The Limits of History, IV
In a comment on my earlier piece, Zach Alexander asks:
Reading the previous two posts in the series, I'd be interested to see how you tie them together. I see no contradiction, but a very mild tension ? we should ease up on historical accuracy (I-II), but not too much (III). What is the middle ground?
Partly, the tension comes from the time between the posts, but mostly I think I've failed to be clear again. There are two separate aspects to the question of history and Quakerism:
How important is history - the stories we tell - to Quakerism?
What kind of historical practice do we apply to those stories?
My first and third posts were supposed to be about the first question - yes, history is important, critical to who "Quakers" are. In a creedless religion, we are the stories we tell. (Thanks to Will T for helping me polish that phrasing with an earlier comment.)
Because of this, I am, of course, deeply concerned about what might be described as Quaker amnesia - people arguing, as I think you have, that one piece or another is at the heart of what's valuable about Quakerism, and the rest is just... whatever. Yes, it's tempting - but wrong. Without the larger context, a small list of "key pieces" is doomed to be misleading (about Quakerism) at best.
Here, I'm taking a position that should make academic historians uncomfortable. I don't think applying the usual rules for academic history to the stories of Quakerism is particularly useful for Quakerism. Yes, it's valuable for historians, and First Among Friends in particular is eye-opening - but not quite right.
I'm also less and less surprised by the 'tampering' with Fox's Journal and his works generally. Early Quaker writings weren't meant to be objective journalism or verbatim archives. We have to accept that they were written for the express purpose of evangelizing their readers, of telling a story their writers found compelling. I don't think it's all that different from how we look at the Bible, except with fewer translation issues. Believers see it one way, academics and other interested outsiders often see it another way.
At this point, I'm comfortable with the idea that these early Quaker documents simply are different, and communicate different things, depending on who you are. Not merely "who you are" as an individual, but "who you are" as a community. In an earlier age, I'm guessing Quakers would have thought of it as inside the hedge vs. outside the hedge, but since the hedge has come down, the lines are blurrier.
How can we make this work? My best advice would be to supplement whatever secondary Quaker history we want to read with the primary documents, or things close to the originals. And I have some ideas on making the originals easier to get to.... we'll see.