‘Why I Am Not A Progressive Quaker” – A Response
A few thoughts on Jim Wilson’s post, “Why I am Not a Progressive Quaker.”
First, I appreciate that he appears to have read my books on the Progressive Friends movement before commenting on them; not all reviewers take that much time.
Second, he credits the Progressive Friends with changing the Peace Testimony in both the liberal American branch and, evidently by osmosis, to other branches. They changed it, he says, from a group-enforced common standard, to an individual option which, by the time of U.S. entry into World War One was taken only by a rather shrinking minority. And he quotes from documents of 1918 to this effect.
There’s no question but that this shift did take place. And I also think the Progressives were quite influential; otherwise, I would not have put in the labor to write the two books.
Yet I fear Jim gives the Progressive Friends rather more credit for the change than even I think they deserve.
One important point here is historiographical: the history of American Friends at large regarding the Peace Testimony has been rather sketchily written and analyzed. Even so, the available sources show pretty clearly that internal forces were at work within both the Orthodox and even Conservative branches in the decades that included the U.S. Civil War.
But my sense from reading and study is that this evolution proceeded largely on separate, if somewhat parallel tracks. In those days, Hicksite, Orthodox and Conservative Friends existed in mostly isolated subcultures. They didn’t pay much attention to the “other bodies,” except for the occasional controversy.
(For instance, look at the book, Indiana Quakers Confront the Civil War, by Jacquelyn S. Nelson, which shows that substantial numbers of young Hoosier Quakers joined the Union Army; they were largely Orthodox, and were not moved to take up war due to Progressive propaganda.)
Moreover, Thomas Hamm’s award-winning, The Transformation of American Quakerism, traces the path by which midwestern Orthodox Friends shed virtually all their “distinctives,” including pacifism. And this evolution too, had little if anything to do with Progressive Friends.
It was the national trauma of the Civil War, in my view, that marked the real watershed of change in American Quakerdom. As many young Friends returned from their part in “carnal warfare,” the Quaker establishments who ruled in their meetings increasingly shrank from applying the clear commands of their own Disciplines, which called for disownment.
I am unaware of any hard numbers; but minutes and other sources indicate that while some (perhaps only a handful here and there) were disowned, others were mildly reproved and readmitted, and still others were not rebuked at all.
After all, they had gone out to fight in pursuit of a goal — ending slavery — that Friends had upheld for a century, and seemingly succeeded. Was not some understanding due, as well as forbearance? Not to mention that, after more than half a million casualties, who among the kinship networks that made up most local meetings would not have been weeping with gratitude that some of their own had been spared?
These questions echoed with their own music, across the branches, far beyond the sound of the Progressives’ trumpets.
And once many Quaker veterans had been pardoned for violating that one norm, what was to be done when many later came to their meetings to announce they planned to marry a non-Friend?
Many, many more Quakers had been disowned for “marrying out” than for fighting in wars. But is marrying, with its pattern of settled domesticity, respectability, and family, to be dealt with more harshly than fighting a war? Really?
Heavens, no. So disownments for “marrying out” declined.
And then, in due time, some came in and declared they had had their fill of uniforms in the war, and were now done with the enforced drab Quaker sameness: off with the broad brims, in with ribbons and bows. And this too, was increasingly accepted, across the branches, and due to their own internal forces. Progressives made their mark among the nascent liberal/FGC branch. But they were one such force among others. And soon enough, the decline of enforced group discipline was, I would contend, pretty much inevitable across the board.
Moreover, as with the outward, so with the inward: as Thomas Hamm shows, Midwestern Orthodox took up a Holiness theology that, while in most ways sharply different from that of the emerging Liberals, was equally individualistic in its views of the way of salvation — yet again, its rise was by no means the work of the Progressives.
Jim Wilson deplores this attitude he calls “hyper-individualism.” There’s no doubt that the Society of Friends in the U.S., within its various cultural milieux, is indeed an individualistic bunch today, much like the rest of Americans. And with this “individualism,” comes a susceptibility to the forces of mass propaganda, advertising and the conventional “wisdom” of mass “news” media.
I’m not sure what Jim Wilson has in mind as an alternative. It seems to me highly unlikely that today’s American Friends of whatever persuasion are anywhere near ready to recreate or accept a centrally-ruled church polity like that against which Progressive Friends rebelled, as recounted in my books. When I look across to the pastoral branches, I see somewhat more central authority in some places– but also continuing schisms and conflicts, a pattern by no means new in such groups, Quaker and otherwise.
Jim also has a post about the idea of a “Quaker monasticism.” It’s worth noting that some key earlyFriends were strongly anti-monastic. That’s the underlying thrust of William Penn’s well-known saying that, “True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.”
More recently, after World War Two, many Quaker & Quake-ish conscientious objectors became involved in communal experiments; same for a hefty sampling of my Sixties generation. Virtually all those experiments were either short-lived, or the Quakers in them wound up leaving in disappointment, quite often over issues of “individualism.”
From both this distant past and more recent cases, my own sense is that at their best Quakers are “communitarian” but not “communalist.” By “communitarian” I mean their optimal meeting communities have been tied together by personal and spiritual bonds, but with households and enterprises on their own; there was much cooperation and mutual aid; but not a quasi-“monasticism.” I’ll leave it to others to judge if that’s good or bad, but my sense is that Quakers are just like that.
The closest think I’ve seen to a ‘Quaker monastery,” is Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania. A fine new book about that settlement, now 80 years old, has just been published: Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill. In its early decades, Pendle Hill drew consciously, if selectively, on some Benedictine traditions. It also benefited from considerable Quietist Quaker influence at times. I found the book splendid and illuminating; I recommend it for further insight. (But Pendle Hill today is not much of a “monastery.”)
Even many seemingly separatist church communities display frayed edges when seen close up: Amishmen with beards and horse-drawn buggies–but cell phones in their pockets. Or a Benedictine abbey I visited in France — 700 years old, supported by cheese-making: but with a room full of computers and central heating in its ancient building.
What would a neo-separatist Quakerism look like today? That’s an interesting discussion to have, but I haven’t seen or heard much of it. Most that I do hear about simply echoes various trends in the larger culture; and while some of these ideas seem valuable, they are hardly “alternatives.”
The same goes for peace witness. My studies persuade me that the notion of a Good Old Days of solid communal support for a strict Quaker pacifist stand are largely a myth: for instance, a very fine book, Walking In The Way of Peace, by Meredith Weddle, shows convincingly that war resistance and war making were both present in the Quaker community of Rhode Island in 1675, when the colony was struck by the terror attacks of King Philip’s War. That was 140 years before the Progressives appeared. Peace witness was a struggle for many Friends in 1675; again in 1861; it is a struggle now.
Which does not mean I think we can all forget about working out some distinct Quaker approaches for our time. I’ve devoted considerable thought, and writing, to that subject. The books on the Progressives were part of that. Much as I like the Progressives, tho, they didn’t have all the answers. Where will we get them?
That’s for future posts.