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The Limits of History, II

Quaker history also presents a challenge to all of its modern tellers. Like the early Christians, early Quakers laid down their history after the initial flames had cooled, and re-told the stories in ways that reflected their comunity. We can't, however, see or hear what the early Christians were working with, while the early Quakers' original writings and edits of those writings are readily available to anyone who wants to take a look.

As John Nickalls put it in the Preface to his edition of the Journal of George Fox:

Thomas Ellwood worked on the instructions of the Second-day Morning Meeting, a committee of the Society of Friends in London, and in accord with the desire of Fox that his life and writings should be published. The Journal which Ellwood prepared was a composite work, presenting a continuous account of Fox's life in the form of an autobiography, in a more uniform, more polished, and more cautious style in many places than the various [manuscripts] which have been mentioned.

Some passages he considerably abbreviated. Ellwood worked with more freedom than would to-day be approved, putting passages into autobiographical form from other sources, but he was an able and a careful editor. He also adapted or omitted many of Fox's own vigorous phrases, his picturesque details his apparent overvaluation of praise, claims to psychic powers, and matter thought liable to cause political or theological protest, besides doubtful or unverifiable statements. (xxxix-xl)

It's hard to imagine a description like that appended to one of the Gospels, after all. (It would of course be interesting if they noted striking miracles out.) Knowing that Fox went through his letters and struck out language addressed to him that he thought was too exalted doesn't help the historical picture either.

Emphasizing the priorities set by professional history, though, doesn't particularly meet the needs of either religion or storytelling. A detailed, but deliberately scholarly biography of George Fox exists, generally free of hagiography. It attempts "to rescue Fox from poorly grounded, usually uncritical, and theologically oriented works." Although I cite it regularly, and strongly recommend reading it, it always feels to me like it's missing something, the spark that makes Fox compelling to his peers. Sure, Fox has (or borrows) some good ideas, and builds a following. But why exactly were people so convinced, so willing to follow that message into the prisons and to death?

Somehow, it's not there, despite the excellent research, despite the helpful footnotes. I don't think that lack is Larry Ingle's fault - it's just not really compatible with the approach of the book. (His earlier Quakers in Conflict has it easier with these problems, as the conflict built into the story brings its own fascination.)

It's possible, though, to reach a balance, if not necessarily one that will make professional historians cheer. I think, for instance, that William Braithwaite managed that in his early twentieth-century history, which had much of the same scholarly apparatus but was still told from a deliberately Quaker perspective, a Quaker talking mostly to other Quakers looking back on a shared history.

More recently, I think Doug Gwyn generally gets it right. He got scolded a bit by Larry Ingle for Apocalypse of the Word's reaching for a "Quaker Holy Grail" and mixing up opinions from different periods of Fox's life. Gwyn's later work more carefully follows a timeline, but it still keeps the excitement and the willingness to challenge its readers that his first book offered.

History written by humans is never going to be "objective", somehow written from a genuinely outsider stance with clean access to everything that happened. Not all of the information survives, and even the information that does survive will be filtered, arranged, assembled, polished, and transformed into a story rather than a collection of parts.

There are a lot of different stories we can tell about the early Quakers. I worry that a lot of what passes for Quaker history in conversation is more like Quaker sound-bites, brief tales told to illustrate particular points. I'd like to see more attention given to the complete stories. We need to remember, though, that Quaker history is part of Quakerism, and not very usefully separable from that religious context. It is, of course, a part of many things, as Christopher Hill reminds us in his work on the 17th century, but I can't imagine insisting on a clean separation between the light that created Quakerism and the light that today still illuminates it.

Like the early Christians, the early Quakers weren't simply documenting facts, but telling a story they believed would change - should change - those who heard it. We need to consider that change when we read Quaker history.


I'm coming at it from a slightly different angle right now, reading Thomas Clarkson, the Anglican abolitionist and friend of Friends who wrote a multi-volume set about Quakers in the early 1800s (link to Vol 1). It's a different time period than you're writing about, of course. The movement had been going for 150 years. That British Friends were starting to mix with Episcopalians to do anti-slavery work was a change that we can see in retrospect set in motion some of the debates & conflicts that arose among American Friends.

What I find particularly useful about Clarkson is that as an outsider he doesn't have to stick to the official Quaker answer. He allows himself to consider more utilitarian motives for Quaker practices. It's not quite Christopher Hill, but Clarkson does tend more toward the sociology than the Quakers at the time did. It's helpful for those of us trying to tease out which traditional practices are essential (and essential to maintain) versus those which were time-specific enough that we can safely jettison them.

My computer's dead and my work behind so I'm only leaving comments nowadays but when I've caught up I hope to post more on QuakerRanter.

If we were going to engage in a search for the historical George Fox, isn't there a point where we have to view George's edits of his works as part of his own journey?

What I mean is, if he disagreed with exalted ideas about himself later in his journey, he could have done so because he thought that he was wrong. But, even if he edited out lofty ideas about himself for purely political reasons, like to make Quakers more acceptable to other Christians, wouldn't this be a tacit admission that he might not have been so unreserved about the truth of these ideas, which would cast doubt on the truth of those ideas? The edits would be part of his story. Just some thoughts...

From his journal, it seems that George viewed himself as having the authority of a New Testament apostle. Of course, George lived before modern psychoanalysis, and it would be interesting to read a thorough treatment that dealt specifically with George's view of himself (yet not necessarily only from a modern psychoanalytical perspective).