Friday, October 27, 2017

Why do we need Quaker history, and what kind of history do we need?

My first book dealt with the history of Western unprogrammed Friends
and was published in 2000. It's a compilation
of articles from Friends Bulletin, the magazine I edited.
It is out of print, but available through Amazon and other
On October 26 I took part in an interesting phone workshop on Quaker history sponsored by the Western Friend. It was the first online workshop I have ever taken part in, and I want to commend Mary Klein for organizing it and for providing excellent background readings and good questions to ponder. I also want to commend her for choosing Zoom as our platform. It worked extremely well. I was able to hear and see everyone clearly.  Given problems I’ve experienced with other conferencing platforms, I was deeply impressed by Zoom. To learn more about the Western Friend, see

History helps us to discover and forge our identity as Quakers

Our discussion began with a Friend pointing out that our Quaker identity depends in great measure on knowledge of our history, and I agree. I once heard James Baldwin say, “To know where we are going, we need to know who we are. To know who we are, we have to know where we have been.” These words ring true. History helps us to know where we came from, who we are, and how we can chart our future. Several Friends spoke about how studying Quaker history was important for their spiritual formation as Friends. Knowing our history also helps us collectively to be a faith-based community sharing a common vision and goals.

We need to know everyone’s story, not just the dominant narrative

Jim Summers reminded us that we need to know not just one but multiple histories—the stories told by marginalized people are just as important as the stories told by dominant groups. Privileged Quakers have prided themselves on treating Indian fairly, opposing slavery, championing the rights of women, etc. All of this is true, up to a point. But African American Friends have helped us to realize that Quaker history is also rife with racism (not to mention, sexism and homophobia). That’s why we need to read and take to heart books like Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. The same is true of our history with Native Americans; we need to hear what First People think of Friends, and that means reaching out and including them in historical conferences, as Jim tried to do. To have a complete history, everyone involved must be at the table, sharing their stories.

I must add that we need to hear the multiple perspectives on Quaker history representing the broad theological spectrum of Quaker thought and action.  We need, for example, Howard Brinton’s take on liberal Quakerism, which I once thought was “true Quakerism” and now realize is just one facet of a multifaceted gem. We also need English Christocentric Friend John Punshon’s Portrait in Grey, Wilmer Cooper’s A Living Faith (written from a Wilburite, FUM perspective), Walter Williams’ The Rich Heritage of Quakerism (the perspective of what Elton Trueblood calls a ‘majority’ of Quakers, i.e. Evangelicals), and finally, Ben Pink Dandelion, an English Friend who tries to be inclusive and comprehensive of all the branches of Quakerism. In addition to reading these different takes on Quaker history, we can also benefit from going back to original sources and struggling to understand what they are saying.

Know Nothings Vs. Know-It-Alls

Eric Moon pointed out the misuses of history among some Friends. He observed that some Friends think they are superior because they know Quaker history. They believe that just because they read about Quakerism, they understand the spirit that inspired early Quakers and how to be a Quaker in today’s world. They are like some birthright Friend who (as Brinton pointed out with some irritation) “think they know when they do not.” At the other extreme are Friends who are proud of knowing nothing about Quaker history, perhaps because Quakerism is a mystical and Spirit-led religion and being a mystic means living in the Eternal Now. A Friend who had mystical experiences observed that these extraordinary experiences tend to come very rarely and we need to talk about them later and put them into perspective. As Brinton notes, Quakerism encourages us to come together in “that which is Eternal,” but we also need to have an intellectual understanding of our faith. Knowing our history helps us to know each other in “that which is temporal,” i.e. in our humanity.

Prophets and Heretics Are Revered…Only After They Are Safely Dead and Written Up in History Books

Joe Magruder pointed out that many of the great achievements of Friends, like the Underground Railroad, were undertaken in opposition to mainstream Quakers. “You could get read out of Meeting for being involved in the Underground Railroad,” Magruder noted. “Especially in Hicksite Meetings.”
I pointed out the debt that Quakers owe to “heretics” like Elias Hicks and Lucretia Mott. This is a topic I wrote about in a blog you can read.
The gist of what I say is an old, old story: prophets aren’t usually appreciated in their home towns or home meetings.

The Need for Sacred and Secular History

Quakers need to know our history because we are human and human beings are storytelling animals. In prehistoric times, we sat around campfires and shared stories—stories of spirits, of ancestors, of tribal triumphs and defeats. These stories were handed down uncritically from generation to generation and were accepted as true. History as we know it began when Greek historians like Herodotus questioned the stories told to him and trying to piece together a narrative of what “really happened.” Herodotus’ histories were colored and shaped by his value system and culture, of course, but his effort to be “objective” was an important step forward in human development.  The Greek word “history” means an “investigation,” usually of written documents.  Investigating and trying to create a reliable written record of the past is the origin of secular history.

People also need sacred stories.  Scriptures may or may not be factual but they contain wisdom and insights that inspire and challenge. Scholars ask of scripture, “Is this factual,” and “What is the socio-economic background of this story? Who is telling it and why?”  but people of faith ask equally important questions, “What can I learn from this story that will make a difference in my life and in the world?”

As Quakers, we need inspirational stories about our past achievements, but we also need factual accounts of our struggles and failings.  Brinton wrote history from a theological perspective that sometimes fails the test of objective history. He was interested in facts, but he was more interested in how these facts inform, and are informed by, our faith and our spiritual experiences. Larry Ingle, on the other hand, is an academic historian who is interested in the facts whether or not they help us in our faith journey as Friends. The same is true for Chuck Fager, who enjoys debunking Quaker myths and making us question hagiographies posing as biographies. Friends like Fox and Woolman and Lucretia Mott were amazing people and role models, but they had shortcomings and flaws just like us. We need history that helps us understand not only great men and women, but the social and economic forces that influenced and shaped them.

We also need to know the stories of people who are more like us. Not just the spiritual giants, but what Henry Cadbury called “common folk.” That's why I love to hear the spiritual journeys of my fellow Quakers since they, too, are doing Important work to “build a better peaceful world,” as Henry Cadbury said when the Society of Friends received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947:

"Common folk, not statesmen, nor generals, nor great men of affairs, but just simple men and women, if they devote themselves … can do something to build a better peaceful world."

These oral histories are invaluable to social historians who interested not only in notable people but in how "common folk" lived their lives. Brinton's study of Quaker Journals is a good example of using these primary sources to create a picture of the broader society of Friends. 

We talked mainly about biographical history, not social, religious and economic history. These kind of historical accounts help us to place events in a larger intellectual perspective. Much of it is not easy reading, like Doug Gwyn’s Seekers Found and Apocalypse of the Word. But we need such histories to understand the larger context and trajectory of our Quaker movement.

History as a Way to Build Community

Arthur pointed out another, more down-to-earth use of history: to bring us together around shared stories. He told us about how he enjoyed learning about the history of Orange Grove Meeting, including the story about how various Meetings had donated the benches. Learning these stories helps us to feel connected with our Quaker past, and with each other.  

My Personal Story as a Non-Academic, Spirit-led Quaker Historian

Let me close by sharing my personal investment in Quaker history. Each of the books I edited or wrote arose out of a deeply felt personal need. That’s not unusual, even among historians. My pastor wife Kathleen used to say that pastors preach what they themselves need to hear. Historians study what they themselves feel a burning need to know. Herodotus, for example, wrote his famous book about the Persians and the Persian war because the Greeks had just defeated the Persian empire and “saved Greece.” This was a defining moment for the Athenians, and Herodotus wanted to know more about who the Persians were, and what actually happened. So did his contemporaries.

When I became editor of Friends Bulletin, I wanted to know more about Western Quakers. I had arrived in California in 1988, and became editor of Friends Bulletin ten years later, but I still felt like a newcomer. I decided to put together a collection of writings from Friends Bulletin that would provide a documentary history of unprogrammed Friends in the West and help Friends like me understand the story of unprogrammed Friends in the Western USA. David La Shana, an Evangelical Friend, had written an excellent book about Quakers in California but there was nothing comparable written from Beanite Quaker viewpoint. That’s what A Western Quaker Reader tried to do.

After completing this book, I grew increasingly interested in the intersection between mysticism and activism—a subject that continues to fascinate and inspire me. Brinton called Quakers “activist mystics” and I began to research Quakers who fit that description. I was attracted to Gene Hoffman, who became my mentor and friend. A deeply spiritual woman, she was in many ways a mystic as well as an activist because of all the inner as well as outer work she has done. I began collecting material to write her biography when the World Trade Center was attacked—a moment that changed everything. I realized that Gene’s work perspective was extremely relevant and needed. While our leaders were calling for a perpetual war on terrorism, Gene reminded us that terrorists were people we needed to understand.

“I recognized that terrorists were people who had grievances, who thought their grievances would never be heard and certainly never addressed,” wrote Gene. “Later, I saw that all parties to every conflict were wounded, and that at the heart of every act of violence were unhealed wounds. I began to search for ways we peace people might help to heal these unhealed wounds.”

Her words had a profound influence on me, and many others. Editing a collection of Gene’s writings led to go to Israel/Palestine as part of the Compassionate Listening Project with Leah Green. Listening to the many sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict was a profoundly moving, life-changing experience.

After writing a biography of Gene—one in which I honestly described her complicated and at times problematic life—I decided to write a biography of Howard and Anna Brinton, “reinventors of the Quakerism in the 20th century”. I did this in part because this couple had shaped my understanding of Quakerism and I wanted to get to know their story more deeply. Having access to Brinton’s unpublished memoir, I spent over a decade exploring their lives and thoughts by reading many original sources. At the end of my research, I felt that I had a much better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of liberal Quakerism.

One discovery I made in my research was that Howard Brinton "invented" our Quaker Testimonies. How he did it is important. Instead of focusing on what Quakers believed (as in a creed), he focused on what Quakers do. Trained as a scientist, he was using the scientific method--observing behavior and making generalizations.  I also realized that many Friends misunderstand Brinton's intention. He was not trying to create a set of dogmas or principles to live by. He was trying to describe how Quakers lived their faith. Eric Moon has rightly pointed out that Friends who use the Testimonies as a kind of dogma or guiding principles are missing the point. Quakers are supposed to be guided by the Inward Light, not by outward principles. The Testimonies are about what we do. Studying history can help us to put into our perspective our current beliefs and practices. See

My most recent venture into history was a slim collection of short biographies called Transformative Friends. This book came about when I was given the opportunity to facilitate a series of talks about important Quakers at Pacific Yearly Meeting, I thought: Why not focus on Quakers from the previous generation who have had an influence on the current generation of Quakers? I felt these close-to-home stories could help inspire and challenge us to become better Quakers.

Right now I am being drawn to George Fox in part because of his prophetic witness and his ability to launch a movement. Fox is a challenging figure—one Friend described him as “crazy” and he definitely suffered from depression and manic episodes, as Larry Ingle suggests. But he was also the founder of a powerful movement that continues to exert a profound influence to this day. As I studied Fox’s life, I realized that he was not only prophetic, he was a master organizer. I became increasingly enthusiastic about sharing this understanding of Fox with Quakers who are trying to figure out how to respond to the Trump regime. How do we create a movement that will transform our American society the way that early Quakers transformed their society (I am thinking particularly of Pennsylvania, Quakerism's "holy experiment") and left a lasting imprint on history?

For me, history has many uses, but the most important one for me personally is to help me to figure out my place in an ongoing saga that is sacred as well as secular. As a person of faith, I believe that history is not just a series of random or predetermined events  (or as Toynbee said facetiously, "one damned thing after another"). To me, it is an unfolding story in which a Divine intention is being revealed through our human choices and actions, guided by the Spirit, and also through Divine interventions like the death and resurrection of Christ.  I feel as if the work I do, modest as it is, contributes to the redemptive story that we see revealed in the Bible and in the lives of people like George Fox, John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. I hope to continue studying, writing (and making) Quaker history for as long as God sees fit to let me do so.

You can order my books at Amazon, and also at:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks very much for writing this! And for writing your Quaker histories, and being a fine editor of the Friends' Bulletin, which I used to regularly read.

    Much appreciated for all of your creative, reflective work:-)