Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Howard Brinton as a Theologian and Apologist for “Real Quakerism”

This article appeared recently in "Quaker Religious Thought" and sums up what I have learned so far about Howard Brinton's theological perspective. This summer I will be part of a Brinton Symposium at Pendle Hill in which Paul Lacey, Steve Angell, Doug Gwyn and other Quaker scholars and theologians will explore the theological legacy of Howard Brinton. To find out more, go to http://www.pendlehill.org/workshops/summer-2011/526-the-legacy-of-howard-and-anna-brinton

Summary: Although Howard Brinton was one of the major theologians and educators of 20the century Quakerism, his contributions to Quaker thought have not been critically evaluated in part because of Quaker aversion to theologizing. This paper surveys the development of Brinton’s life as a Quaker educator/theologian, focusing particularly on his classic work Friends for 300 Years. I argue that Brinton was influenced by Barclay’s Apology and was writing a defense of what he considered “real Quakerism”—unprogrammed worship, and what he saw the authentic theology of Fox and Barclay, updated in modern language for modern times. Brinton’s concern for theology was broadened and deepened by his participation in the World Council of Churches, which made him (and other Friends) keenly aware of the contemporary theological thought, particularly that of Karl Barth and Reinhold Neibuhr. Finally, Brinton was interested in and supportive of revival of interest in Quaker that took place in the 1950s, particularly the formation the Quaker Theological Discussion Group, which was started in 1957 to raise awareness of theology among Quakers and to help foster constructive dialogue among different branches of Quakerism. Finally, I conclude that most liberal Quakers are “theologically illiterate” as well as averse to theologizing, but that Brinton himself was keenly interested in a theological approach that was grounded in spiritual experience and provided a cogent intellectual framework for modern liberal Quaker theology.

A critical understanding of 20th century Quaker theology would be incomplete without assessing the contribution of Howard Brinton, whose works helped create the theological framework for modern liberal Quakerism. Given the importance and stature of the Brintons, I felt some trepidation about undertaking the daunting task of writing the first book-length biography about them. Fortunately, I had access to Howard Brinton's unpublished autobiography, dictated to Yuki Brinton a year before his death in 1973, as well as to the Brinton archives at Haverford College and to his family and friends, who have been very supportive. But the lack of secondary material about the Brintons has made my scholarly efforts extremely challenging. As Ben Pink Dandelion, director of Woodbrooke, has observed, Quakerism, and particular 20th century Quaker theology, is “vastly under-researched.”

Ironically, Brinton, one of the most important Quaker theologians of the 20th century, was never trained as a theologian. When he did his undergraduate work at Haverford College, he majored in mathematics and physics. But he did feel drawn to religion and philosophy. The teacher at Haverford who exerted the most influence on his young impressionable mind was Rufus Jones. It was Jones who led Brinton to pursue his interest in philosophy and to study the works of the German mystic Jacob Boehme (the subject of Brinton's doctoral dissertation). With Jones' encouragement, Brinton went on to earn a degree in philosophy at Harvard University, where he studied with such giants as William James, George Santayana and Josiah Royce. But during the first twenty years of his teaching career, Brinton taught math and physics, albeit with many references to religion and philosophy. As one of his students at Earlham noted, Brinton had a unique approach to teaching physics: “Howard enriched his discussion of Newton’s laws, Faraday’s discoveries, and the predictions of Einstein by making cross references to philosophers and theologians and their concepts.”

It wasn't until Brinton married Anna Cox and earned his Ph. D. in philosophy from Berkeley that he was given the opportunity to teach philosophy and religion at Earlham College. He began this new phase of teaching in 1925, when he was 41 years old.

It wasn't until 1933, when he became director of Pendle Hill, that Brinton had the opportunity to devote himself full-time to teaching Quaker theology. By then he was nearly fifty.

During the next fifteen years, Howard devoted himself full-time to teaching Quakerism as it had never been taught before. Pendle Hill was an experimental school that attempted to apply Quaker principles to education. During this intense period with its very sharp learning curve, Brinton created a whole new approach to Quaker pedagogy as well as well as a framework for Quaker theology.

Brinton's training as a scientist and philosopher shaped the way he thought about theology as well as the way he taught this subject. He saw Quakerism as an “experimental” religion in almost scientific sense; and this approach had a strong appeal to liberal Friends, many of whom shared his scientific background.

Brinton was also influenced by the theological conflicts that were taking place between evangelical/fundamentalist and liberal Friends, which he experienced on a personal level. He came from a “mixed” background—his mother was a Hicksite Friend and his father Orthodox. His wife Anna descended from Joel and Hannah Bean, who were disowned from Iowa Yearly Meeting after it was taken over by evangelicals. Until Brinton became director of Pendle Hill, he taught mainly at schools run by pastoral Friends, whose approach to Quakerism was radically different from his own.

Brinton's theological writings can be divided in three phases. His first important theological writings—Vocal Ministry and Quaker Worship (1928) and Creative Worship (1931)—were written while Brinton was in his forties. As their titles imply, they focus on what Howard considered to be the distinctive core of Quakerism: unprogrammed worship and its philosophical implications. These works also lay the foundation for Howard’s theological perspective, his effort to reconcile Quakerism and science, and to address the urgent spiritual needs of 20th century society.

In his second phase (1943-1952), Brinton took on a more ambitious aim: to educate modern Friends (especially newcomers to Quakerism) in the theory and practice of Quakerism. During this period, he wrote two classic works that are essentially didactic: Guide to Quaker Practice (1943) and Friends for 300 Years (1952). These works arose out of Brinton’s experience as a teacher of Quakerism at Pendle Hill and are intended to help Friends understand the theological basis for unprogrammed worship and to practice their faith based on such worship. These works were written when Howard was in his sixties and at the peak of his powers as a writer and thinker.

In the final phase of Howard’s theological journey, he wrote Friends for 75 Years (1960), Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experiences Among Friends (1972) and The Religious Philosophy of Quakerism (1973).

By far the most important work that Brinton ever wrote was Friends For 300 Years. The time has come—indeed, it is long overdue—for a critical assessment of this enormously influential book. Sales figures confirm this work's enduring popularity, if not Chuck Fager’s observation that “Howard Brinton’s stature as a preeminent Quaker scholar and religious thinker of the twentieth century continues to grow, and rightly so, while other once-prominent names slip further into obscurity.” Thomas Hamm called Brinton “one of the most influential Friends of the twentieth century.” Yet even though Friends for 300 Years has become a classic, and has sold around 30,000 thousand copies since 1965, and probably nearly that many from 1953-65, there has never been a serious study of this classic work. This lack of a critical assessment is truly astounding, given the fact that most Quakers are highly educated people who are quite critical in matters other than theology.

The only critical assessment of Friends for 300 Years is a book review written in 1953 by L. Hugh Doncaster, who agreed with F.B. Tolles’s laudatory assessment that Brinton’s work is “the closest thing this Quaker generation has produced—or is likely to produce—to Robert Barclay’s great Apology.”

Comparing Friends for 300 Years to Barclay’s Apology is the highest praise that a Quaker could bestow since Barclay’s work, written in the 17th century, could be considered the summa theologica of Quakerdom. While many contemporary Quaker theologians would dispute whether Brinton's work deserves such an accolade, Brinton himself makes it clear that Friends for Three Hundred Years was intended to be an “apology,” or a formal defense, of what he viewed as “real Quakerism”--unprogrammed worship grounded in a mix of modernist and Conservative/Wilburite theology. Brinton cites as the two most important sources for his work George Fox's pastoral epistles and Barclay's Apology.

Published in Latin in 1676, and in English in 1678, Barclay's Apology was a systematic defense of Quakerism against its various opponents, from the Calvinists to the Socinians. Unlike many Quaker polemicists, Barclay provided a learned and well-reasoned treatment of key theological issues such the Inward Light, scripture, Man's fallen condition, justification, perfection, ministry, worship, baptism, communion and Quakerism's relationship to society and government. In his introduction to Friends for 300 Years, Brinton says that Barclay's Apology “affords the most complete interpretation we have of Quakerism as thought about.”

Friends for 300 Years defends unprogrammed Quakerism against contemporary non-Quaker opponents, such as Neo-Calvinism and fundamentalism, and also against forms of Quakerism (such as evangelicalism) that Brinton felt had distorted George Fox's original message and mission. Brinton deals with many of the same issues as Barclay: the authority of scripture, conscience vs. the Light Within, the role of reason, the universality of the Light, Christology (the Eternal Christ and the historic Jesus), Man's Responsibility for Good and Evil, Perfectionism, the Fall of Man, and the Relation between the Divine and Human. Unike Barclay, Brinton addresses the contentious issue of the Atonement, which had been one cause of the division between American Friends in the nineteenth century. Brinton, like Barclay, both defends and explains Quaker doctrines logically and clearly so that Friends could understand the rational basis of their faith and enter into a theological discussion/debate with other Christians.

Brinton understood perhaps better than any of his contemporaries the need to educate Friends about theology. The paucity of critical reflection about Quaker religious thought on the part of many modern Friends can partly be explained by Quakerism’s long-standing aversion to theologizing. For this reason, explained Brinton with more than a trace of irony, he used the word “Christian thought” rather than “Christian theology” in the title of an essay published in 1959 because “while many Friends shy away from theology, we do not, or least we do not profess to, shy away from thought.”

Brinton cites as a positive development the establishment of the Quaker Theological Discussion Group, which began in 1957. The first issue of Quaker Religious Thought (Spring, 1959) contains an essay by Brinton entitled “The Quaker Doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” This essay is followed by responses from three leading Quaker thinkers of this period: Lewis Benson, Thomas S. Brown, and Charles F. Thomas. Brinton is given the chance to respond to his critics and have the last word. More will be said about this exchange later.

The aversion to theology among unprogrammed Friends stems in part from the pain caused by the Hicksite-Orthodox separation and by the other schisms of the 19th century, but its persistence to the present day is puzzling. As Brinton makes clear on numerous occasions, Robert Barclay and William Penn were deeply involved in the theological and philosophical debates of their times, while George Fox had a passionate concern for theological matters despite a lack of formal training.

But these Friends and their successors were suspicious of theologizing not based upon a direct, immediate and felt experience of Spirit. Today many unprogrammed Friends confuse theology with a creed (the former are religious reflections by individuals within a religious group, while the latter is a requirement for membership in the group). Creeds help to bring cohesion to a religious group, but they can also create an “us” vs. “them” attitude that liberal Friends find repellent. Theological debate may be divisive, but it may also foster understanding and respect if those who disagree agree to disagree agreeably.

Friends often lacked the training to engage in meaningful theological dialogue. Because seminary training was not a requirement for Quaker ministry during its first hundred and fifty years, and was indeed seen as suspect, many early Friends were ignorant of the theological trends of their day. Even Brinton confessed that because his training was in science and philosophy, he sometimes felt disadvantaged when discussing theology at ecumenical gatherings.

Quaker aversion toward theology shifted somewhat in the latter part of the nineteenth century when Friends adopted the system of paid pastors, who required some form of training in theology and the Bible. Quaker schools like Earlham, Guilford, Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore offered courses in religion and some outstanding Quaker scholars emerged, like Rufus Jones and Henry Cadbury. But for the most part, recorded ministers in unprogrammed Meetings had little or no formal training in religion or systematic theology. It wasn’t until 1960 that Earlham School of Religion opened its doors.

Brinton’s work at Pendle Hill in the 1930s and 1940s was a ground-breaking attempt to help educate unprogrammed Friends who felt called to ministry, or to live their Quaker faith authentically. During this period Brinton became aware of how important it was to provide guidance for these eager but inexperienced newcomers to Quakerism. With this group in mind, Brinton wrote a Guide to Quaker Practice (1945), which ended up having a broad appeal. As he explained in his introduction, “This Guide [was] originally written largely with new Friends’ meetings in mind, but also met a considerable need in older meetings. It has been found to be useful not only as an aid to the instruction of new members but also as a reminder to older members of the character and significance of certain practices which at first sight may seem based only on tradition and custom.” Brinton’s purpose was to encourage Friends to reflect more deeply about the theological underpinnings of Quaker practices and procedures.

Brinton along with other Friends were obliged to think more deeply about theology after the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. To take part meaningfully in this ecumenical dialogue, Friends were obliged to articulate and defend their beliefs within the context of Christian theology. When Howard Brinton went to this gathering as a representative of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, he become keenly aware of the importance of theologians like Karl Barth and Reinhold Neibuhr. This awakening to contemporary theology had a profound influence on Friends for 300 Years.

Following the World Council, occasional articles about contemporary theological trends began appearing in the Friend Intelligencer—most notably, by William H. Marwick, a Scottish Friend, and by William Hordern, a professor of philosophy and religion at Swarthmore College.

But the aversion to theology among unprogrammed Friends continued and articles analyzing contemporary theological ideas (Quaker or otherwise) rarely appeared in the successor to the Friends Intelligencer, Friends Journal. Even though Friends Journal calls itself a magazine of Quaker life and thought, it probably should be called a magazine of Quaker life and experience since it seldom, if ever, addresses theological issues. Quaker theological discussion has been mainly confined to specialized publications with limited readership, such as QRT and Quaker Theology (founded by Chuck Fager in 1999 as a progressive alternative to QRT).

With this Quaker aversion to theologizing in mind, Brinton tried to make Friends for 300 Years seem like an historical study rather than what it actually was—a defense of what he considered “real Quakerism.” (In his autobiography, Brinton confessed that he took copies of Friend for 300 Years to the Third World Friends Conference in Oxford so that Friends would know what “real Quakerism” was.) Many Friends, when exposed to Friends for 300 Years for the first time, imagine they are reading an objective account of Quaker history and thought. This was never Brinton’s intention. He had a very clear theological agenda in mind—to defend the principles of unprogrammed worship and “traditional” Quakerism, as he understood it.

Brinton’s major contribution to Quaker thought was to present Quakerism not as a system of beliefs, but as a methodology. “The endeavor of this book is not to produce a history of Quakerism,” wrote Brinton in his introduction, “but, by means of historical illustrations, to examine a method.” For this reason, Friends for 300 Years is not organized chronologically, but thematically, beginning with what Brinton regarded as the most important practice of Quakerism: the experience of worship. The first chapter, entitled “To Wait Upon the Lord,” describes the how Quakerism arose from silent, unprogrammed worship leading to a direct, mystical encounter with the Divine. Subsequent chapters deal with aspects of that experience (“The Light Within as Experienced” and “The Light Within as Thought About”). Four chapters are devoted to how Quakers practice their faith—meeting for worship, decision-making, vocal ministry, and witness in the world. There is a chapter on Quaker history (including the various separations), followed by a final chapter: “Quaker Thought and the Present.”

It is notable that Brinton focuses on what Quakers experience and do, rather than on what they believe. In contrast, Wilmer Cooper’s introduction to Quakerism, A Living Faith, is divided into chapters concerned with doctrines, e.g. Quaker View of God, Quaker Understanding of Christ, etc. Patricia Williams uses a framework similar to Brinton’s but begins with theology rather than with religious experience. John Punshon adopts a chronological approach, as does Ben Pink Dandelion.

Brinton’s decision to focus on methodology rather than on doctrine was in keeping with his scientific outlook and training. Throughout the book, Brinton uses metaphors from science that make it appealing to those trained in this discipline.

At the same time, Brinton quotes liberally from early Quaker writers whose rich biblical language conveys the passion and power of their religious experiences. In this way, theology (theory) and history (practice) are combined.

Although Brinton focused on the practice of Quakerism, he also dealt with crucial issues of Christian doctrine in the chapter called “The Light Within as Thought About.” Brinton made it clear at the beginning of this chapter that what unified early Friends was not a common set of beliefs, but a common religious experience that sprung from unprogrammed worship. Even though Brinton privileged this experience over theory, he also saw the importance of “consistent system of ideas.” With this in mind, Brinton was the first to present a systematic Quaker theology for the 20th century. He addressed many of the controversial questions that divided Friends from other Christians, and often divided Friends from each other.

•Is the Bible the ultimate source of authority, or the Inward Light, or both?

•What is the difference between conscience and the Inward Light?

•What role does reason play in Quakerism?

•Is the Light universal? Is there a Christian basis for universalism?

•How do Friends feel about the historical Jesus? What is the Universal Christ?

•What is the Quaker view of the atonement? How has this shaped Quaker attitudes and actions?

•What did Quakers believe about Good and Evil and human responsibility? What about the Fall of Man? Original sin?

•What did Quakers believe about human perfectibility? How do Friends feel about the relation between the Divine and the human?

In addressing these questions, Brinton explored historical precedents and explained their relevance to today's world.

Another important innovation in Brinton’s book was his attempt to address the key theological issues of his day, particularly the neo-Calvinist theology of Karl Barth. Like Barth and the Neo-Calvinists, Brinton recognized the limitations of liberal optimism and saw some validity in Calvin’s dark view of human nature, but he felt that the Neo-Calvinists had gone too far. As L. Hugh Doncaster noted, Brintons suggested that “Quaker historians of this century were influenced, perhaps overinfluenced, by Hegelian idealism; and that now we are facing the challenge of neo-Calvinism. Between these two stands Barclay, ‘pessimistic regarding… ‘natural’ man’s present condition, but optimistic in regard to man’s capacity for regeneration and union with God even in this life.”

Brinton staunchly defended Rufus Jones’s view that Quakerism is essentially a mystical religion which differed dramatically from the Puritanism of its day. This view has been challenged by Hugh Barbour and other Quaker historians, who Brinton felt went too far in their assertions. Brinton also saw the evangelical and holiness movement as fundamentally at odds with “real Quakerism.” This view has also been challenged by evangelical Friends, most recently by Carole Spenser in her book Holiness: the Soul of Quakerism. Certainly, one of the weaknesses of Brinton's argument was his reluctance to acknowledge that his view of Quakerism is a minority position. Pastoral and Evangelical Friends were at the forefront of missionary efforts to spread Quakerism in the 19th and 20th century, and today only 25% of the world's Quakers are unprogrammed Friends.. As Margaret Bacon pointed out, “it is no longer acceptable, as it perhaps was fifty years ago, to write the history of the Society of Friends from the point of view of one's own affiliation.”

Even though Brinton espoused a liberal, modernist viewpoint, he was open to dialogue with those from other branches of Quakerism. He was part of the modern revival of theological discussion among Quaker academics and became involved with the Quaker Theological Discussion Group at its very inception. In the very first issue of Quaker Religious Thought, Brinton's essay on the “Holy Spirit” was published, along with responses from notable Quaker theologians. This exchange among Friends is worth summarizing to give a flavor of the theological views of this period.

Lewis Benson, a Friend who was passionately Christocentric and later founded the New Foundation movement, argued that Brinton overemphasized the “Hellenic” as opposed to Hebrew-Christian side of Quakerism (the Universal Christ Spirit rather than the historic, incarnate Jesus) and did not acknowledge the Trinitarian views of early Friends. Benson, an expert on Fox’s writings, cited passages from Fox’s work acknowledging the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Brinton responds that while Fox occasionally used this traditional formula, most early Friends did not. Penn and Barclay often referred to the Spirit and to Christ in universalist terms. Brinton saw a need for both the universal/impersonal and the particular/personal, and denied that the universal is necessarily “abstract.” According to Brinton, experiencing Spirit as a universal, ineffable presence can be as deeply felt as experiencing Spirit as “I-thou.”

Thomas Brown pointed out “the dangers inherent in religion based only on the Spirit within.” According to Brown, those who rely only on the “Spirit within” run the risk of pride and “idolatry.” Brown also argued for a Trinitarian viewpoint, citing Tillich that the “unity between ultimacy and the concreteness in the living God.” Brinton responded that early Friends had safeguards against spiritual pride: they relied on group discernment and scripture as a way to test the leadings of the Inward Light. In this respect, they were unlike the Ranters and anarchists of today. Finally, Brinton agreed that the Trinity is a “time-honored and suggestive symbol,” but argued that God should not be limited to only three ways of presenting himself to human beings. Why not two, or four, or an infinite number?

Speaking on behalf of pastoral Friends, Charles Thomas argued that there is no reason why the Holy Spirit cannot communicate through pre-arranged worship, as in a sermon. Brinton responded that while it is possible for the Holy Spirit to communicate through this means, prepared talks on religious matters are best presented before or after a Quaker meeting for worship. The distinctive characteristic of Quaker worship is that it offers a unique opportunity for the Holy Spirit to manifest itself spontaneously and without human contrivance. As Brinton noted, “A Quaker meeting is a group search for Truth and seedbed in which individual insights may mature and develop. Such a group exercise of worship is a peculiar and difficult undertaking which may fail more often than it succeeds but three centuries of Quaker practice have proved its power and worth.”

The first issue of Quaker Religious Thought offered a fascinating theological exchange—unlike anything recorded before in a Friends’ publication. It was the beginning of what would prove a lively ongoing dialogue among Friends of different theological perspectives.

Brinton and QRT went in divergent directions, however. Brinton went on to publish articles about theology in Friends Journal, a popular Quaker publication with a wide readership among unprogrammed Friends. QRL became a journal read mainly by academics, although in its early years its circulation climbed to nearly 1,000 readers (a large number for the Religious Society of Friends). Despite the best efforts of this group, most liberal Friends remain theologically illiterate. Chuck Fager has claimed, with some justification, that contemporary Quakers live in an age of theological amnesia. Certainly Brinton tried his best to cure, or at least alleviate, this condition.

Notes on sources:

Introduction to Quakerism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

J. Theodore Peters, “Remembering Howard Brinton,” Quaker Life, Dec. 1973, p. 30.

Quaker Theology, Issue 7, 2002. http://quest.quaker.org/issue7-5-fager.htm.

The Quakers in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, p. 67.

The Bulletin of the Friends Historical Association, Vol. 41. Autumn, 1952, #2, p. 138.

Friends for 350 Years, p. xv.

Guide to Quaker Practice, p. 5.

See my article “Howard Brinton and the World Council of Churches" in Quaker Theology.

“Some Current Trends in Theology” by William H. Marwick, Friends Intelligencer, Tenth Month, 11, 1952, p. 583.

“Modern Trends in Theology,” Friends Intelligencer, Fifth Month, 2, 1952, p. 249.

Friends for 350 Years, p. viii.

Quaker Religious Thought, ibid, p. 24.


  1. Thanks for this. I always find the discussion of Quaker theology fascinating, particularly since so many Quakers are so ignorant of it! And it does shape much of one's thinking about religious experience. (I read you often, and mostly don't comment...but always appreciate what you write! Nancy Andreasen)

  2. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for posting this on Brinton!

    Of the various books on Quakerism, I think his still stands out as the best and the most balanced.

    In the Light,
    Daniel Wilcox

  3. Thank you. A great reminder of a great read! Gary

  4. Just added this article and the one on war tax resistance to wiki World University & School's Quaker' subject - http://worlduniversity.wikia.com/wiki/Quakers_-_Religious_Society_of_Friends. Thanks, Anthony! Scott (http://scottmacleod.com)

  5. I believe your blog is excellent..Keep updating...

  6. I very much appreciate this analysis of the Rufus Jones - Howard Brinton -- ??? connection.

  7. "most liberal Friends remain theologically illiterate."
    Completely agree with you. And I would add to that, historically ignorant too.
    Thanks for this focus on Brinton. I really have learned a lot about Quaker thought and practice from him.