A Gathering of Spirits: The Friends General Conferences 1896–1950

By Douglas Gwyn. QuakerPress of FGC, 2018. 316 pages. $20/paperback.

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Doug Gwyn is the ideal writer to tackle this project. He presents his background in the opening preface: a knowledgeable scholar of Quaker studies (and author of the recently published history of Pendle Hill) who is familiar with Friends General Conference (FGC) but not an insider. The introduction clearly states what he is (and isn’t) setting out to do. He then follows through. Therefore, readers not liking what they are reading in those opening pages may be disappointed. This is not simply a stroll down memory lane. It is a thoughtful presentation and contextualization of the gatherings held by FGC from its formational beginning until 1950.

This book works on a number of levels. It provides an orderly presentation (including endnotes, appendices, and an index) of conference themes over the decades, including entertaining illustrations of conference promotional materials, for those seeking an overview. It also introduces readers to key personalities and leaders who were essential to the development of FGC. However, within that space, Gwyn also articulates subtexts that inspire multiple layers of analysis. What is refreshing about this is that it is done in a way that does not unnecessarily bog down the text or bore the reader. Those wanting just a quick surface read can follow along. However, the greatest strength of the book is the insights the author provides that can take one to a deeper level.

What is the “Quaker moral compass”? How do class structures, regional identities, and race play in this story? What is (or is not) distinctively Quaker when looking at broader U.S. trends of spiritual and progressive movements beyond the Society of Friends? This is a history of past FGC gatherings (before they became known as “Gatherings”), but it is one that engages the reader in reflecting on contemporary issues that are vital for us to engage with today.

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