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History, Quakerism, Christianity

Reading New Light on George Fox was a rather jarring experience, though since my background is in history, a not entirely surprising one. I didn't expect Fox or other early Quakers to be perfect saints, or Quakerism born at once, wholly formed. Still, there's always something unsettling about history done right, something that rarely fits with settled opinion.

Tonight I returned to my quest to finally finish Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (Since 1700), the last volume of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, and found:

Like any good historian, the historian of the church and of Christian doctrine in any period had the responsibility to begin with the sources and to lead the reader back to the sources.

In the course of doing so, the historians of all the churches learned how questions that seemed to be purely historical could become doctrinally explosive and profoundly divisive. "The assembly in Moscow of ancient manuscripts from various places of Russia" in the seventeeth century might have seemed to an outside observer to be a harmless exercise in antiquarianism and what Orthodoxy called "ecclesiastical philology," but a nineteenth-century historian showed how it had become the occasion for the Russian schism or "Raskol"; the history of the liturgy was an indispensable part of the history of the church.

Even while one Roman Catholic historical theologian was seeking to reject as a slander the charge that the Catholic faith required "an assent to views and interpretations of Scripture which modern science and historical research have utterly discredited" and another was declaring the rejection of the sacrificial interpretation of the Mass by the Protestant Reformers to be a "stubborn denial" of the clear results of honest historical investigation, the debate over the doctrine of papal infallibility was about to involve yet another in researches whose conclusion it was that "to the adherents of the theory of infallibility the history of the ancient church for the first millenium must appear to be an insoluble riddle."

Such contradictions were taken by Protestants that honest historiography would necessarily clash with the authoritarian teachings of "the Roman church." For their part, Roman Catholics strove to rescue and rehabilitate history from its domination by "Germans and Protestants" and, because Protestants denied both the authority of tradition and the validity of doctrinal development, to insist that "to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." (236-7, additional paragraph breaks added.)

That's just the history of the church itself - the discussion hasn't yet reached the Bible. It's clear that history can be a problem for religion, and I think it's also clear that early Quakers were aware of this:

For example, much of Thomas Holme's exalted language toward Fox has been so severely edited (and literally ripped from the record) that it cannot now be recovered. This occurred when Fox personally tampered with letters now contained in the Swarthmore Manuscripts. He made deletions with broad ink strokes and made corrections indisputably in his own hand. He struck out extravagant phrases of adoration and substituted more moderate ones. In places where whole patches were torn from the record (probably at a later date by Margaret Fell), the jagged edges still revealing the broad ink crossings out. (New Light, 113)

When the founders were clearly aware of the functions of history, and take steps to manage it (the writing and editing of Fox's Journal among those steps), it can be especially dangerous to raise the cry of "back to the Founders". I'm enjoying reading Fox and exploring early Quakerism, but his valuable insights require much context.

I don't think history is incompatible with Quakerism or Christianity in the way, I'd say, for example, economics is, but it's definitely a complex relationship, one I hope to explore much further. I expect the Light will prove a necessary guide, not just a subject to research.