Writing Quaker history & theology is not exactly the road to fame and fortune.
But a few still take it, and among those of the passing generation, one that I most admire is Douglas Gwyn, who is always Doug to me.
One reason for admiration is that Doug has produced some outstanding work. My favorite is his book, Personality and Place, which I consider his masterpiece (and reviewed at length here).
He calls the book a “theological history” of Pendle Hill, the Quaker center near Philadelphia which has been a main crossroads and watering hole for Friends for nearly a century.
In a style that is always gentle but nonetheless relentless, he charts Pendle Hill’s evolution/devolution from being (as the first sign at its entrance declared) “A Center for Religious and Social Study”, to serving as what a recent board member sadly decried as “a navel observatory.”Gwyn convincingly shows how Pendle Hill’s trajectory mirrors and illuminates a “modern” and “liberal” Quakerism sliding largely into decadent, self-absorbed conformity and irrelevance.
But important as his written work is, book reviews are not our subject here. I want instead to pay tribute to Doug’s other “career,” that of a singer/songwriter,which he has pursued for almost as long as his scholarship. Maybe longer, since he retired from theology in 2017, and is still busy with music five years later.
Doug hasn’t pursued music-making for money, except for an early stint managing a blues-oriented coffee house called “The Morgue” on the Indiana University campus, and selling the odd cassette. He began writing songs in the late 1970s, and has often performed, but mostly for coffee house-sized groups at Pendle Hill or other such venues. As he explains, he’s done most of his recording himself:
My first attempt at multi-track recording was during the summer of 1999 at Pendle Hill. My friends, Peter and Annie Blood-Patterson, well known folk singers and producers of the Rise up Singing songbook, lent me their four-track recorder and effects box. I spent hot summer nights with the windows closed (to keep out the roar of crickets and katydids) and the loud air conditioner turned off, sweating profusely as I learned how to overdub harmonies and vocal sound effects along with my faltering guitar and singing. The recording persona “The Brothers Doug” came out of that experience.
And several albums later, he’s made his music available to the world, on a dedicated website: https://brothersdoug.me/free to listen to and download. On the site he’s included (by my count) 103 songs, and he’s ditched their copyrights for what he calls “commonrights,” making them part of the general wealth of untrammeled creativity.
Many of his early songs had Quaker references, often satirical and sometimes trenchant, such as “A Process In the Wind,” “That of Odd in Everyone,” and “Making Quakers from Scratch.” He’s also unafraid to aim at his own vanity, as in “Hair Envy,” which laments the erosion of his own coiffure (“Why Do I Love Your Hair? Because . . . It’s There.”
One of his sharpest Quaker satires was “Pendle Hill Revisited.” In a way it prefigures in compressed rhymes his book “Personality & Place”. (BTW, the tune here is that of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”:
Bill woke up and said to his wife, honey, I’ve got to change my life! Where can I find that higher path, with courses that don’t require math?” His wife said, “Let me think for a minute, Bill– one thing will help (if anything will), try spending a term at Pendle Hill!
Bill enrolled and had the time of his life, He finally got round to calling his wife: He said, “My dear, I’ve found myself, It’s drying now on the pottery shelf.” His wife said, “I’m so glad for you, Bill, Come home for Christmas and review your will, Then spend another term at Pendle Hill!
Next thing he knew, the year was up, Joy overflowed sweet William’s cup. He said, “I’ve got to stay somehow, I’m on a roll, I can’t stop now . . . .” [So yes, you guessed it, our old Friend Bill Spent the rest of his career at Pendle Hill . . .] Bill’s last years were in managed care, Still trying to learn that centering prayer, Till death took Bill out on a date, And he met St. Peter at the pearly gates.
St. Peter said, “Should I let you in, Bill?” Bill said, “Hell, do what you will, I’d rather be at Pendle Hill!”
And on moonless nights you’ll find him still, Along the path at Pendle Hill.”
Many of Doug’s newer songs are more philosophical than theological, though the distinction is often fuzzy. Not a few have an apocalyptic cast, “The Other Shoe”:
Well we all know that the climate is changing, If we care to admit it or not, We take positions on the same condition, But we all know what we’ve got.
We all know something’s got to give, Oh, yes we do, But Who? And Why? And What? While we wait, for the Other Shoe– To drop . . . .
This near-term gloomy outlook fits his scholarly background (Doug’s dissertation, which became his first book, Apocalypse of the Word, published in 1986). They also have increasing echoes in the social, environmental & political currents of our era.
One I like that straddles the line is “FAQ,” which consists entirely of questions:
FAQ October 2018
How did we get here? How soon can I go? Are you for real? How would I know? Where did that come from? What’s your excuse? Is it just me? What’s there to lose? Refrain: FAQ, frequently asked questions, FAQ, frequently asked questions . . . .
Where is the restroom? How much is enough? How will the end come? Which end is up? Does he still love me? How much does it cost? Why did she do that? Could we be lost? FAQ, frequently asked questions, FAQ, frequently asked questions . . . .”
But one question that he has answered with glee involves letting go of a lot of what he grappled with for so long, and his song about it brings a smile to the faces of many who are, or are nearing, a certain age:
Well, I’ve been hired, and I’ve been fired, I’ve jumped through every hoop required, Til my sell-by date expired,
And now My very soul is tired.
So I’m putting on that cardigan sweater, And I’m already feeling better — Baby, I’m retired!” (He’s retired, baby.)
On the website, there are 103 songs, including twelve written just last year.
Now, giving away your music resembles doing Quaker theology in one respect, namely that it’s not a road to riches either.
But Doug is already a wealthy man in a lot of other ways, if you ask me: several good books, a quiet life in Social Security simplicity, in his home state, and with access to low-cost technology that makes both his writing and music widely accessible, for those who seek it out, and many more should.
And this is not the first time Doug has shown that, contrary to popular wisdom, there can be a free lunch, at least intellectually/spiritually.
On Christmas 2015, with a little assistance from this blog, Doug posted an entire book, Words In Time, including many of his best essays on Quakerism and its discontents, as an absolutely free download.
You do NOT sign in. You do NOT pay. (Not now. Not ever.) You do NOT leave your name or email address.
(And since we won’t have your name or email, we won’t sell it or trade it or send you stuff or do anything else with it. Because –did we mention? — we won’t have it.)
Here are the pieces you’ll find in this book. Most are otherwise very hard to find:
Part I: Covenant
1. The Covenant of Light 2. Renewing Our Covenant: Can Our Branches Be Olive Branches? 3. Sense and Sensibilities: Quaker Bispirituality Today 4. The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism 5. Can’t See the Covenant for the Contracts
Part II: Seed
6. The Seed: The Power of God Among Us 7. “Sink Down to the Seed”: Going Deeper in Quaker Life and Witness 8. The Seed: Captivity and Liberation
Doug said about Words In Time, when it was first published: This book is a collection of short pieces, most of which have appeared in print elsewhere. They cover a nine-year period, 1988-97. I chose the title Words in Time because several of the pieces were written for particular occasions, and address specific dilemmas facing Friends at the time. As such, these keynotes and essays are somewhat time-bound and situation-specific. For example, “The Covenant of Light” addressed Friends United Meeting shortly before the “Realignment” controversy erupted at the end of 1990. But problems of alienation and mutual exclusion within the wider Quaker family continue; the message of reconciliation still needs to be heard.
[Thee Can Say THAT Again! Okay, he will: But problems of alienation and mutual exclusion within the wider Quaker family continue; the message of reconciliation still needs to be heard.] Doug continued: All the pieces in this collection attempt to place current Quaker struggles within a larger context. The rootstock of our Quaker tradition, in its unique expression of the ancient Hebrew- Christian faith, can provide important perspective on today’s dilemmas. In particular, two themes encompass this collection: covenant and seed.
One more song i want to mention, which is in the collection: Here’s the concluding verse:
Yonder stand those Quakers on the far side of the back of beyond misfit mystics, a boil on the bum of Babylon they’re too few to make much difference too peaceful to break many laws an endangered species of spiritual life practiced in the art of lost cause.
Yonder stand those Quakers singing “We Shall Overcome”; yonder stand those Quakers
God help those poor fools carry on God help those poor fools carry on
“The irony here,” Doug says, “is that the song adopts the perspective of someone in the cultural mainstream, pondering Friends from the outside. We Quakers sometimes forget how odd we can seem to others . . . In spite of the song’s cynical tone, the bemused observer still affirms, “God help those poor fools carry on.”
Doug’s music, like much of his writing, also energizes me. And theological Quaker folksongs?
Why not? Better than a lot of the field’s product.
[Details on a live performance of “The Spirit of Harriet Tubman” 0n June 27 are below. Spread the word!]
During much of the 1850s, Harriet Tubman, felt almost like a prisoner. She lived in Canada, just a few miles west of the U. S. border at Niagara Falls. She was safe there, but itchy to help more enslaved people to escape.
And today, Diane Faison of Winston-Salem, NC, knows something of how Harriet felt.
Tubman, the Ace of the Underground Railroad, was a hunted woman. Southern slavecatchers wanted her dead or alive. She had secretly returned to the state to aid others several more times.
So– the City of Charleston South Carolina wasted no time. After the City Council voted unanimously on June 23, 2020 to take down its landmark monument to John C. Calhoun, a crew swung into action, starting at near midnight.
It was no small task to pluck the figure from its 100-foot pedestal. It took the workers until late the next day to bring Calhoun floating back down to earth, and ship him off to a future of obscurity.
At Snow Camp we’re working at broadening the vision that created our acclaimed historical drama, Pathway to Freedom, to bring out more awareness of our practical connections to the actual Underground Railroad.
I admit, though, that sometimes I’m tempted to believe, as one prominent historian has argued, that the “Underground Railroad” (UGRR) is mainly a myth, spun into heroic proportions on legends, that serve mainly to puff up self-serving white people’s memories.
And surely there has been a lot of myth-making about it, feeding white rescue fantasies, which has deservedly been deflated by recent revisionist research.
But even after discounting the expansionist folklore, I haven’t been able to dismiss this saga — not since I visited this church, the Salem Chapel in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, only a few miles beyond the U.S. border at Niagara Falls.
The modest people of Salem Chapel are the descendants of many intrepid men and women who made this long and often terrifying journey and succeeded. More than twenty such settlements of freed peoples’ were planted along the southern end of Ontario, stretching 250-plus miles from Buffalo to the lakeside city of Windsor, just a short ferry (or clandestine canoe) ride from Detroit. Many thousands of enslaved people showed the grit and stamina to start and finish their incredible journeys. (Many thousands more, truth be told, tried and failed, and usually paid a terrible price.)
Among the early worshipers at Salem Chapel was Harriett Tubman,. She led several parties there, and stayed on for most of the 1850s, when she was being hunted below the border. She returned south when the Civil War began, to undertake more exploits for the Union war effort.
Moreover, alternatives to the white savior UGRR plotline have been around for a long time, if too-long neglected. One of the best was also the earliest, by William Still of Philadelphia.
He had been a key figure in that city’s Vigilance Committee, which aided a great many successful slave escapes, and in 1872 he published the first detailed, documented account of his work and that of the Philadelphia underground.
Still’s book is a landmark, and available free online, in full.) Further, Still’s view of the struggle was proudly Black-centered, as is evident right from his book’s title page:
Yet he was also forthright and even generous in acknowledging the active and sustained assistance his committee had from numerous activist whites, many of whom also took substantial risks. Among the white supporters, none outnumbered Quakers or former Quakers.
So William Still’s Underground Railroad was a Black initiative, built on and energized by the desire and action of the enslaved to break from bondage, but many were not entirely alone in the effort. And as Still’s 780 pages of dense text showed, there was plenty of joint initiative to recount.
The most complete recent history of the UGRR, Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, reflects a similar pattern, only painted on a much broader canvas: where William Still focused on Philadelphia; Burdewich points out that what was then called the “Northwest” (now the Midwest), was criss-crossed by an equally, if not more important group of UGRR pathways, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, routes ultimately terminating in Canada.
It’s about 700 miles from Salem Chapel in Ontario to Snow Camp, North Carolina — as the Canada geese flocks fly; on the ground it’s many more. Hard miles, through forests, winding through mountains and crossing rivers, in all kinds of weather, hungry and hunted. Here in Snow Camp, what we know of the UGRR is mostly folklore, but still it fits with these big-picture accounts, though with plenty of local twists.
For one thing, it’s right in the thick of a “Quaker hotbed” that was almost a century old in the years leading up to the Civil War, and which survived the fighting, despite losing many members in treks west, to Indiana and other non-slave states.
This meant there were many potential UGRR sympathizers around Snow Camp– though they kept a low profile. After all, while the UGRR was controversial in the North, it was criminally illegal in the South: a number of white sympathizers were caught at it in the South and served long prison terms; more than one died in jail.
In this tense atmosphere, UGRR work was kept both secret and carefully compartmentalized: most participants only knew where the next stopping place was, and often were unaware of who operated it. The renowned UGRR tree near the Guilford College campus is a good example: nestled in a thick woods, which tree was it?
Thus, if seized by the patrollers or the sheriff, “conductors” could give truthful (or nearly truthful), yet minimally informative answers.
So there are very few concrete records. (Levi Coffin, originally from Greensboro, described some of his forays in his memoirs– online here in full — many years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.) Yet local historians at the Friends meetings near Snow Camp have long asserted that area Quakers were active in UGRR efforts.
Even so, Quakers were a suspect minority as far as local authorities were concerned, on a subject which frequently evoked actual violence. Thus habits of concealment, and what spies call “cut-outs” and “drops” were key tools for UGRR work in this area.
In addition to preparing the 25th season of Pathway to Freedom, the only ongoing play about the UGRR, we hope to soon be able to make use of our historic buildings and artifacts to illustrate the day-to-day reality of life in a seemingly quiet but inwardly turbulent slave society. Watch this space for more details as they develop, And we ask again that our supporters send donations soon, so we can meet the high expenses of season preparation.
Donations are welcome via a secure online link here:
For regular mail, make checks to:
Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre
P. O. Box 535
Snow Camp NC 27349
PS. A reminder: our local auditions will take place at the Drama site [301 drama Rd., Snow Camp] on Wednesday March 14, noon to 5 PM, and Thursday March 15, 3PM to 8 PM. Make appointments by email at: email@example.com
The “curtain” will rise at 8 PM, for “The Sword of Peace.” This gripping outdoor dramais based on actual events related to the American Revolution, in which many Quakers were involved. Convictions of patriotism, Quaker religious devotion to peace, courage, suffering and mercy all clashed in the historic Battle of Guilford Court House in 1781. This will be its 44th season. Continue reading “The Sword of Peace” — 44th Season Opens Thursday→
On June 27, 2017, Mark Sumner’s friends and family buried him in a quiet North Carolina cemetery.
But tonight, in a wooded grove some miles away, Keisha Little Eagle will resurrect Sumner. And she’ll do it by running away.
The fabulous unique outdoor drama about Quakers & others joining enslaved people in their efforts to escape bondage in pre-Civil War North Carolina takes the stage for the premiere performance of its 22nd season tonight, July 7. Showtime is at 8 PM at the Snow Camp Drama ampitheatre in historic Snow Camp NC.
(If you can’t get there tonight, there are performances Friday and Saturday, then again on July 14-16, and six more after that before the limited run concludes on Saturday August 6.)