Angels of Progress

A Documentary History of the Progressive Friends 1822­–1940

"Angels of Progress," by Chuck Fager.By Chuck Fager. Kimo Press, 2014. 468 pages. $19.99/paperback; $6.99/eBook.

Chuck Fager has done us a favor with his new book, Angels of Progress. We are accustomed to history summarized in the opinions of dominant scholars, but this is a “documentary” book (a book literally composed of historic documents). As such, it lets Progressive Quaker activists (mostly between 1822 and 1940) speak for themselves, and the difference is striking! In Fager’s thick volume, there appear countless nuances of the complexities of life that have been passed over by historians’ sweeping generalizations. Angels of Progress is a stunning example of the theme of this issue of Friends Journal: Quaker Myth­-Busting.

Students of American history or religious history will recognize in these musty old sermons, essays, and controversies the literary fossils that clearly trace the dramatic emergence of modern Liberal Quaker faith. Friends who are eager for an intellectual adventure will be privileged to witness the painful birth of today’s Liberal Quakerism, unfolding as it were between these lines. (Until the appearance of Fager’s forthcoming interpretive volume, Remaking Friends, readers are advised to prepare themselves by reading the only other book this reviewer is aware of which treats this subject, Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits.)

Fager has made a number of provocative assertions about this labor of love. He calls the ministers, orators, and authors in this book “the most important Quakers you never heard of” and claims that they “made a significant and lasting impact on the Quaker subculture.” He adds that their reform struggles of more than a century ago—theological freedom of conscience, freedom from ecclesiastical meddling, the end of slavery and the dawn of racial equality, women’s rights, nonviolence, and resistance to militaristic imperialism, among many others—have “striking contemporary resonance.” Speaking of the extraordinary neglect of this history by academic historians (Braude being almost the only exception), Fager bluntly asserts, “I believe this neglect is a mistake.” In fact, he directly contradicts “the most widely­ read one­-volume Quaker history of the past few generations,” Howard Brinton’s Friends for 300 Years, which claims that the Hicksite schism produced no further schisms: “Brinton was wrong. Dead wrong.” These are strong claims, but in every instance they are fully justified by this book and the historic impact of the liberal struggles encoded in these documents. In itself, therefore, the very publication of this much-needed volume by an independent scholar raises disturbing questions about bias and orthodoxy in academic scholarship.

In a nutshell, the Progressive Friends movement was a “congregational” schism of the 1840s and ’50s that followed the Hicksite schism of the 1820s. These were Friends who liberated their congregations from heavy­-handed oversight by opportunistic and elite (“select”) Hicksite Friends running the yearly meetings. Progressive congregations utterly annihilated the fence of severe Quaker prohibitions on amusements and fraternization with “the world’s people.” On the contrary, Progressive Friends, passionately embracing engagement with the greatest questions of the day, invited activists of all stripes to their rowdy public forums. Their greatest weakness was their inability to steer the resulting energy within their meetings, perhaps due to an unwillingness to set guidelines and boundaries governing who could speak, on what, and for how long. But Fager claims that his book will establish a chain of cause and effect which not only gradually led Progressive Friends back into the mainstream of Quakerism, but also forged a new Quakerism in which most of their radical views would ultimately prevail. His book indeed does just that!

Although I can’t stress enough the importance of Angels of Progress, I hardly mean to suggest the book is a paragon of perfection. It’s marred by insufficient formatting differences between Fager’s commentary and the documents themselves, leading to confusion, and his editorial guidance is insufficient to explain the point of some of his documents. Overly influenced by his own long career of writing for a popular audience, he miscalculates, as if it were possible to attract the interest of the readers of People magazine. It’s too bad that his glib and breezy tone robs him of far more discernment in interpretation.

Unfortunately, I don’t have enough space to enumerate the large number of Quaker myths which Fager’s book busts, or to convey the stark contrast between the oversimplified story of Quakerism in Brinton’s book and the history as revealed by Fager’s research. I would invite those provoked by Fager’s strong claims to get the book for themselves. The only thing to add is an appreciation of the hard work involved in transcribing so many documents from poor ­quality online sources.

Watch a Friends Journal video chat with the author of Angels of Progress, Chuck Fager:

Read a transcript of this interview.

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