The Cambridge Companion to Quakerism

Edited by Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion. Cambridge University Press, 2018. 410 pages. $105/hardcover; $34.99/paperback; $28/eBook.

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This edited volume, the latest in a series of productions by the indefatigable doyens of Quaker studies, deserves a place in your meeting’s library. In the first place, it is the most truly international such volume to appear yet. By my count, the 29 authors show the expected U.S. and UK dominance (19 names), but there are also three Kenyans; two Canadians; two South Koreans; and one author each from Japan, Cuba, and Sweden. We have been telling ourselves for years that Quakerism is multi-continental, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual, and in this book the voices start to demonstrate the diversity.

The topics covered also invite a fresh appraisal of Quakerism as it is. There is a short introductory section on the “History of Quaker Faith and Practice” that covers a wide range of topics: not only faith and practice, but also context and trends. Confusion or over-density are dangers avoided here, and although all will miss topics of particular interest to themselves, given the authors’ limitations of space, the story is clear and cogent enough to provide a framework for what follows.

The second section, “Expressions of Quaker Faith,” includes broad themes that can be explored over four centuries and six continents; the challenges of selection and detail are severe. This can lead the author(s) to seek for large developmental themes, which are provocative of insight. For example, the chapter on “Seeking Peace” suggests that our original testimony_ against war_ has developed over the years into a “two-component” peace testimony. On one hand, there are the witness and action that are directed at preventing or abolishing war (conscientious objection and war tax resistance). On the other hand, there is the work aimed at removing the causal factors that contribute to war: a “conflict-transforming” peace testimony. Within this framework, the authors explore versions of the peace testimony around the Quaker world.

The third section, “Regional Studies,” seems to me to break new ground, with chapters rich enough to move beyond historical descriptions into addressing issues and tensions now painfully alive. For example, there is a case study of the recent struggles and reorganization of Western Yearly Meeting. There are surveys of Latin American Quakerism, Quakers in Asia–Pacific, and Friends in Europe and the Middle East. A lively chapter on Quakers in Africa describes major characteristics of African Quaker theology, in which we encounter Quakerism as it is lived in homes, villages, and cities. More than in the other chapters, the authors address the cultural complexity that is part of Quaker evolution in Africa, where Friends are “weaving together elements from African Traditional Religion, Christianity, and modernity.” Though I would have liked to have heard a little more about Friends in South Africa, I found this chapter rich and enjoyable.

The fourth section explores “Emerging Spiritualities,” and lifts up five facets of this topic. The discussion “Unprogrammed Quaker Spiritualities” includes the Conservative strand (smallest of the Quaker “flavors,” but one with great import for Friends of other kinds). Even within this region of Quakerdom there are varieties, and the authors use contemporary ministers to illustrate renewal of life within yearly meetings, and also interpretation of Conservative Quakerism to the wider Quaker world. The chapter then moves on to explore the spiritualities of Friends with strong ties to Buddhism and Islam, again using individual voices to give the stories life. The final reflections on the diversity of unprogrammed spiritualities places non-theistic Quakerism in that context, paving the way for a chapter on Quakers and non-theism. I found this chapter helpful in understanding some of the different areas of evolution within non-theism, as non-theist Friends have worked to interpret their own religious experience in the light of theistic Quakerism.

This chapter led me to wonder: Will the several varieties of Quakerism continue to travel apart indefinitely, until some become unrecognizable to each other?

The same question arises in another area of Quakerdom: the chapter on “Evangelical Quakerism and Global Christianity” places “Majority World Quakerism” within “Majority World Christianity,” which is evangelical in theology, community oriented, and socially engaged. It is growing energetically in the Global South, as reflected in the modern Quaker demographic at the global level. Just as in the nineteenth-century heyday of evangelical influence in Anglo-American Quakerism, contemporary Evangelical Quakerism “continue[s] to wrestle with the legacies of the Quaker tradition, and whether or not the wider Quaker communion is a meaningful point of connection.”

The chapter on convergent Friends introduces key ideas of this movement, a “hybrid Quakerism, transgressing the boundaries of established Quakerism.” In this movement “‘convergent’ is a portmanteau, a word that combines two words to create a new meaning. It is a composite of ‘conservative’ and ’emergent,’ as in ‘conver/gent.'” There is a quick overview of convergent moments in the Quaker past, before describing the emergence of post-modern convergent Quakerism, whose rise and momentum have taken advantage of blogs and social media and shaped some interesting experiments like Freedom Friends Church, Quaker Voluntary Service, and convergent Friends worship gatherings in the Pacific Northwest. The convergent movement has been productive of creativity, energy, and fresh leadership, and it sounds a powerful note of hopeful uncertainty (that is, openness to the Spirit’s guidance) that deserves to be heard more widely, and watched with love.

The final chapter looks at “Intra-Quaker Ecumenism: Women’s Reconciling Work in the Pacific Northwest and Kenya.” This work is finding fresh kinds of unity-in-plain-speaking in Quaker settings that are highly diverse and in some cases conflictual. The final sentence on the Kenyan movement is a fitting coda for the chapter as a whole: “The bonds built among women can . . . act as concrete examples others can point to as a witness to Jesus’s teaching being lived out among them.”

The blurb on the back cover of this rich volume says that it “offers a fresh, up-to-date, and accessible introduction to Quakerism.” Meanwhile, the dedication is “For the next generation of scholars.” The book is not an obvious choice to hand to a newcomer to Quakerism, to my mind, because there is way more about Quaker theology than Quaker spirituality. As a result the radicalism of Quakerism in its beginnings, and even now, does not come across with much power. If this were really an “introduction to Quakerism,” I’d want more fire and spirit in there.

On the other hand, if you are a Friend of any stripe, this book will be stimulating and educative, especially if read and discussed with others. The great diversity of Quakerism is definitely on display, and treated with an appropriate and inviting seriousness. The organization and flow of topics and chapters is nicely orchestrated, and for those wanting to go further in any direction, there are abundant references and a truly serviceable index (not a thing to be taken for granted!). This volume deserves a place in your meeting’s library, and should be brought to the attention of emerging leaders.

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