H. Larry Ingle
Lately, I have come to see Whittaker Chambers as one of the most fascinating Quakers in the middle of the 20th century. He was also the member of the American Communist Party for about thirteen years, from 1925 to 1938. He joined the rural Pipe Creek Meeting, a part of the Hicksite Baltimore Yearly Meeting in 1943. (“Hicksites” was the nickname for the separatists, known as “tolerants” or “liberals,” who divided from the “Orthodox” in 1827 and 1828.) (1) The fact that he is virtually unknown as a Friend to most moderns, including Quakers, however, will serve to illustrate my problem. Why is he so unknown? That is the central question I want to address.
If one ponders that question, it will soon be clear that a person is unknown or forgotten either because she did little of note or because memory of her was glossed over, ignored, even suppressed, by others. There is one more important point that should be made and made strongly and firmly: Chambers turned out to have been right in the matter that brought him to public attention in the first place–his 1948 testimony against another Communist and State Department official, Alger Hiss, who spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s–and those who long defended Hiss, including Friends, were wrong. This outcome is certainly noteworthy, but it too is little noted.
Whittaker Chambers, who lived from 1901 to 1961, certainly did something and certainly created waves that still ripple. Never graduating from college, he was a dumpy looking fellow, dressed in wrinkled, rumpled suits; he swallowed his words, seemed to have no sense of humor, and was certainly not very outgoing. A talented writer, however, he was employed as a writer-editor by Time Magazine in its 1940s heyday.
This unprepossessing person came to public notice when he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities Committee on August 3, 1948, that a prominent State Department bureaucrat in the 1930s, Alger Hiss, graduate of the John Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, was a Communist who purloined documents from the State Department; he passed them along to Chambers, the Friend testified, who took them to New York, where they were sent on to Moscow. It was not illegal in 1948 to be a Communist, and the statute of limitations had expired on espionage, so Hiss could not be prosecuted for the activities that Chambers testified about. But as 1948 was a presidential election year, Chambers’s testimony was politically explosive for the Democratic Truman administration. So in 1949, it charged Hiss with lying under oath when he denied giving Chambers unauthorized documents. Tried in federal court in New York, his trial ended in a hung jury, whereupon he faced a second trial and another jury under a different judge, was convicted of perjury on January 21, 1950, and sentenced to five years in federal prison. Chambers’s testimony had been legally validated even if it proved to be politically and explosively challenged. (2)
Two years later, Chambers published a better than 800-page memoir, Witness, that quickly became a classic bestseller and a brilliant work of its genre; it was, and is, compelling reading indeed. Quakers might well place it on the same shelf right beside other journals from their fellow believers from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, one of the few from the last hundred years. In Witness, Chambers carried on a dialogue with experience in a way that revealed how God had dealt with him, as his life twisted and turned through and around the obstacles he faced. In his book, Chambers’s mystical religious faith, expressed outwardly in Quakerism, explained to his satisfaction what he believed lay at the base of his life. As a Quaker journal, it probably sold more copies than any of the others, with the possible exception of Friends principal founder George Fox’s Journal, which of course had more than a 250-year headstart on his. (3)
Observers at the time and later might have thought that Quakers would have gushed over the book and taken it and its author to heart. Chambers’s testimonial to his Quakerism was as convincing to a reader as his statements about Hiss’s perjury at the second jury trial. On page five of his Introduction, which he entitled “Letter to My Children,” he asserted that “I was a witness,” not “a witness against something” but “a witness for something”: “a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.” If that is not a telling, succinct statement of the essence of Quakerism, I have never seen one. (4) Reading it, I think immediately of the query still used among Friends in Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association, “Do all aspects of your life bear the same witness?”
Chambers did not come to Friends because of their social testimonies, no matter how important they might be. “I was not seeking ethics,” he stated, “I was seeking God.” In fact, he held back in asking for membership because he was afraid that his inability to embrace pacifism fully would be a strike against him when he applied; as a fierce anti-Communist, he believed Communism was so monstrously evil that it would conceivably have to be resisted by force. This stance would “forever bar . . . me from the peace within which it was my pathos to crave, but not my right to share.” Earlier in his search, believing himself closed off from Friends, he listened to two Episcopal friends who convinced him in 1940 to go to vespers at the unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. He was confirmed and baptized in that church on September 26, 1940, about a year and a half after he had taken a job as a book reviewer at Time magazine. (5)
Chambers found the service at the altar to be solemn, but the little group, mostly older folk, he worshipped with at night “seemed less like the bearers of those glad tidings that had once stirred and transformed men’s souls than survivors of a spiritual catastrophe.” What he was looking for, clearly, was what that second generation William Penn called “Primitive Christianity Revived” and a place he could encounter God’s spirit silence: “the silence of Quaker worship continued to reach out and draw me irresistibly to it.” It is not clear why he sensed this drawing, for he had never attended a meeting of Friends. His father’s mother, his grandmother, had told him stories about the rural Quaker meeting in Pennsylvania that she had attended after the Civil War, but he had never been to one. And his Chambers surname dotted Quaker history. At this point, still formally an Episcopalian, he picked up Quaker founder George Fox’s Journal, the first Quaker book he had ever opened.
It immediately spoke to his condition. “It summoned me,” he wrote, “to know the Inward Light, that of God within myself, as within all other men without exception.” It called him to ”a simplicity of spirit whose first commandment is compassion.” And as to his qualms about pacifism, he realized that the same spirit, “if it truly stirs, never brings peace, but always brings a sword.” He knew Fox “as if we had spoken face to face.” He was “a man of force,” a man of the people, whether they were herding sheep, suffering doggedly, or in stinking prisons, experiencing bloody beatings.
So Chambers betook himself to a Wednesday evening meeting at the Orthodox 20th Street Meetinghouse in Manhattan, one led by the charismatic Arthur Burke. All we know about the time was that it was after he was confirmed into the Episcopal Church but before he joined Friends. These meetings were among, he testified, the “decisive experiences of my life.” Occasionally the worshippers and God’s present spirit made the meetings so alive that they seemed to ebb and flow with great pulsations, throbbing with palpable transcendent life. Once Burke explained, in words that Chambers probably failed to recognize as traditional Quaker language, “This meeting has had a divine covering.” He quoted Scottish Friend Robert Barclay, that when he felt this secret power “I gave way unto it, [and] I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.” After such unified collective experiences, Chambers told himself and recorded in his memoir, “I was in fact, though not yet in name, a Quaker.”
He only had to find a way to seal this convincement. That was not difficult. The Chambers family lived on a farm near Westminster, Maryland, and about a dozen miles away, near Union Bridge, was a small Hicksite Friends meeting called Pipe Creek, where he and his nearly nine-year old daughter drove one summer Sunday morning. The meeting place stood on top of slight rise, surrounded by bushes and trees with a graveyard behind.
The meeting was small, probably about six or so Friends, and silent that morning. The longest spider web they had ever seen looped from wall to wall, and they watched it swaying in the slight breeze that came in through the two open doors and windows. Father Chambers, at least, learned that morning the meaning of the 17th century Quaker phrase, “in the silence of the creature” and gave thanks to God that he had come home. On the way home, he asked Ellen what she had done during the silence, and she said that she had watched the spider web drift in the air; she wanted to know what they others were doing, and her father said they were listening for the voice of God. Did they hear it, she wanted to know? He thought for a moment, perhaps remembering the galvanizing experiences he had had at 20th Street meeting, and replied, “No, I am afraid not that time.” (6)
The family of four, Whittaker, Esther, Ellen, and son John, asked to join the meeting and were admitted on August 17, 1943. They were presently taking an active role in the small group, over the next five years one or all appointed to be representatives to the regional quarterly meeting. (7) For Chambers himself, the meeting and his membership with it were primary, judging from the attention he gave it in Witness; there he reiterated its appeal. When he sought to document how close the Hisses and the Chamberses were in the 1930s, he instanced the fact that both appreciated “the simplicity inherent in the Quaker way of life” and “the rejection of the pursuit of pleasure as an end in life.” Both families similarly distrusted “materialism in its commonest forms of success and comfort.” (Though not a Quaker, Priscilla Hiss had gone to Bryn Mawr College, founded by Orthodox Friends, and she and her husband used the plain language “thee” and “thy” at home when they conversed with each other.)
Chambers believed that turning his back on Communism and embracing capitalism, as he explained dramatically in his memoir, meant “leaving the winning world for the losing world,” the world destined for defeat in the world’s coming revolutionary conflict. Quakerism offered him a faith that put intrinsic human values above material ones. It was no wonder that he valued simplicity so much–it formed the basis of his world. He told a secular friend that when he joined the meeting he found “an experience I have been seeking all my life. To sit in silence with my children beside me and our friends about me is perhaps more than I have any right to expect in life. And yet I have always wanted goodness, never evil.” (8)
In fact, Chambers emphasized that he had always abhorred war, insisting that he was attracted to Communism back in the 1920s because he believed that it offered a solution to the problem of war. Yet the modern Quakers at Pipe Creek did not require him to abjure all war but gave him the right to determine his stance in any future conflict by examining his conscience. He explored old Quaker writers, such as Rhode Islander Job Scott from the 18th century, who sought to encourage Friends not to forget the old testimonies about apparel, tithing, and language, not in and of themselves, but as ways to bear a silent and living testimony, witnessing to the modern world that what it would “hold dear and indispensable are at the root of its despair.”
In this sense the rumpled suit he often wore seemed to symbolize his Quaker plainness and stood as a judgment against superfluity. Before long, he realized that once he had truly been reached by the life of Quakerism, he “felt a completion such a I had never known before–an adulthood, a maturity, that marked off the [previous] forty years of my life as a childhood. . . . I could never be a complete man without God.” This new, totally reinvigorated sense of renewal aroused his compassion without being rooted in any kind of smugness or self-righteousness when it came to other people. He was a changed person indeed. (9)
Chambers’s convincement and uniting with Friends, as he described them in his memoir, read so convincingly that an outsider or observer looking back now would expect other Quakers to have rushed to embrace and welcome their new fellow believer. How wrong that would be. The Hicksite periodical, Friends Intelligencer, which circulated among Friends with whom Pipe Creek Meeting was affiliated, commented in May 1949 on the “alleged membership” of Chambers in a Quaker meeting. Having received queries from its readers regarding Chambers’s statement that “being a Quaker, he did not want to hurt anybody,” the editor confessed to having no more information than had appeared in the secular press. But in the spirit of inclusiveness, Chambers was a offered a tepid endorsement: “Friends will, we hope, consider him one of theirs in the community of seekers after truth and perfection.”
This brief editorial comment was the closest any Friend came to siding publicly with Chambers after his testimony revealing the presence of Communists within the United States government. (10) That the case as it developed would become the touchstone of the conflict between liberals and conservatives in the late 1940s and 1950s and beyond and make Chambers a hero of the right put such Friends squarely on the liberal side politically, a spot they seemed quite content to occupy.
The same magazine all but ignored Witness when it appeared in May 1952 but it is possible to glean some assumptions of its editors if we look at it with care. It published a “review” which consisted of a meager seven lines, but was seven more than any other Quaker periodical printed. Let me present them all so readers can get their flavor directly:
“This book contains about five times the amount of material recently published in the Saturday Evening Post. As is now generally known, the story is a blending of autobiographical and political material. The present volume is likely to intensify the partisanship on both sides already present in many minds. The book contains a number of references to Friends.” (11)
Three things seem immediately clear from these four sentences: 1) the editors believed that many readers had already read portions of the book in the Saturday Evening Post, 2) the editors assumed that most alert folk among its readers were already aware of the broad outlines of the story, and 3) though containing some references to Quakers, the book was partisanly oriented and likely to intensify that partisanship.
On the other hand, the Hicksite journal could hardly ignore the best-known Quaker in the United States after former President Herbert Hoover. This was Clarence Pickett, the long-time, since 1929, executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC was the most prominent Quaker organization in the country, one that had just, in 1947, received the Nobel Peace Prize in the name of all Quakers from the hand of the Norwegian king. Pickett, born in Illinois but growing up in Kansas among programmed Orthodox Quakers, went to William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and then to Harford Theological Seminary in Connecticut. He served as pastor in Toronto and Oskaloosa and then lived in Richmond, Indiana, the home of Five Years Meeting, the umbrella organization for programmed Friends. There he worked for nine years as a Quaker bureaucrat and Earlham College professor.
As AFSC executive, he lived in the Philadelphia area and headed up the group’s increasingly multifaceted activities –relief work, both international and domestic, racial relations, peace education, labor unions, housing, and the like–many of them bringing him into close contact with the Roosevelt family in the White House. He and his biographer, Lawrence Miller, liked to stress his friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, liberal wife of the liberal President.
Pickett was clearly a man of broad influence and contacts well beyond the somewhat narrow confines of the Society of Friends. In 1956, a national Quaker publication assessed him “as probably the best known and widely acclaimed leader in the Quaker field at present.” In myriad ways when he spoke or acted, many Friends naturally followed his lead. (12)
Pickett was also involved directly in the Chambers-Hiss matter. He knew Hiss, who had served as speaker at AFSC’s week-long summer institutes on foreign affairs and, as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace when Chambers testified about his associations in the 1930s, had evaluated AFSC’s peace education work. Though Pickett had never met Chambers, he reached out to him after the testimony. They conferred at the Homewood Friends Meetinghouse in Baltimore, where Pickett tried to convince him to agree to draw up a joint statement with Hiss that could settle the broad issues between them without mutual libel suits.
That effort failed, and Pickett came away convinced that Chambers was a bit unstable. Then at Hiss’s second trial for perjury, Pickett, with approval from AFSC’s board, offered himself as a character witness for the defendant, a move that must have sent Chambers reeling, for he had, of course, repeated his charges of treachery and espionage for the other side. Hiss’s conviction certainly did nothing to warm relations between the two Friends, but Pickett’s testimony won warm (but privately expressed) words from the editor of the Orthodox Quaker journal, The Friend: “Thee has put thyself on the record of championing justice and true patriotism, which is good for the fame of the A.F.S.C. and the welfare of the country.” (13)
Relations between Pickett and Chambers did not improve when Witness came out either. Its publisher, Random House, naturally wanted to attract as much attention to the book as possible. They succeeded. Serialized over ten issues of the Saturday Evening Post–the cover story for its first installment delayed the usual Norman Rockwell painting, this one of leaping cheerleaders–and the main selection of June’s Book of the Month Club, the book immediately corralled public attention. Excerpts were even read over the radio. Saturday Review, the nation’s premier book review, featured the book on its cover for May 24, with better than a six-page series of reviews from a stellar panel of commentators, with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., probably the nation’s foremost liberal intellectual heading it up; Richard Nixon, Senator from California and like Chambers a Quaker, was the only Republican among the five reviewers. Of them, only Schlesinger noted that Chambers had become a Friend, twice, but both times only in passing; Nixon, who might have been expected to comment on his Friend’s discovery, referred only to the fact that the author had found a non-specific “counter-faith,” but his reference remained so generic that he did not name its meeting place. (14)
Three weeks later a boxed letter to Saturday Review from Pickett appeared. Not a review, it was even more fundamental, questioning whether Chambers understood his new faith, Quakerism, theologically. Coming as it did from a Quaker as prestigious and well known as Pickett, it had the effect at least of warning readers that they should not take Chambers’s views of Quakerism seriously, and at most suggesting to Friends that he was not, as far as theology was concerned, a real Quaker regardless of his membership. (Such questioning of another’s theology, however common in other Christian groups, was by then rare indeed among Hicksite Friends, particularly those who lived in the east; that a secular magazine carried it, and put it inside a box to draw readers’ attention, gives the entire affair a more powerful imprimatur.)
The letter harked back to a March 8, 1948, cover story for Time that senior editor Chambers had written, on Union Theological Seminary’s Reinhold Niebuhr. The story explored Niebuhr’s “neo-orthodoxy,” then an increasingly popular and much discussed theology among Protestant Christians. It argued that, contrary to the position taken by liberal Christians, God was not so much immanent in human affairs as separated and totally apart from them. Only when God chose to intervene, by grace, with humans were they able to experience the divine presence; God was totally transcendent and different from human creatures and their relationship was a one-way affair, determined by the divine will, which tended to be inscrutable.
Growing out of Calvinism, this theology represented the kind of thing that the earliest Quakers had reacted strongly against. Moreover, it had clear political dimensions: Niebuhr had once been an active pacifist but broke ranks and became a foreign policy “realist”, supporting the U.S. against Germany and Japan in World War II, then afterward backed Cold War anti-communism and even the development of nuclear weapons. Both Niebuhr’s politics and his theology were targets of the ire of liberal pacifist Christians like Pickett.
Chambers’s attendance at Quaker meetings for worship, Pickett conceded, had brought him “moments of real peace and enlightenment.” This was an achievement he applauded. But then, taking on a bit of a hectoring tone, Pickett lectured Time’s author that he had followed neo-orthodox thinkers so far that he had not fully understood Quakers. Pickett insisted that Friends found God within themselves, that the Inward Light, the inner voice, was there for them at any time. “For the Quaker, the discovery of God is an inward experience. He is not far from any of us at any time, and the constant and immediate recognition of His presence is the source of both peace and social concern.”
In his final comment, Pickett called into question all the positive statements that permeated Witness about the meaningfulness of Quakerism to its author: “This all leaves one feeling that religious assurance is yet to come to this troubled spirit, and that the race with catastrophe [for him] is not over.” To drive this conclusion home for Friends, within days the Hicksite Friends Intelligencer, reprinted the above on its opening page for Friends to ponder when they considered Chambers’s experiences with his faith. And a few days later, Senator Nixon passed along the intelligence to Chambers that Pickett had “denounced” him for misrepresenting Quakers.
It is impossible to tell for sure how Pickett and his many Friends reacted to the overall Hiss-Chambers case with its long aftermath, but it does seem significant that neither Chambers nor Hiss–or for that matter, even Nixon–is mentioned in Pickett’s memoir, possibly because Pickett considered it unimportant to the central events of his life or because he hoped people would put it all behind them, as he had evidently tried to do. (15)
Pickett certainly had a valid point about neo-orthodoxy, but his charges in a brief letter to a secular publication went too far; Saturday Review was hardly the place to open up and delve into its theological ramifications anyway. Chambers had admitted in Witness, “in many ways, the Niebuhr essay [in Time] was a statement of my own religious faith at the time.” But that did not necessarily negate his and Quakers’ experiences, the latter going back over the centuries. One could hold that God chose when to appear to people, whether waiting in silence or not, and still accurately affirm that the observant Friend had experienced God’s presence in accordance with Quakers’ beliefs. For Pickett to declare that Chambers had drifted from the Quaker position that God’s divine spirit, whether referred to as God, Christ, the Spirit, or the Inward Light, could come to worshippers was specious indeed. Chambers’s explanation of his encounters with the Christ-Spirit in Witness certainly testified that God had and could and had led him in worship, whether as an Episcopalian or a Friend.
Moreover, Quakerism had only rarely produced theologians, and Chambers did not lay claim to being one, but he could read and understand Niebuhr–not to mention his own experiences–well enough to know whether the gripping realities he sometimes encountered in silent worship were divine visitations or not. Chambers ended his Time essay on Niebuhr by quoting his subject at his unconsciously Quaker best: “You don’t get world government by drawing up a fine constitution. You get it through the process of history. You grow into it.” In other words, Niebuhr believed one learned from experience. (16) In the same fashion Friends likewise knew that they grew into truth from the experiences they insisted would lead them into all truth.
Chambers spoke little of Friends or his experiences in Quaker meetings after he published his memoir in 1952, permitting that volume to illuminate how God had dealt with him up to that time. But with some sarcasm,he could understandably take aim at Pickett and even himself on occasion. In a throwaway line in a letter to a friend, he implicitly criticized himself for using some biting language, remarking “Such language–and from a Quaker too.” But he saved his choicest witty dig for Pickett, telling the same friend, “It is recorded that at certain meetings of George Fox, the spiritual intensity was such that the very walls of the meeting vibrated. Now,” he concluded, “we have Clarence Pickett.” (17) Clearly, Chambers was not always as dour as his suits made him look.
Chambers’s biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, with apparent inadequate research in the Quaker sources, asserted that his subject “began to withdraw” from Quakerism after his daughter was denied admission in 1951 to Swarthmore College, an elite Quaker school, but no hard documentary evidence exists to support this claim. To the contrary, he was willing to be publicly identified as a Quaker even in the pages of National Review, the outspoken conservative weekly magazine that William F. Buckley, Jr., founded in 1955 to spark a respectable conservative movement in the United States. Even in the brief period in the late 1950s when he was serving as National Review’s senior editor, he was so described. (18) True, judging from his silence about Quakers after 1952 and the public buffeting he endured from Pickett, he definitely drew back from the Society, but he certainly did not renounce his membership with Pipe Creek, thus remaining a Friend.
There is one more aspect of the impact of the Chambers-Pickett relationship, relatively brief as it was, that needs mentioning and further research. As far as I have been able to glean, Friends left no record that they gave more thought to Chambers after the reviews of Witness appeared. The Hicksite weekly, Friends Intelligencer published nothing more about Chambers; like Pickett it was silent. So was its successor, Friends Journal, which began publishing in 1955. Nixon, an evangelical Friend, remained in contact and occasionally benefited from Chambers’s political advice, but their relationship differed markedly from the one either had with Pickett. Nixon, of course, was not part of the Quaker “establishment,” certainly not eastern, hardly western.
In Philadelphia, the Mecca of eastern Quakerism, the center of power revolved around Orthodox Friends, who historically took no notice of Hicksites. In 1939 writer Logan Pearsall Smith, who grew up Orthodox, described them as “stratified in social layers of increasing splendor.” They exhibited “an immense sense of social superiority” over lesser breeds like Hicksites whom they saw as “outcasts and untouchables and social pariahs.” They knew their peers almost by instinct; (19) they did not know Chambers. And with so little attention to him in their Quakerly circles, they had no way to learn of him.
Pickett’s negative opinion of Chambers percolated and spread through unprogrammed Quakers, both Orthodox and Hicksites, who by the 1940s were tending toward political liberalism and associating themselves with the Democratic Party. This affinity made them lean pro-Hiss and anti-Chambers. Larry Miller, Pickett’s biographer and a weighty Philadelphia Friend himself, publicly reaffirmed as late as 1994 that he shared his subject’s view that Hiss was telling the truth in denying Chambers’s charges. An academic from Los Angeles, Robert Ellwood, who claimed to be doing research on the Hiss-Chambers matter, wrote nearly 40 years later absolving Friends of any shame they might harbor from associating with Hiss or his wife. And a Friend from New York, George Nicklin confessed in 1995 that he had always believed Hiss was wrongly convicted. (20) From such scattered references, the sense is reinforced that Chambers was one of those “outcasts and pariahs.”
Yet — and this complicates the matter of viewing Chambers as some kind of knee-jerk conservative — judging from some of the stands he took on public issues, he was also occasionally willing to be identified with the kind of liberal views that Quakers were championing by this time. (It is not altogether clear when exactly modern Quakers, particularly those in the eastern part of the country, started gravitating toward the “left” side of the political spectrum – almost no research has gone into that question. (21) One major piece of this drift involved a change in the understanding of the peace testimony. Following the Civil War and then World War I, many Friends and yearly meetings quietly shifted from flatly refusing to take part in war because it violated God’s law, to emphasizing efforts to prevent war and maintain peace (with actual participation in war left to individual conscience). The creation of the American Friends Service Committee, the Great Depression and advent of the New Deal, and the founding of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, all helped fertilize this change from mid-19th century Whiggery and late 19th and early 20th-century Republicanism to Democracy, at least for most eastern and liberal friends.
Chambers, while an easterner and part of a Hicksite meeting, went the other way. He had certainly become a conservative–no doubt about that–but we must not forget that he converted from Communism to Quakerism, not to conservatism. And as we have seen, he did so with his eyes open; he never used the term “Hicksite,” as far as we know, but he could hardly have escaped the fact that Pipe Creek Meeting, even, especially, with its members’ use of the plain language, was among the group of Friends who had been tagged with “liberal” from their beginning. And, knowing him and his family as members of their community, Pipe Creek Friends came to them, as he said, “at once,” when he faced the onslaught of publicity accompanying his testimony against Hiss, the man other Quakers like Pickett viewed as persecuted. (22)
Some of Chambers’s political stands during the 1950s would probably have surprised Pickett, but they illustrate that he was a man of complexity and nuance. The most significant was his take on Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. McCarthy, a Roman Catholic, parlayed Chambers’s testimony about Hiss into partisan charges that the Democratic Party was the party of traitors who turned a blind eye to the subversion their chosen bureaucrats promoted.
Chambers would have none of this crusade, despite the fact that he was as–or more–anti-Communist than McCarthy. Chambers wrote William F. Buckley, whom he had first met after the latter asked him to write a blurb for a laudatory study of McCarthy that Buckley and his brother-in-law had written, that he considered the Senator a danger to the cause of anti-Communism. “McCarthy will one day,” Chambers presciently predicted, “make some irreparable blunder which will play directly into the hands of our common enemy and discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long time to come.” Two months later, he repeated his warning that McCarthy would likely become a “political godsend” to the Communists because “he scarcely knows what he is doing.” (23) These views never became public while Chambers lived, but that detail made them no less telling as evidence of his political acumen.
Or consider Chambers and governmental control over farm crops, something political conservatives could grow apoplectic about without a second thought. In 1954 he wrote two friends about how eight of his Maryland neighbors–one a close friend–were presently going on trial in Baltimore for violating the New Deal’s crop controls on growing wheat. Their “position,” he summed up, “is preposterous.” And he catalogued the reasons why: 1) the country’s “farmers have voted for socialization,” 2) they did not object to support checks but “to government inspection of their crops,” which was part and parcel of subsidies, and 3) they had excess production because modern agriculture just naturally produced massive surpluses. “They voted for a curb on their own incontinent productivity for the same reason that a fat man takes to diet–ultimately to prolong his life.” However much he might agree on theoretical grounds with their position, Chambers would not publicly support them. (24)
And then in the pages of National Review, he announced that he supported granting a passport for foreign travel to the now-freed Alger Hiss. The State Department under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower considered withholding such carte blanche permission to travel because Hiss was a felon convicted for denying he was a Communist. Why, conservatives yelled, Hiss might use it to go off to Moscow. Chambers doubted that a man who had denied being a Communist for more than a decade would dare show up at the Kremlin. But how could any authentic conservative support restoring his freedom to travel? Well, Chambers responded, as a man of the Right, he had no wish to thereby help “feed the Total State.” Besides any American citizen, felon or no, had the right to travel abroad.
Chambers imagined someone muttering, “Why the man is talking like a Liberal.” Yet he stood firm, willing, as he said, to draw fire from both sides, “in the No Man’s Land between incensed camps.” (25)
In September 1954, not long after they first made each other’s acquaintance, Chambers told the staunch Roman Catholic Buckley that “I stand within no religious orthodoxy,” something that goes a long way in explaining why Quakerism appealed to him. In the same letter, he was equally as blunt about his political creed: “I am not a conservative.” He did identify himself as a “man of the Right,” because “I mean to uphold capitalism in its American version.” But this capitalism, he went on, “is not, and by its essential nature cannot conceivably be, conservative.” Trying to create an American conservatism, he concluded, brings its disciples to “a sense of unreality and pessimism on the Right, running off into all manners of crackpotism.” (26)
Given these self-characterizations, Chambers could not have surprised National Review’s editor when he delivered his text of an assigned review of a new 1957 novel by an author trying to win a favorable audience with conservatives, Ayn Rand. Rand, a Russian émigré whose previous books had celebrated an unabashedly “selfish individualism,” was known for flaunting her atheism and disdain for the usual conventionalities–she was often pictured, for example, smoking cigarettes, something proper women avoided in the 1950s. Chambers’s review was not quite as colorfully splenetic as one that H.L. Mencken, the notorious cynic of the 1920s, might have turned out, but it was close enough. Entitled “Big Sister Is Watching You,” Chambers let loose, his pen dipped in vitriol. He complained about the novel’s length at 1168 pages, denied that Rand’s favorite philosopher could be Aristotle the Greek but was rather the German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche, and bemoaned her tendency to paint everything and everyone in the darkest blacks and the purest whites.
She was so rigidly theoretical, he said, that her “Randian” man was as materialistic as her crooked “looters.” Chambers was especially sarcastic about the last scene in which Rand described a character who made “the Sign of the Dollar” over a “desolate earth.” Buckley later claimed that the review had “read Miss Rand right out of the conservative movement.” The mail brought in numerous irate dissents. One outraged reader from Columbus, Ohio, pontificated that “Chambers as a Christian Communist is far more dangerous than as a Communist spy.” (27)
Such unusual positions for a conservative, a man of the Right, as he preferred to identify himself, illustrate that people who want a total picture have to take care when they look at Chambers–they have to see him as a whole–and they have to see how fundamental his Quakerism was to who he became. For example, the most obvious thing about him at first sight was his crumpled clothing; his suit always seemed as though it needed to be sent to the cleaners for a pressing. The contrast with the trim, well-groomed, almost sleek Hiss was stark. Practically every reporter who saw Chambers remarked on his seeming disregard for his appearance, doubtless ignorant of what he had read in Job Scott, the Rhode Island Quaker of 150 years before, that one should take no regard for his raiment, advice that echoed teacher Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. Some, like Clarence Pickett, seeing him for the first time, could judge him as perhaps emotionally unstable. His general carriage certainly did not embody the public image that most modern Quakers expected their own to convey.
Such personal considerations were not unimportant, to be sure, but they paled before the central issue, the belief of Hiss’s supporters that his innocence and reputation had been destroyed by what they believed were Chambers’s lies, probably calculated, perhaps in collaboration with a government witch-hunt. Furthermore, only ten days after Chambers’s testimony on August 3,1948, Hiss bestowed credit on his Quaker supporters for staying with him: writing the assistant executive secretary at AFSC, he explained that the “friends have been one of few compensations in this ugly incident.” (28) Yet here was Chambers, another Friend, the very cause of “this ugly incident,” whose life’s future trajectory seldom intersected with the faith that has given his life such meaning.
One might have thought that over the years some Friends would have avidly followed Chambers’s post-perjury trial career; the record I found does not inicate that they did. If they had, they might have come to see that he was not some kind of unbending, unthinking, conservative but a man of human complexity and subtlety who took positions that clashed with Quaker testimonies no more than other Friends did. They might have recognized the tragic pain enshrined in both men’s careers and even later recognized Chambers for having told the difficult, even shocking truth about Hiss’ earlier career, as later events and research confirmed. Some might even have come to celebrate his lonely and stressful witnessing to that truth. And others might have been moved as well to examine, perhaps reject many of their trendy cold war liberal assumptions and, even prejudices.
In such a what-if scenario Chambers would not have distanced himself from the Society of Friends and would have added to their reputation as exemplifying an all-inclusive fellowship of followers of Christ.
As it is, Chambers remains virtually unknown to modern Friends. He is still cloaked in silent obscurity, rather than being remembered as a man who experienced the promptings of God’s spirit in their meetings and acted from those leadings to echo the truth he knew. Little more can be asked of a Friend. But more can–and must–be asked of the Society’s own leadership, starting in this instance with one as influential as Clarence Pickett, and those who have since trod unknowingly in his footsteps.
1. On the separation, see H. Larry Ingle, Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1986).
2. For the case, see Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978). On Chambers, see Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers (New York: Random House, 1997). There is no biography of Hiss, but he produced an unsatisfactory memoir, Alger Hiss, Recollections of a Life (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1988). For a critical look at Hiss, but one which fails also to look at his (or Chambers’s) religious faith, see G. Edward White, Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars: the Covert Life of a Soviet Spy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
3. Whitaker Chambers, Witness (New York: Random House, 1952). On Quaker journals, see Howard H. Brinton, Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience among Friends (Wallingford, Penn.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1972).
4. Chambers, Witness, 5.
5. Ibid., 482-83. There is a photocopy documenting Chambers’s baptism in Meyer A. Zeligs, Friendship and Fratricide: An Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss (New York: Viking Press, 1967), 328-29.
6. Chambers, Witness, 482-85.
7. Pipe Creek Meeting Minutes, Pipe Creek Monthly Meeting Minute Book, 1889-1962, 8 Mo. 17 1943, 266, 270, 271, 276, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Penn.
8. Chambers, Witness, 25, 362; Richard M. Nixon, Six Crises (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co. 1962), 23; Chambers to Herbert Solow, 1943, in Weinstein, Perjury, 335.
9. Chambers, Witness, 193, 288-89.
10. Friends Intelligencer, 106 (8 Fifth month, 1949), 15.
11. Ibid., 109 (7 Sixth month 1952), 324.
12. Lawrence Miller, Witness for Humanity: A Biography of Clarence E. Pickett (Wallingford, Penn.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1999); Clarence E. Pickett, For More than Bread: An autobiographical account of twenty-two years’ work with the American Friends Service Committee (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1953); Jane P. Rushmore, “We Are Growing Together,” Friends Journal, 2 (26 May 1956), 327.
13. H. Larry Ingle, Nixon’s First Cover-up: The Religious Life of a Quaker President (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2015), ch. 4; Clarence Pickett to Claude B. Cross, 10, 23 Nov 1949, Richard R. Wood to Pickett, 14 Dec 1949, Gen’l Admn: Individuals, 1949: A. Hiss, AFSC Archives, Philadelphia; United States of America vs. Alger Hiss, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, court reporters, 13 Dec 1949, 1857-59.
14. Tanenhaus, Chambers, 461-62; “Whittaker Chambers and his ‘Witness,’” Saturday Review, 35 (24 May 1952), 8-14.
15. Saturday Review, 35 (14 Jun 52), 32; Chambers, Witness, 505-07; the Time article can be found in Terry Teachout, ed., Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whitaker Chambers, 1931-1959 (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Co., 1989), 84-93; Ralph de Toledano, ed., Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1997), 85-87; Friends Intelligencer, 109 (26 Sixth Month 1952), 355.
16. Chambers, Witness, 505; Teachout, ed., Ghosts, 192.
17. Chambers to Ralph de Toledano, 16 May 1950, de Toledano, ed., Notes, 23-25.
18. Tanenhaus, Chambers, 474; National Review, 5 (18 Jan 1958), 71; Pipe Creek Monthly Meeting, Membership Register, 1881-1997, 3-4, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Penn., lists the dates of the deaths of both Whittaker and Esther, as though they were still members.
19. Nixon, Crises, 425-26; Ingle, Nixon’s First Cover-up; Logan P. Smith, Unforgotten Years (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1939), 19, 31. On the Philadelphia Quaker establishment, see E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Authority and Leadership (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979).
20. Larry Miller, “Clarence Pickett and the Alger Hiss Case,” Friends Journal, 40 (Dec 1994), 15; Friends Journal, 41 (Feb, Mar 1995), 4, 6
21. But see Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost, The Quakers (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), ch. 20 for some suggestive comments. See also, Chuck Fager, Remaking Friends: How Progressives Friends Changed Quakerism & Helped Save America (Durham, N.C.: Kimo Press, 2014) Fager follows the history of an off-shoot of the Hicksites and ventures that their support of the Union cause in the Civil War and flirtations with socialism may have presaged a leftward drift. See also E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979). The subject cries out for more research.
22. Chambers, Witness, 547.
23. Chambers to William F. Buckley, Jr., 7 Feb, 6 Apr 1954, William F. Buckley, Jr., Odyssey of a Friend: Whittaker Chambers’ Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969), 49-53, 59-63.
24. Chambers to Willi Schlamm and Buckley, [7 Sep 1954], Buckley, ed., Odyssey, 78-84.
25. Teachout, ed., Ghosts, 340-44.
26. Chambers to Buckley, Sept 1954, Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday (New York: Random House, 1964), 236-38.
27. Teachout, ed., Ghosts, xxvii, 313-18; National Review, 5 (1 Feb 1958), 119.
28. Alger Hiss to Elmore Jackson, 13 Aug 1948, General Adm: Individuals: Chambers, Whittaker/Hiss, Alger, 13 Aug 1948, AFSC Archives, Philadelphia, Penn.