During their nearly fifty years of marriage, Howard and Anna Brinton exemplified what it meant to be a committed Quaker couple—teaching, writing, traveling and working for peace while raising a family of four children. For sixteen years, they were directors and teachers at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There they wrote numerous articles, pamphlets, and books about the Quaker faith and practice that “reinvented” Quakerism for the twentieth century. Howard Brinton’s book Friends for 300 Years became a classic and was reissued in 2002 with commentary by the Quaker historian Margaret Bacon. Many of Howard’s pamphlets are still used to teach the basics of Quakerism in First Day and Quakerism 101 classes. With his solid grounding in science and philosophy, Howard created a theological framework for modern liberal Quakerism that has been challenged by scholars, but has never been replaced by anything of comparable stature or usefulness. 1
Book-length biographical studies have been written about most of the other “giants” of early and mid twentieth century American Quakerism—Rufus Jones, Henry Cadbury, Douglas Steere, Thomas Kelly, and Clarence Pickett2. A biography of this extraordinary couple is long overdue and will, I hope, help to illuminate not only their lives but also the development of Quaker life and thought in the twentieth century.
The Brintons were “bi-coastal Friends” who helped form the Pacific Coast Association, which later became Pacific Yearly Meeting. Anna Cox Brinton (1887-1969) was born and raised in San Jose, California. Her grandfather, Joel Bean, started the College Park Association of Friends, an independent Quaker organization that was the precursor of Pacific Yearly Meeting. (For this reason, Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends are sometimes called “Beanites.”) Howard Haines Brinton (1884-1973) came from a well-established Quaker family in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and became deeply involved in Western Quakerism through his marriage to Anna.
Throughout their lives, they nurtured and supported the expansion of the “independent” Quaker movement in the Western USA.3 Phillip Wells, a physician who became active with Friends in the 1920s and served as an editor of Friends Bulletin, wrote: “Howard Brinton has often been spoken of affectionately as the father of Pacific Yearly Meeting…the presence and writings of Howard Brinton have been a unifying and inspiring presence for Friends everywhere, but particularly for the Pacific Coast region.”
Unlike most of the major 20th century Quaker scholars, who tended to stay put at one or two institutions, like Haverford or Harvard, the Brintons ranged widely and experienced the full spectrum of Quakerism theologically and geographically.4 Howard taught at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, Olney Friends School in Ohio, Pickering College in Canada, and Guilford College in North Carolina. Together Howard and Anna taught at Mills College in California, Earlham College in Indiana, Woodbrooke in England, and finally settled at Pendle Hill, where they lived from 1936 until they died. In the course of their careers, the Brintons had first-hand experience with the amazing diversity of Quakerism. Both were ecumenical in outlook: Howard attended the first meeting of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, and Anna took part in the first session of the National Council of Churches. As Henry Cadbury noted, “This scholarly couple has exercised profound influence on the education and outreach, including ecumenical contacts, of Quakerism.”5
In the course of their careers, Anna and Howard traveled around the world, visiting Asia as well as Europe, and spent a year leading Quaker educational institutes in Japan for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). They both deeply appreciated Asian culture and saw affinities between Buddhism and Quakerism.
Howard and Anna had a passionate concern not only for Quaker theology, but also for Quaker history. These two subjects were not separate in their minds, as Edwin B. Bronner makes clear: “In 1961, [Howard] was named president of the Friends Historical Association, and, after three years in that office, he was succeeded by his wife Anna….Howard used history to explain Quakerism, he selected historical facts from the past to support the interpretation of Quakerism that he accepted for himself, namely as a mystical religious movement….” To help explain and defend their views of Quaker history and thought, Howard and Anna collaborated on many historical studies, including a work on Quaker journals.
After their retirement, they continued to live at Pendle Hill in a modest cottage called Matsudo. As Dan Wilson, former Pendle Hill director, noted, “During his nearly forty years at Pendle Hill, Howard Brinton came to be known by seekers from around the world as a teacher of the religion he lived.” Wilson added significantly: “I believe Pendle Hill has been his living autobiography.”
They were actively involved in the AFSC from its early years after WW I through the 1960s. While they are best known as Quaker educatorsor as Dan Wilson called them somewhat grandiloquently, “translucent teachers and ministers of the Light”6peace activism was a key element in their lives. Howard Brinton’s writing on the historical basis of the Quaker Peace Testimony has become a classic. His views on the theological and spiritual underpinnings of Quaker social activism have also been profoundly influential. Through their work at Pendle Hill and the American Friends Service Committee, the Brintons did a great deal to nurture the peace movement and helped to educate a generation of activists.7
The fact of their being a couple—a pair of gifted Friends with distinct personalities and a common mission—was an important aspect of their ministry. Horace Alexander (a British Quaker best known for supporting the independence movement in India) observed that when Alfred Neave Brayshaw returned to England from a visit to Friends in North America in the 1920s, he told his Friends at Woodbrooke: “I have found a wonderful couple of Friends in America. It is a real case of ‘William-and-Mary.’ You must get them to Woodbrooke for a year.” Alexander adds: “Even though they sometimes travelled separately, the names Howard and Anna are for their friends still inseparably linked.”8 As this biography of the Brintons reveals, Howard and Anna were in many ways (as Quaker historian Thomas Hamm noted) “the most remarkable Quaker couple since George Fox married Margaret Fell.”9
The analogy is apt and striking, but needs some clarification. George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, was a charismatic visionary. Howard was also a visionary, an exponent of what he saw as “real Quakerism.” Margaret Fell was the wife of a prominent judge who became Fox’s follower, and then his wife, after her husband died. Margaret was not only a supportive wife, but also an outspoken defender of her faith. She wrote an aptly titled “manifesto of women’s liberation” called Women’s Speaking Justified.10 Anna Brinton needed no justification for speaking out, nor was she ever any man’s follower. But like Margaret, she felt called to Quaker ministry and had organizational skills that helped her husband to succeed in his calling. George and Margaret, like Howard and Anna, were an impressive team.
The Brintons were a “marriage of East and West” not only geographically, but temperamentally. The granddaughter of Joel Bean, Anna embodied the independent, inventive, and creative spirit of Western Quakers. Howard, on the other hand, came from an Eastern Quaker family with roots dating back to William Penn. Grounded in the deep traditions of East Coast Quakerism, and inspired by Anna and West Coast Friends, Howard sought to move Friends beyond traditionalism into a vital connection with the living Spirit and with modern ideas.
I was drawn to write this book about the Brintons in part because for twelve years I edited Friends Bulletin, the official magazine of Western unprogrammed Quakers. (“Unprogrammed” refers to Quakers who worship without a pre-arranged liturgy or paid pastor.) This magazine was started in 1929 when Anna Brinton “first had the happy idea” of producing a quarterly newsletter for the College Park Association of Friends (which later evolved into the Pacific Coast Association and Pacific Yearly Meeting). When I finished editing a book to commemorate the 70th anniversary of this publication, and to chronicle the history of Friends in the Western United States, I discovered that Howard Brinton had dictated his Autobiography to Yuki Takahashi Brinton (his second wife) during the last year of his life when he was blind and therefore unable to read or write. As I perused Brinton’s Autobiography, which no historian had researched, I realized it was a trove of information about a major figure of twentieth century Quakerism whose personal life is not widely known.
“Though Howard Brinton wrote about mysticism with the authority of direct knowledge, there are in his books no accounts of his own experience,” observed Elizabeth Gray Vining. “He was reticent about himself. But in his later years he did say to Dan Wilson that he should have revealed himself more.”
Howard understood that sharing one’s personal experiences as a Friend is a crucial aspect of Quaker practice. “Because Quakerism is primarily a religion based on inner personal experience rather than on creed or ritual,” wrote Howard, “the religious autobiography, usually called a ‘Journal,’ has been the most characteristic form of Quaker writing.”11 For this reason, Howard took an intense interest in Quaker journals, a form of autobiographical writing that he saw as an essential feature of Quaker life and thought.
When Howard turned seventy five in 1959, he was asked to share his lifetime of experience among Friends at a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting gathering. His talk, called Seventy-Five Years of Friends, was autobiographical, but it focused on his religious experiences, not his personal life.
Howard’s personal life is described in his unpublished Autobiography, which I have used as a basis for this study. I tell the story of his marriage to Yuki, and of how Howard’s Autobiography came to be written. I also recount Yuki’s life story, which she shared with me during her final years.
Anna never wrote a journal or memoir but a few years before her death in 1969, she allowed herself to be interviewed by Eleanor Price Mather, who wrote Anna Brinton: A Study in Quaker Character (Pendle Hill Pamphlet # 176: 1971). This anecdotal account of Anna’s life is entertaining and insightful, but somewhat limited and does not attempt to place Anna’s contributions into an historical context, as I try to do.
The Brintons were intensely serious about their religious faith, but they did not take themselves seriously. One of the most appealing features of their lives was their keen sense of humor and fun, which does not always appear in their writings. As Dan Wilson wrote, Howard “could laugh and play heartily, as evidenced particularly at Hallowe’en parties, Pendle Hill log nights, and with his grandchildren.” Anna was also famous for her wit and humor. No biography of the Brintons could omit this quality, which helped to make them effective teachers as well as beloved Friends. Even during the most solemn moments, Howard could see the absurd, as is made clear by this story told by Douglas Steere:
Howard and Anna Brinton entertained many distinguished people in their
Upmeads residence with its fireplace framed with panels of old Chinese and
Japanese Zen patriarchs who looked down searchingly upon the guests. I once
confronted those patriarch in Upmeads when I brought over Daisetz Suzuki, the
great Zen writer, to see Howard. There, before those fierce beetle-browed
figures on the panels, Howard, whose own eyebrows came out like shelves of
thatch over his eyes, asked Dr. Suzuki (whose brows quite matched Howard’s and
those on the panels), “Dr. Suzuki, is it true that Zen Buddhists believe that
there is some connection between sanctity and the size of a man’s eyebrows?”
Daizetz Suzuki took in the situation and with a faint curl of a smile coming
over his face, replied courteously, “So they say,” after which we all roared
Anna had the reputation of being a no-nonsense administrator (“The Spirit of Organization that kills” is how Gerald Heard once described her, somewhat unkindly), but she also had a whimsical and humorous side, especially when it came to children. One of my favorite Anna Brinton stories involves an incident that took place when a group of Pendle Hill students met for outdoor worship. One of the students, Frances McAllister, had a young child who kept disturbing the group by chasing butterflies. Frances was embarrassed by her child’s behavior and went to Anna afterwards to apologize. Anna smiled and reassured Frances with an unforgettable line: “Does thee not know, Friend, that chasing butterflies is a form of worship?”
I have been preparing to write this book for nearly nine years. I began my research in 2001 when I was given a copy of Howard’ unpublished Autobiography by his daughter, Cathy Cary, and was told that no historian had researched it. In 2003 I received a Gest fellowship to do research in the Brinton archives at Haverford College. I spent many pleasant hours interviewing the Brinton family and am grateful for their assistance. I have also interviewed many people who knew the Brintons personally and were happy to share stories about this remarkable couple. This led to my publishing a Pendle Hill pamphlet entitled Living the Peace Testimony: The Legacy of Howard and Anna Brinton (2004). In 2008 I received a Cadbury fellowship so that I could spend a year at Pendle Hill writing a biography of the Brintons. As my wife and I prepared to make our cross-country trek from California to Pendle Hill—we had even quit our jobs and sold our home—we learned that my wife had cancer. This devastating news forced us to forgo our plans and spend the year in Santa Monica while she underwent chemotherapy. Because I didn’t have access to many of the resources I needed, and much of my time had to be devoted to care giving, I almost gave up my hope of completing this project. But in the spring of 2009, I decided to re-read some of Howard’s writings in order to prepare for a short course about the Brintons I was supposed to teach at Pendle Hill, and my enthusiasm returned. Supported by my wife, who read the manuscript while awaiting her admittance to the City of Hope, I felt inspired once more to write about a couple who in many ways epitomize what 20th century Quakerism was all about. When Kathleen died suddenly of cancer in May 2009, I was determined to complete this book and dedicate it to her memory. She was (and still is) my inspiration.
Writing about the Brintons has been a way for me to explore my relationship to a faith that has enriched my life and deepened my spiritual awareness beyond what words can tell. Writing this book has truly been what Quakers call a “leading of the Spirit.”
As I wrote this book, I was aware that even though I have been a Quaker for nearly twenty-five years, I am still an outsider in many ways. I was not raised a Quaker, nor did I attend Quaker schools. I had to learn about Quaker history and culture through a slow process of trial-and-error (mostly error). What comforts me is the knowledge that the Brintons were very supportive of convinced Friends like me. They nurtured fledging Friends in Pacific Yearly Meeting and they did their best to clarify the “secrets” of Quakerism with their students at Pendle Hill, many of whom were newcomers to the Religious Society of Friends. The Brintons had little patience with “birthright Friends who thought they knew [what Quakerism is all about] but did not.”12
I have quoted extensively from Howard’s Autobiography and other writings to give a flavor of what the man and his conversation were like; and I have also tried to do the same for Anna, although fewer records remain of her oral reminiscences. Howard frequently admitted his shortcomings in his Autobiography, and Anna could also be self-critical. I believe that no biography can be useful unless its subject is presented warts and all. Howard and Anna would have appreciated honesty more than hagiography. As Howard observed in his study of Quaker Journals,
When a manuscript [of a Friend’s autobiography/journal] was found by the family, it was usually turned over to a committee of the meeting for editing. This was often disastrous. Sometimes the editors, from too much caution, would eliminate references to persons then living, or other interesting parts of the Journal.13
To avoid such a “disaster,” I have preserved as much as I could of what Howard and Anna said in their own words, while correcting errors of fact owing to lapses of memory. I have also provided a critical context so their comments and views can be evaluated from perspectives other than their own. My hope is that readers will come to appreciate how these two Friends lived their faith, and how their efforts to be authentic Quakers in the twentieth century can help us to deepen our connection with the Spirit in our era.
1 In 2002 Howard Brinton’s Friends for 300 Years (written to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Quakerism) was the third best-selling book in the Pendle Hill bookstore, a major Quaker book distributor. Over 1,000 copies of this Quaker classic were sold yearly. Two other Brinton works are among Pendle Hill’s top twenty best-selling publications. No other 20th century Quaker author circulates so widely, at least in Quaker circles. Friends For 300 Years has recently been reprinted, with an historical update and notes by Margaret Hope Bacon, under the title Friends for 350 Years (Pendle Hill: Wallingford, 2002).
2 Elizabeth Gray Vining, Friend of Life: A Biography of Rufus M. Jones (1959); Margaret Hope Bacon, Let This Life Speak: The Legacy of Henry Joel Cadbury (1987); Lawrence McK. Miller, Witness for Humanity: A Biography of Clarence E. Pickett (1999); Richard Kelly, Thomas Kelly, a Biography, Harper and Row, 1966; and E. Glen Hinson, Love at the Heart of Things: A Biography of Douglas V. Steere (1998).
3 See A Western Quaker Reader, edited by Anthony Manousos. Friends Bulletin: Whittier, CA. 2000.
4 Rufus Jones spent most of his career teaching at Haverford. Henry Cadbury taught at Haverford Bryn Mawr, and Harvard.. Douglas Steere taught at Haverford for most of his career, with a one-year stint at Union Seminary. In his all too short career, Thomas Kelly, like Howard Brinton, taught at a variety of schools and places, including Wilmington College, Pickering College, the University of Hawaii, Hartford Theological Seminary and Haverford.
5 Friends Journal, December 15, 1969, p. 708.
6 Living in the Light: Some Quaker Pioneers of the 20th Century, Volume 1, in the U.S.A. Leonard S. Kenworthy, Editor. FGC, Kennett Square, PA, 1984, p. 41.
7 See Living the Peace Testimony: The Legacy of Howard and Anna Brinton by Anthony Manousos. Pendle Hill Pamphlet 372. Wallingford, PA: 2004.
8 Horace Alexander, The Friend, November 14, 1969, p 1397.
9 Thomas Hamm, Earlham College: A History 1847-1997. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997, p. 139.
10 Robert J. Leach, Women Ministers: A Quaker Contribution. Pendle Hill Pamphlet #227, 1979, p. 8.
11 Brinton, Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience Among Friends. Pendle Hill, 1972, p. ix.
12 Manousos, A Western Quaker Reader, Friends Bulletin: Whittier, CA, 2000, p. 90.
13 Brinton, Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experiences Among Friends. Pendle Hill: 1972, p. xi.