rather than on individual desires, and a dependence on the experience of a super-self which will enable us to continuously live in accord with that way of life. The expansion of these experiences into a systematic theological system we leave to individuals.”(Ibid., 765)
The “super-self”? Could this be an echo of Isaac Post’s progressive spiritualism? Quite possibly; Holmes was said to be keenly interested in matters psychic, tho by no means an uncritical believer. This reputation has persisted; indeed, in 1980, a medium published a lengthy transcript of a conversation with a spirit, who turned out to be none other than Jesse Holmes himself! (Holmes 1980: 119).
Nor was Holmes alone in this interest among prominent liberals of his generation, even where George Fox was concerned. For instance, John W. Graham, a British Friend well-known among American liberals, devoted a whole chapter in his 1927 book, The Divinity in Man, to “The Subliminal Self of George Fox,” in which he saw Fox as “not the first, nor the last outstanding religious leader through whom ‘mighty works’ and unusual powers have been manifested.”
He then cited Fox’s own statements to show that “he had trances and visions, had telepathic faculties and premonitions, effected spiritual healing . . .” and even wrote a “little Book of Miracles,” which had, Graham noted, been lost, apparently deliberately. (Graham, 229f) Not surprisingly, Graham was much involved in the British Society for Psychical Research.
Thus we see the psychic thread persisting and even entwining with that of the skeptic in this complex, if not entirely consistent fabric of liberal Quaker thought.
But I digress somewhat. Let’s return to Holmes’s articles, and what is to me their most important and contradictory feature, namely the utter dismissal of theology as no more than a minor private concern of individual, while at the same time announcing that a “simple” BOMFOG (i.e., “Brotherhood of man-Fatherhood of God”) social gospel theology was not only the inarguable bedrock of Quakerism, old and new, but the base of original true Christianity to boot.
Nor was this all. Indeed, Holmes declared that liberal Quakerism is “able to offer to a scientific age a genuinely scientific theology on which to base a genuinely Christian life. We have no occasion for pride in this [yeah, right] . . . .But we call our faith to the attention of many who are tired of superstitious observances and crude theologies–who long for an intelligent and intelligible religion . . . .”(Ibid.) Like a button of a few years ago said, he was indeed proud to be a humble Quaker.
Within a few years, Holmes’s view had won about as much formal sanction as FGC offered. In 1926 a committee of which he was a member completed a Uniform Discipline for the seven FGC yearly meetings, which was adopted by all of them with only minor variations. In it, Fox was predictably described as of the “seeking type of mind,” who “proclaimed that God speaks directly to each human soul through a present, living experience of Christ. The heart of this great message was the gospel of this inner revelation, the Inward Light, requiring no human mediator. . . .” (FGC 1926, 10f)
The next year, Holmes drafted what was ultimately known as “A Letter to the Scientifically Minded,” which was edited and issued by the FGC Advancement Committee in 1929. The Letter was probably the most widely-circulated FGC document of its era, and, for many who became convinced FGC Friends in this period, one of the most influential. It was also a thoroughly humanist manifesto, in which God was reduced to little more than a nice idea held by the right-thinking, highly-educated middle class white folks it was addressed to.
It was G.K. Chesterton who quipped that “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.” Despite the fact that American liberal Quakerism’s new strongholds were in university communities, and that one of its principal spokesman was a distinguished academic, the essentially anti-intellectual character of FGC religious “thought” by the end of the 1920s can hardly be gainsaid. It could fairly, if harshly be summed up as: Theology is bunk, and at best no more than irrelevant private speculation. Even so, our theology is the true Christian and Quaker version, which is so simple it can be expressed in a paragraph. As for George Fox, his message has but two main propositions, that of the universal Inner Light and the exaltation of the individual.
This was indeed a thought to stop thought, and this attitude raised a bar to searching scholarship or profound reflection in the FGC orbit that is still to be overcome. It should come as no surprise that thus far little of either has turned up in my studies of the FGC publications from this period (though I have not yet examined them all).
Without theology (or for that matter, history), what view do we get of George Fox? Well, at FGC’s Cape May Conference in 1924, the tercentenary of his birth, the main memorial event was an elaborate pageant, featuring ten living tableaus of men and women in antique costumes, silently reenacting scenes from Fox’s life, accompanied by a narrator’s brief lines of blank verse.
Afterward, for many years – indeed, in large measure, to this day– FGC substituted for both theology and history – religious education. In this effort, Jane Rushmore was the key figure for thirty-four years, from 1911 to 1945. She had, notes her biographer, an “incisive mind and decided views” (Johnson: 125) From 1916 to 1945, she produced and wrote a First Day School Bulletin for FGC. These reflected what was rightly called “her indefatigable authorship of lessons.” for both adults and children. (Ibid., 128)
While she would surely have bridled at the designation, Jane Rushmore was as much of a theologian as FGC had once Jesse Holmes was sidelined by age. A number of her most popular adult lessons were collected and published in 1936 as Testimony and Practice in the Religious Society of Friends, which was fairly described a few years later as “a standard work in the RE library,” at least FGC-liberal libraries.
The branch’s anti-reflective bias was reinforced by her work. There is almost nothing about Fox in her book. It opens with a diatribe against theology: “Quakerism is essentially mystical rather than rational We have many clear rational thinkers, and we rejoice in their contribution, which mainly is that the way any of us think about theological or metaphysical matters is non-essential.” After confidently declaring that “the religion of experience needs no formulation and no defense. We know it is true and life-giving to us, though all the legalism and dialectics of the earth are turned upon it to prove it unsound.” she moves on.. (7-13)
Thus in the years after the death of Henry Wilbur in 1914, and the heyday of Holmes and Rushmore, American liberal Quakerism entered into what I have called “the Age of Amnesia,” in which the main sources of Quakerism, from Fox, to the Bible and even Quaker history and practice, were progressively (or perhaps better, regressively) reduced to a handful of pithy statements, which over time took on more and more the character of bromides.
The penumbra of this condition extended beyond FGC. For instance, Pendle Hill began publishing pamphlets in 1934; but it took thirty four more years and 160 pamphlets before it issued a title on Fox. (Brinton: 1968)
It wasn’t until after World War Two that a few cracks began to appear in the seamless, smug and apparently impenetrable facade of this rickety and largely empty intellectual edifice.
But of course, there were exceptions to this generalization. The most interesting of these, for our purposes here, are those I lump together (again unfairly to them, but for the economy of presentation), as the “Three Bs and a C”: Brinton, Barbour, Benson & Cadbury. (Sounds like a great name for a high-end PR agency or an old-money wealth-preservation investment firm, one that advertises on public radio.)
The first “B” is Howard Brinton, who was honored by many in his lifetime, and who looms ever larger as my own studies of liberal Quakerism in the past century continue. With deep roots in Quaker Chester County, Pennsylvania, he journeyed across the country, from Canada to Carolina to California and back. He likewise moved across the Quaker landscape of his time, from Quietist to liberal to evangelical, touching all the bases and seeing clearly what was going on in each quarter. His memoir/essay, “Friends for Seventy-Five years,” remains in my view a classic – and classically rare – example of a Friend calmly and incisively speaking truth to and about other Friends. (Brinton:1960)
A year earlier he had wittily skewered liberal Quaker anti-intellectualism in a Friends Journal essay on “The Place of Quakerism in Modern Christian Thought”:
“I am using the words ‘Christian thought’ in my title, instead of ‘Christian theology,’” he wrote, “because, while many Friends shy away from theology, we do not, or at least we do not profess to, shy away from thought. Yet the word “theology” means simply thinking or reasoning about God, and I am sure that most of us can hardly avoid some thinking about man’s greatest object of thought.” (Brinton 1960: 20).
In 1936, when Howard returned East with his wife Anna to direct Pendle Hill, he brought to the task a breadth of information, a scholar’s discipline, a depth of mystical spirituality, and a quiet honesty of expression that was unequaled there, or in few other places, in his time or since. I don’t think it is a coincidence that when Pendle Hill finally did publish a pamphlet on “The Religion of George Fox,” Brinton wrote it.
But before that, Brinton had published Friends for 300 Years in time for the Friends World Conference of 1952. The book was a tour de force, and remains remarkably untarnished by the half century since. With an update chapter or two, it can and should be reissued as the best American guide to Friends for 350 years.
Brinton had been a student of Rufus Jones at Haverford. Jones, of course, was the principal exponent of the mystical view of Fox and early Quakerism. (Jones: 1925,1930) Jones’s role in this is well-known enough that I will not dwell on it, except to note that in the FGC liberal stream, his influence is by no means as apparent as the standard histories suggest. On reflection, though, this is not as surprising as it might seem at first glance: Jones only appeared at FGC conferences twice, rarely published in its organ, Friends Intelligencer, and focused much of his institutional work on the Orthodox yearly meetings.
In my studies, not until the emergence of Howard Brinton does Jones’s mystical approach begin to be very visible. there. And Brinton had learned from Rufus’s critics as well, and his mysticism was more nuanced. He argued that Quakerism was a “group mys-ticism, grounded in Christian concepts. (xiii), and with evangel-istic, rationalist and humanitarian aspects as well. But for him, the Quaker balance of these elements was not equality: “The mystical,” he insisted, “is basic.” (203) While devoting much space to Fox, Brinton’s sketch of early Quakerism put Fox firmly in the context of the movement, not as some solo creator ex nihilo. Brinton also renewed Robert Barclay’s insistence that Quakerism was a third form of Christianity, neither Catholic or Protestant. (x-xiii)
Further, in the closing pages of the book Brinton presents a modulated but very trenchant critique of the reigning skeptic-humanist ethos of the FGC stream: “too great an emphasis on ratio-nalism,” he noted, “results in a cold, intellectual religion which appeals only to the few; too engrossing a devotion to the social gospel results in a religion which, in improving the outer envir-onment. ignores defects of the inner life which cause the outer disorder.” (203)
He also predicted that “Signs are now apparent in the Society of Friends that what has been called the modernistic period is drawing to an end.” (Brinton: 1952, 203, 201) It was to take a couple more decades for this shift to come about, but he was basic-ally right. (I regret that I can’t do more here than hint at the lasting value of Brinton’s example of scholarship, plain speaking, and spiritual depth; fortunately, our Friend Anthony Manousos is at work on a full-fledged biography of Howard and Anna, and I look forward eagerly to reading it.)
The next of our “Bs” is Hugh Barbour, whose major work, The Quakers in Puritan England, again challenged the bland anti-intellectualism of the Age of Amnesia, and advanced the work of a group of Friends who saw opportunities to meld the Society into the burgeoning Mainline alliance that was coalescing into the national and world councils of churches. But to cement this connection, which included both FGC, Canadian, and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, te Yale-educated Barbour took a very different tack than Barclay-Brinton. He emphasized the continuities and parallels between early Friends and their Puritan counterparts, the ancestors of the Mainline. “Both groups,” he wrote, “actually stemmed from the same traditions, and most of their crucial doctrines were the same.” Their differences were more matters of “mood and method.” (Barbour: 135)
Hugh’s book made some good points–of course early Friends were in many respects products of their times. Yet his analysis has not worn well, at least for me: if Friends were only Puritans in broadbrims and bonnets, why the fierce and unremitting opposition between the two groups? And can we really think a Puritan doctrine like predestination, which Friends vehemently condemned, as not somehow “crucial”?
This thesis had already been undermined in the late 1930s, by an unfairly neglected scholar, Rachel Hadley King, whose doctorate was also from Yale. Based on a careful examination of Fox’s formative writings, she concluded that ‘Fox’s repudiation of Puritanism is not a repudiation of merely superficial details, but a denial of the fundamental Calvinistic assumption of the bondage of the human will and the complete depravity of human nature.” (Hadley: 43)
There is an unfortunate slighting of history in this accommodating Quakers-as-Puritans view. As the British scholar Barry Reay remarked, “When reading such work one could even be forgiven for forgetting that there was, after all, a revolution in the middle of the seventeenth century, and that the Quakers were a product of that revolution.”(Reay: 3). I believe Douglas Gwyn (Gwyn:1984) Melvin Endy has also made a very effective critique of this position, and am persuaded that, despite the surface and cultural similarities, Quakerism and Puritanism were two very different animals. (Endy: 1999)
These theological/historical doubts have been reinforced by the record of recent history: the Protestant Mainline may have seemed the wave of the future in the fifties, but is in a state of near-collapse today. It now offers Friends more of a cautionary tale about the perils of assimilation than a rejuvenating pathway into some notional Protestant “mainstream..”
Contra Barbour, I believe it is the discontinuities between liberal Quakerism and mainstream Protestantism that are more the sources of our vitality, and they are what will enable us to thrive despite the Mainline’s collapse. Rachel Hadley King, for instance, discovered in her studies that, as she put it with some consternation, “Fox’s central position can be held without reference to historical Christianity. His theory that the universal saving light within is the only teacher and authority is too general to be specifically Christian.” (King: 161) Lots of what are derisively called “Universalist” Friends have noticed this too; but she wrote that in 1940.
Of course, this extended debate with Hugh Barbour’s work only shows the rare quality of his scholarship and how far beyond the age of amnesia he had advanced. Would that there had been a few more scholars prepared and interested enough to take him on a generation earlier and from within the liberal stream, we would all have been better off.
But such scholars and thinkers were all too few, which brings me to the “C” on this list, and the sparkling figure of Henry Cadbury. His role in pointing beyond the anti-intellectual liberal ramparts was more muted and subtle, and I’ll focus here on what seems to me his primary contribution, the recovery of the substance of Fox’s ‘Book of Miracles,’ first published in 1948. This extraordinary feat of scholarly detective work tentatively lifted the curtain on two features of Fox long neglected by liberals (and others): first, the plentiful presence of the miraculous in his early career, and second, his clear proclivity, along with his editors to alter, rewrite, and to speak bluntly from my background as a journalist, to falsify the early Quaker record for public relations purposes.
Cadbury was not the only one interested in the miracle book: we recall that John W. Graham, in his discussion of Fox’s “psychic” experiences, mentioned this book, noting it had been suppressed and lost. Rufus Jones, in his Introduction to Cadbury’s edition, rightly called this project “a unique piece of critical reconstruction work of a very high order.”(Cadbury: ix) But Rufus barely noticed the early editors’ effort to “tone down” Fox’s early effusions, and then psychologized the miracles to bring them within the orbit of respectability. (For that matter, the Evangelical scholar Paul Anderson seems almost as uncomfortable, even embarrassed by the miracles in his Preface to the new edition published in 2000.)
Beyond this project, Cadbury was a model scholar, and showed that careful study of Quaker history and origins could yield useful and instructive material for reflection. But he was also very much part of the “Quaker establishment,” and his style was not calculated to rock any boats.
Our third “B,” Lewis Benson, attempted to mount a frontal attack on the liberal edifice, through a detailed study of Fox’s available writings, in his book, Catholic Quakerism: A Vision for All Men, (Benson: 1966), and by starting what was to be a reforming order within the Society, the New Foundation Fellowship. He contended that the original Quaker vision and thrust was aimed at appealing to all men, and bringing them into a communal, dialogical relationship with Christ, through accountable communities led directly by Christ’s spirit.
Many liberal Friends have listened to Benson or one of his diminishing band of disciples at one time or another and found a certain appeal in this message, and benefitted in particular from Benson’s impartially stinging critique of the various streams of modern American Quakerism, evangelical as well as liberal. But in practice the New Foundation has been unable to move much beyond critique, and has remained a tiny sect-within-a-sect, its influence marginal at best.
All these figures were shining exceptions to the vacuousness of most liberal Quaker religious thinking of the period, but they were exceptions to a rule.
Given this rule, can we be surprised that the two most popular portraits of Fox in these years –and since– were those sketched not by scholars, but by a non-Quaker songwriter and a popular novelist? The composer was Sydney Carter, whose “George Fox Song” appeared in 1964 and has become a standard. It’s the song sung with the most enthusiasm in the Quaker meetings and gatherings I typically attend, echoing lustily (well, as lustily as liberal singing gets) in our halls. And to do it justice, there’s a much better quality of theology crammed into its crisp verses than in most FGC pamphlets.
The novelist was the recently departed Jan de Hartog in his big book, The Peaceable Kingdom, published in 1971. The first half of this sprawling work is set in and around Swarthmoor Hall and Lancashire, and stars none other than George Fox and Margaret Fell.
I loved this book, it’s still a great read, and I accept de Hartog’s careful opening caveat invoking “the novelist’s prerogative of being inspired by historical facts rather than governed by them.”
Nonetheless, his George Fox was a thoroughly modern liberal Friend, with very little of Jesus or the memorized Bible in him, which was doubtless part of why I liked it back then. At their first meeting, his Fox explains his gospel to a flummoxed Margaret Fell thus: “‘All men and all women have that of God in them, which will respond when appealed to by that of God in myself.’” William Birdsall and Jesse Holmes could hardly have said it better. (de Hartog: 23)
Then, when the haughty Mistress Fell bridles at his forwardness, Fox instructs her in the proper worship techniques, this time bringing in the latest mid-twentieth century meditation techniques. He says:
“‘Come, thou art, in thy heart, yearning for the experience.’
“‘Which experience, for God’s sake?’
“‘The experience of the presence of God. Come, sit with me. Be still; listen to the voice of God within thee, Thou wilt hear Him, thou wilt feel Him rise within thee, if only thou wilt set Him free.’
“His obvious sincerity made her hesitate; then she decided she would give him this one chance. She sat down again. ‘Now, then. What am I supposed to do?’
“‘Relax thy body as well as thy mind. Put thy feet together, like this. Settle thy body comfortably, so it will have no cause for restlessness. Put thy hands in thy lap.’
“She found herself obeying his instructions.
“‘Now put thy mind at rest. Close out all thoughts.’
“She tried, and discovered she had no thoughts, only awareness . . .
“‘Be still,’ he whispered, as if in reverence, ‘silence the small thoughts that babble in thy mind. . . .’
[After a few moments . . . .]
“…She cleared her throat and smoothed her skirt; he looked at her as if she had been miles away. ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Fox,’ she said, ‘I’m afraid I’m no good at this.. . . .’” (Ibid: 28)
Isn’t this fun? It’s almost surprising that he doesn’t have her take the lotus position. But I could hardly put the book down; de Hartog seemed incapable of writing a dull page. For that matter, who can now miss the obvious undertone of sexual tension here?
No wonder that while it was widely read, The Peaceable Kingdom was also widely panned, especially by some old-line Quakers in the Philadelphia area. (I mean, good heavens–Margaret Fell, a married woman, thinking lustful thoughts about George Fox?? How would you fit that into a sedate memorial pageant at Cape May?).
A few years ago, de Hartog told a Houston Friend, Ann Sieber, who was writing a profile of him that “when The Peaceable Kingdom was published, he was likened by the Quaker establishment to a friendly dog that comes uninvited to a family picnic – well-intentioned enough, but still capable of knocking all the carefully prepared food onto the floor with a sweep of the tail.” (Sieber: 25)
Jan was being generous in that description. I know some Philadelphia neo-Orthodox Friends who still can’t discuss The Peaceable Kingdom without turning red in the face and showing signs of apoplexy. And it’s not hard to see why: a hundred or a thousand people have read of de Hartog’s rollicking, bigger than life liberal Fox for every one who searched out their querulous caviling about it in Quaker Religious Thought.
But there’s one other thing to note about de Hartog’s opus. “In his lectures on Quaker history,” Ann Sieber reports, “Jan has waged a sly campaign to shift the credit for much of Quaker faith and practice from Fox to Fell.” (Sieber: 40); and she also notes that in The Peaceable Kingdom it is Margaret Fell who is by far a more fully-developed character, while Fox remains something of a mystical wraith.
Jan was pointing toward a feminist reinterpretation of this history, one that scholars began fleshing out some years later. Here was another signal that the humanist phase of the liberal Age of Amnesia was beginning to show signs of strain, under an accumulating series of external pressures. Some of these were:
- the general “slough of despond” that many activist Friends, like others, fell into after the end of the Sixties and the Vietnam War;
- the rise of feminist scholarship, with its willingness to dig up and speak about aspects of our early history previously overlooked;
- the emergence and acceptance of lesbians and gays in the liberal stream; which was followed soon after by
- the impact of the AIDS epidemic, which left many in the FGC liberal constituency, straight and gay, facing a choice between yielding to despair or digging deep into spiritual resources of their tradition that had been neglected or taken for granted.
A comprehensive survey of current scholarship is well beyond my competence–not to mention your patience–but it seems evident to me that there has been a lot of it, and in addition the liberal constituency has felt strong currents of spiritual renewal and deepening in recent years, for which I am grateful. It has greatly reassured me, and greatly confounded others, to see that the liberal stream, despite its paucity of and superficiality of thought, was still vouchsafed the spiritual resources to survive its own folly and even flourish in spite of it. I guess with God all things truly are possible, even if many of us still don’t believe in Him. Or Her.
On the intellectual front of this renewal, women and outsiders seem to have been some of the chief contributors. Here I am reminded of Howard Brinton’s comment that he expected the revival of American Quakerism to come from the margins, “and not by the old stock which is so often decaying at the root.” (Le Shana: 147) A few of these have had the comfort of stable academic appointments.
But for others, the vocation of the scholar of Quakerism within the liberal Quaker fold has been marked by penury, neglect and indifference. I well remember, while on the Pendle Hill staff, the plight of Douglas Gwyn, already an established, productive scholar who had brought keen insight to many vexed Quaker issues. He had to mop floors and cut grass to earn his keep there, while haunting the Friends Historical Library in his spare hours, and writing important new books–for the publication of which Pendle Hill to its shame paid him not a dime. I not only admired his devotion; I was humbled by his habitual cheerfulness despite all. Fortunately, Doug has gone on to better things, but he had to leave the country to do it, at Woodbrooke. But he, and we, deserved better.
But God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust, and Friends have been much favored in the current generation of scholars. I want to pay special tribute to two, whose work bears directly on our subject, and who are also among my personal heroes:
First, Larry Ingle: To me, it was a moral as well as a historiographical landmark that while researching something else, Larry took the time to notice how few of the original records of the Great Separation of 1827 had ever been carefully and dispassionately examined, even by those who had written books about it. But instead of covering this up, he saw a historian’s target of opportunity and went for it, producing Quakers In Conflict. And then he did this a second time when he uncovered equal, and much less forgivable neglect of large blocks of original sources by and about Fox, and produced in First Among Friends the first scholarly biography of Fox in 300 years.
What a refreshing and productive contrast to the diffidence of so much of the Quaker historical establishment. In and around Philadelphia I have so often heard excuses about family sensitivities and institutional interests as reasons for not digging into and writing candidly about the lives and works, the lights and shadows of some of the major figures and forces in the Society in the past century. (Thank goodness Anthony Manousos – another outsider–is going ahead with his work on the Brintons, regardless of what some folks in London or Philadelphia might think.)
And among the newest and best of these contributors is the other writer I want to recognize, Meredith Baldwin Weddle. Her still-new book, Walking in the Way of Peace, did not shrink from exposing the traditional accounts of the Rhode Island Quaker government’s neutrality in King Philip’s War of 1765, as the outright falsehoods that they largely were. (Among these discredited accounts, by the way, was one that I published in 1975.)
Why does Weddle’s work matter? Because Rhode Island was the first place in which Friends rose from powerlessness to sit in the seats of civic power. They were thus the first Friends called upon to put what we now call the Peace Testimony into practice as “magistrates.” Weddle showed that, far from being neutral and pacifistic, as the traditional accounts said, they showed their Quakerism first by enacting the first provision for conscientious objectors; and then, by affirming the passage in Romans 13 that the magistrate “does not bear the sword in vain,” and joined a bloody successful war on the Indians.
If this seems an obvious contradiction, let me hasten to point out, as does Weddle, that the 1660 Peace Declaration likewise affirmed the same passage from Romans, without attempting to resolve the seeming tension between it and the oft-quoted insistence that “we [Friends] utterly deny all outward wars and fightings . . . .”
What I’m trying to express here is not only admiration for skillful pioneering historical scholarship. The work of Larry Ingle and Meredith Weddle, both outsiders to the “root stock,” along with others like them, has significant moral weight. It enables us better to see and speak the complex truth about the era of Fox and the First Publishers, tat formative part of our communal past, as we struggle very concretely to figure out how to bear a Friends peace witness today, in a time of renewed and seemingly endless war.
I know this from the experience of conducting numerous workshops and retreats with mostly liberal Friends on exactly this vexed question. Let me itemize some of the things Ingle and Weddle permit me to bring into workshops and retreats, items which were little known or commonly denied even as recently as the Gulf War, never mind Vietnam or the two world wars:
First, that the “canonical” Peace Testimony of 1660 was preceded by lots of Quaker involvement in military.
Second, that the 1660 Declaration was more of an emergency stopgap than a grand manifesto.
Third, that it was by no means immediately or universally accepted among Friends.
Fourth, that in any case, the full text is, as we have just seen, far more ambiguous than the few oft-repeated excerpts from it indicate.
Fifth, that its image of peace, and “program” for attaining it, were worlds away from the media-driven activism of today’s public radio-obsessed liberal Quakers.
Sixth, and finally, that Fox was much more comfortable with official violence (as long as it wasn’t aimed at Friends) than we have long been led to believe.
These disclosures might have been regarded a treasonous by many liberal Friends who knew only the aphoristic amnesiac version. But I can tell you that in the world of 2002, to learn that earlier Friends, even Fox, struggled over their witness and its ambiguities is actually comforting to many. If it deprives us of our knee-jerk answers, it puts us in some very good company, ready as Paul says to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling.” And yet many of my hearers would not believe me now, if I didn’t have the chapter and verse, produced by some of the best of today’s scholars, to back it up.
The best of Quaker scholarly work is also aimed at another, broader target: the persisting liberal Age of Amnesia, which is still very much with us. Here there have been a few promising signs. One came when FGC observed its centennial in 2000. (Parenthetically, the event’s planners were almost finished with their work when I stumbled upon a report that the body had celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, not in 1950, but in 1942, counting from when the first informal FGC was held, and not when the body became “official.” Oh well, we said, after a good laugh. Whatever.)
On and around the centennial there were some useful opening discussions of where FGC had come from, its founding assumptions and affirmations, and where it might be headed. But on the other hand, when the centennial planners, flush with the success of their observance, asked to be made an ongoing FGC subcommittee on history and records to continue this process of self-reflection, the notion was unceremoniously killed by the Executive Committee. Not to put too fine a point on it, at the top in FGC, history is still bunk.
Thus, despite the availability of a remarkable body of new scholarly work, the awakening from the long liberal slumber has as yet been fitful at best. Or at least it was until what earlier elders would have euphemized as the recent worldly tumults and commotions gave us all a good traumatic shaking. Since those shocks, along with buildings and airliners, many of our received Quaker shibboleths have come tumbling down as well.
As we paw through the rubble, one big item overdue for reassessment and reconstruction is our liberal image of George Fox: Let me suggest some initial queries that might usefully be part of this process:
What shall we do with his much more nuanced – or was it merely confused – thinking about war and peace?
Are we ready to grapple with his mix of radical and conservative social ideas, and not only his stubborn individualism?
How about sorting out his theology? (Contrary to my friend Larry Ingle, I persist in believing that he had one – or more likely, several.)
Or his by-now-undeniable penchant for rewriting his and the movement’s early history?
And where shall we put his evident sense of the miraculous, and “psychic” experiences?
(Actually, this last may not be as big a challenge for FGC, where in our annual Gatherings we already consider past lives, Wicca, and the prospect of UFO aliens among us, not to mention workshops for non-theist Friends. The mix of mystics, psychics and skeptics remains alive and well in this still vital liberal stronghold.)
Fortunately, if and when we sleepers do awake, there are many new, and some not so new, resources of undoubted excellence available to assist us, and I expect to see more coming forth. I can hardly overestimate their potential value for the work of equipping the saints for the new fronts of the Lamb’s War that are opening before us.
Many of the authors of these works are in this room. As an amateur among professionals, a relative dabbler among adepts – but most of all as one Friend among others seeking to make some faithful sense of a difficult and disorienting time – my debt to you is incalculable. As the months and years unfold, many another Friend will be equally beholden to you as well.
Indeed, what “George Fox” said in closing to Isaac Post in 1851, I can only repeat to you now, but slightly paraphrased; ours, he declared,
“must be a life ever on the watch, ready to examine whatever draws (our) attention, and if selfishness is sufficiently subdued, and prepossessions banished from the mind, then with an honest purpose of heart . . . a judgment will be formed that will elevate and prepare the mind for advancement while in the body . . . .”
Thus, along with that spirit, I bow to you in gratitude. My prayer is that you will have courage in tackling the unasked and hitherto unaskable questions, fortitude in your research, and clarity and conciseness in your writing. I believe that more than our progress, indeed our health and survival as a people of God may depend upon it
In the words of a new verse for Sydney Carter’s song I heard in North Carolina just this summer:
With our old bumper stickers & our ragged Birkenstocks
We can still walk in the glory of the light like Fox.
WORKS CITED OR CONSULTED
—————-, “The Story of the Conference,” Supplement to “Friends’ Intelligencer,”Eighth Month (August) 2, 1924.
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