Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill

51inOvPn6jL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By Douglas Gwyn. Plain Press, 2014. 512 pages. $20/paperback; $15/eBook.

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Querencia (from the Spanish verb “querer”) is a metaphysical concept in Spanish that describes a place where one feels safe, at home, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn—the place where one feels his most authentic self.

Pendle Hill is a place born of radical hospitality, birthed from a deeply moving vision of personal transformation in community, and a world made more faithful through an engaged community of learners. Pendle Hill is a living paradox. On one hand, it is a place that challenges those who come to stay awhile to new vision and action. We are encouraged to take courageous and faithful steps to live our calling into the world. On the other hand, Pendle Hill is one of those rare places that feel gracious and inviting, a place of safety, a place of genuine, warm hospitality, like visiting the home of a beloved friend.

I first came to Pendle Hill in 1995, holding tightly to a life that I had carefully constructed as a lawyer-lobbyist. Though internally I was a born wanderer, I played it safe and entered a career that provided me with “security.” I kept lots of balls in the air: career, community engagement, my family—until all the balls came falling down. I arrived at Pendle Hill stunned by loss: loss of my marriage, loss of meaning and direction, and with a questioning of my faithfulness and my sense of life’s purpose. I came to Pendle Hill prepared to be different. Thus began my long love affair with this place, and this is where my strength of character was molded.

Founded in 1930, Pendle Hill is the premier institution for liberal Quakerism in the United States. It is situated ten miles west of Philadelphia, Pa., in a tiny residential enclave. Pendle Hill is named after a hill in Lancashire, England, where in 1652 Christ spoke to George Fox during a spiritual opening that allowed him to begin his ministry in earnest. Its sense of place is immediate and palpable from the moment you step onto the grounds. The venerable American beech, one of the prized specimen trees of this 23-acre bucolic arboretum, was a sapling in 1680 when Quaker John Sharpless purchased the 1,040-acre tract that included the land that now is home to Pendle Hill. Despite a nearby major highway, Pendle Hill continues to delight visitors and guests as a place of rest and renewal.

Douglas Gwyn’s long-awaited book, Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is impeccably researched, thoughtfully and eloquently written, and a must-read for anyone with an interest in Pendle Hill in particular, and also for those with a general interest in history, politics, intentional community, Liberal Quakerism, and much more.

The book offers the remarkable history of remarkable people whose vision and commitment founded Pendle Hill: Howard and Anna Brinton, Rufus Jones, Henry Cadbury, and Henry Hodgkin.

From its beginnings, the founding vision was of a “light”: an educational community open to the wisdom of faith traditions and the individual participants who, through the Benedictine formula of work, study, and worship in a Quaker style, would come closer to the Divine Light—the Inward Light that transcends human consciousness.

Gwyn traces Pendle Hill’s beginning not only through the vision and values of people, but through politics, beginning with Pendle Hill’s deep taproot in personalism, a forgotten stream of political and religious philosophy that is centered not on the individual but on the communal. Rufus Jones and the American Friends Service Committee sought to establish a center after World War II that might serve as the equivalent of Woodbrooke, which opened in 1903 in Birmingham, England. This began with the Woolman School in 1915, following the Woodbrooke model, offering three terms per year grounded in devotional time. The school closed for lack of resources in 1927. Pendle Hill’s early vision was as “a vital center of spiritual culture and as a place for training leaders.” In 1929, Henry Hodgkin met with a dozen leaders to discern the direction for this new center and proposed four key areas:

  • House of Rest, a place of peace and deep quiet;
  • School of the Prophets, a place to be grounded in a few well-chosen areas rather than teaching on many interesting topics;
  • Laboratory of Ideas, a place to test beliefs in practice; and
  • Fellowship ’Round Christ among students and staff.

Robert Yarnall, board chair from 1930 to 1954 contributed to the stability and sense of rootedness. From 1936–1952, the years of Howard and Anna Brinton, Pendle Hill saw extraordinary growth and expansion including a vibrant summer program and the well-received Pendle Hill Pamphlet series. Daily unprogrammed meeting for worship was, and still is, a centerpiece of the community.

Pendle Hill has served as the inspiration for other Quaker centers throughout the United States, including Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Ben Lomond Quaker Center in California; Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Ind.; New York Yearly Meeting’s Powell House in Old Chatham, N.Y.; and Woolman Hill Quaker Retreat Center in Deerfield, Mass.

Gwyn illuminates the lives of people who deeply molded the Pendle Hill experience, both those well known and those less well known. Accordingly, we learn about A.J. Muste, former executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and radical pacifist Henry Cadbury, scholar and student of Quaker mystic Rufus Jones. We are introduced to Helen Morgan Brooks, Pendle Hill’s long-time dietitian, who had a passion for poetry and served on Pendle Hill’s general board for 30 years. Brooks, a light-skinned African American woman, passed for white. Interestingly, Pendle Hill, located in Nether Providence Township, was under a township covenant restriction against neighborhood integration. In 1955, Brooks published A Practical Guide: One Person, One Meal, One Burner on her experiences at Pendle Hill in feeding each person for less than one dollar a day, using seasonal produce from Pendle Hill’s garden and orchard.

Through meticulous research, Gwyn introduces us to others who have come to call Pendle Hill their home: Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day; French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre; British intellectuals Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood; Gerald Heard, who went on to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1950s; as well as distinguished Quakers, Douglas and Dorothy Steere, and mystic Thomas Kelly.

Gwyn traces the leadership of Pendle Hill, beginning with the first executive director, Henry Hodgkin, who brought tremendous spiritual depth and social vision, to the widely celebrated tenure of Parker J. Palmer, who witnessed the power of sharing in small circles (these small circles have returned to present-day Pendle Hill in the form of Circle of Trust Retreats organized through the Center for Courage & Renewal founded by Palmer), to the present-day executive director, Jennifer Karsten, who is widely credited with innovative initiatives like merging Pendle Hill’s bookstore with Friends General Conference’s QuakerBooks and offering the new online/on-campus Radical Faithfulness program. How could one write about Pendle Hill without mentioning the many hearts that have supported this community, and created an environment that fosters authentic selfhood? This is a very long list and includes Bill Taber, Chris Ravndal, Niyonu Spann, Marcelle Martin, John Calvi, John Meyer, Lloyd Guindon, Shirley Dodson, Mary Comfort Farrell, Joe Garren, and the extraordinary kitchen staff, including Carol Sciarra and Albert Sabatini.

My one criticism of Gwyn’s book would be its title, which doesn’t do justice to this ambitious writing. The book is made richer and more vibrant by the many archival photographs.

Gwyn traces Pendle Hill’s struggle and tension toward an on-campus, racially inclusive environment, and its long-term goal to reduce its carbon footprint. He raises the tension of financial pressures to serve the growing conference center business at a sacrifice or in competition with Pendle Hill’s own educational programs. The book is more than a telling of Pendle Hill’s history and values; it is clarion call to Pendle Hill’s future through a long backward glance at its past.


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1 thought on “Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill

  1. I don’t know if the error is Valerie Brown’s or Doug Gwyn’s, but Gerald Heard was not a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1950’s. AA was founded by William Griffith Wilson and Robert Holbrook Smith, M.D. in 1935 in Akron, Ohio.

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