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The Rich Heritage of Quakerism

While I was in Portland, staying far too close to the temple of books that is Powell's, I picked up an old copy of Walter Williams' The Rich Heritage of Quakerism. I have a 1962 copy, though I think Barclay Press is distributing a more recent version with an epilogue.

I'd never read Quaker history quite like this. The one Quaker I'd dated, long ago, had warned me that Quakers in the midwest (and Kenya) were not much like the Quakers meeting Sunday mornings in Swarthmore, but it, well, it never occurred to me that they'd be this different. (I suspect Rachael's outlook was somewhere between Williams' perspective and mine, though that conversation was a long time ago.)

There are some excellent sections on early Quakerism, looking beyond Fox to the wider movement, though there's little mention of the doctrines which separated Quakers from their fellow nonconformists. It's hard to tell in the stories Williams tells of the early Quakers why fellow Christians would want to arrest and torment them, though he writes:

As the Friends Movement grew in extent and influence, opposition and persecution also increased. It was an age of intolerance. Men craved religious liberty for themselves, but felt it their right, indeed their duty, to enforce their own convictions upon others. Said Oliver Cromwell to his Parliament, "Everyone desires to have liberty, but none will give it."

...There was no little misunderstanding of the beliefs which Friends held an taught. One of the most frequent charges brought against them was blasphemy, since they spoke frequently of the Indwelling Spirit of God. Not infrequently, too, they were arraigned for their refusal to pay tithes demanded by the state to support the priests; they were charged with disturbing religious services, even with plotting against the government. Again, the magistrates were frequently angered by their refusal to take an oath for any reason, or to remove the hat in deference to them, or to employ the plural "you" in addressing them. As a result, frequent fines were imposed or prison terms allotted to Friends.

Nevertheless, the glow of Christian victory and of joyous enthusiasm was on an ever-increasing number of men and women... (36-7)

Williams' chapter on early Quaker doctrine carefully avoids anything that might seem controversial to other Christians, and later he doesn't care to report on the affairs of the Hicksites after the schism:

In the succeeding pages we shall give but slight attention to the Hicksite group. It has generally failed to be self-propagating, and consequently has rather steadily dwindled in numbers. However, one would not overlook nor minimize the contribution which some of its members have made to numerous humanitarian and reform movements. (170)

In that spirit he mentions Lucretia and James Mott, and Isaac Hopper, and Swarthmore College's existence, but doesn't mention, for example, Friends General Conference at all. (Well, there's a population table in the back which notes that FGC includes about 26,000 Quakers in 1961.)

Probably the best way to explain Williams' perspective is to let him speak for himself, in a piece at the end of "Dominant Trends Among Twentieth-Century Quakers" that seems to sum up his hopes for present Friends (and I think what he wished older Friends had consistently done.) The same conversations are certainly continuing today, and often include a voice like this:

The time is ripe for Friends to awake, repent, and seek to serve God humbly, and their generation worthily. This duty attaches to us all. God waits to work, and he employs human helpers who are fully yielded to Him.

In the opening address given to the 1960 session of the Five Years Meeting, Seth B. Hinshaw sounded a heartening call to that organization - one which ought to be heard and heeded by all Friends. The following excerpt, taken from the official Minutes of that body, indicates its nature:

We have come to a cross-roads of destiny, an hour of decision, and the hour of our visitation. God has brought us together to see whether our generation will rise up and fulfill our mission... We need more than fine challenges; we need total commitment and spiritual dedication to the work that is before us... The gospel we preach must be whole, and not fragmented.

It is encouraging to note that the spirit of this address, delivered by the Executive Secretary of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, is signally reflected in the Message sent forth by the Five Years Meeting. This Message reads, in part, as follows:

We reaffirm that to be a Quaker is to be a Christian... We acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Son of God, who is our Saviour and Lord, and honor Him as the great Head of the Church which He has established in the world. Through the Holy Spirit he guides its ministries, bestows gifts for its work, convinces the unbelieving, baptizes the believers, and is in communication with His people, feeding them upon the bread of life...

This experience [the transforming power of Christ within] binds us into a warmly evangelical fellowship, under the compulsion to proclaim that there is One, even Christ Jesus, who does speak to the condition of every man and time... We are constrained by the love of God to call upon every meeting to examine its message and mission, and join in a spiritual awakening which will bring the entire Friends Movement into new areas of evangelism, Christian education, missions, stewardship, and social concerns.

Would God that Friends of America and of the whole world would rise to the challenge set forth above. We may be sure that such dedication comes at a high price; but our generation desperately needs the ministry which only such servants of God can render.

I don't recommend this book as a reliable source for Quaker history, but I'm very glad to have to have read it, finding in it a detailed explanation of a different perspective from that I'm used to, with the explanation itself assuming that perspective.


Simon, thank you so much for this perspective. As a Friend who has so far known -- and read in -- mainly traditional, unprogrammed Quakerism, I have very little understanding of other Quaker branches of that same tree.

Interesting you should blog about this! I saw this book for the first time at Wess Daniels' (www.gatheringinlight.com) house when Robin M. & I were there last weekend. Definitely not a title found as part of the regular catalogue of Quaker Books of FGC (though they would find it for a customer who asked).