The Creation of Modern Quaker Diversity, 1830–1937

Edited by Stephen W. Angell, Pink Dandelion, and David Harrington Watt. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2023. 378 pages. $124.95/hardcover; $99.99/eBook.

This book’s introduction by Pink Dandelion, “The Remapping of Quakerism, 1830–1937,” restates the aim of the New History of Quakerism series: “to provide scholars and general readers with an updated version of the Rowntree History Series.” That earlier series was an influential history of Friends envisioned by John Wilhelm Rowntree in the early years of the last century and continued by Rufus Jones and William Charles Braithwaite. The Creation of Modern Quaker Diversity, 1830–1937 overlaps to some extent with the period covered by the last volume(s) of the Rowntree Series, Jones’s The Later Periods of Quakerism (1921). Indeed, as Watt’s afterword points out, 12 out of 13 chapters refer to Jones’s work, and the afterword is largely focused upon it.

Dandelion lifts up the three “key elements of change” around which these chapters cohere: the emergence of multiple Quakerisms, mission work and global Quakerism, and Quakers as citizens and outlaws. The chapter provides a narrative along which the chapters may be arranged. The final quarter of the introduction provides a brisk listing of all the other works one might want to read to get a fuller picture of Quakerism in this period.

Sylvester A. Johnson and Angell then discuss “Quakers and Empire,” specifically Friends’ attitudes toward, collusion with, and occasional objections to various imperial projects, both British and American. Given the widespread references to “empire” in modern Quaker parlance, I would have preferred a more theoretically grounded discussion of it and its spiritual dimensions (somewhat along the lines of Walter Wink’s analysis of “the domination system”). This would have been particularly interesting, given that early Quakerism had a fairly rich theory about this, most easily examined in discourse of the Lamb’s War and in some of the more radical critiques of slavery and economics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Julie L. Holcomb’s chapter examines Quaker involvement in nineteenth- and twentieth-century social reforms, including antislavery, women’s rights, and the American Civil War; and Emma Jones Lapsansky looks at how this involvement entailed a readjustment of Quaker attitudes toward “the world” and therefore Quaker identities. Further treatments of the involvement of Friends in social action (including essays by Robynne Rogers Healey on the peace testimony and World War I; Stephanie Midori Komashin and Randall L. Taylor on Quakers in politics; and Nicola Sleapwood and Thomas D. Hamm on Quakers and the social order) also make the case that such action resulted in a transformation of Friends’ understanding about the nature of Quaker faith and practice. Angell then provides an admirable, brisk overview of Quaker missions in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

In an imaginative study of “religious madness,” Richard Kent Evans explores Quakerism as viewed by “theorists of the mind” during the period in question. From being regarded as an “inherently dangerous religion that frequently drove Quakers insane,” Quakerism by the nineteenth century became the place to “observe a healthy religious mind.”

Other chapters address more explicitly “religious” changes in Quakerism over this period. Hamm (on “the Revival” of 1860–1880) and Isaac Barnes May (on “the growth of the pastoral system”) trace developments in Orthodox Quakerism. Joanna Clare Dales focuses on the dramatic shift in London and some other yearly meetings away from the Evangelical presentation of Quakerism that predominated during most of the nineteenth century to a modernist—not to say Progressive—emphasis in the latter parts of that century. Complementing Dales, Carole Dale Spencer’s chapter sketches the broader tapestry of Quaker ideologies over this period, including modernism, evangelicalism, mysticism, transcendentalism, and Quietism.

Friends who were not completely absorbed in their own kind of Quakerism felt the continued pain of Quaker diversity. From the middle of the nineteenth century, there were efforts to reconstitute some new kind of unity within the Society, and Douglas Gwyn in his chapter on “the All-Friends Conferences” does an elegant focused study of three attempts to connect “all who claim the name ‘Friend.’” Finally, Watt in the afterword writes an extended, tendentious reflection on Rufus Jones and his Later Periods of Quakerism and argues that the current series is not just an “updating” of the Rowntree Series but “a startlingly different interpretation of Quaker history than what is to be found in Jones’s book.”

As the self-conscious product of scholars in the emerging academic field of Quaker studies, this book necessarily makes different assumptions about the purpose of the work and its methods from those that underlie the writing of Jones and Braithwaite. The Rowntree Series was designed to portray Quakerism as “a great experiment in spiritual religion.” The two principal authors were not professional historians, even by the standards of their times. Both were passionately engaged in efforts to renew and reinterpret Quakerism’s message for the modern age as they understood it. As Carole Spencer points out, the books were intended to be inspirational, even devotional, as well as informative and scholarly. (Did Rufus Jones ever write anything without an intent to inspire?) They and their colleagues in reform sought in particular to equip and empower Quaker ministry and teaching, as well as Quaker service to the world. The problem of an adequate Quaker ministry is a frequent concern in all their writings, and it is telling that Jones’s Later Periods includes a long chapter on the traveling ministers and their roles in the life of the Society.

The present volume reflects a philosophy of history that does not include inspiration or devotion as part of good scholarly practice. Like the three preceding volumes of this series, the one under review might better be characterized as “Selected Topics in Quaker History.” There is little cross-referencing between the chapters, and most of the chapters assume that the reader already has read extensively in other treatments of Quaker history.

The severe constraints of modern publishing mean that the chapters are so pressed for space that in covering very complex topics across a number of years, the treatments often feel a bit jumbled or temporally incoherent. I assume it is also as a result of these constraints that none of the authors had the space to confront the question of Quakerism as a mystical movement. Jones’s influential views have long been controversial in various ways. Though the general tenor of the book treats his ideas as passé, yet some chapter authors seem to take it for granted that Quakerism is—in some of its manifestations, at least—mystical. If the book were written in one voice, a subject like this would be discussed, and the author would take a definite stance on the question, as a matter of good method and clarity for the reader.

I note that in this volume as in previous ones, the treatment of Quietism is superficial, and I hope someone will feel called to explore its many manifestations in Quakerism across the centuries. Such a study might engage the question of “missions” in examining the extensive preaching to non-Friends, which was such a feature of Quietist traveling ministry. Space constraints must also be the reason that the various separations and controversies of the period—traumatic and definitional conflicts with whose consequences we still live—are mostly taken for granted; the murders all take place offstage.

Finally, the professional nature of the present volume is underscored by its cost, putting it out of the reach of most individual Friends and meeting libraries. This is too bad, as individual chapters in this book would make for good discussions in “meetings for learning,” so that current scholarship can help Friends to engage our history.

Brian Drayton worships with Souhegan Preparative Meeting in southern New Hampshire.

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