Renewing the Art and Witness
of Quaker Storytelling
Let’s talk about storytelling, specifically Quaker storytelling. To do this right, I’ll also tell a couple of stories before I’m finished; that will come in due time.
While good storytelling is entertaining and fun, I believe it is also important, serious religious business. I think this is especially true for a group like the Religious Society of Friends. This goes for Friends of all ages, not just the kids in First Day School and the adults who teach them. It’s also important – very important – for our outreach, and our witness, including peace witness. The stories we create and preserve and enact and pass on are very significant parts of our personal and communal lives.
For a religious community, stories have a great deal to do with establishing and preserving their identity as a people. In the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of Exodus, for instance, when God tells Moses to paint blood on the doorposts so the angel of death will pass over the firstborn sons of the Hebrews, God also commands him to make the remembrance and telling of the Passover story a perpetual tradition among the people.
That defining story of calling and liberation is still retold by Jews, some 3000+ years later, every spring at their annual Seder ceremonies.
Many scholars and sages say that the maintenance of this tradition has had much to do with the survival of the Jewish people through their long, often difficult history, and I think they’re right. And of course for Christians a few days later there’s the story of Easter, which has at its heart the retelling of the equally defining gospel narrative about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But why do I say storytelling is particularly important for Quakers?
To get an answer, let me tell a brief story. We’ve just seen in the case of the Passover and Easter how stories can live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But this one is about how stories can die: I found that out talking to an older Friend who had been part of a very exciting and important protest action by Conscientious Objectors during World War Two.
I was very eager to talk to him about this protest; I had seen brief secondhand accounts: a group of COs assigned to a big Cleveland mental hospital discovered widespread abusive care and management corruption there. When they blew the whistle internally, they were threatened with jail. But they stood their ground, and . . . .
These snippets were stunning. And this Friend, I learned in the early 1990s, had actually been a participant in the Cleveland action; his “testimony” would be firsthand, full –I hoped– of the kind of details that enrich retellings. I couldn’t wait.
Finally the day came to interview him. He welcomed me with a big smile, I set my tape recorder turning — and soon found he had forgotten everything about his Cleveland experience. Everything except that, in his words, “. . . it was really something.” (This was his entire account, verbatim.)
I said this was a story; but in the passage of fifty years, it had shrunk to a tantalizing, one sentence anecdote. It confirms George Fox’s early charge to us to “let your lives speak.” Lives like the one of Cleveland and those of many other exceptional Friends can speak for generations, principally through the stories we remember and tell about them. But the stories of even the bravest witness can also die.
(For many summers at my yearly meeting, Baltimore, we interspersed business with reflective reading of memorial minutes, telling of the lives of Friends who have died in the previous year; these times, when lives that are mostly otherwise unheralded can preach, have been for me some of the most moving and instructive moments of our sessions.)
It’s also important to point out that Friends are a people of limited resources: We do not have huge numbers; we do not have vast wealth; and we do not have many members in places of power to protect us with the arm of the state (and when we do, they often end up, as in the case of Richard Nixon, more a problem than an asset.)
But there is one thing with which Friends are plentifully endowed, and that is good stories. From Fox on Pendle Hill, to Mary Fisher facing the Sultan; from John Woolman visiting the Indians unarmed, to Elizabeth Fry going alone into the stinking prisons of England; even that of the defiant Cleveland COs (think of your own favorites….)
Many of these stories reflect the fact that when Friends have most faithfully been Friends, and borne our Friends’ testimonies, this faithfulness has often enough been misunderstood, or has gotten us into trouble. Even today, if we don’t face much overt persecution, our heritage and witness are typically ignored by the larger culture, and misunderstood or distorted when they are recognized. (Does anybody here remember “Popeye the Quaker Man”?)
Thus it is important for us to find and preserve and tell our own stories, because at bottom, Quaker stories are countercultural, even many based on our readings of the Bible and other ancient sources: in key respects they run across or against the grain of establishment religions and culture, and their stories.
The best Quaker stories can still be countercultural today, even if most American Friends are nondescript middle-class in our way of life, and the government isn’t currently hunting us down as abominable heretics.
The U.S. Military understands the power of stories – in Fayetteville NC, near Fort Bragg, the Army has built a large Airborne museum, to tell (and shape) stories of 80 years airborne and special forces warfare. As I have learned, this museum (and the 300+ other war museums in the U.S.) is not only, or even mainly about the past: not really. It is more about shaping how Americans think of and visualize the past – and apply what they think to the future. (Quick quiz: after 300-plus years of American Quaker peace work, how many PEACE museums are there in the U.S., telling a story that challenges those of the War Museums? Hint: the answer is less than three.)
I’m hardly the first Friend to discover the value and plentitude of our stories; and not surprisingly, there has been a long tradition of Quaker storytelling, mainly in print. Early Friends used stories of the persecution they faced in efforts to persuade kings and governors to end it, often with much success. And once the Society was accepted and settled into the quietist period, Friends used stories to pass on and reinforce Quaker values and practices to their children.
To show you what I mean about how early stories are different, I’m going to reproduce here a story from the oldest Quaker storybook I could find at the Friends Historical Library, a volume entitled, Piety Promoted. It was published in 1802, deep in the Quietist era, and some of the stories are considerably older. The 1802 volume was popular, and was followed by numerous successor volumes
This story is the first in that book, and it was meant to be read to children eight and nine years old. I ask that you listen to the story as if you were hearing it with two different ears–one the ear of a child to whom it was read, and the other the ear of a parent who wanted to read it. And ask yourselves, What were the parents saying in this story? And what were the children hearing?
Here’s the story.
(NOTE: This is the complete text, but I have broken up the original paragraphing into shorter blocks, and inserted a word in a few places for clarity. The story has no title.)
From “Piety Promoted”: Mary Post, daughter of Benjamin Post, and Elizabeth his wife, of London, was of a tender spirit, sober behavior, religiously inclined, and a lover of plainness in habit and speech, and kept to it; but a disliker of pride and finery in apparel.
When she was but about eight years of age, being at a neighbor’s house who desired her company (being solid and grave) and had a daughter about fifteen years of age, who loved her, and to whom this child said, ‘Anna, what signify these fine things thou hast on, they will not carry thee to heaven?’
To which Anna answered, ‘Pride is not in the things, it is in the heart.’
To which [Mary Post] replied, ‘But if your minds were not proud, you would not wear them.’
She also said to her mother, that she much wondered at the great pride she observed in some young ones who professed the truth, adding, ‘I hope I shall never be like them.’
Her mother thereupon said to her, ‘I hope thou wilt never be like them; but be an orderly child, that thou mayst be in favour with God.’
At which [Mary] wept, and said, ‘If I should love fine things, I must alter much: what signify fine things when folks come to die?’
Hearing some boys in the street taking God’s name in vain, she said, ‘They take God’s name in vain enough to frighten one.’ On a certain occasion she said, she should delight to go to meetings.
The day before she was taken ill, her mother sending her out on an errand, and her brother being newly come out of the country, she desired him to go with her, which he refused; at which she stood by him awhile, and then with a solid countenance said, ‘Wilt thou not go with me? It may be, the next time thou comest up, thou mayest not have a sister to go with,’ as if she had a sense of her death.
And in that sickness she often said, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, give me a little ease;’ and lifting up her hands, repeated such like expressions, and said: ‘I had rather die than live; through mercy I am not afraid to die; I shall go to rest, were I shall feel no more pain.’
Her mother, standing mourning by her, the child looking upon her said, ‘Mother, do not cry, let us be contented; the Lord can lay me low, and he can raise me again; if I were dead he can raise me again.’ Then she repeated, as before, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, or convenient, give me a little ease;’ and seemed earnest to die and go to rest.
Her mother said to her, My dear, why art thou so earnest to die? The Lord can ease thee of thy pain, and give thee life.’
She answered, ‘One must once die, and if I recover, I must, or may, be sick again; and I had rather die while I am young. If I should live til I am older, the devil may tempt me to be naught[y], and I might offend the Lord. I am no afraid to die; through mercy I shall go to my rest: If I live, I am satisfied; and if I die I am satisfied. I am willing to die; I had rather die than live.’
Her mother said, ‘I shall dearly miss thee.’
[Her daughter] replied, ‘I am willing to see my little sister and [my] brother.’
Her mother said she would send for them: ‘but,’ said her mother, ‘if any alteration should be before thy brother come, what wouldst thou say to him?’
[Mary said] she left him the little money she had, and some other things to her father, mother, and two sisters.
Her mother desiring her to take something that was prepared for her, she seemed to refuse and said, ‘What signify doctors and apothecaries, if the Lord please to take one’s life?’
A little before her end, she lamented folks taking pleasure, and not considering the love of God. The last words she was heard to speak were, ‘Dear Lord God Almighty open the door,’ and so sweetly departed this life, the 12th of the Eleventh Month, 1711, aged above eight years.
This story is worth some reflection before we pass on: What did you hear in it? A preoccupation with death and dying? A practical way of coping in a time when many childen died young? An obsessive concern with long-abandoned Quaker “peculiarities”? Middle class Victorian fastidiousness masquerading as religion? A lack of plot?
What does this story tell us about Friends in 1802, or 1711? What do our reactions to it tell us about ourselves? Would you be ready to read it to a group of 8-9 year olds in a First Day School class? Why or why not?
(Incidentally, all the other stories in this edition of Piety Promoted and its successor volumes were similar in theme and “plot.”)
In the nineteenth century, John Greenleaf Whittier retold many early Quaker stories in verse. Here is a sample, from one I always liked, “The King’s Missive”:
UNDER the great hill sloping bare
To cove and meadow and Common lot,
In his council chamber and oaken chair,
Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.
A grave, strong man, who knew no peer
In the pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear
Of God, not man, and for good or ill
Held his trust with an iron will.
He had shorn with his sword the cross from out
The flag, and cloven the May-pole down,
Harried the heathen round about,
And whipped the Quakers from town to town.
Earnest and honest, a man at need
To burn like a torch for his own harsh creed,
He kept with the flaming brand of his zeal
The gate of the holy common weal.
His brow was clouded, his eye was stern,
With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath;
‘Woe’s me!’ he murmured: ‘at every turn
The pestilent Quakers are in my path!
Some we have scourged, and banished some,
Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come,
Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in,
Sowing their heresy’s seed of sin.
‘Did we count on this? Did we leave behind
The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease
Of our English hearths and homes, to find
Troublers of Israel such as these?
Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid!
I will do as the prophet to Agag did
They come to poison the wells of the Word,
I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!’ . . .
This story tradition has continued into our own time, of which more later.
Many of these early Quaker stories reflect a worldview rather different from our own, and in some ways alien to it. Even so, there’s useful food for reflection in such stories, as well as an impetus to consider how we are doing at preserving and telling the Quaker stories of our own time.
There’s no shortage of material. Perhaps the most familiar title is The Friendly Story Caravan, published by Pendle Hill. It has been in print in various editions for more than seventy years. As I have read them, these stories were not all of equal quality; some seemed sentimental; some, I discovered, had actually falsified history in pursuit of making a pious point – not, it must be admitted, a new phenomenon in religious literature.
Even so, these books deserve credit: they told Quaker stories to several generations.
But it seems to me that there’s something of a gap since then. Our storytelling efforts seem to have dwindled in the past generation or two. Where, for instance, are the stories of COs in World War Two – I mean stories which ought to be familiar to most well-informed Friends? Or those of Quaker COs during the Vietnam War – of which I am one? Have any of us heard any of those? And most of us have been told about Lucretia Mott and the Underground Railroad; but what about the Quaker men and women who took part in the modern civil rights and feminist movements? There were plenty of them; where are their stories?
One story I heard some years ago was told by the woman who lived it, Marion Anderson, a Friend from Michigan. It was hilarious as well as audacious, because it described how she managed to walk right in on a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War and give them all antiwar leaflets, much to their surprise.
I’m not talking here only about children’s stories. Adults need these stories too, told in adult formats. Today, adults may need them even more, because we’re so fully immersed in an amnesia-inducing mass media culture. But many of these stories, I’m afraid, are at serious risk of being lost. They are not being told, or even collected. And to lose them , I submit, would be a tragedy, it would mean losing part of our Quaker identity.
I’m not surprised that this is happening; we live in a culture where mass media shout at us constantly, and draw us remorselessly into their orbits. They are designed to keep us fixated, mesmerized, long enough for the marketplace they serve to sell us more and more goods. They work constantly and effectively to drown out and shut out the still, small voices that have something different to say. (And that’s not even to mention politics.)
Of course, you know all this, so I won’t belabor it. The result is that not only Quaker stories, but the stories and identities of a great many smaller, even somewhat countercultural communities are being eroded, ignored, lost.
The process is analogous to the way species disappear as the rain forests are cut down to make hamburger wrappings. And I believe that those non-mainstream communities which fail to act to discover their own stories, to preserve and tell them, will not long survive, except as museum pieces.
Fortunately, we have not been entirely without adult storytellers dealing fictionally with recent events; I think of Jan de Hartog’s memorable trilogy of novels (The Peaceable Kingdom, The Lamb’s War, and The Peculiar People) , Stanley Ellin’s suspense novel Stronghold, the works of Jessamyn West, Daisy Newman’s Kendal series, and mystery novels, one series by Irene Allen, set at my old stomping ground, Cambridge Meeting in Massachusetts; and Edith Maxwell, one of whose historical series is set in Whittier’s hometown, and includes the poet as a recurring character.
Feeling as I do, you will not be surprised to learn that, being a writer, I have written a number of Quaker stories, and hope to write more. Some of these stories are aimed at children; but others, including my own two Quaker mystery novels, are very much aimed at adults.
But just as war is too important to be left to the generals, Quaker storytelling is too important to be left to Quaker writers, especially novelists. Fiction writers need the true stories as raw material. And in our communities, we shouldn’t always wait until someone is dead before trying to sum up their life preaching in a memorial minute. I hope some among the Friends who might read this, as way opens, will take time to seek out and record the stories that can be found right nearby, in your own meeting community.
Capturing these stories is not really difficult; you don’t have to be a novelist or writer. Here are some suggestions:
Talk to people, especially with a tape recorder in hand. Or while taking detailed notes. Ask lots of questions. Keep listening, and keep asking. Don’t worry about how it sounds; get it down first. Transcribe the tapes if at all possible; audiotape deteriorates faster than paper.
Collect photos, documents, news clippings. Few things are as ephemeral, or as interesting.
Store these collections carefully. If your meeting doesn’t have a safe place for them (and few really do; the top shelf of your Recording Clerk’s closet does NOT count), ask the local historical society, or even your state archive. There are also several fine Quaker libraries with archival collections whose curators would probably be thrilled to have them: I am personally familiar with those at Swarthmore, Haverford, Guilford and Earlham Colleges, and there are others.
Oh yes, perhaps most important–enjoy yourself! Gathering, processing and retelling these stories can and should be fun.
While you’re having your fun, remember that you’re fulfilling a function that is crucial to the long-term health and preservation of your religious community. I hope you will not let the noise and intrusions of mass culture lead you to neglect it.
Adapted from a Workshop at the
Friends Schools Day of Peace, Philadelphia,
Fourth Month 4, 2004