Early Quakers and Their Theological Thought: 1647–1723

51xoylDAx0L._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Edited by Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion. Cambridge University Press, 2015. 340 pages. $120/hardcover; $96/eBook.

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“An institution is the lengthened shadow of a man,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” and used Quakerism and George Fox as his example. Yet Fox’s Journal alone gives evidence of the diversity of other personalities besides his that gave early Quakerism its propulsive power and its continuing fascination. Thanks to the work of many concerned Friends, the inquirer these days can with relative ease find the stories, and the writings, of many Quaker pioneers and prophets. Moreover, the burgeoning “Quaker studies” industry has brought scholarly tools to bear on the works, lives, and times of Quaker history. The present volume is one fruit of that research.

We should say at the outset that this volume would be more accurately titled, “Reflections on some early Quakers, from a theological point of view.” It feels rather like the proceedings of a conference at which researchers have presented their work on one or two early Friends, with a keynote address setting the stage, and a closing address providing both a look back and an envoi suggesting hopes for future research. The editors write that “Each of the writers featured here would have known of their Quaker peers . . . they would have met.” The same is true of the authors in this book, but for both groups the exchange is not evident here, except for the occasional scholarly citation. The chapters do not reflect a conversation among the various presenters but lay the groundwork for a rich exchange with a series of individual studies.

Despite the editors’ reference to the subjects as “theologians,” this is debatable in many specific cases, under most definitions of “theologian.” Of course, each of these people was an important contributor to the discovery and development of Quakerism, but a theologian is a scholar, and that was exactly opposed to what Fox, Burrough, Nayler, White, or even Penington were aiming to do. Yet Friends need theology, and need it in the wide variety of theologizing represented by the subjects of this book.

In chapter one, Douglas Gwyn leads us helpfully through a set of pigeonholes each containing key theological technical terms, such as epistemology (currently very fashionable in essays about Quaker theology), soteriology, ecclesiology, hamartiology, hermeneutics, etc. In each pigeonhole, after giving a brief definition of these categories and a sketch of pre-Quaker influences, Gwyn deposits the “common denominator” position to be found in early Quaker writings. I write jocularly, but if I had to recommend one chapter to the reader, it would be this one; when later chapters make use of at least some of this framework, it is very helpful to recall that we are in fact hearing about a movement, not only a selection of interesting souls.

In chapter two, Betty Hagglund describes the publishing business through which much early Quaker writing reached its audiences. This is an informative and grounding chapter, whose value would have been greater if it had included a description of the approval and editing process and the process of censorship by Fox and the early leaders. Increasingly, Quaker proclamation was a collective process—the minutes of the Second Day Morning Meeting in London are full of tantalizing details about how Quaker writings were reviewed, edited, or rejected for publication.

There are interesting chapters on Fox (by Hilary Hinds), Mary and Isaac Penington (Melvin Keiser), Margaret Fell (Sally Bruyneel), and Dorothy White (Michele Tarter). Hinds’s chapter hinges on ideas of space and time. Focusing on the Journal, she explores the metaphor of travel as a way to understand Fox’s own story—first the inward travel that was driven by Fox’s seeking, then the ceaseless outward traveling/travailing as he became apostle and leader. In so short a compass as this chapter, Fox’s sprawling and somewhat protean vision could hardly be unpacked, but this is a good place to start, with references to a range of other writings and debates.

Melvin Endy is authoritative and engaging on William Penn, in some ways the most complex and enigmatic figure in this book. He was both a powerful personality and something of a chameleon, so that depending on which light you stand him in, he seems to be a different beast: Lamb’s warrior; courtier; enlightenment sage and social experimenter; trained schoolman yet enthralled by the “power and glory of the Lord shining out of the north” as transmitted by the likes of Fox, Burnyeat, Loe, and Nayler. Many of these facets are reflected in Penn’s large literary output, and are at least hinted at here. I personally would have liked to see more exploration of possible theological interchange between William Penn and his father-in-law, Isaac Penington.

Among the leaders from the explosive “first three minutes” who are too little known, we get inviting and insightful treatments of Richard Farnworth (Michael Birkel and Stephen Angell); and (treated in a single chapter by Pink Dandelion and Frederick Martin) Edward Burrough, that son of thunder and consolation, and his longtime yokemate and mentor, Francis Howgill. Howgill is widely known for his description of the early movement that begins “The Kingdom of heaven did gather us, and catch us all in a Net,” written as part of a powerful memorial essay that prefaces Burrough’s works.

The Quaker movement was augmented by the addition of trained theologians: in Samuel Fisher (Stephen Angell); Robert Barclay (Hugh Pyper); and George Keith (Michael Birkel); and by the emergence of Elizabeth Bathurst (Mary Van Vleck Garman), whose theological acumen and gifts as a writer were unfortunately only just unfolding before her early death. Fisher has rarely had his due, but he played an important role in early disputations: bringing Oxford respectability to the fray, and commanding respect from opponents who had no time for Fox, Nayler, and their ilk.

We have three chapters on controversial people. Carole Spencer’s chapter on Nayler uses the “Bristol incident,” in which Nayler was led by a small band of ecstatic followers in a reenactment of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Unfortunately, this lens is necessary but not sufficient to a portrait of Nayler’s theological thought, so this chapter should be read alongside other scholars like Damrosch, Neelon, Nuttall, and Nayler himself. The Nayler incident rendered John Perrot’s spiritualizing and individualistic vision (Carla Gardina Pestana) more troublous to the movement at a time of vulnerability, and this chapter does a fair job of representing both the gifts and the dangers in Perrot’s sad, sometimes bizarre story of carrying the Quaker message abroad.

Birkel’s chapter on George Keith conveys Keith’s impact as a Quaker advocate, colleague of Barclay, and finally as a bitter opponent of Quakerism; and raises interesting suggestions about the influence of Kabbalistic mysticism on Keith’s understanding of the doctrine of the Light.

The final person treated here is George Whitehead, who joined Friends as a youth when the movement, too, was young, and outlived all the other leaders, increasingly as an advocate for Friends to the State, as Friends began to struggle with the bittersweet fruits of toleration. It is good to have this chapter, as Whitehead has not received attention commensurate with his stature, but one wonders whether his stature is properly addressed in terms of his theological thought, rather than his leadership in other ways. Here and in other chapters, the vexed question of the nature and origins of “Quietism” are begged but not answered.

Rosemary Moore and Richard Allen send us off with an overview of developments from the heroic early movement, full of in-breaking power, end-times expectation, and millennial hopes, to the emergence of the Quaker sect after the Toleration Act of 1689, when hopes for the worldwide success of the Lamb’s War were deferred to an indefinite future (just as early Christian hopes were). This, in a way, is one of the core debates in Quaker history: is the story one of retrenchment, diminishment, and growing realism, as Moore and Allen (along with most Quaker historians see it), or can it be seen in some other way?

There were names and controversies that I missed in this book. Given its focus on biography, I would have appreciated the inclusion of Stephen Crisp, Rebecca Travers, John Burnyeat, William Dewsbury, and Anne Conway, whose status as a Cambridge Platonist philosopher provides one more bridge to the mystical tradition. Indeed, several of the chapters give a hint that the debate (which started with Rufus Jones) about the influence of continental mysticism is still not laid to rest; we hear, for example, about Kabbalah, about Jacob Boehme, and the Familists, who were an important conduit between the German mystical tradition and England, including probably some English Friends.

Little attention is given to the differences in language between pieces written for Friends, and those written for the world; the rich debate literature, however dreary, is also still to be mined for insight into the growth and flexibility of Quaker thought.

Given how many contemporary Friends have pre-Quaker lives which affect our Quakerisms, I wish that more attention had been paid to “theological residues” in the figures treated. We hear, for example, that this one remained in many respects a Puritan, or that one remained some kind of Protestant, and it might be valuable to hear how Quakerism continued to be influenced by the paths by which these figures reached it.

Other things to be wished for may await a future account of Quaker theology that moves outside the silos of personality. There was remarkably little in the book about the centrality of worship as idea, as experience, and as battleground; nor about the importance of the critique of professional ministry; or the growth of gospel order and community discipline. A chapter on early Friends and Judaism perhaps must wait for a more thematic treatment, though Quaker attitudes to Jews might have been part of the treatments of Fell, Fox, and Penington, at least. Friends theology of government is a rich vein to mine, as is the whole subject of Quakerism and nature. Plenty of work ahead!

Although this very expensive book need not be on every Quaker’s shelf, nor even every meeting’s shelf, it does contain a valuable gallery of people and ideas, some of them little accessible before, which can be a resource for anyone wanting to hear current views on ancient voices.

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