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Theology as Autobiography, Biography, and Hagiography

The title of this post is taken from the title of section 1.3 of Carole Dale Spencer's Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism, and I think it gets to some of why I'm concerned about the willingness to throw over Quaker history in favor of our own reductions.

She's writing in the context of methodology, how her book is going to proceed, but along the way she presents a very clear statement about how Quakerism explained itself over the centuries:

In early Quakerism theology was experiential and mystical (cogito Dei experimentalis), therefore developed and formulated most effectively as autobiography. Autobiography was supplemented by biography and then sanctified by hagiography....

Along with the Bible, hagiography and its related literature (rather than doctrinal treatises) have been the primary textual means by which the Christian faith has been transferred through generations. After the Bible, the lives of saints, their journals or spiritual diaries, and their devotional manuals have been the most formative influences in the teaching of holiness.....

More important than doctrinal formulation, and essential because Quakers were theoretically non-creedal, was the actual depiction of lives through which readers could understand and measure themselves through the model of earlier saints....

The most common form of teaching and Quakers' main reading material were the journals of its saints, George Fox's Journal being the prototype (Wright, 1932). These journals were written to describe and define a life of holiness and to teach by example. (4-5)

Arriving in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting with no sense of history (as I did twenty years ago), one can pick up the form easily enough, even the worshipful goal of that form. Testimonies are readily explained - the SPICE acronym may be a cliche, but for beginners it's readily comprehensible. And beyond that, there's the Inner Light, right? No creeds, so anything else?

Well, yes. The ahistorical version of Quakerism does have some popularity, but there's a lot more in all those dusty journals. The status of those journals - as tutorials for religious belief and not simply as verbatim history - also goes a long way toward explaining why Quakers treated their history in ways that make contemporary historians shake their heads.

I wonder, though, whether this approach to transmitting religious experience can hold up - is holding up - in the current state of the world. This isn't a uniquely current problem, as I think John Wilbur faced similar challenges in his battles with the Gurneyite Orthodox. It seems, though, that the way we read (and the amount we read, and so on) keeps changing.

Handing a copy of George Fox's Journal (or even The Quaker Reader to new attenders probably isn't the best way to introduce them to the religion. Quakerism 101 classes at least provide a general overview, and hopefully encourage people to read and explore more deeply.

I worry that in many ways Quakerism - especially unprogrammed Quakerism - makes sense only in the context of a deeply literate society. The lack of liturgy and adornment means that there isn't a constant story told each Sunday, and creedlessness (and more or less lack of a catechism) leaves us needing to study Quaker experience. Studying Quaker experience is a long slow process. This makes it hard for newcomers and for people without the time to dedicate to that study, and can also make religion feel like homework.

I don't see any easy way around this, at least for those who see Quakerism as more than the simplified form and testimonies I described above. We'll have to take the hard road, and convince others that it's worthwhile.


I'm not terribly impressed with Quakerism 101. I think it tends to reinforce what you call "the ahistorical version of Quakerism" much more than you acknowledge, both because it has been written to incorporate many of the fallacies of "the ahistorical version", and because of the ego-indulgent way it is generally taught.

Nor do I believe that historical study, by itself, offers a solution.

In this country, the present wave of historical study largely began with Rufus Jones, who encouraged Friends to rediscover their origins. This brought about some initial good results, but it also institutionalized some harmful fallacies stemming from Jones's own thinking, such as the idea that Friends are "mystics" much like mediæval contemplatives. That particular fallacy became institutionalized in places like Pendle Hill, which made it almost impossible to dislodge from the popular Quaker mind-set. Indeed, later historians such as Barbour, Benson, and Punshon struggled in vain to dislodge it. Their failure illustrates the limits to what can be done by academic means.

I don't think there's any single approach that offers the whole solution. But certainly, one essential part of the answer is the power of personal example. A real-life example of authentic Quakerism, one that actually amounts to something both in the way it shines and in the way it impacts real-life issues, is the only way to prove we're not just talking theory. It can do a wonderful end run around established notions of what Quakerism "is".

Just my present take on the matter —

There are many potential pitfalls to historical study.

You're correct on many details. By itself, historical study is far from a complete solution. There needs to be a religious context, and not simply an academic one.

Even if there is a religious context - as you note with Jones - there is always the danger of creative teachers adding their own gloss to the story, choosing details to magnify some aspects and diminish others. It's all too easy to look at the battles over Quaker historiography, shake our heads, and move on.

At the same time, though, the nature of Quaker experience makes our history a vital component. It's not "history as seen by historians" but rather "history as experienced by Quakers".

As much as I like Spencer's overall telling of the Quaker story - I'll write more about that soon - I'm convinced more and more that we need to be exploring our past in the original documents. Not just Fox's or Woolman's journals, but a wide range of Quaker experience from the 1650s to the present. Writing was the way they preserved it until recently, so reading is an important skill for us. Not academic history - just reading. There are 'real-life examples of authentic Quakerism' today - but there have been many in the past as well.

I'll be writing a lot more about these issues, but there's one other last point that I think is worth considering. I don't think historians - even Rufus Jones - can shift the course of Quakerism by themselves. Jones certainly looked for material to support his points, but at the same time, his perspective was tied to larger happenings in Quakerism. (As were his successors.)

History is one key piece in the battles over "what Quakerism is", but my strong sense is that there have been very few Quakers willing to take "it used to be X, so it's X today" as an answer. John Wilbur found that out the hard way, and a lot of others have found it out in less known ways.

More to come...

I've been asked to teach "Quakerism 101" a few times and have always just done so from my own curriculum. Even if it were the perfect lesson plan, most participants at Q101 are experienced Friends who have already participated in it a dozen times.

When we talk Quakerism 101's history what we're mostly talking about is the various schisms. I've always pushed that deep into the course (fourth week or so) and framed it less as history than as different philosophies about how to keep Quakerism vital and tried to show how the different philosophies were still being debated in the month-to-month business of the meeting (no matter it's historical affiliation). The schisms were messy, complicated, human affairs. Personality and class easily played as important roles as theology, which itself was a constantly-shifting target. Teaching them reduces Quakerism to an historical artifact rather than a living spirituality.

But Simon, if I understand what you're talking about it's not *that* history but rather the spiritual histories recorded in the journals. Many of them are good stories and few are particularly intellectual. Some of them are very powerful and I find myself feeling a great kinship with the author. It becomes clear we are relating to that same Inward Living Christ and that the religious insights of 1652 are the same as today. I get that sense of eternity which is the Quaker and the Christian message.

There was this fascinating young adult Catholic group I visited three or four times a few years ago. There would be a regular Sunday night mass, after which the group (20-30 people) would assemble in a room in the rectory. This really great priest was there, really warm and part of their lives and after awhile he would start reading the life of a saint. They were going through this biography twenty-five minutes a week. After this, most of the crowd met up a nearby diner and socialized (as you might expect many couple got together through this series). I've always wanted to try something like this for Friends. At one workshop I led, we read a chapter from Samuel Bownas and the room was incredible electric and gathered by the end. That's the kind of history we could be reading.

The few alternatives to the Quakerism 101 coming into vogue now are about celebrating our diversity and are very amnesiac. Newcomers don't get much of a chance to learn about the core of the spirituality of the group they're contemplating joining. I'm not particularly optimistic about the short-term prospects for liberal Friends.

I recently started reading Braithwaite's history as a sort of Quaker version of the Book of Acts--after my Bible reading, I'll often read a few pages of the history of early Friends.

Simon, thanks for the enlightening reminder of the advantage of reading history from the original source materials.

Martin, San Francisco Meeting's Thursday night Quaker study group has been using that format since about 1991. They gather for potluck at 7 pm, followed by reading aloud together at 8 pm. When Robin & I participated regularly pre-children, it was often quite deep and gathered. And it has been a great way "in" to the meeting community for newcomers who like a meal and a chat. Though it tends to attract the more bookish types as the regulars, the group has also been a place for people facing food insecurity to find a meal and some company.

It's just another way of keeping Quakerism from the unwashed masses, and to reinforce our own beliefs that we're 'better than' others. Look, you don't HAVE to be Christian! Just white and 'educated'. (Not smart, educated.) And you can't try to reach out to others, because that's proselytizing, and we can't have that. Of course, churches that do that grow, but then they have that sticky situation of a more diverse community.

Why can't the deep spiritual roots of the community somehow be passed along to more people? Why do a lot of Quaker sites (and some Quaker communities, not all) make you feel like you have to bring your transcript and a resume before you can get involved? Why don't we have more plumbers and retail workers and receptionists and factory workers in our Meeting Houses?

Since Quakerism is a non-creedal religion it is useful to compare it to the classic non-creedal religion, Judaism. Both Quakerism and Judaism, on the whole, do their theology by telling stories. This explains a lot of why many Quakers are amateur historians. So we need to tell each other our stories. Those of us who know the stories, or more of the stories perhaps have an obligation to tell the stories more often and in more circumstances. We also can encourage everyone to tell their own story. This builds community and everyone has a story.

I don't know that encouraging Quaker literacy is in itself a barrier to having plumbers and retail workers and receptionists in our midst. I think that it is the invitation and the welcome that is mostly missing. Judaism flourished among the peasants and the working class of Eastern Europe and it certainly expects literacy and study. Quakers have an advantage, we don't require learning a different language with a funny alphabet that runs backwards. :^)

Will T

I think it very interesting that a non-creedal religion has used autobiography and biography as a means of communication. The academic discipline of social anthropology has also relied heavily on this mode of communication, and reflecting on this fact, I think for the same reasons. Both when reporting on an experience with a foreign culture and when reporting on a spiritual experience, an author is trying to convey what an experience felt like to someone who was not there, and did not -- indeed, perhaps could not -- experience it. In both cases, the experiences are unique in space and time - not able to replicated for others - only able to be reported on, in a subsequent memoir back to the reader.