Researching and writing about Progressive Friends took up most of my time from the autumn of 2013 through the spring of 2014. Often this was a paradoxical experience: from one angle, it was a very solitary effort: from another, very crowded.
I did this research at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania, as the Cadbury research scholar in Quaker History. Most of my time at Pendle Hill was spent solo: in the Friends Historical Library at nearby Swarthmore College, poring over old letters, minutes, pamphlets and books; in my room, reading more old documents; then lots of staring into my computer screen, at the ever-growing store of texts available there.
Along with that, of course, the writing, 700+ pages in two volumes; a solitary task if there ever was one.
So I wasn’t much good to the “community” there: skipping most collective activities, even taking many of my meals in my room. There’s always lots going on at Pendle Hill, but don’t ask me about the schedule during my time there, because I don’t know much.
That was part of the deal, though: Pendle Hill awarded me the Cadbury Scholarship based on a proposal to do a substantial research project. And I meant to get it done. But doing it required focus, focus, and more focus.
So that was one angle. But there was another.
From this other side, my time at Pendle Hill was not solitary at all. In fact, it was crowded, noisy and often grueling.
That’s because of two things: first, the times– I was burrowing into a period of frequent, almost constant turmoil in U.S. history: 1840 to 1940. When I opened that door, the clouds of civil war were gathering all around; and while many earnest, sincere efforts were being made to prevent the deluge, I knew, as the participants did not, that they were bound to fail. And when I finally closed the door, in 1940, an even bigger war was about to engulf the country and Friends. Plus other wars in between, along with a first Gilded Age that looked eerily, depressingly familiar.
Not that this old news was all bad: along the way, slaves were freed; women grasped many rights; some old orthodoxies collapsed; today’s liberal Quakerism was forged; and more. But it was intense. The “Progress” these Progressive Friends believed in took one beating after another; even as it made considerable impact.
And besides the roller-coaster ride of those years, my mind – and often, it felt like, my room– were crowded, filled with a succession of remarkable, vivid characters. Some names are familiar: Lucretia Mott (probably my favorite), Frederick Douglass, The Grimke sisters, and then many others less well-known except to Quaker history nerds.
Let’s take Joseph Dugdale as a specimen. A reform-minded Hicksite who joined in abolition and Underground Railroad work in Ohio, he was disowned for that, and for not keeping quiet about it. He felt his expulsion was unjust, and began a quest for exoneration that lasted twenty years.
This journey first took him to Pennsylvania and the Longwood Progressive Yearly Meeting, then to Iowa, and ultimately to the new Illinois Yearly Meeting. There Dugdale played a crucial but below-the radar role in making Illinois YM the first Progressive beachhead inside the Hicksite world.
Or consider Elizabeth Buffum Chace of Rhode Island. She was something of a Quaker grandee, married to a prosperous textile mill owner, and socially prominent (but plain). She too joined in abolition work, and likewise felt the lash of the anti-reform Quaker establishment.
But she refused to bow, and quit before they could disown her. Yet Chace did not wander far; her husband stayed a Friend, and she sought out Progressives. Nor was she only an activist: she also had to cope with many family tragedies, not least the early deaths of five children in a row. Small wonder she turned to spiritualism, which offered her “messages” of comfort from the lost little ones. And there is more to her story.
Or – just one more for now– there’s Moncure Conway. He was not a Friend, but as a young, Virginia-born, proslavery, hellfire-preaching Methodist minister, he had an encounter with a Quaker community, non-slaveholders in the slave state of Maryland. This confrontation was entirely peaceful, but also entirely fatal – to Conway’s traditional theology, and to his proslavery attitudes as well. The Quakers he met didn’t argue with him; but as the old saying goes, their lives preached, and the message was explosive. (He thought hard about becoming a Quaker, but ended up a Unitarian, because he couldn’t give up music.)
Yet despite these radical changes, as a native southerner he still loved his “homeland,” and yearned to find a way to end the “peculiar institution” there that would avoid the ravages of a possible war. He tried, and tried again – and you can guess that he failed; but not what it cost and where it left him afterward.
These and many others became much more for me than words on a page, or dim unsmiling photographs (nobody said “Cheese” in those days). Not all of them could fit even into two volumes; the books were already long enough! But that just means there is more for other seekers to discover and bring us.
These were my companions, often teachers, and elders, during a crowded and intense eight month pilgrimage through a century marked by war, social and economic upheaval, and relentless change both inside the Society of Friends, and in American society at large.
All done now. As I drafted this post, was leaving Pendle Hill for home in a few days. Thanks again, Pendle Hill; I believe I stayed the course with my commitment to you and Henry Cadbury; I hope I have done right by these many other Friends as well.
My two books about Progressive Friends, Angels of Progress and Remaking Friends, are available now from Amazon (Kindle too) or via these links: