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Negativity around the Apocalypse

Yes, that's a strange title. However, there a couple of questions I'd like to clear away before getting deeper into the core of Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word. One involves a set of historical views Gwyn is trying to move past, while the other is a criticism of Gwyn's book from a fellow historian of Quakerism.

First, Gwyn's concerns. While it is clear throughout that he values the work others have done in researching and interpreting Quakerism, there are two primary streams of Quaker history he would like to escape: the mystical interpretation of Rufus Jones, and the Protestant interpretation of Geoffrey Nuttall, Hugh Barbour, and others. In my other Quaker history readings, it seems that Jones is out of favor anyway, while the Protestant interpretation is more or less dominant, but Gwyn seeks a different path:

Jones' sense of the universal is tied to an understanding of human reason as a divine, saving faculty. But we shall see repeatedly in this study that Fox understands the light as inward but fundamentally alien to human nature. Far from being optimistic about human capacity, Fox sees our nature as utterly dark; human reason may be creative, but it is ultimately unable to save. When we understand this, we see that the early Quaker conflict with Puritanism was hardly the chance collision of two different thought-worlds Jones imagined, but a struggle within the same world....

The philosophical liberalism of Rufus Jones' mystical interpretation of Quakerism therefore contains the same problem that the liberal theological interpretation of the New Testament created. It ignores the structural integrity of the message itself, finding a "buried treasure" at the core which, in fact, has been projected there by the investigator. There is too much in Fox's writings that Jones had to ignore in order to reach his conclusions. Fox's approach may perhaps be accurately called mystical, but not by the definition Jones gave to that word.... (xv-xvi)

The contributions of Nuttall and Barbour have provided a much-needed corrective to the liberal assumptions of Rufus Jones' mystical reading of Fox. Far from being incidental to Quakerism, the language early Friends used can be seen as partaking in an evolving theological debate, as research into the Puritanism of the day has shown....

Nevertheless, historical analysis can easily fall prey to the problem of reductionism; themes shared by different movements may be emphasized at the expense of their originality.... as we have already suggested with regard to Nuttall's work, the Protestant interpretation views early Quakerism too much through a Reformation theological framework; the Christian experience unfolds within the context of Christ's return, instead of scripture's record...

The Protestant interpretation of early Quakerism has dominated Church historical scholarship in recent decades. Yet while it corrected Jones' view of Quakerism operating in an alien thought world, it has overdrawn its image of the Quaker-Puritan debate as a filial squabble within Protestantism. (xviii-xix)

Gwyn doesn't say it explicitly, but it seems that both of these readings reflect efforts to make 1650s Quakerism more palatable to particular kinds of audiences at the times these writers were working. The mystical approach was aimed both at Quakers and at a particular group of religious scholars at the time Jones was writing, and the Protestant approach made Quakerism seem more reasonable to scholars of the Reformation and the English Reformation in particular. I don't think that's a particularly surprising problem, as it affects all retellings of the past, but it tends to leave tales of the past eroded by the needs of the present.

In my next installment, I'll look at the alternative vision Gwyn presents in his efforts to go beyond these two approaches.

Finally, one last caution before I go further. H. Larry Ingle complains in George Fox's Legacy of the dangers of looking at early Quaker work without careful attention to when things were written:

Moreover, as in the other traditions, there are different emphases at different times, meaning that over time there is a lack of consistency. I might add that this evolution in the Quaker message demands that those seeking to understand it can hardly avoid a historical approach, lest they distort their findings. (68)

[footnote] The most recent example of this tendency was Douglas Gwyn in his revised doctoral dissertation, Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox (Richmond, Ind: Friends United Press, 1986.) See my earlier criticism of Gwyn's method in "On the Folly of Seeking the Quaker Holy Grail," Quaker Religious Thought 25 (May 1991), 17-29. Let it be noted that in his later works Gwyn has successfully moved away from what was an ahistorical approach. (78)

Curious, I ordered the QRT back issue - $4 seems like a wise investment before I proceed into explaining a book that supposedly has major flaws - and I don't think Ingle's case is particularly damaging. If Apocalypse of the Word had been written as a historical work, then yes, it might be devastating - but it's much more a theological work written about someone who thought long ago. Yes, Gwyn mixes 1650s Fox with 1680s Fox, and there's a case that can be made that they're different perspectives - but not so different that they aren't worth considering together.

Ingle's other complaint about Gwyn's approach seems to be that Gwyn dove deeply into Fox's Works, which are an edited subset of his actual writings, and didn't spend much time with other primary or secondary sources. Again, in a strictly historical setting, this would be a huge problem; in a theological setting, completeness is rarely a virtue.

Ingle also complains that Fox was not a theologian, and attempts to make him into one run counter to his message:

But at least we can avoid turning a person into a theologian whose thinking and writing was erratic and inconsistent, so "off the top of his head", that his greatest legacy may well have been his considered refusal to follow the gleam of a nonexistent holy grail.

While I didn't find Ingle's objections convincing, I'll certainly consider Ingle's kinds of concerns as I encounter them. While I share Ingle's sense that Quakerism itself changed over time, Fox's own views and their motivations seem to me to have changed less than those of the people around him, and while he was certainly not perfectly consistent, his inconsistencies do seem to gravitate in particular directions.

When I finish with Apocalypse of the Word, I'll also look at Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming, where Gwyn restates (and simplifies) much of his core thesis but does so in a way that's more precise about timeline.


Now I know, why I was so surprised at your blog appearing all gray on your computer.
On my computer, using internet explorer, it appears in bluish colors. - It probably shows that my computer has more theological insight as usually expected in electronic items and therefore added some color :-)