Sometimes it can feel like a stretch, but there are at least a few of us who still believe the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, has some useful contribution to make in the world. If this faith is not entirely in vain, that makes the group’s history potentially useful too: where it came from, how it has persisted, what it has and has not accomplished, and what that tale might suggest about its potential.
My new book, “Angels of Progress,” undertakes to bring together and make visible a piece of Quaker history that has been almost completely neglected and forgotten, but which had much to do with shaping an important sector of the movement, particularly its liberal wing, since about 1850, and into the twenty-first century. As I write, this influence seems to be continuing, though invisibly.
It is the history of the Progressive Friends, told here through a selection of documents. It has been over a century since most of these writings have been seen outside the reading rooms of a few research archives; and several of them have not previously been circulated at all.
It’s because of their obscurity that I decided to compile a broad selection, to offer a substantial array of evidence for the movement’s existence, trajectory, and impact. A companion volume, Remaking Friends, which I’m working on now, will put this history into a (shorter) narrative form.
Why have the Progressive Friends been so completely forgotten? In large part, this was their own doing. They were not institution-builders; indeed their whole ethos was anti-institutional, at least as far as traditional churches were concerned. They did not keep membership lists; they built only a handful of buildings, of which but one is still standing. Yet they did plead their case: preaching, lecturing, writing. Progressives published articles, some produced tracts; occasionally their messages were taken down and preserved. A handful of the key figures published books, but not about the movement itself.
Why not? They were devoted to their cause – or rather causes – more than keeping track, or making names for themselves. This is admirably modest, but hell for historians. What causes? Antislavery. Women’s rights. Temperance. Peace. Reforming a hidebound, insular Quaker establishment. Among others.
And beyond the specific burning issues was their conviction that everything was aimed forward, into making a better future: “progress.” Acting in accord with the “Divine Law of Progress” mattered more than filling archives or writing books about it.
Besides which, history in the early Progressives’ day seemed to move with breakneck speed: first toward civil war, then enduring its torment and trauma, through the tumultuous postwar years of Reconstruction into decades of what many call the (first) Gilded Age. Many issues and struggles of that era resonate strongly with those of our own. So the story of Progressive Friends has many useful messages for Friends today. More on all this next time.