This small 2003 collection of essays, now alas out of print, had its origins in two incidents, somewhat related, and which also turned out to be the start of something bigger, at least for me.
In the first, I proposed to the Publications Committee of Friends General Conference (FGC), the “liberal” association of U. S. & Canadian Friends, in 1993 that it sponsor a centennial history of the body and the religious movement it represented, looking toward the centennial of FGC’s founding, set for 2000. The proposal envisioned a team effort, like the one underway in New York Yearly Meeting, which was to produce their fine history, Quaker Cross-Currents (Syracuse University Press), two years later.
The proposal was not simply turned down flat; it was met with general incomprehension: Why, I was asked, would we want to do that?
What seemed (to me) like the obvious response–that knowing something about where the body came from and how it evolved could help illuminate both its present condition and future prospects–was likewise met with shrugs and the rolling of eyes. I attempted to offer this proposal again a couple of times, but evoked a reaction that was identical, except for a creeping undertone of impatience. And there the matter has rested.
Well, not quite. A few years later the Central Committee determined that FGC’s hundredth anniversary could perhaps be milked for fundraising purposes. Now that proved a much more appealing notion, and an ad hoc Centennial Observances Sub-Committee was set up, to plan appropriate events at the 2000 Gathering in Rochester, New York.
Thus in the second notable episode, this writer, as a member of that Sub-Committee, decided to read through as many of FGC’s records as I could manage, to learn something of what we were talking and planning about.
The lot of the professional scholar has never been mine, but I happily stole away whenever possible to delve into the superb collection of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, and sift through transcripts, oversize journals and old file folders, working my way forward, year by year.
This logical, if plodding approach is why it was only in the late spring of 2000, just weeks prior to the grand Centennial Gathering that the Centennial Sub-Committee learned that FGC had celebrated its Fiftieth Anniversary, not in 1950, as we all had assumed, but in 1942.
Why 1942? (A clue: it was not because I was born that year.)
It turned out, the “general conferences” began not in 1900, as we all had assumed, but in 1892, at first tentatively, but then as a fruitful routine. FGC as a separate, coordinating body was not formalized until 1900.
At the Subcommittee session when this revelation sank in, we all took a breath, had a hearty, if embarrassed, chuckle at ourselves, shrugged, and went on.
This incident illuminates rather starkly just how little we, even we proto-geeks on the Centennial Observances Sub-Committee, knew of the body whose centennial we were diligently preparing to observe. Nonetheless, with what information we had, events were organized, and the Centennial seemed to go off splendidly.
So much so that, afterward, the Sub-Committee felt our increasing store of information could and should be of continuing use to FGC for programming and development purposes. Flushed with this success, our Clerk, an enthusiastic and devoted Friend, proposed to the FGC Executive Committee that our Sub-Committee be freed of its ad hoc status and be made a continuing resource to the body.
I tried to warn her; but too late. Her idea was turned down flat. Why would we want to do that? is putting a kinder, gentler spin on the feedback our Clerk received. She wiped her eyes, our Sub-Committee tucked its tail between its legs, and disappeared quietly.
Again, not quite. The 1942 discovery was by no means the only intriguing, even startling fact that had turned up in my own excavations. Indeed, I had discovered numerous events and publications calling into question many things, not only things which l thought I understood about my American liberal Quaker tradition, but also much of what the leading Quaker historians thought they understood about it as well.
The big kahuna here was the discovery of an FGC Uniform Discipline, promulgated in 1926. At first, the librarians and I thought it must be a mistake: the very idea seemed absurd: “Uniform Disciplines” were what the pastoral branches produced (and haggled over endlessly); we liberal non-credal Friends were way beyond that.
So far beyond it, in fact, that the FGC Uniform Discipline had been miscatalogued and “mis-shelved” in the Friends Historical Library, and then completely forgotten for sixty-plus years, until I stumbled on it. This also despite the fact that the document was soon shown to have been crucially formative for FGC before it fell into memory-hole oblivion.
(More about the rediscovery of the FGC Uniform Discipline, including a preliminary analysis of both its substantial institutional and religious implications, is online here.
And the full text of the Uniform Discipline is online here, safe from the memory hole — for now, at least)
The Discipline (re)discovery was more than illuminating; to me, it was fun. And one other aspect soon became strikingly, surprisingly evident: at that point, I essentially had this field of study all to myself.
With this realization came also an awareness of the upside of the FGC Publications Committee’s impenetrable indifference: it had freed me from the automatic reflex of Quaker group editors to second-guess, elide, or when all else fails, massively tone down the unflattering stuff that comes to light as well. In truth, I owe them a belated bouquet of thanks for that.
So, I kept o reading and compiling, as way opened. And thus, for some years early in this century, it could be stated confidently, yet with due modesty, that this writer, warts and all, was the leading scholar of the liberal Quaker movement embodied by FGC — if only because at that time there simply wasn’t anybody else who gave a hoot, or enough of a hoot to have done any serious work.
There are significant exceptions to that barren record now (mid-2021). They include some fine studies by the former Clerk of New England Yearly Meeting, Elizabeth Cazden, on how liberal Friends “reinvented” Quaker polity as FGC was coming to be.
More recently, Douglas Gwyn has produced two important works, A Gathering of Spirits: The Friends General Conferences 1896-1950; and Personality and Place, a “historical theology” of 20th century liberal Quakerism through the lens of its crossroad institution, Pendle Hill, near Philadelphia. In my review of it, I called Personality and Place a genuine masterpiece of Quaker history/theology, and I stand by that.
My own studies continued, in a haphazard fashion, into my retirement years. An initial collection of essays was published in 2003 as Shaggy Locks & Birkenstocks. By 2014, two more substantial works appeared: Remaking Friends, and Angels of Progress, which trace in detail the often rather exciting saga of various remarkable Friends and internal/external upheavals (including schisms inside, and civil war outside) from which FGC and 20th-21st Century U. S. Quakerism emerged).
No doubt, as (or if) younger and more focused scholars come into this field, many of my observations and theses may be (I hope) enlarged, corrected or superseded. But for now, these are commended to interested readers as my pick for the best available body of work undertaking to peer into the history and evolution of American liberal Quakerism after 1827.
They have also yielded, though in an even more haphazard fashion, stray insights into the state and currents of the wider Quaker context, the pastoral, evangelical and conservative branches.
These works will be, I hope, of special interest to two sorts of readers: those who think that American liberal religion, at least in its Quaker incarnation, has some residual meaning or value in the world; and second, those who believe that getting a reliable sense of where this motley faith community has come from can be of some use in figuring out where we might, or ought to be heading in the future.
So the answer to the question (Why??) which so surprised me in 1993 is still, That’s why, at least a few of us, would want to do that.
Oh, wait–let’s add one more group of readers to the list: those who are confident that, having scanned my preliminary efforts, they can do a better job.
To these in particular I say: By all means, Friends, get to work!