Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Enthusiasm for Life": the Career of Anna Brinton

In my postings about the Brintons I don’t want to give short shrift to Anna Brinton, a woman often described (even by plain-speaking Friends) as “legendary.” As Thomas Hamm points out in his Earlham College: A History, “While Howard was an extraordinarily gifted individual, Anna was by most accounts even more gifted.”1  

This brief overview of Anna’s life and academic career lends credence to Hamm's assessment. Anna was raised in a remarkable Quaker family and earned her doctorate in Classics from Stanford at age 30. (Howard was 40 when he earned his doctorate, and might not have done it without Anna’s prodding.)

Like Howard, Anna pursued her scholarly work with great seriousness. With her highly disciplined mind and her love for art and antiquity. Anna was on her way to becoming a well respected Classics scholar at the age of only thirty. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on Maphaeus Vegius and his Thirteenth Book of the Aeneid. Vegius (1406-58) was an Italian Renaissance humanist, poet, and educator who revered Virgil and wrote a “final chapter” to the Aeneid recounting the conclusion of the hero’s life. Anna’s study of Maphaeus was published by Stanford University Press in 1930 on the 2000th anniversary of Virgil’s death and was reprinted in 2002.1 A recent reviewer noted: “As a piece of serious scholarship, [Anna Brinton’s] edition has been overtaken, but this is a classic work that still holds an important place in scholarship on the subject.”2

A beautifully printed edition of this work was published by Stanford University in 1930 and has become a collector’s item. Much of Anna’s scholarly work is unrelated to her Quakerism so it will not be discussed in detail here. Suffice to say, her scholarly reputation was such that after six years at Earlham, she was invited back to Mills to be the dean of the faculty and to teach a course on oriental art, one of her favorite subjects.

In 1934, at a William Morris Centenary celebration at Mills, Anna heard that William Morris had inscribed an Aeneid illustrated by his friend Edward Burne-Jones. At the reception at a San Francisco hotel, she asked about the manuscript and learned from a complete stranger that it was in the hands of Mrs. Edward Lawrence Doheny, a famous book collector who was married to a wealthy Los Angeles oil tycoon implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s. Anna contacted Mrs. Doheny and was invited to her home which was “an astonishment to behold. In the drawing room there was a gold piano with portraits of the Doheny children on the legs. On one wall hung a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper done in fish scales. At table the butter plates were of solid gold.”1

Mrs. Doheny was “very cordial” and entrusted Anna with a copy of the magnificent and enormously valuable Morris/Burne-Jones Virgil. This manuscript, which ended up in the hands of Andrew Lloyd Weber, sold for over 1.5 million pounds in 2002. It is considered one of the great art treasures of Victorian England.2

From it Anna prepared a book entitled A Pre-Raphelite Aeneid, which was privately published by Mrs. Doheny.3 Copies of this book have sold for as much as $26,000.

Career-wise, going to Pendle Hill was a bigger sacrifice for Anna than for Howard since she devoted a good deal of her time to administrative duties and did not have much opportunity to advance her promising career as a Classicist.

However, she did produce some significant Quaker works which I’d like to discuss.

One of my favorite works by Anna is a pamphlet called “Towards Undiscovered Ends” (1951). In it she examined the history of Friends’ religious concern in Russia from the time of William Penn until 1951, when London Yearly Meeting sent a delegation of seven Friends to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet Peace Committee.1 These British Friends met with Russians, worshipped at the Moscow Baptist church, and had fruitful dialogues that set the stage for future Quaker reconciliation work. Anna approved of their recommendation that Americans be open-minded in conversations with the Soviets and acknowledge what is good as well as what is detrimental in the Communist system. She concluded that “Friends everywhere must dedicate themselves afresh to God’s ‘ministry of reconciliation in this gravely divided world.’”

I have traveled in the ministry to the Soviet Union on behalf of Friends and can testify from my own experience that Anna’s pamphlet provided useful background as well as encouragement to Friends who continued this work of reconciliation between the Soviet Union and the United States over the next forty years. The title of her pamphlet, “Towards Undiscovered Ends,” now seems prophetically apt. Who could have foreseen in the McCarthy period how the Cold War would end, and that relations between Americans and the Russians would be normalized, in part because of the trust-building work of Friends and other peace activists?2

Anna traveled a lot in the ministry, going to Japan, China, Korea, and other far-away places. She was honored and appreciated for her kindness and generosity wherever she went. Like her grandparents, Anna loved travel. “It runs in families, this taste for travel,” Anna once observed. “Friends have a great propensity for going about doing good, especially when doing good involves going about.”1

Seven years after writing her pamphlet about the Russians, Anna had her last big adventure. In 1958, at age 71, Anna decided to go to British Columbia, Canada, to meet with the Doukhobors, a Russian pacifist sect whose name means “Spirit Wrestler.” The Doukhobors had many affinities with the Quakers and were helped to migrate to Canada after being persecuted in Russia. When a radical segment of the Doukhobors began to resist violently Canadian government attempts to compel their children to attend school, Quakers were asked to help to resolve these conflicts. Anna went to Canada to help in this mediation process. In my book, I include the story of this remarkable journey in her own words.

Like Howard, Anna was not given to self-disclosure or self-analysis. But in 1963, Anna let herself be interviewed by her friend Eleanore Price Mather, and the result was a charming pamphlet entitled Anna Brinton: A Study in Quaker Character. Not all were pleased with this effort, however. A reviewer described the work as a “sequence of seemingly unrelated anecdotes” and questions whether “the anecdotal treatment—entertaining though it may be in detail—really does full justice to the personality it seeks to characterize.”1 Others reading this delightful work might agree with William Ellery Channing, who said: “One good anecdote is worth a volume of biography.

By 1964, as Howard turned eighty and Anna turned seventy-six, both were showing signs of their age. Howard’s eyesight was failing, and Anna needed to walk with a cane. Yet they remained upbeat, as Mather recalled:

When Elizabeth Vining, because of her sister’s illness, left Pendle Hill for Germantown in 1967, she planned a farewell call on the Brintons, only to find them unexpectedly on her own doorstep. When she expressed concern at the exertion this must have cost them, Anna stopped her with a cheerful, “We do very well. I have eyes, and Howard has legs.”2

Anna endeavored not to let old age keep her from doing what she felt led to do. As Sylvia Judson observed:

Her body didn’t seem to count. She climbed the steep steps in the Barn when her arthritis was a torment because she was interested in something I was making. She came to Boston right after an operation to attend the dedication of the monument to Mary Dyer. . . . Even when she was most busy and it seemed as though there could be no time for you, she might invite you to breakfast in front of their fire and suddenly—it would be an occasion, a time never to be forgotten. Tea on a winter afternoon might be offered with cookies she had baked, but soda crackers could still be festive when accompanied by candles.3

Yet even the legendary Anna had to cut back on some of her activities. In 1965, she resigned from the Board of the AFSC, on which she had served almost continually since 1938. (From 1958-1960 and from 1962-1965 she served as vice president of the Board.) But Anna was not idle. She continued her attention to writing articles and reviews, and produced a memorable Pendle Hill pamphlet entitled The Wit and Wisdom of William Bacon Evans.

When Evans, a legendary and colorful Quaker figure, died in 1964, Edwin Bronner, curator of the Quaker Collection, asked Anna to write about his life.

The last Philadelphia Friend of prominence to wear the plain coat and broad brimmed hat of the ‘Quaker of the older time,’ William Bacon Evans was known in different ways to an incalculable number of individuals and groups,” Anna observed. A teacher at Westtown School for many years, Evans taught English, French and general science. He traveled to the Middle East to do relief work and had an inexhaustible interest in plants and birds. He grew increasingly eccentric and charming as he aged. Long after other Friends had abandoned plain dress, he adopted this distinctive garb.

He also had a unique form of ministry, described by Anna as “terse religious utterances and [an] inexhaustible fund of vivid illustrations [that] often shocked his hearers into right-mindedness, his zeal on their behalf rendered acceptable by his wit.”

Much the same could be said for Anna, who no doubt found in Evans a kindred spirit.

Many of the anecdotes about William Bacon Evans have entered Quaker folklore. Most notably, when one of the boys at Westtown rushed from the showers and forgot to wear a robe, he almost collided into “Master Bacon” (as he was known) and uttered the expletive: “Oh Lord.”

No,” replied Master Bacon, “just one of his humble servants.”4

On another occasion, when the students rebelled against compulsory meeting for worship at Haverford College, and tensions were mounting, William Bacon Evans “arose from his position on the facing bench and intoned solemnly: ‘No man descends so low on the scale of social values as to admit that he comes from New Jersey.”

The entire meetinghouse roared with laughter since half of those in attendance were from New Jersey and it is a standing joke that residents of that state are looked down upon by their neighbors in Pennsylvania and New York. When the laughter died down, Evans continued on a more serious note: “And so it is with the Society of Friends, many of whose members seem to take special delight in concealing the fact that their beliefs have anything to do with the main body of Christendom.”5

Like Anna, Evans used wit and the unexpected image to make a point not easily forgotten. But he also had a serious side. Bacon’s major work was the Dictionary of Quaker Biography, which he worked on for the last fifteen or twenty years of his life, and which earned him a reputation as a serious scholar.

At the same time as he labored on this prodigious work of scholarship, he made ingenious toys and games which he shared with children and random people he met on the street—a habit that sober-minded Friends sometimes found embarrassing, especially since Evans wore “plain dress” and made his Quaker identity unmistakably apparent.

In portraying the life of William Bacon Evans, Anna celebrated a Quaker type that had all but disappeared in the modern era—a type that she admired and emulated. As Anna explained:

Few younger Friends now remember what that type of Friend was like. He (or she) seemed to live from within, unaffected by the conventional behavior and frame of mind of what was called “the world.” Because he was peculiar in dress and speech he could more easily become a pioneer in peculiar, unpopular causes. He possessed a certain spontaneity, often bluntness of speech and, occasionally, a sly humor and gentle roguishness apparently out of keeping with the solemnity of his bearing when engaged in religious exercises.6

During this period, Anna also wrote a pamphlet called Quaker Profiles (Pendle Hill, 1964) providing short bios of notable Friends accompanied by “Quaker silhouettes,” an art form sanctioned by Quakers who disapproved of oil paintings as too worldly. As a reviewer noted, “Within its brief scope we learn an amazing amount, not only about silhouettes (which meant a pleasant recreation for those to whom cards, dancing, theater, etc. were denied), but also about such Quaker worthies of the 1750-1850 period as John Fothergill, Rebecca Jones, Paul Cuff and others. . . . In writing about Nicholas Waln the author observes that, although he became a ‘public Friend,’ he retained his sense of fun—a comment that might apply with equal aptness to a contemporary public Friend named Anna Brinton.”7

In the final year of her life, Anna became interested in the writings of Stephen Crisp (16281692), a prolific Quaker author from Colchester, England, who is credited with establishing the Quaker faith in Holland. What interested Anna about Crisp was the fact that he wrote an allegory—most unusual for Friends—and that this allegory, called A Short History of a Long Journey from Babylon to Bethel, was diametrically opposed to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, arguably the most popular work ever written in seventeenth-century England. When the Tract Association of Friends decided to reprint Crisp’s work, Anna was commissioned to write an introduction. She also gave friendly advice to an artist commissioned to do illustrations. In her introduction she summed up the difference between Crisp’s and Bunyan’s work:

How does Stephen Crisp's theology differ from that of Bunyan's? In the first place, while Crisp's pilgrim starts off with a pack on his back of luggage for his journey, Bunyan's pilgrim had as his pack the burden of guilt which is original sin. Second, Crisp's pilgrim soon gives up confidence in human leadership having discovered a measure of the Light. Third, he crosses the river early on his journey, whereas for Bunyan's pilgrim the river is at the end, the river of death. Fourth, Crisp's pilgrim reaches the House of God in this life. He finds a satisfied multitude in the outer court. They invite him to stay with them in easy circumstances but catching sight of his guide, the Light, as it passes through a narrow door (compare Bunyan's wicket gate) he presses on, divests himself of his travel-worn garments and enters the House of God. Here, like the Friends with whom Stephen Crisp had found Peace after his own period of seeking, he first rests from struggle, then finds his calling which is to supply the needs of the young, and finally aspires to bring his good tidings to the Babylon from which he had set out.


This little allegory—it’s only twenty pages long, one tenth the length of The Pilgrim’s Progress—never became popular and even Anna admits that Bunyan’s work “is incomparably more exciting with raging beasts, Giant Despair, and Apollyon with all his hosts.” But Stephen Crisp’s reflection on life’s journey, and particularly, the afterlife—may have spoken to Anna in a personal way as she contemplated her own mortality. Anna never wrote or said much about the afterlife, but it’s clear that she, like Crisp, felt that we don’t need to wait until after our death to glimpse the Kingdom of God. If we are faithful to the Light, we can experience a measure of heaven here on earth, and share the good news of that holy community with others.

As Anna worked on what proved to be her final writing projects, Howard continued to write about Quakerism, despite his increasing blindness and failing health. Mather wrote, “Early in 1969 he asked to be released from teaching obligations for the coming fall, saying ‘he doubted he would be able to teach even if he were alive at that time.’”8

Much to everyone's surprise, Howard managed to live through the fall, but Anna suddenly died a stroke in Matsudo on October 29, 1969. Granddaughter Catharine Forbes was caring for Howard and Anna at this time.

Henry Cadbury wrote what was perhaps the most memorable tribute to Anna, and began by quoting pithy aphorisms from a talk that Anna gave at Friends General Conference in Cape May:

Happy are those whose later years are not a footnote to life but an interesting last chapter.

There are two traps which have to be especially avoided in our relationship to our families and Meeting; they are indolence and omniscience. By indolence I mean unwillingness to take our right responsibility. By omniscience I man the assumption that because we have lived a long time, our judgment is final.

Let us try to improve the public conscience by increasing the amount of tenderness, sympathy, and consideration. It is urgent to begin with the young if we hope to replace hardness of heart with tenderness and Christian love.

Cadbury went on to say that “with the passing of Anna Brinton . . . the Society of Friends lost one of its most colorful and useful personalities.” After describing her remarkable career, he concludes that “when she came to die, she was, she said, ‘enthusiastic about death.’ She also had been enthusiastic about life.”9

This seems a fitting way to close this reflection on the remarkable life and death of Anna Cox Brinton.


1 Review by M.C. Moss, Friends Journal, July 15, 1971.

2 Pendle Hill, Mather, p. 96.

3 Pendle Hill, Mather, p. 96.

4 The Wit and Wisdom of William Bacon Evans, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #146, Wallingford, PA: 1966.

5 Ibid, p. 39.

6 Ibid, p. 25.

7 Friends Journal, January 1, 1965, p. 14.

8 Pendle Hill, Mather, p. 96, taken from the minutes of the executive committee.

9 “Anna Brinton: Enthusiasm for Life,” Friends Journal, December 15, 1969.

1 Anna was also interested in the Doukhobors, a Russian sect that had affinities with the Quakers and were helped to migrate to Canada after being persecuted in Russia. When a radical segment of the Doukhobors began to resist violently Canadian government attempts to compel their children to attend school, Quakers were asked to help to resolve these conflicts. Anna Brinton went to Canada to help in this mediation process.

2 See my pamphlet Spiritual Linkage with Russians: the Story of a Leading, Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1992. In “How We Ended the Cold War” (The Nation, Nov., 1999) John Tierman counters the conventional wisdom among conservatives that the Cold War and Reagan’s military buildup intimidated the Soviets or brought them to “exhaustion.” He says what decisively influenced American as well as Soviet politicians was the growing numbers of people who became involved in the nuclear freeze movement and citizen diplomacy.

1 Anna Brinton, Mather, p. 16.

2 Emma Buckley (Cambridge University) in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.02.


1 Mather, p. 16-17.


3 Mather, p. 17.

1 Thomas Hamm, Earlham College: A History, Indiana University Press: Bloomington, Indiana, p. 139.



  1. Wow...this looks inspirational and interesting... I will save it to read later... so many classes to plan!

  2. In 1967 I was a student at Pendle Hill for several months and was on a scholarship. I helped in the kitchen a lot but my favorite task was helping the Brintons with housework and chores at their house. I had graduated from Stanford a few years before, and Anna made much of our Stanford connection.

  3. I was at Pendle Hill from fall, 1964 to spring 1965. I, too, remember helping to clean their little house.. "abolishing the dust," as Anna said. On completing work on her pamphlet on Quaker silhouettes, she quoted "The mountain went into labor, and gave birth to a mouse.
    I have two sketches of her, from 1965. I have sometimes thought of giving them to Pendle Hill, but have been told, that they are always busy there throwing away their treasures, so assume they would not find a welcome home there.
    You can see my art on my blog: