Friends’ History Coming Alive: The Quaker History Roundtable

I’ve been retired for four-plus years, and interested in Quaker history for about fifty. I’ve done research, attended conferences of historians, and written my share of articles and books on related topics. I’ve also organized some conferences. (For more about this work, click here. )

Retirement is supposed to be when, with time growing short, one gets to work on the bucket list. And on my list, making some sense of the last century — half of which I spent among Friends — is pretty high. Much higher than going on a cruise.

Call me weird, but I think watching glaciers melt is like watching paint dry. Besides, I’ve checked, and not one of these boats has a decent Quaker library.

Working on Quaker history has been continually stimulating for me, and often fun. And not much has been done on the 20th century among Quakers — despite the fact that a LOT went on.

Seventeen years past the end of that century, I figured it was time to start filling that gap. So about a year ago I started sounding out scholars and others I’ve met and heard about who are also Quaker history geeks, and suggested we do some work, then get together and share and discuss it; many were interested. And I had enough savings to underwrite it, so I did. 

The outcome is the Quaker History Roundtable, which will debut on June 8-11, less than eight weeks hence. Many thanks are due to the Earlham School of Religion for agreeing to host it, and cooperate on the arrangements. Fortunately, history geeks are relatively simple to handle, logistics-wise: they mostly talk and argue (err, discuss), then eat and talk & “discuss” some more.

More than a dozen scholars have signed up to deliver papers at the Roundtable: among them are eminent elders and rising newcomers, and not a few who don’t mind shaking up the shibboleths and rattling conventional cages.

The event is also open to the public, if you happen to be in Richmond Indiana then: no charge. Send me an email if thee’s interested at:

When it’s done, I’ll compile a book of the papers, a task that’s much easier and less expensive than it was a few years ago, still to the amazement of yours truly, who wrote his first three tomes on an ancient instrument called a typewriter.

For reference: a typewriter, circa 1950. it’s not as antique as it looks, tho: solar-powered (you needed sunlight or the equivalent to be able to operate it). And it was fully digital: you had to use your fingers to make it work.

That new volume will be a record of our fun, will hopefully extend our reach of our work, and I hope will stimulate some others to dig into the rich  and largely unexplored record of American Quakerism. After all, while I’m immensely grateful to all those who sent in proposals for presentations, it’s also true that we’ve barely scratched the surface.

And before anyone asks, quite properly, why I was so parochial as to focus on American Quaker history, when the increasingly conventional wisdom is that more of the action is outside the US borders and in the global south, here’s the answer: this is what I know, it’s what I felt I could handle organizationally, and what I could afford. I urge those who want to fill in the recent history of Quakers outside the US and the “First World” to get busy and do it, or help it get done. I hope I’ll be around to read and hear some of the results.

Several of the presenters have sent in tantalizing previews of their work in progress, and three of these are already posted on the Roundtable’s website: . Among them are: 

DOUG GWYN, the author of several books, including Apocalypse of the Word and The Covenant Crucified. My current favorite is his recent study, Personality & Place, a “theological history of Pendle Hill,” which goes well beyond describing one Quaker center’s evolution to paint a revealing portrait of the larger Quaker movement for which it has been the crossroads for four generations.  Doug is currently doing research at Pendle Hill.

His QHR paper is: Blowin’ in the Wind: Friends General Conference Gatherings, 1896 to Present.


Another is  EMMA LAPSANSKY-WERNER, Haverford College. Her scholarly interests have ranged widely, including co-authoring the text, The Struggle for Freedom: A History of African Americans, and editing a book on Quaker Aesthetics: Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption, 1720–1920. She has even been known to use Quaker mystery novels in her classes. Here she is exploring another aspect of  20th century Quaker communal experience: recurring experiments with intentional communities. As she puts it:


Since as early as William Penn in the 1680s, Quakers have held the conviction that a carefully-planned living environment and community-governing structure can build, nourish, and sustain individual virtue. In modern times, many Friends continue to subscribe to that conviction. Thus, Quakers have consistently experimented with “intentional” communities (some would call the “communes”) based on that conviction. This paper explores the dreams, goals, and experience of several such Quaker intentional communities in the United States, from the 1930s to the present day. It invites future scholars to shine their light on these experimental communities.

And H. LARRY INGLE, who secured his reputation as a leading Quaker historian with a pair of firsts: Quakers In Conflict, the first account of the Orthodox-Hicksite separation of 1827; and First Among Friends,  first genuinely scholarly biography of George Fox.

His most recent book, Nixon’s First Cover-Up, takes the wraps off the most recent Quaker president’s use (& misuse) of his Quaker heritage in a notorious political career. Here his sights are set on two noted 20th century America Friend, Clarence Pickett, longtime executive Secretary of AFSC, and Whittaker Chambers, former Communist spy, fervent Quaker convert, and an icon of the Cold War American  rightwing.

The full previews for these three are at the website, here.  More will be uploaded in coming days, so check back.

3 thoughts on “Friends’ History Coming Alive: The Quaker History Roundtable”

  1. This sounds like an important, stimulating and productive gathering. Unfortunately, it coincides exactly with my 50th college reunion. But I would like to throw the following query into the circle, in case it isn’t addressed: It’s been over 50 years since Quaker Norman Morrison’s self-immolation at the Pentagon, “an outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth”, as then Sec.of Defense Robert McNamara called in his memoirs after a reversal of his perspective on the Vietnam War. Even among Quakers, the Question burns still today, whether Morrison’s act was one of speaking truth to power with the wisdom of his body, or a senseless and selfish act of violence, as many argued. – Is this not a part of US Quaker history, as we confront our role as (complicit) witnesses to a century of violence done in our names?

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