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January 4, 2009

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.

The second post and some of the third post were more about the second question.

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.

Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism

Carole Dale Spencer manages, in Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism, to describe early Quakerism as a largely coherent whole whose later schisms reflect emphasis on some components and the loss of others. While it's definitely an academic book, it is still a compelling read, and I hope this story will be told widely in more accessible forms over the years to come.

Before continuing with the review, I should note that Spencer plays to practically every bias and opinion I hold regarding Quakerism up through about the 1840s, and frequently thereafter. It's strange to me to be reading interpretive Quaker history, especially history that looks beyond the first generation, and not be spending a fair amount of time arguing with the author in my head. I find her telling of the early Quakers compelling, as well as her case for the Quietists as something better than a terrible decline. While I'm not as convinced by her doubts about Elias Hicks personally, her overall take on Hicksites makes sense to me, as do her doubts about how close Joseph John Gurney was to the heart of Quakerism. I think she's correct that John Wilbur was, as he claimed, much closer.

Where I start having doubts is in the second half of the 19th century, when the Holiness Movement per se comes through. There's a conversation worth having about forms of Quaker worship, hinted at here, but not really explored. I return pretty easily though, in her discussion of the 20th century, and overall I'm kind of dazed to agree with so much of a single telling of Quaker history, especially at this level of depth.

I suspect some potential readers will bounce off the word "Holiness", thinking that this is a plea for revival meetings. They shouldn't. Spencer's use of holiness certainly includes revival meetings (including, I think, the earliest Quaker gatherings), but it's a much richer use than that. Her use of holiness derives from the early Christian fathers, a group whose thought (as she points out) regularly parallels that of early Quakers. She emphasizes eight aspects, which she sees as integrated in early Quaker thought:

  • Scripture
  • Eschatology
  • Conversion
  • Charisma (Spirit)
  • Evangelism
  • Mysticism
  • Suffering
  • Perfection

Obviously, not all of those aspects resonate with all Quakers today, and the details of many of them changed over the course of 350 years, sometimes repeatedly. I remember being blown away by Apocalypse of the Word, largely because it was startling to me that eschatology was central to early Quakers. Talking about "perfection" seems to instantly raise alarms, whether with Quakers or with, well, practically anyone, but Spencer weaves it tightly into the story.

I'll be writing more about the book for a while to come - there are lots and lots of pieces worth pursuing, even pieces I hope someone will take up and turn into complete books of their own.

Yes, it's written academically, and can be very dense, but the content is excellent. My one real complaint (and maybe this is only my copy) is that the type seems excessively light. It's all there, but reading it seems trickier than it should be. The price ($41) isn't cheap, but fortunately it's not as astronomical as some academic publishing.

I can't recommend it as light reading, but if you're up for a detailed and valuably opinionated journey through Quaker history, it's an excellent telling.

(It's also worth noting that the latest issue of Quaker Religious Thought, #110, includes reviews by Stephen Angell, Margery Post Abbott, and Jim Le Shana, with replies from Spencer.)

January 3, 2009

Comments on a Bible

I'm always surprised by how few reviews most books on Quakerism get on Amazon. (There are exceptions, of course.)

Maybe that's a good thing, though, as sometimes warfare can break out in the review sections and their comments. It seems pretty clear that there's a constituency appalled by the very notion of a "Green Bible", disgusted by the shift it implies from God to God's creation, from ourselves as special creations to humans as one of many creations. I suspect that's just getting started, too.

I've wondered for a while what a Quaker Bible might look like. Highlighting in gray probably isn't a great idea, but I can only imagine what comments it would draw....