Quakers Do What! Why?
Reviewed by Ron Hogan
February 1, 2021
By Rhiannon Grant. Christian Alternative Books (Quaker Quicks), 2020. 88 pages. $10.95/paperback; $5.99/eBook.
Rhiannon Grant is a regular contributor to Friends Journal, with articles that dig into the philosophical subtleties of Quaker faith. Quakers Do What! Why? is a more entry-level text, a slim booklet that addresses a series of fundamental questions that newcomers to the Religious Society of Friends might pose—starting, self-deprecatingly enough, with “Wait—Quakers still exist?”
Grant maintains that breezy tone throughout, leading to questions like, “What’s this about Quakers who don’t believe in God?” The casual framing extends to the brevity of the answers, most of which are dispensed within four or five pages. In many ways, this is helpful; if there’s one word you definitely wouldn’t use to describe this book, it’s “intimidating.”
Yet there are many occasions when the short answer is almost no answer at all, as when Grant advises, “I can’t tell you that Quakers do anything for Easter—but I also can’t tell you that they definitely don’t.” Some of this potentially frustrating imprecision, of course, is an inherent feature of Quaker faith and practice. There are many occasions where you can’t give a more truthful answer than “Some Quakers do this, but others don’t,” whether you’re talking about worshiping in total silence, celebrating religious holidays, or wearing plain dress. You might be able to give a more detailed response; you could write an entire book around a question like, “How do you know if something you’re led to say is really from God?” But that book wouldn’t necessarily be helpful to a person standing in front of you, perhaps after attending a first meeting for worship and asking the question right now.
Grant’s emphasis is largely on the unprogrammed tradition, but within that framework she is able to address various strains of faith, such as the differences between Christian and nontheist Quakers, or those who place all their emphasis on the teachings of the Inner Light and those who still rely heavily on a scriptural foundation.
In a final section, Grant looks ahead to the future of Quakerism, certain only that it will survive, although probably not exactly as it exists today; some aspects of faith and practice will likely change in response to a changing world. It’s another of those answers where one wishes for further elaboration, particularly when Grant spends just a single paragraph on the hope that Friends may have something to contribute to the climate crisis effort.
(Earlier, Grant hits upon the notion that “Quakers make religious claims which have political implications.” It’s a fascinating assertion about how faith can guide our actions in the world, an assertion ripe with possibility, so much possibility that, once again, it’s easy to simply say this means different things to different Friends.)
If you’re familiar enough with Quakers that you’re learning about this book from a review in Friends Journal, there’s a good chance—unless, perhaps, this is your very first issue—that you’ve already got much of this basic information under your belt. So who is this book for? Perhaps it’s for the person who’s asking you why you’re a Friend, or comes to you about their own budding interest in Quakers. In that case, Grant’s guide makes a useful resource after a personal conversation, especially if there are questions you can’t fully answer on your own.
As a slightly heftier than normal pamphlet, however, Quakers Do What! Why? would probably be an excellent resource for every meetinghouse to have in its library—the sort of thing an elder could hand to a querist after that initial conversation over coffee following their first meeting for worship, inviting the newcomer to look it over and bring back when returning to experience the silence again.
“I wanted to write this book,” Grant says, “because I think Quakers are interesting, sometimes amazing, sometimes horrifying, and potentially have a lot to share with the world.” Within these pages, she begins to explore that potential—and includes web addresses, including several pointing to Friends Journal articles and QuakerSpeak videos, for readers whose curiosity has been piqued. It seems likely that she would be among the first to agree that Quakers Do What! Why? is by necessity a first lesson, not a comprehensive teaching.
Ron Hogan runs an email newsletter about developing a writing practice called “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives” (ronhogan.substack.com). He is a member of Flushing Meeting in Queens, N.Y., and the audience development specialist for Friends Publishing.