Some years ago, a Friend who was much taken with what she believed was Quakerism’s essential, and defining character as a kind of mysticism, approached me. Knowing of my admiration for Lucretia mott, she asked if she should add Lucretia to her list of the great Quaker mystics.
Nope. Quite the contrary, I told her. In truth, Lucretia would in fact all-but head the list of the great anti-mystics of Quaker history. And as Lucretia’s motto was, “Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth,” it would be untruthful say otherwise.
Henry Cadbury, a U.S. relative of the legendary British Chocolate magnates, was a renowned New Testament scholar & translator, which I am advised is a much less magnateishly-remunerated profession. Though while he was doing that, he also taught at Harvard Divinity School (or HDS), which means he wasn’t going to starve.
In those days (and even now), HDS worked to have an ecumenical student body (in 1968, this outlook led them so far astray as to admit me).
Alas, by then Cadbury had retired. But echoes of his pedagogy still seemed to whisper in the HDS halls. This was especially true of his humor, which leavened his more widely renowned scholarship.
Cadbury was one of 91 scholars who translated the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a project which took many years and was published in 1952, with great public fanfare, big sales — and hot pushback from fundamentalists.
One such pastor, Rev. Martin Luther Hux of the Temple Baptist Church in Rocky Mount North Carolina, preached a two-hour sermon condemning the RSV, then climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck and burned a page from the RSV, after distributing American flags to his entire congregation. Other immolations were reported.
A reporter called Cadbury for comment. The professor paused, then observed that in former times, such critics preferred to burn the translators. So if now they were only burning the translation — wasn’t that a sort of progress?
Wit and erudition also came together in his New Testament courses. Cadbury was greatly admired by many students for his careful exposition of various approaches to analysis of New Testament texts, particularly the Gospels, and his care to avoid inserting his own views, so students were free to develop their own.
Or rather, this was admired by many. Yet some, among the more theologically orthodox, expected him not only to teach the Gospels, but also to “bear witness” to his belief in them, especially the key passages involving Jesus.
Thus the story is told that toward the end of a semester, one such student raised his hand, and then confronted Cadbury. As I recall, he said, “Professor, you have talked a lot about the crucifixion and the resurrection in the Gospel texts, but we have no idea what youbelieve about this. So, let’s have it: Yesor No, do youbelieve in the physical resurrectionof Jesus?”
Cadbury pondered the query with a sober mien, removed and polished his spectacles, carefully replaced them, and said:
“I believe . . . in the physical resurrection of Jesus . . . on Tuesdays, Thursdays . . . and sometimes Saturdays.”
One wonders if this class was convened on the day before a Saturday like today. But my source, or at least the recollection, is unclear on this point.
Perhaps it will be clearer tomorrow.
PS. Cadbury’s wife Lydia was a woman of strong views. For one, she was very skeptical of the popular trend among some Quakers toward mysticism. “Had another mystical experience, eh?” She once said to a visiting Friend. “Tush. I’d rather do a load of wash.”
On another occasion, at a Harvard faculty dance, she glared over her husband’s shoulder at a woman gliding across the floor, who had recently left her husband for another man: “Henry,” she said, “did you know that woman has committed adultery?”
“All I know,” Henry sternly whispered back, “is that she has not committed it with me.”
The Separation Generation, by Chuck Fager
A detailed summary of the five schisms that have rocked American Quakerdom in this century (so far), with an early assessment of their significance.
Imminence, Rootedness, and Realism: Eschapocalyptic
Action (or not) in the Age of Trump, by r. scot miller.
An effort to construct the elements of a 21st century Quaker theology, turning to such largely untapped sources as Malcom X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Reinhold Niebuhr.
A sermonDeliveredby Lucretia Mott, at Yardleyville.
Bucks Co., Pa., Sept. 26, 1858, by Lucretia Mott
A contrasting Quaker theological vision, advanced by one of the most influential (but unheralded) American theological voices the Society has produced. Presented 160 years ago, this vision is still keenly relevant, hotly disputed, and its author still largely unrecognized as the theological giant she was.
Two Specimens of Quaker Theology
In Transition, 1852
Excerpted from Voices From the Spirit World,
By Isaac Post, 1852
INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Isaac Post was a Friend, raised in Long Island, New York, who later settled in Rochester, New York with his family. There he was active in abolitionist and other reformist groups, which brought him into conflict with the more cautious & conservative elders of his Hicksite Friends meeting.
He and his wife Amy resigned from their meeting in the 1840s, and later were active with the Progressive Friends groups in the region. The Posts also were early supporters of the Spiritualist movement which swept through reformist and Progressive Friends circles.
Isaac soon became a “writing medium” himself, and in 1852 produced a book, a collection of “messages” from various “spirits.”
Included in Post’s book were “messages” from many prominent deceased Friends and public figures (e.g, voltaire & George Washington). These missives, which seem to this reader to be largely exercises in wish-fulfillment, articulate the basic impulses of Progressive Quaker theology, clothed in and justified by the words of notable Quaker & non-Quaker forebears. They also offer a capsule version of the Progressive conflict with the received, more orthodox theology.
To respond to the State of the Union address, we’ve invited two special Friendly commentators, who are joining us via our new astral projection uplink.
First up is our old buddy, Walter Whitman, late of Camden, New Jersey, where he settled once they named a big bridge there after him. Whitman is known as the author of the best-selling pro-marijuana polemic of all time, Leaves of Grass.
What “secret” am I talking about here? Lucretia Mott with a secret?
For her devotees, Lucretia Mott’s life is, or should be, an open book: born into a loving, encouraging family, married for 57 years to what one biographer called “the best husband ever”; she had a long public career of preaching and speaking, of which generous samplings have been preserved; and she wrote hundreds of letters which scholars have combed through. She also endured sorrows: the loss of two of her six children, and then widowhood; and she overcame years of withering criticism of her ideas and “heresies.”
None of that is new, or unexamined. And in her personal carriage she was a model of traditional Quaker propriety: she disdained novels as frivolous and vain; it was husband James who sat in a quiet corner, burning the midnight oil, unable to put down Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Then, while Hicksites all around were shedding the grey and the bonnet, she was plain til the very end. Continue reading Lucretia Mott’s Birthday Secret: No Woman Is an Island?→
Lucretia Mott, considered at the time of her death in 1880 to be the “greatest American woman of the nineteenth century” by many of her contemporaries, was a Quaker abolitionist, women’s rights activist and social reformer. She was also a key figure in an important insurgent movement of Progressive Friends. Her messages and actions are very pertinent today – and laid much of the foundation for the current women’s movement.
Thursday First Month (January) 3, 2019, will mark Lucretia’s 226th birthday.
What message would she have for us if she were here today?
HINT: She’d likely tell us we’re in deep trouble and should get up and get busy. (She’d say it nicely, but urgently).
Maintaining religious liberty within the Religious Society of Friends has not always been easy. For instance, contrary to popular Quaker legend, work in the abolitionist movement was widely unpopular among Friends, and especially repugnant to the entrenched power structure of recorded ministers and elders. Abolitionist work even precipitated a purge that led to a formal schism in Indiana Orthodox Yearly Meeting. (Only after the Civil War was won and legal slavery abolished did many prominent Friends suddenly “discover” that they had really been for abolition all along.)
While these authorities did oppose owning, buying or selling slaves, they also thought public activism aimed at abolishing the institution of slavery was “creaturely,” needlessly dangerous — and many highly-placed Friends, while not owning slaves, yet had extensive business interests connected to the slave economy. All these were threatened by connections with abolition “agitation.”
The result was what I have called “The Great Purge”; many Friends were forced out of the Society, and others resigned, to uphold their antislavery principles. Even some meetings were laid down by “executive action” for being tainted by the reforming virus.
Some Friends did not wait for the Overseers and elders to show up to apply this “discipline.”
Instead, they pre-emptively renounced their membership. One early activist, for both abolition and women’s rights, was Abby Kelley (later Abby Kelley Foster). She left her Meeting in Connecticut in 1841, publishing her resignation letter, and insisted that she had disowned Friends, for defaulting on their own testimonies, not the other way around.
In Philadelphia, two rising stars, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, also arranged a departure in their own unique way. Refugees and turncoats from a wealthy slaveholding family in South Carolina, they had joined Friends in Philadelphia because of the testimony against slavery.
They had also become instant abolitionist celebrities in 1837, when they went on an antislavery lecture tour in New England. Their lectures were thronged, and they even testified before the Massachusetts legislature, the first women ever to do so. But they were also rebuked and stifled by the enforced quietism of the Quaker establishment, and soon resolved to leave the Society.
An elegant way out soon appeared, when Angelina became engaged to abolitionist activist Theodore Dwight Weld. Because Weld was not a Friend, under the existing and strictly applied rules of the Discipline, Angelina forfeited her membership when she married him on May 14, 1838 — and Sarah was disowned as well, simply for being present at the ceremony. (More Friends were expelled for such “offenses” in those decades than for any other cause.)
Lucretia Mott was a friend and supporter of the Grimkes — but as a public speaker & abolition activist, she too had been the target of several disownment attempts, and she did not dare attend the wedding to avoid falling into that trap.
Indeed, Lucretia did not attend a non-Quaker wedding until 1863, twenty-five years later, when she was seventy, and when the strictures of the discipline were finally beginning to relax their grip:
Lucretia wrote of this in a letter to her sister Martha Wright, on Christmas Day, 1863. In it she told of the wedding of Laura Strattan, a distant cousin, who was marrying a dashing army officer, Col. Fitzhugh Birney. He was the son of James G. Birney, a prominent abolitionist who had run for president for the Liberty Party. The groom came in his dress uniform, accompanied by other soldiers.
“They made an imposing appearance,” Lucretia wrote, “with all the awful regimentals — [William] Furness [the minister] acted well his part–the whole thing beautiful–his prayer touching– especially the close for Fitzhugh.”
The marriage did not last long. Birney had taken part in many major battles, including Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and he had been wounded. The exertions of extended combat broke his health, and in the spring of 1864 his health failed. After surviving so much combat, he succumbed to pneumonia in June; Laura Strattan Birney was a war widow after less than seven months. (Harvard Memorial Biographies, Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1867, Vol. 2, pp. 415-424)
Theirs was one tragedy among a multitude. But the significance of this report here is something else, a detail that by contrast seems trivial to the point of frivolousness, but is nonetheless portentous:
By openly being present at their nuptials that December, Lucretia Mott had for the very first time attended a non-Quaker wedding, one furthermore conducted by a “hireling preacher,” in a church, with the groom in military regalia, she had defied several rules that had long been grounds for immediate disownment in her Quaker world.
But now she did it — and nothing happened. She had gained and used a new measure of religious liberty, for Friends. the “Great Purge” was ending.
There have been other struggles for religious liberty in our small Quaker world. Religious Liberty Day, May 24th, is not only for others. it’s for Friends too.
More about this “Great Purge” and its religious context in my book, Remaking Friends,available here.