The Western Friend magazine will soon hold an online discussion about the value of learning about Quaker history.
This is a very good idea; it should happen more often. But why is it a good thing for western Friends (& others too) to learn more about Quaker history?
Let me suggest it’s because in the American west, liberal monthly and yearly meetings embody and reflect less of an “ancient” tradition, and much more the legacy of a radical insurgency in American Quakerism. This movement shaped the liberal stream in the east, and appears to have provided much of the basic outlook for the independent western YMs — yet it had been essentially forgotten and ignored until just the last few years.
That radical movement was called Progressive Friends. It first appeared in the 1840s, and its longest-lived group continued until 1940. But its major importance was less as a separate body, but more as a shaping influence within the Eastern liberal Quaker stream, an influence which spread to the west.
(Progressives weren’t isolationists, like the early Hicksites & Orthodox. In fact, Progressives didn’t even have membership lists; so, many interested Friends from other groups attended their meetings, absorbed much of their agenda, and then carried it back home, spreading its influence.)
However, this Progressive Friends insurgency has been almost entirely left out of the major Quaker histories. (More on this below.)What were the main ideas of this “radical movement”?
1. A strong emphasis on the individual Friend, as spiritual seeker and finder.
2. A similarly strong focus on local Meetings as the main, autonomous operating unit of the Society of Friends.
3. A near-total avoidance of the practice of recording ministers, and setting apart “select meetings” of such.
4. A suspicion of centralized, professionalized, or top-down yearly meeting authority, and a strong preference for simple, cooperative, minimalist central structures.
5. An individual and group openness to religious sources and experience from outside the Christian tradition and canon.
Many western Friends may take these operating principles for granted as basic & original. But this assumption shows the value of knowing Quaker history, because every one of them was a drastic departure from two hundred years of settled Quaker practice and church structure.
for the first 200 years, the Society of Friends was a top-down, hierarchical body, where individual seeking was subordinate to stern group monitoring and control; and both worship & ministry were deeply immersed in biblical contexts.
What is now often called the “Testimony on Equality” is essentially absent from early Quakerism; it surfaced as part of the Progressive resistance to top-down (male) hierarchy, and took many years of effort to approach its current prominence in many yearly meetings. In fact, even now it is by no means universally recognized.
Just how completely this Progressive insurgency has been forgotten or downplayed is vividly illustrated by Howard Brinton, in his Friends for 300 (now 350)Years, undoubtedly the most widely-read one-volume Quaker history of the past few generations. He put it this way:
“Since the Hicksite, or liberal Friends, had assumed a position which allowed for a wide variety of theological opinion, no further separations occurred among them. They reduced the authority of elders and overseers so they did not continue to lay the same emphasis as did the Orthodox on time-honored Quaker traditions.” (p. 232, 350 Edition.)
“No further separations”?
Would that it were true!
But Brinton was wrong. Completely wrong. Totally wrong. Dead wrong. And this is not a minor point. (He’s not alone. Other Orthodox histories’ dismissals or neglect of this movement are summarized below.)
After the major Orthodox-Hicksite Separation in 1827, the Hicksite honeymoon, if there was one, didn’t last very long. By the mid-1830s, less than ten years after their emergence, the Hicksite Quakers faced growing internal discord.
Why? For one thing, a strongly entrenched, and tradition-minded “Hicksite Quaker Establishment” held most of the formal reins of power, and wanted to maintain a top-down Quietist religious culture almost identical to the Orthodox, except with a Hicksite elite at the controls.
Yet at the same time, there were a growing number of thoughtful, articulate Hicksites who were thinking “outside this box.”
Most of the leadership was appalled to learn that what one called a “wide variety of theological oppinion” [sic] was developing among the rank and file.
They foresaw (correctly) multiple hazards to their status quo in this development: looking outward, these “oppinions” produced calls for new social activism in forms (like abolitionism & women’s rights) that alarmed and offended the Quietist leadership. (Yes, they really did.)
And even more disturbing, these reformers also began calling for a “reformation” within the Society of Friends, away from its sternly top-down history, toward centering authority in local meetings and giving prime respect for individual seeking and action.
Some liberal Friends today think these equalitarian ideas were promulgated by George Fox and Margaret Fell as Quakerism originally took form.
Alas, not so. The Progressive agenda added up to a radical new model for the Society of Friends, which was not only controversial, but often subject to sanction. In fact, for thirty years, from the 1830s til the end of the Civil War in 1865, many of its advocates were disowned, along with whole Meetings, and even entire Quarters deemed to be too soft on them. I have called this previously undocumented wave of internal Hicksite repression (Which Brinton and the other Orthodox historians completely missed) the Great Purge.
Further, contra Howard Brinton, the authority of this Hicksite Establishment was not “reduced” until after several more decades marked by turmoil and conflict. By the time Howard Brinton took up his pen, in the early 1950s, it may have looked that way, because the Progressive agenda had by then essentially become the new liberal status quo. But the change had not come easily or quietly.
Of the major Progressive evangelists, only one, Lucretia Mott, is a familiar name today. Mott went back and forth between Progressive sessions and her home Philadelphia Hicksite circles, where she actively spread the new Progressive gospel, defying several attempts to have her disowned.
I suggest that learning more about that history will enrich the self-understanding of western Friends (and others too), and clarify some of their differences with other Quaker bodies in that region.
Of course, this history, like that of the other streams, is not a wall around their faith, meant to hem it in, but something to build on; it has and will continue to evolve. My hope is that better understanding of it will assist Friends in better pursuing that evolution “in the Light.”
For further background: in the standard (Orthodox-centered) histories, when noted at all, the Progressive Friends are seen as a minor, mid-nineteenth century offshoot of some of the Hicksite yearly meetings, an ephemeral tendency which soon dissipated. Elbert Russell’s History of Quakerism gives them one paragraph (370-71), as does Barbour and Frost’s The Quakers (181). Rufus Jones, in The Later Periods of Quakerism, Vol. II, relegates them to a summary footnote (596), while neither John Punshon’s Portrait in Grey nor the evangelical Walter Williams’s The Rich Heritage of Quakerism mention them at all.
We have already heard Howard Brinton’s astounding wrong-headed dismissal, in his book, which is far and away the top selling “History” of the past seventy years. Even the distinguished scholar Thomas Hamm, in his 2003 survey, The Quakers In America, continues this tradition, devoting only two paragraphs to the movement.
How did this neglect happen?
It happened because almost all the major Quaker histories have been written by Friends shaped by the Orthodox tradition. (The pioneering works of liberal Friend H. Larry Ingle are the exceptions that prove the rule.) And thus the major Quaker histories until very recently have been very strongly tilted toward an Orthodox-centered narrative.
Which is, for instance, why so much of the writing about 20th Century Quakerism revolves around the thought, the achievements and putative failings of one person, that fine flower of Quaker Orthodoxy, Rufus Jones.
Only a few have begun to notice that, important as he was to the Orthodox, Rufus does not equal, or even dominate the American Quaker 20th century; but that is still big news to many.
Why was Jones’s influence limited? For one thing, because until the 1940s, the Hicksite and Orthodox groups lived in separate subcultural bubbles: they read separate magazines and books, heard different speakers, attended separate gatherings, and what they knew about “the Other Body” mostly came indirectly.
Howard Brinton, like Rufus, came out of this Orthodox culture in Pennsylvania; it’s no wonder Brinton got Hicksite history all wrong: his kind of Quaker knew practically nothing about what had happened among them, even though there were many who lived in his home state.
This heavy Orthodox bias is not a conspiracy. It reflects instead a difference in culture & religious values: Orthodox Friends believed in history: sacred history from the Bible; Christian church history (especially Protestant), as they interpreted (and debated) it; and, logically, Quaker history, viewed through a blinkered Orthodox lens. So they wrote histories as part of their religious journey.
Meanwhile, the Hicksites, especially those influenced by the Progressive Friends, were oriented toward the Future (definitely with a capital F), and the Progress it promised. They weren’t completely uninterested in history, just almost – and they only very rarely got around to writing it. Archives accumulated, fortunately; and many Hicksite Friends were personally interested in genealogy (i.e., their family history); but that was about it.
In fact, there were no books at all (and only a scattering of articles) about the Progressive Friends and their influence, until three years ago. And there is as yet no book-length history of the Hicksite movement, which is now almost two hundred years old.
However, Thomas Hamm, the dean of American Quaker historians, is now completing the first scholarly history of the Hicksite stream up until 1900. (And no–it is not “ironic” that the first really substantive study of the first seventy years of Hicksite history is to be completed by a pre-eminent Orthodox scholar; it figures!)
For that matter, another Orthodox-shaped writer, Doug Gwyn, is now finishing a written exploration of the voluminous Friends General Conference archives. And not until 2013 and 2014, were the first two books which chart and document the Progressive Friends movement and its lasting influence written and published.
Two books, published in 2013 and 2014, are now in print about the Progressive Friends: Angels of Progress (this is a compilation of documents from the movement.)
And Remaking Friends; it presents a narrative history of the movement and its impact.
Both were written by me, based on research in original archival sources.
An explanatory article about the lost-and-found FGC Uniform Discipline, describing its origin, summarizing its major tenets, and describing its rediscovery, is online here: “FGC’s ‘Uniform Discipline’ Rediscovered,” first published in Quaker History, Vol, 89, Fall 2000.
The most detailed “Manifesto” of the Progressive Friends movement was issued in 1853, titled the “Exposition of Sentiments.” It is now online as well.