A Review of “Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey”

A Review of “Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey”

From Quaker Theology #29

Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey. Marcelle Martin. San Francisco: Inner Light Books, 238 pages. Paperback, $17.50.

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

    It’s my fate to spend a fair amount of time on the larger Quaker-oriented Facebook groups. That’s often a challenging, and sometimes dispiriting experience, especially when talk turns to “what Friends believe,” and how that is evidenced in actual Quaker history. 

It’s a chore because the level of ignorance and misinformation about Quakerism seems bottomless. Responding to it often feels like bailing out a canoe with a big hole in the bottom, through which a continuing steam of errors, rumor, legends and downwright fiction steadily gushes.

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    For instance, a few days ago, there once again popped up the name of Richard Nixon, the second Quaker U. S. president. But no sooner than he appeared, there followed a number of firm denials that he was, or ever had been, a Friend. Even though Nixon’s lifelong membership in East Whittier, California Friends Church is well-attested in several solid historical sources, both in books and online.

Yet this seemed to make no difference to many: pointing them out evoked such responses as: “He never was”; “Well, perhaps as a child, but not as an adult”; “Maybe as a young man, but when challenged as president over the Vietnam War, he left and never returned”; and other variations.

    It’s even worse when it comes to those things called “testimonies”; to read social media, one might think George Fox invented the Prius, or at least he drove one. And no doubt wore tee shirts emblazoned with “SPICE” (or was it “SPICES”?).

    It’s an uphill slog to point out that, oddly enough, when printed Books of Discipline appeared, about 1806, 120-plus years after Fox’s death, and in many editions over several subsequent decades, not only “Peace” but also “Equality,” and even “Simplicity” were not found in their indexes or subject headings. (If one doubts, check this careful compilation of Old Disciplines here). 

To be sure, if  one digs deep enough, seeds of some modern witness can be found in the rich humus of early Quaker writings; but as actual shoots of corporate expression, they broke the surface only generations later. 

    And there were counter-currents: for instance, while Quaker women could preach, travel as ministers, and had their own meetings, all of this was still subordinate to the men’s meetings. 

And as for “equality,” one ought to review Proposition 15 of Robert Barclay’s Apology, the early Quaker theological classic, in particular the paragraph beginning, “Before I enter upon a particular disquisition . . .” in which he makes crystal clear that Friends’ “peculiarities” about “hat honor,” against bowing and scraping, and insisting on saying “thou” to a social superior – all this was to have absolutely no undermining effect on the inequality “betwixt prince and people, master and servants . . . nay not at all.” Furthermore, “that these natural relations are rather better established than any ways hurt by it.” (Emphasis added.)

    But, but, sputter some, then whence cometh Quaker equality, if not from the tablets Fox carried down from atop Pendle Hill? 

    There’s a double answer to that: first, things, including “testimonies,”  changed and evolved over 300 years. For instance, Fox and Penn accepted slavery; but over four generations, this acceptance was reconsidered (repented of) and became a definite refusal. And textually, Disciplines changed too, but even more slowly. 

Second, research thus far points the finger at the venerable Howard Brinton, and pamphlets he issued in 1941 and 1942, in which he listed equality, “harmony” (including peace) and simplicity as, not even “testimonies,” but Quaker “social doctrines.”

    Further, Brinton acknowledged that his list had taken form, not full-blown, but after long experience and reflection – and some with no little struggle. He described these evolving “social doctrines” in his Guide to Quaker Practice, which is still in print, and has been, I am told, the best-selling Pendle Hill pamphlet in the 75 years since its issue.

butterflies-2a-front-cover-smThat durability and wide distribution evidently enabled the “transformation” of Brinton’s rather tentative and qualified formulation into something of a liberal Quaker dogma. And forgetting the source, too many now assume that “social doctrines” equals their pet list of “testimonies,” and that Brinton’s list came direct from Firbank Fell and the First Publishers; one labors largely in vain to set them into a broader context, either of theology or history.

    More formal presentations are hardly better. In 2011, the American Friends Service Committee produced a new pamphlet, sent to Meeting Clerks entitled, “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” which listed the “SPICES” version (The second “S” being for “Stewardship,” a bow to the environment). This six-letter acronymic agenda is the most recent transmogrification of Brinton’s formulation. It came printed on 100 per cent recycled paper – and it was also 100 % free of historical framing, theological context, or any awareness of the essential vacuity this left at the center of the slick production.

    So, besides continuing to wipe clear spots in the fogged-up windows of social media and organizational self-promotion, one would welcome any popular resource that might help Friends, old and new, find some clarity on these matters. And now comes, in this effort, Our Life Is Love, by Marcelle Martin.

    In the book, which she says is based on long study and wide personal engagement, she draws on “acquaintance with the lives of seventeenth-century Quakers, combined with the experiences of dedicated Quakers today.” From this mix she believes she has “unveiled ten essential elements in the process” of Quaker spiritual life.

She chose the term “elements” carefully, insisting that the ten features are not to be taken as stages in a definite procession, or prescribed rungs on a spiritual ladder. Nevertheless, she begins from her own early sense of religious longing, as the first element, and the ten are grouped into three categories of Awakening, Convincement and Faithfulness, which certainly appear progressive, and reasonably so.

    To illustrate her ten elements, she draws in quotes from numerous Friends, from early times and now. She also labors to include among them voices from across the theological spectrum and around the Quaker world, including Friends of color, Latin Americans and Africans. Linguistic and cultural differences make this effort feel strained at some points, but it’s a noble one, and basic to developing a Quakerism for our time, and not just for our local parochial place. 

    The book is evidently attracting considerable attention in FGC-oriented Quaker circles. One Friend praised it to me as a surefire discussion starter in meeting reading-discussion groups. I can see that potential, and anything that can get Friends talking about actual Quakerism, in its past and present settings rather than their feelings about what are often no more than urban legends and rumors about it, is an asset.

    At the same time, there are areas where the treatment of the elements was disappointing. Early Friends, for one, are typically presented as superhuman heroic and saintly figures. No doubt some were, at some times; yet from early on, the new movement also suffered through numerous internal conflicts and struggled with the impact of human imperfections.

These included, to take only a few, Fox’s seemingly ego-driven feud with James Nayler; William Penn’s (& others’) slaveowning; conflicts over removing hats during meeting, and even schism over setting definite times for meeting at all. Further, it took Fox years to quell fierce internal opposition to having women’s meetings. And there was the abiding reality of class differences: Penn’s “Primitive Christianity Revived” was by no means, a “Primitive Christianity of Equals.” 

    For that matter, what we now call the “Peace Testimony” (in fact a much more recent usage) was by no means as clear and unequivocal then as many now would like to believe. Isaac Penington, who is one of this author’s particular early role models (her title comes from him), was by no means a fan of pacifism. I don’t say all this to denigrate early Friends; for me, learning of their feet of clay has only made them more real and accessible. But all that rich ambiguity has no real place here.

    From later times, Martin mentions the schisms that scattered the Society in the nineteenth century, but doesn’t dwell on them. In one sense that is proper; this is not a history. Yet polarization and schism are by no means safely behind us (any more than the realities of class).  And there is essentially no mention here of the distressed condition of many Friends and meetings today, among whom some of the same forces are still tearing Quaker communities apart. This gives the text a parochial cast. It leaves one wondering if the author’s many years of travel have brought her through any of those times of serious internal trouble, which are regrettably very much part of the Quaker experience today.

    This lack gains importance when she speaks of “the Cross” as one of her elements.

Click here for the rest of the review.

Quaker Theology #29. The full issue is here.

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9 thoughts on “A Review of “Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey””

  1. I read your full review, Chuck, and see that you have a book in you about the meaning of the cross and the Quaker calling to those who do not hope for exceptional or even simple mystical exprience and those who are non-theistic. I don’t think Marcelle Martin’s book was meant to encompass all that, but, instead, to shed Light on those who seek to experience “our life is love”–if indeed it is. For Marcelle it is. I have seen/felt that in her presence for years. It’s not smooth sailing, the elements are helpful categories only. I totter on the edge of occasional and “maybe” experiences of life as love, and eagerly embrace what she has to teach me. Some writers are historians and some struggle to include the history that will help them communicate their experience. I benefit from both, and do not expect them to have the same goals.

    1. Hi Susan — I expect you’re right about more to say about “the cross” and stuff. I already did a book beginning my “religious autobiography,” (“Meetings”, out last spring: https://www.createspace.com/6272748 ), and there are more pieces of that story yet to get down, which will address those concerns and others. The non-mystical thing is significant. I had a conversation with Marcelle several years ago, when she was making her lists of work bolder Friends; she said she wanted to include Lucretia Mott on her list of Quaker mystics. Lucretia is one of my special Quaker heroes, and I’ve studied her life and thought a lot, and while she was (in my view) an exemplary Friend, she was also firmly and not-a-bit-afraid-to-say-so a NON-mystical (even anti-mystical) one. I explained that to Marcelle, and maybe she took it in, because Lucretia isn’t quoted in the book. I’ve had a couple experiences I would call mystical, so I’m not skeptical about that; but I’m not mainly that, and many very fine Friends are not at all. So I’m tender about them and their “spiritual equality.” Even goes for non-theists too.

  2. You write of Nixon’s lifelong membership in East Whittier Friends. I have read that he resigned his membership when he resigned the presidency.

    1. Allan, as my comments indicate, one hears a great many things about Nixon. However, Larry Ingle’s recent book, “Nixon’s First Coverup,” based on extensive research at both the church and the Nixon papers at his library, is dispositive: Nixon was a lifelong member.

  3. Thank you Chuck for this review. I’ve participated in a writing workshop at FGC with Marcelle and found it instructive as well as peaceful. It felt good to be reconnected this way.

    Your comment about the SPICE having a 2nd S added to it by AFSC speaks to my current angst about our understanding of what should be Testimonies and what are just “good ideas”. Their booklet, in the Acknowledgements (page 22) says they were inspired by San Francisco Friends School’s booklet which was itself modeled on one from Sidwell Friends School. I see from SFS webpage that they came up with 9 Testimonies but left out Equality! What is going on here? Friends can hardly remember 5 (SPICE) let alone live them! Why the need to increase them? http://www.sidwell.edu/about-sfs/quaker-values/testimonies/index.aspx

    I also have a HUGE worry about with the second “S” being added as a Testimony because to me, Stewardship implies ownership. Is this a Capitalist takeover of Friends’ Testimonies? Stewardship seems to me used by religious organizations as a metaphor for fundraising, as in “You give us your money because we know better what to do with it than you do. ” Is this new “S” a way to sneakily remind Friends to pay up or else?

    We in Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting, after many years of discernment about adding another testimony about the environment came up with a “third way”. We came up with two subheading under “Testifying to the Life of the Spirit”. First came “Testimonies”. Then we created a new section called “Areas of Witness” which have in it “Children”, Education”, “Government”, “Sexuality” and now “Harmony with Nature”. It occurred to us that if we lived our SPICE testimonies, then there would not be a need for a new one to address the environmental crisis we recognize as already upon us. The YM’s decision was to NOT add more Testimonies. The concern is to WITNESS in the world what we already know to be True!

    Our Simplicity Testimony section begins with a quote by Martin Cobin’s YM 1970 plenary talk on “The Value System of Friends” : “Simplicity Frees one of the clutter that interferes with the communion with God.” Does promoting whatever the “Issue of the Decade” to become another Testimony of some group of the Religious Society of Friends abandon our long standing Testimony on “Simplicity”?

    PS: You know that I’ve long asked the YM to allow the name to be changed from “A Guide to our Faith & Practice” to become “A Guide to our Faith & Practice, Practice, Practice.” . .. I get laughs every year I ask and whenever I mention it to a Friend. Yet, no minute is forthcoming . . yet. Of course the nervous laughter is an admission that we are way to worried about the words in our Guides and not enough about how Friends live them in practice in the actual world we live in.

    1. HI Free — always good to hear from thee. I like all you’ve said here, and especially this: “Does promoting whatever the “Issue of the Decade” to become another Testimony of some group of the Religious Society of Friends abandon our long standing Testimony on “Simplicity”?” Only I’d quibble about your use of “the decade”; these days such fads come and go more like with the year, or sometimes the seasons. Does anybody recall the testimony against smuggling? Or lotteries? Or buying and selling “prize goods”? These (and more) were all listed specifically in books of Discipline for decades (see them here: http://www.qhpress.org/texts/obod/queries.html ) But they’re gone now. And in those days it was PLAINNESS not Simplicity; big difference, and no such thing as “Equality.” I don’t think this matters much to the recent list-makers. Testimony mainly equals social-political AGENDA, driven mainly by the “liberal media.” (Or the rightwing media for most pastoral-evangelical Friends.) Not much Quakerism in that, in my view
      But anyway, good comment — and now I have to get back to my practice, practice, PRACTICE.

  4. Note to readers: For some unknown reason, the WordPress platform rejects some comments, automatically & without notice to me. It seems that this “rejection” involves comments sent through the Firefox browser. So a suggestion: if a comment does to go through, switch to another browser & try again!) I have turned the settings for Comments to the most “public” option. I want to encourage wide-ranging commentary & discussion here (while reserving the right to moderate comments deemed to be libelous or otherwise off the charts.)
    Here is a comment about my review of “Our Life Is Love” that the blog software would not accept. It’s worth reading.

    Chel Avery: I feel strongly about coming to the defense of Marcelle Martin’s book, “Our Life is Love,” recently reviewed in Quaker Theology (http://afriendlyletter.com/a-review-of-our-life-is-love-t…/…), but the site won’t accept comments from me, so here goes:
    Is this really supposed to be an essay about the many ways Quakers are mischaracterized and our many confusions and urban legends about ourselves? Or is it really meant to be a book review? I think the essay itself is interesting, clever, stimulating, and sadly true. I wish it had not also tried to include a review of this book, as that part detracts from a very good, barely related essay. The review criticizes Marcelle Martin’s book for not including material that simply does not belong within the scope of this title any more than a vegetarian cookbook is at fault for not giving instructions on how to fry chicken. The book’s apparent intention is to explore themes that have emerged in the mystical experiences of Friends — past and present — who led lives of highly committed effort to grow nearer to God. It does not describe the goals and experiences of all Friends, nor does it include all of our history—and it doesn’t pretend to do so. I myself am not this book’s biggest fan: I too found the author’s efforts to include voices from across the wide spectrum of Quakerism to be “strained”; I too would love to read a deeper exploration of the experience of “the cross”; and all in all, I find Robert Griswold’s similarly structured Pendle Hill pamphlet “Marking the Quaker Path” to be more meaningful than this “pretty good” work. Nonetheless, I think a book should be criticized on its own terms rather than for not being the book someone else should write. Blame the author for not including one of those introductions you see in academic books, warning away all readers who may come seeking something not to be found within. But don’t blame her for doing what she set out to do, rather than something different.

    1. This is an experiment. I am accessing this site in Explorer, rather than Firefox. If this comment appears, Firefox is the problem.

      1. Aha! Firefox is Soooo BUSTED! Wonder what Firefox has against WordPress?? (I hear it’s a jungle out there, browser-wise). Thanks for doing that experiment, Chel!

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