Face to Face: Early Quaker Encounters with the Bible

By T. Vail Palmer Jr. Barclay Press, 2016. 288 pages. $20/paperback.

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In Face to Face, T. Vail Palmer Jr. creates a rich tapestry woven with many threads and leading to a compelling depiction of important aspects of Quaker history well worth pondering. One way to identify those threads is by the questions which prompt them. Here are some of those questions: How did earlier generations of Friends read and use the Bible? What actually happened at Sedbergh and Firbank Fell in 1652? How can we make sense of the first Friends’ self-understanding as participants in the “Lamb’s War”? How did the distinctive life-in-community of early Friends come into being in such a way as to resemble in important respects that of the early Christian church? How was it that in spite of the diversity within the Bible regarding God’s apparent encouragement and approval of war, mass killing, and the like, early Friends were both deeply informed by scripture and yet took “pioneering positions on matters such as war, women’s ministry, and justice”? How could later seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century Friends read the Bible so differently from one another without these differences separating them or disrupting their friendships? All of which point toward the question: what can we learn about reading the Bible and about community from earlier generations of Friends?

My initial key to reading Face to Face was the importance Palmer ascribes to reading the Bible empathetically. While he was pursuing graduate studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, he encountered biblical theologians trying, in words he quotes from Bernard Anderson, “to understand the biblical message in its dynamic context of culture, politics, and geography . . . to enter sympathetically and imaginatively into this [biblical] community and to relive its sacred history.” Years later, Palmer realized that George Fox, Edward Burrough, and Margaret Fell were reading the Bible in this way back in the 1650s. Face to Face is on one level an investigation of various ways Quakers have read and used the Bible from the beginning of the movement down through the great separations of the late 1820s. But empathetic reading was my initial key to reading this book because Palmer invites us into his own world, as it were, allowing us to understand not only how Friends during the first 180 years read the Bible, but how he reads the Quaker writings he samples and analyzes.

Once I caught on to his methodology I went willingly with him, enjoying for its own sake the way some significant earlier Friends expressed themselves in writing, and vicariously participating in gathering linguistic data for an inductive assessment. With Palmer, I was startled by how differently Fox, Fell, and Burrough used scripture compared with how Penn and Barclay did, without any of them appearing to notice how radical the difference was. Borrowing from Alan Kolp, Palmer helpfully characterizes the writings of Fox, Fell, and Burrough as manifesting an “affective spirituality,” while those of Penn and Barclay, a “speculative spirituality.” How is it, I asked myself, that I most deeply hear and harken to the Guide?

Friends were not and are not immune to notional currents in the larger society in which they or we find ourselves. Palmer gives due attention to this and shows how the influence over the centuries of Restoration, Quietist, Enlightenment, and Evangelical modes of thinking influenced Quakers’ readings and uses of the Bible and their understanding of Quaker faith and practice generally. The factors influencing developments in Quaker thought, practice, and spirituality, as in all such developments over centuries, are extraordinarily complex.

Unless we employ tunnel vision, we necessarily encounter ambiguity and paradox. There will always be important aspects of the phenomena that escape our notice. Early in my career I was advised by philosopher Héctor-Neri Castañeda: “When in doubt, complicate the data.” Palmer complicates the data in very interesting ways, disclosing aspects of Quaker history well worth our attention.

This book is engagingly written. Palmer employs the practice of reading empathetically in his reading of selected earlier Friends and in so doing invites us to do so as well. I think it would be a wonderful book for members of a Friends meeting to study together. For me, the comments on the contribution of being oppressed and/or marginalized to facilitating an empathetic reading of the Bible seemed particularly poignant.

The book is part of a larger project that explores spiritual and theological aspects of the tragic separations of the nineteenth century. In the epilogue, Palmer announces that there will be a second volume that will pick up, among other threads of the tapestry, “the place of creeds among Friends, and the ways Friends have understood Christ’s atonement.” I look forward to that volume and to how Palmer will “complicate the data” so as to enrich our understanding.

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