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. Continue reading Angelina Grimke & Religious Liberty→
I wasn’t having a good night. And I hadn’t had a good day. Needleman in the Washington office had called just after lunch. “Nelson,” he barked, We need you here right away.”
I had to help the boss get ready for a big hearing before the Defense Systems Commission. Tomorrow.
I told him I’d promised to take the kids to a ballgame.
Needleman wasn’t impressed. “They play ballgames in Pittsburgh every night, Nelson,” he said. “We get a chance at a hundred million dollar contract once every ten years, if we’re lucky. This hearing could win it for us. The boss needs your data, and he needs you here to explain it to him. Tonight.”
While reading about and “living with” Progressive Friends, I was inspired by several of the memorable personalities I walked with. I admired and learned from all of them, as well as others who interacted with them.
But there’s one Friend I identified with especially: Samuel M. Janney.
Researching and writing about Progressive Friends took up most of my time from the autumn of 2013 through the spring of 2014. Often this was a paradoxical experience: from one angle, it was a very solitary effort: from another, very crowded.
I did this research at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania, as the Cadbury research scholar in Quaker History. Most of my time at Pendle Hill was spent solo: in the Friends Historical Library at nearby Swarthmore College, poring over old letters, minutes, pamphlets and books; in my room, reading more old documents; then lots of staring into my computer screen, at the ever-growing store of texts available there.
Elizabeth Buffum Chace, born in 1806, was a striking example of the Progressive Friends movement. Raised a Rhode Island Quaker, she imbibed the refining spirit from her Quaker forebears, especially a sense of mission to help abolish slavery. But this zeal soon put her at odds with the New England Quaker Establishment. While officially against slavery, the leading Friends, mostly persons of wealth, staunchly opposed the “modern” reformist movements, not only abolitionism, but temperance and women’s advancement as well.
Chase had watched in growing dismay as many abolition-oriented New England Friends were expelled or exiled by this powerful, anti-reform inner circle, and meetinghouses were ordered to exclude any abolitionist-oriented meetings and speakers.
Kate was racing the Muni bus toward the stop at the corner. She was wet and out of breath. It was bad enough, she thought as the bus slowed, that the skinheads had ripped up her peace poster. But why did they have to drench her with ice water?
The bus stopped and the doors flapped open. Kate leaped onto it, flashing her bus pass and shivering her way toward the back. A sudden San Francisco fog had rolled over the peace rally just as it was breaking up, quickly turning a sunny afternoon chill and dreary. The skinheads had jumped her when she rounded a corner, away from the others, headed for the bus and home.
The Progressive Friends were a group that hasn’t yet got their props from Quaker historians. There isn’t space here for an outline of their fascinating history, except to say you can find out more here and here.
But in sum, they started as liberal rebels in mid-1800s America, who took on a hidebound Hicksite Establishment. And they ended, invisibly but unmistakably, as the seedbed and founders of modern US liberal Quakerism. The fact that almost nobody knows this is a shame, but no surprise given the general ignorance of Quaker history among Quakers. (I’ll rant about that some other time.)
The 1989 Friends Ministers Conference was the fourth in a series that were held every five years. The event had started out as the Friends Pastors Conference, but this was changed for the 1984 gathering in a bow to traditional Quaker nomenclature, and to accommodate the sensibilities of the handful of attenders who came from the non-pastoral Quaker groups. (I was one.)The 1989 gathering was scheduled for Denver. The planning committee’s chairman was Eugene Coffin. Priscilla Deters’ introduction to the committee was succinctly described by an Investigator for the Kansas State Security Commission, Gary Fulton. Writing in 1994, he explained that:
In the early 1950s, Billy Britt attended Peoples Bible College in High Point, North Carolina. In 1993, Peoples had become John Wesley College, and Britt’s wife Viola was a member of its board. Frank Scurry, the NCYM pastor who also headed the Houston extension program there, told John Wesley’s President, Brian Donley, about Deters and Productions Plus. Donley was interested. His school was in tenuous financial condition: in debt, unaccredited, and paying very low salaries to its faculty. Donley and his board could think of many uses for matching grants: retiring the debt, some new building, scholarships.