The Quakers, 1656–1723: The Evolution of an Alternative Community

By Richard C. Allen and Rosemary Moore, with specialist contributors. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018. 360 pages. $39.95/hardcover.

The century since the publication of William Charles Braithwaite’s The Second Period of Quakerism and Rufus Jones’s The Quakers in the American Colonies (with assistance from Isaac Sharpless and Amelia M. Gummere) has seen a great deal of historical research done on our movement. The present volume, by Richard Allen and Rosemary Moore along with seven collaborators, is a welcome and valuable survey of major findings and new insights since Braithwaite, Jones, Sharpless, and Gummere. Though drawn from the more recent ocean of Quaker scholarship, it does not supersede the earlier works.

The narrative thread opens in chapter 1 (by Moore) on “The Early Development of Quakerism,” and reviews the opening years of the movement in Britain, followed by Allen’s chapter 2, “Quakerism Beyond England to 1666.” Chapter 5 then moves to Allen’s “Beyond Britain: The Quakers in the European Continent and the Americas, 1666–1682.” Chapter 9, by J. William Frost, discusses “Adjusting to New Conditions in Britain and America, 1690–1700.” Robynne Rogers Healey in the final chapter takes us “Into the Eighteenth Century.”

Interspersed with these chapters are treatments of selected topics. In chapter 3, Moore discusses “Gospel Order: The Development of Quaker Organization.” Allen’s chapter 4 treats “Living as a Quaker During the Second Period.” Chapter 7, by Moore, centers on “Quaker Expressions of Belief in the Lifetime of George Fox.” Emma Lapsansky-Werner contributed chapter 10, “Quaker Life and Communities at the Turn of the Century.” Allen and Moore describe in chapter 11 “The Friends and Business in the Second Period,” which, as they point out, is a topic mostly ignored in the volumes by Braithwaite and Jones. Chapter 12, by Erin Bell, is on “The Quakers and the Law.”

In an innovative move, Allen and Moore asked non-Friends to write chapters on two topics about Quaker interactions with “the world”: chapter 6, “Quakers and Dissenters in Dispute,” is by Raymond Brown and Alan P. F. Sell; chapter 8, “The Quakers and Politics, 1660–1689,” is by George Southcombe. Both chapters are absorbing reading, and provide an enriched understanding of the external environment of this period, against or with which the Society of Friends was evolving.

This has been a difficult volume to review briefly because the subject is so rich, the time frame is so long, and the new research (on Friends and on the period) is so extensive. An essay instead of a review would be more serviceable, and could be more judicious. In the space appropriate to this column, I offer some reflections upon having read the book twice.

It should be part of every meeting’s library, alongside Rosemary Moore’s Light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646–1666, with room for forthcoming sequential volumes. However, I suggest that it cannot stand alone as a treatment of this period, and the meeting library should have Braithwaite and Jones at hand as well—and indeed, I recommend reading those volumes first, and then this one. This book, I should add, is not just an update of the earlier work but reflects the interests and insights of more recent scholarship, so that in moving from the earlier volumes to the new one, the reader moves into a more modern sensibility. There is more sustained attention to women, for example, and the extensive treatment of West Indian Quakerism deals in some depth with Friends’ attitudes toward and engagement with slavery.

On another front, the book will bring into higher relief the roles of George Whitehead and George Keith in the evolution of Quaker polity and theology. (Frost’s treatment of the Keith troubles is very interesting.) Whitehead is deserving of more attention as an articulator of the Quaker message as well as a key leader in the emerging Quaker denomination (though I am not sure his tract “Son of Perdition” is “the first serious attempt by a Quaker to engage with other Christians and present arguments relevant to their concerns,” in light of earlier works by several leaders including James Nayler (Love to the Lost _among others) and Fox (_The Great Mystery). Time will tell.

Moreover, Braithwaite and Jones were not professional historians (Jones is hard to categorize, of course); that is, they were not schooled in the methods and canons of the discipline. The contemporary authors have had such training. This is both a strength and, for a non-specialist Quaker reader, a weakness.

Braithwaite, Jones, Sharpless, and Gummere wrote during a period of Quaker renewal and reconstruction. The authors and their friends were not only deeply committed to writing reliable history of use to any reader, but also (and centrally) convinced that a modern Quakerism required a deep acquaintance with the story of the movement from its beginnings. Story and biography were important, as were spirituality and devotion, since a cornerstone of the “modernist” Victorians was the education and inspiration of a powerful, vital ministry along with a renewed powerful Quaker response to the suffering of the world.

Allen, Moore, and their collaborators betray no such mission, and this is to be expected of professional history; the book, I think, could have been written by non-Friends having the same acquaintance with the source materials. There are some examples of “professional writing” that seem to assume familiarity with social-science jargon, and are not particularly helpful to Quaker ears. For example, on page 219, in reference to the Quaker doctrine of perfection and maturity in the spirit of Christ, we read: “If socially constructed innocence is possible, what environment, parameters, behaviors, and tools are required for the task?”

One consequence of this is that some matters of great importance to later developments in Quakerism are given little attention. There is no attention paid to the experience of worship, for example, even in a case where the writer promises to address Friends’ “belief system in their meetings for worship.” This (among other things) makes the rich treatment of the Wilkinson–Story separation unsatisfactory, since some of the concerns voiced by the dissidents were related to the conduct of meetings for worship as well as the increasingly hierarchical and centralizing shape of Quaker organization. The role of the ministry and the development of elders (as we recognize them) is not mentioned, though it was a matter of reflection for some Friends at the time and even more so for later Friends. The emphasis throughout is on the Light as thought about, rather than the Light as experienced (to borrow Howard Brinton’s language).

I note two other points on which I hope future volumes can improve. First, it appears that Quietism remains largely inscrutable, so that the famous paradox of Quakers getting more silent during these years and yet still being active in the world appears again as problematic as ever. This has long struck me as an apparent problem that would vanish if examined under different assumptions from those usually brought to the table.

Second, it is odd that one can get to the end of this volume and have no feeling for the North American Quaker map by 1723. Friends in the West Indies get good attention, and of course Pennsylvania does too. Friends in New York and the Carolinas are largely absent; New England gets a few more mentions (mostly because of Rhode Island), and Virginia a few.

Yet I need to come back to my first point about this volume: It is welcome, valuable, and stimulating, and a necessary companion for anyone inquiring into this dynamic period of our faith community. It is exciting to note that this is the second volume of a series, The New History of Quakerism. According to the publisher, five volumes are projected: volume 1 will be a new edition of Rosemary Moore’s The Light in Their Consciences (which I am told is underway); volume 3, on the eighteenth century (through 1830), is being edited by R. R. Healey; volume 4, covering the years 1830 to 1937, is being edited by Stephen Angell, Ben Pink Dandelion, and David H. Watt of Haverford; volume 5 (covering all the rest) is still in an early conceptual stage.

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