. . . I grew up in a large, mildly liberal pastoral Friends meeting in Indianapolis. Amiable but tepid, it gave me little to rebel against, but not much to inspire or motivate me either. I did not attend any church or meeting during my college years. But I had a spiritual sense that gravitated toward the natural world. I might well have explored an Eastern spiritual discipline, had I not received a distinct calling to ministry in 1968, at age nineteen.
I had never considered ministry before (I was a zoology major). All I knew was that my first love relationship had recently ended and I was devastated. As they say, God meets us in our extremity. The subtle but clear call, “be a minister,” came as I sat alone in my dormitory room one evening. It came as a seismic non sequitur that felt strangely hopeful.
I understood my calling to be a Christian ministry among Friends. But I was sure it needed to be something more prophetically Christian and more seriously Quaker than what I had received in my youth. I enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1971 (though I admit it was New York that drew me most).
The professors [at Union] weren’t sure what to think of us baby-boom seminarians, many of whom had enrolled primarily to avoid military conscription. But we were ready to learn from them – on our own generational terms.
My prophetic Christian faith grew during my Union years, ending in 1975. But since there were no other Friends at Union, it was only afterward, during my first Friends pastorate back in Indiana, that the Quaker dimension began to develop. The most important influence for me was Lewis Benson, two generations my senior, a high school drop-out who began studying George Fox and early Friends in the 1930s and soon became a critic of Rufus Jones and the liberal Quaker renewal – something very unpopular in those days.
. . . I was drawn to Lewis’ outsider status and his identification of the prophetic spirituality of George Fox’s message. It was much more trenchant than anything I heard from the pastoral meetings I knew in the Midwest or the liberal unprogrammed meetings I attended in the East. . . . Often individuals from an earlier generation who had been outliers or rebels serve as forerunners and mentors to members of an emergent generation. Lewis Benson played that role most acutely for me. . . .
Still, what I learned from my mentors had to be appropriated by way of the “fresh contact” of my own personal and generational experience. My apocalyptic interpretation of George Fox, which was published [in book form] as Apocalypse of the Word, built on Lewis Benson’s prophetic interpretation, but took Fox’s experiential eschatology much further.
My reading of Fox was informed by my calling to ministry during the apocalyptic year of 1968, and by the intensified registers of personal experience particular to my generation . . . .
. . . The polarization of culture, religion, and politics since the stalemated outcome of the revolutionary sixties continues to enervate American society at large and the Society of Friends in particular. My ministry unfolded as a series of sojourns crisscrossing that divide between liberal-progressive and traditional Christian camps of American Friends, sometimes as a Friends pastor, other times as a teacher at Pendle Hill (and at Woodbrooke among British Friends).
All the time, I continued to research and write about early Friends and attempt in various ways to present early Quaker witness as a more vital faith and practice than either liberal or evangelical Friends offer. In Unmasking the Idols: A Journey among Friends, I suggested that there is no future for either major branch of American Friends as long as they refuse to learn from the prophetic vision of early Friends but continue to hybridize their faith and practice with evangelical and liberal-humanist streams in the wider culture. Indeed, membership statistics since then continue to suggest that the world doesn’t need “we too” Quakers.
But sojourns among the variety of Friends have also inspired my quixotic penchant for song-writing (sometimes recorded under the name The Brothers Doug). “A Process in the Wind” lampoons Quaker group decision-making. “Eighty-Weighty Friend” celebrates Quaker gerontocracy. “Yonder Stands the Quaker” [ on YouTube here: ] views us from the outside as “an endangered species of spiritual life, practiced in the art of lost cause.” “That of Odd in Everyone” explores where “oddliness and godliness intertwine” . . . . It is a sign of their spiritual health that Quaker communities enjoy laughing along with these songs. . . .
I completed a trilogy of early Quaker studies, ending with . . . Seekers Found in 2000. By then, I noticed that while Apocalypse of the Word (1986) had gained significant readership and discussion across the Quaker spectrum, The Covenant Crucified (1995) aroused less interest, and Seekers Found garnered very little, despite being some of my best work.
Reviews of these books were very positive, but sales kept declining. . . . In the 1980s, Friends had read and discussed books much more widely. By the turn of the century, book conversations were declining sharply, at least in my anecdotal awareness.
I decided that more books about early Friends would be more along the lines of a personal hobby than a religious concern. And feeling unhopeful about significant renewal among Friends in general, I turned my attention to Pendle Hill. That Quaker educational community had profoundly renewed my spirit during my sojourns of life and work there, and I knew it had similarly affected many others. . . . Beginning in 2008, I began researching and writing Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill. . . . The book turned out to be more an elegy for what had been than a call to continue a great Quaker experiment. . . .
. . . Millennials have been formed by social and technological changes as profound as those that formed my baby-boom generation. . . . In addition, the related rise of finance-driven capitalism – moving at light-speed in global circuits and generating perpetual crisis – has made the vocational and economic lives of millennials increasingly precarious.
Not surprisingly, there is some palpable intergenerational resentment against baby-boomers, who have so broadly contributed, or otherwise acquiesced, to the environmental decline, entrenched racism and sexism, and economic insecurity that millennials inherit today.
. . . As for me, I am still stuck writing books, which are so last century. But they seem to be the best way to convey the richness of Quaker history and theology. . . .
I suppose you could say I have been “carrying a torch” in the sense of tending the wound of some lost or unrequited love, some unfulfilled hope. Friends today (all generations) increasingly regard history as irrelevant to the all-consuming what’s-happening-now. . . .
Because Quaker faith is experiential rather than creedal, our theology is narrative in character. The Quaker penchant for journals, memoirs, and histories bears this out. . . . .We are poorer spiritually and bereft of evocative models of prophetic faith without the echo of their voices. . . .
What came of Doug Gwyn’s outsider-insider career as a Quaker thinker and writer? The (short) answer is in the pages of Passing The Torch. (The longer answer is in his own books.)
And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.
You’re invited; (more details here. )
Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen