Category Archives: Remarkable Friends

Peg Champney: Tribute to a quietly powerful Friend

Peg Champney, center, working/playing at Olney, with Friends Music Campers, 2008.

 

I owe a lot to Peg Champney, who died November 5, at 87. But I did not know her that warm day in the late 1980s when I turned off Sandy Ridge Road in the small eastern Ohio town of Barnesville, onto the campus of the Olney Friends School, where she was.

The grassy, nearly flat crest of the ridge was covered with luxuriously green grass, lined with tall, venerable trees, weathered into sturdy magnificence by decades of hard Ohio winters.

Olney, on a peak sky day.

Fortunately I was never there in winter; so my memories of Olney are of the green ridge, sloping to a soccer field on the west, and to a large manmade pond on the east. Turtles sunned there, small fish leaped to snap flies, and occasional anglers swung lines like sultry lassos to drop hooks in the dark water after them.

A wide wooden porch swing was perched on the ridge crest facing the pond. In later summers I spent many hours rocking slowly on it. I rose early to watch the sun climb through the mists slowly unfurling from the reflective pond surface; or as the day’s heat receded, bask in the steel purple dusk spreading over the red barn of the farm beyond it.

One of Olney’s ghosts? I always thought so. In daylight, though, it’s four of many student handmade ceramic tiles in the boy’s dorm bathroom.

Behind me were Olney’s school buildings, the “new” girls’ dorm, the older Boys’ dorm, both satellites of the larger, even older main building between them. The place looked hand-built, and much of it likely was, in a style of plain frugality and self-reliance. It embodied the Conservative Quaker ethos that created and long sustained Olney. From this small outpost, the school and its sponsors doggedly resisted the encroachments of the 20th century decade by decade, ultimately yielding almost every time, not always with good grace. Olney has ghosts too, the ones I’ve encountered were mostly friendly.

A dark red sidewalk of bricks, laid in a herringbone pattern and sometimes almost covered by the grass, stretched from the school building north across the long green, flanked by a motley handful of staff houses, to the doors of the cavernous Stillwater Meetinghouse. Stillwater could (and for years did) hold up to 2000 plain-dressed Friends for the summer sessions of Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. How they coped with the heat in their stiff plain suits, or heavy dresses and bonnets, I can scarcely imagine.

From a local paper’s report on Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. No date, but it was likely long remembered as the year when Eliza Varney preached for an hour. Not that such extensive effusions of the Spirit were unheard of in those days.

Only a relative, mostly aging handful of them were left when I arrived in the late 1980s. And on the day I’m recalling, yearly meeting was still six weeks or more away.

Some of the downstairs benches of Stillwater Meetinghouse.

It was a Thursday, and with me was my son Asa, who must have been seven. I wanted him to spend the weekend there with me, just soaking up the vibes of the place. Quaker education by atmospheric osmosis? Worth a try.

Barnesville is the main crossroads of Conservative, or Wilburite Quakerism. They split from the Orthodox branch in the 1850s when that group began imbibing a new message preached by elite Quaker ministers from the home country, England. They came bearing exports of their recently-acquired evangelical theology.

They and their alien gospel were denounced by John Wilbur, an obscure, non-elite Rhode Island Friend. (I’ve found no photo or silhouette of him; likely he would not  have stood for such worldly foolishness.) He followed the  Anglos around, arguing their message would wreck traditional Quakerism, and lead to rule by bishops and even popery.

Wilbur was disowned for his trouble. Yet while the insurgent reformers stopped short of Rome, Wilbur’s warning was prescient: they did bring drastic changes to most American Quaker meetings: “programmed” revivalist services, fundamentalist theology, paid preachers and pastors, rule by clerical cliques and superintendents who were bishops in all but name.

Olney’s founders repudiated all that, but they no liberals. They aimed to conserve the old plain ways, in unpastored worship, silence-based but with plenty of preaching, amid a plain, mostly rural life.

But the farm towns where their yearly meeting at first flourished were soon sucked dry of the younger generations, drawn to bigger towns & cities for school, work, and more fun than was allowed at home.

With them also went much of the student base for the Olney Friends School. Financial stress ultimately obliged school officials to do what a previous generation would have abhorred: turn to outsiders, even to the infidel Liberal Quakers, renting out school space in summer.

This is where Peg Champney came in. She was from three hours and a couple light years west, the village of Yellow Springs. It was a tiny island of progressive politics and culture in Ohio’s mostly conservative sea. Part of the very liberal Yellow Springs Friends Meeting, Peg and her friend Jean Putnam had a dream of starting a summer Friends Music Camp, and renting Olney as its base.

Of course, music was one of the diabolical innovations that had provoked the Conservative Quaker schisms. But all that was in another century. Olney needed money, and had no summer program. Peg was winsome, personally respectable, and if her head was stuffed with dangerously progressive notions, her pocketbook was stocked with 100% American cash. In 1980, Friends Music Camp opened.

Its session was underway when I arrived with Asa. I had no real agenda other than for the two of us to soak up the Conservative ambiance; and no place to stay. Frankly, short on cash, I hoped to cadge a couple of spare beds.

I was directed to Peg to negotiate this. She was friendly, but with ten years of herding frisky musical Quaker cats under her belt, she also had a quiet air of command.

I explained myself, and added that I had hoped to barter for our two nights’ lodging.

“What have you got to trade?” she asked.

This was the crucial moment. In today’s paranoid world, she would have had no truck with wandering strangers, especially males. Insurance regulations alone now demand criminal background checks on anyone coming within reach of children; then there’s the proliferating scars of fear on the collective psyche left by our mass murder culture.

But Peg had had her own pre-digital career as a communitarian and camper: she had sized up hundreds of people, as she sized me up that day, and her intuition (what Quakers prefer to call discernment) had been well-honed.

Plus I had, it turned out, an ace in the hole. Besides offering to do physical work, dishes, cleaning or suchlike, I also said I had some stories, original stories I had written and read to my children, which I could share with the campers, if way opened.

Peg’s eyes brightened. “We may be in luck,” she said. The next evening ‘s program had just fallen through. A slot was vacant; storytelling could fill the bill. The deal was made.

Long story short: it wasn’t storytelling, but story reading; My tales were composed, but not memorized. And full disclosure: I was greatly relieved to escape dishwashing or floor-scrubbing.

And the next night, the campers liked my stories. A lot, it seemed; they laughed, held their breath, and applauded. For ninety minutes, I was treated like a famous writer.

Reading at FMC, 2007: it wasn’t my razzle dazzle stage presence; it was the words, the stories that held them.

Asa and I headed home well-marinated in the heirloom broth of Wilburism. And even then I understood it was a spiritual tonic best savored in small, well-spaced doses. They didn’t like talking about it with outsiders, but one of the Wilburites’ main preoccupations was turning personal grievances into theological crises & mini-schisms, which was another reason there were so few left.

But never mind that. The memory of Friends Music Camp, or FMC, stayed warm and vivid, and the next summer I sent a note to Peg — written, I believe, by hand and sent in an envelope with a stamp — offering to do it again if way opened.

My spot on the FMC calendar, always came after the canoe trip.

Way did open; Peg said yes. I again brought Asa, who had leaped headlong into the camp’s ethos as if it were the pond on the hottest day of the year. He railed against the systemic grownup oppression that kept him from being a full-fledged camper til he was ten.

And two years led to another. I was also familiar enough with liberal Quaker culture to know that an event repeated three times at their gatherings automatically becomes a tradition. Many of the campers came back to FMC yearly til they aged out, and my stories found a place in their young memories and camp talk.

And so it has been for thirty-plus summers. Asa finally became a real camper, returned for six summers, and Peg’s mild-mannered magic did him a world of good. (Word is it did worlds of good for many campers.) It was also a welcome spur to my imagination, because while there were tales the campers wanted to hear again, they also were eager for new material. Fiction is not my main medium as a writer; but I soon set a goal of bringing a new story each year, each grandly announced as a World Premiere. So far, I’ve managed to meet it.

So far.

Olney never lost its appeal for me. Whenever I could, I’d arrange to get there a day or two early. Then I’d spend as many hours as possible on the slow swing, facing the pond and the rolling hills beyond. The whole scene became my private retreat center, quiet except for the spasms of dissonant background music from the practice rooms, or the occasional thunderstorm’s fury. All that was welcome too. After Asa’s summers there, FMC gave me modest honoraria for the visits. But I would have paid to do it.

On retreat: the view from the Olney swing, on an evening when the pond was a mirror.

Thirty years is a long time, though, and time brings change.

Peg was not young when FMC began: she had already raised a family with husband Ken in Yellow Springs, and they were grown and flown. More grey appeared in her black hair as the summers progressed, as it did in mine. She understood the process, and did a good job of training counselors and junior staff. And when she retired, several years ago now, the transition seemed smooth enough.

For some years she came to visit the sessions, and was dubious about her status as Honored Founder. Maybe that’s why the visits became shorter. Also, Ken Champney died in 2011.

Then the new staff heard other voices of change: Olney Friends School still needed money, and proposed to raise the camp’s rent. And Earlham College came calling.

Earlham, Quaker-founded and an hour west of Yellow Springs just over the Indiana line, needed money also. One reason was that they were finishing a new, $22 million dollar arts building, with many practice rooms and an elegant compact concert hall. Summer rentals would help pay for it.

It’s easy enough to sense the appeal to the new FMC staff. I said that the Wilburite Quaker tonic was best in small doses. The senior FMC staff had had enough of them that the charm of Olney’s picturesque plainness had mostly worn off. For some veterans, the buildings were no longer venerable and quaint, just old. The food was Midwestern bland (“Groundhog gravy” was a staple, though I liked it). And as summers got hotter, the lack of air conditioning was more onerous.

The camp moved to Earlham in 2016. I was not the only one who wept over its departure, but loyally followed it west. At that point, my stories and I were more than tradition: they became a link to lost origins.

This collection of nineteen original stories is n Amazon at: “Posies for Peg”: https://tinyurl.com/y64reypk

And I needed a memento. From the swing and at other spots, I had taken many photos, trying to capture Olney’s spirit — even hoping one frame might capture a glimpse of one of its ghosts. I put a few favorites on the cover of a collection of nineteen of my FMC stories, and published it as Posies for Peg. (There was never any comment on it from Peg; no surprise. Even her liberal Quakerism retained enough traces of Wilburite plainness that it didn’t hold much with such tributes.)

A sign at Earlham

I still grieve about the move. I expect Peg was heartbroken too, if resigned. I don’t think she visited FMC in its new digs.

Earlham is, it seems, everything it promised: gleaming new dorms, all climate-controlled; veggie, vegan & gluten free options every meal. Its Quaker connection is an upscale one, albeit with a life-size sculpture of Mary Dyer, a Quaker martyr hanged in Boston in 1660, to brood over it all, mostly unnoticed, from an inconspicuous concrete bench. No ghosts wander its modern halls.

A fracking sign, one of any around Barnesville in a recent summer. The buyers found many takers.

Yes, I understand. But you ask me, historic colleges are a dime a dozen. There’s only one Barnesville, and one Olney, even if they now exist mainly in my mind. And of course, change has come there too: the fracking boom has surrounded and invaded the town like a foreign army, cursed by some, welcomed by many. Olney has said no to the frackers’ money, but has been taking in affluent foreign students to keep its doors open. I’m not sure I want to know much more.

Now Peg is gone, and I owe so much to her. May her memory be for a blessing. My run at FMC will also no doubt be reaching its end before long. I’m looking for a successor storyteller to recommend. This fall, for health reasons, travel to places like Earlham abruptly became more problematic. But if it weren’t that, it would soon be something else; mortality is a shapeshifter, coming in many different guises, and on its own schedule; yet amid all the change, its arrival is still a certainty.

Mary Dyer, at Earlham. (Is she brooding, or only musing . . .?)

Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

Today (August 19) is Frank McCourt’s birthday. McCourt was the great memoirist best known for his book, Angela’s Ashes, which won just about every prize it could get, sold boatloads, and kicked off the rush to write memoirs, which I confess I have even joined in myself a couple of times.

I was reminded of the date by Garrison Keillor, in his Writer’s Almanac, which I get by email.  But Garrison did not remind me of my favorite passage from McCourt’s masterwork; I found that myself some while ago, and have kept it handy for just such an occasion as this. Continue reading Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?

If you blog about Quakers long enough, you get asked a lot of questions — including some surprises.

An emergency instruction folder kept in a slot on the back of dorm room doors at a midwestern college, where a Quaker conference gathered a few years ago. The document seemed very out of place in the quiet, bucolic setting of the school. But then, similar Quaker conferences had been held successfully at Virginia Tech, also in a “quiet rural village.” Then in April 2007 a shooter killed 32 Virginia Tech students and staff and wounded 17 more.

Like the one that came in a few days ago, from the Clerk of a meeting located east of the Mississippi. The Clerk wrote that in an after-meeting discussion, a Friend asked what the Meeting would do if an active shooter appeared there. Did I have any ideas?

Ideas? No.

Paranoia? Plenty.

Five days a week, my grandson who lives nearby walks down the street to the school bus. Our town has homicides, too many. But mass shootings? Not in my six-plus years here.

Not yet, deo gratias.

(They could say something like that in Virginia Beach, Virginia, until last week.)

So I’m no expert on this subject, and hope never to become one. But such is the sick society we live in, that any of us could become a personal “expert” in it, or a victim, any day. So after pondering the inquiry, I figured I’d do what I could.

I couldn’t find any information about the artist.

The Clerk did have one idea. He vaguely remembered a painting seen in childhood, of a meetinghouse in the woods, in colonial times, filled with plain dress Quakers, sitting quietly as a group of armed Indians came through the door.

Supposedly there was a story that went with it, that the Indians had meant to slaughter whites, and had done so in other similar places. But the warriors were so moved by their pious placidity, and disarmingly Friendly demeanor, that they dropped their murderous plans and let them be.

Was there anything to that? Could this be an example of Quaker “Active shooter training”? Continue reading An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?

A Delightful Sketch of John Woolman

“JOHN WOOLMAN, THE QUAKER”

G. M. Trevelyan, from Clio & Other Essays, 1913

[NOTE: G.M. Trevelyan was perhaps the most famous British historian in the first part of the 20th century.  He was celebrated for his style, and was not reluctant to include his own opinions and values visibly and wittily in his narratives. By family and personal preference, he was a British Whig and then Liberal. Wikipedia notes, that 

G. M. Trevelyan

“Whigs and Liberals believed the common people had a more positive effect on history than did royalty and that democratic government would bring about steady social progress. . . .Trevelyan’s history is engaged and partisan. Of his  famous Garibaldi trilogy, “reeking with bias”, he remarked in his essay “Bias in History”–“Without bias, I should never have written them at all. For I was moved to write them by a poetical sympathy with the passions of the Italian patriots of the period, which I retrospectively shared.”

This outlook shines through his short essay, “John Woolman, the Quaker,” published in 1913. I started to collect the most sparkling excerpts; but no. It is short enough to take in expeditiously, yet substantive enough to chew on long afterward. It follows, in full.]

Continue reading A Delightful Sketch of John Woolman

Lucretia Mott’s Quaker Easter Message, Still Good the Day After

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.

I don’t know what happened to that Friend’s list. But before all the folderol and sugar high of Easter weekend dissipates, it may be worth taking a few moments to consider Lucretia’s convictions on the seasonal fanfare. Continue reading Lucretia Mott’s Quaker Easter Message, Still Good the Day After

A Quaker Bible Scholar & the Resurrection

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.

Henry Cadbury. sometime in the last century, at his scholarly work, with a characteristic gesture. (The gesture was his hand cupped around an ear; he became hard of hearing).

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.

New York Daily News, December 1, 1952.

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 you believe about this. So, let’s have it: Yes or No, do you believe in the physical resurrection of 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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now Online: “Quaker Theology” #33 — 20th Anniversary Issue

Quaker Theology #33 — Winter 2019

20th Anniversary Issue

Scroll down for Contents

 Contents

Editor’s Introduction 
A quick review of the ground  covered in 20 years of independent theological work & publication.

Moment of Truth: Wilmington Yearly Meeting Divides over a Familiar Set of Issues, by Stephen W. Angell
This is the fifth yearly meeting breakdown chronicled by this journal in its tenure, and its pages remain the only source of significant reporting on these difficult spectacles.

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 sermon Delivered by 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.

About the Authors Continue reading Now Online: “Quaker Theology” #33 — 20th Anniversary Issue

Spiritualism & Quaker Theology: Two Examples

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.

Spiritualism eventually lost much popular appeal, but adherents to it have continued to turn up among Friends, most recently in a semi-underground fashion. Continue reading Spiritualism & Quaker Theology: Two Examples

20 Years of “Quaker Theology” — An Overview & Review

Twenty years and 32 issues ago, the Editors of a new, independent  journal called Quaker Theology asked “What is theology, and why should Friends be interested in it?” 

Good questions. Our answers in the first 32 issues are all online here, freely available  in searchable form. The 20th anniversary issue, #33, is now ready at Amazon, and will be on the web soon. One such answer about theology I offered to many Quaker groups, mostly quite liberal, when talking about peace work. I spoke of the “military industrial complex” and the ongoing drive for world hegemony it supported.

That was hardly news. But Friends often asked (rightly) why it was like that, why the USA needed so many wars?

Yes, good questions. In reply, I opened a small Bible and read the first six verses of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans — Continue reading 20 Years of “Quaker Theology” — An Overview & Review

LaRouche & Me, Part II

< For Part I, Click here.

But FBI Director Webster’s reply came pretty quickly.

It was brief: the FBI had reviewed their files and had found nothing that implicated me in any of the “dossier” allegations. McCloskey gave me a copy, which I framed, and hung on my man cave wall. (After all, how many other people do you know who have a letter personally signed by the FBI Director saying the Bureau has no evidence they’re a KGB mole? But after my several moves, it’s now somewhere in a box of other personally important documents. I should hunt it down; after all, you never know . . .)

But McCloskey was not done. Working from the FBI letter and my notes on the “dossier,” he reserved time on the floor and made a hard-hitting speech to the House, (okay, the chamber  was nearly empty) denouncing LaRouche and defending my integrity (and, by extension, his own). I had copies of that speech, too, but they are also lost in my paper shuffle, and the 1980 Congressional Record is not yet online. So for now you’ll just have to take my word for all this. Continue reading LaRouche & Me, Part II