An Early Assessment: U.S. Quakerism in the 20th Century: Papers from the Quaker History Roundtable, June 8–11, 2017
Reviewed by Mitchell Santine Gould
In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer spent several hours negotiating with editor Chuck Fager over a submission to this volume—one covering the intersection between Gay and Quaker history during the twentieth century. Negotiations broke down, however, when I could not convince Chuck that the piece he envisioned would require vastly too much research and too many pages. Thus, the book’s claim that “no proposals were sent in…none,” in regard to LGBTQ history is a bit misleading.
I tell this story in order to confess that during my talks with Chuck, I naively asked him how evangelical/programmed Quakers—the Friends Church movement—see themselves as Quakers. Have they not embraced, at one time or another, many of the religious trappings which George Fox deliberately discarded in founding Quakerism? I’m speaking of professional ministers, creeds, sacraments, and hymns…not to mention old-fashioned sexual views. Chuck declined to answer. I wonder if he suspected that I might find my answer once I read this book.
This collection’s inspiring biography of Friends United Meeting minister Willie Frye, written by his daughter, Kathy Adams, served as the best possible answer to my question. Had Chuck’s latest book been composed of nothing else, this story alone would have made it abundantly worthwhile. In the history of this passionate, articulate, loving, and courageous man, it became clear to me that he embodied everything I value most about the Quaker Way. Quibbles over creeds and sacraments fell away–counted for nothing–in the commitment to peace, dignity, and justice, to healing the world, that Friend Willie exemplified. If readers pick up this book and thumb through it too casually, there is a danger that these histories will appear dry and academic; not so, if they dive into Kathy Adams’s well-crafted memoir first.
Other stories that stick with the reader include Guy Aiken’s tale of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) worker Luella Jones, who was faced with heartbreaking ethical dilemmas during a very bitter and bloody strike by West Virginia coal miners in 1922. “Jones had discovered,” writes Aiken, “that relief and justice were incompatible.”
Likewise, there is Stephen McNeil’s account of AFSC assisting West Coast Japanese Americans as they were leaving their homes for the wartime concentration camps. Gracia Booth recalls how she encountered a young mother alone on some stone steps, too shocked and anguished even to attend to her own small daughter. The woman shrank in fear as Gracia sat down beside her, but the baby, who had been trying to get comfort from her mother, climbed into Gracia’s lap and, exhausted, promptly fell asleep. Soon thereafter, the grieving mother laid her head on Gracia’s shoulder, “sobbing gently as if in relief.” And then her small brown hand cupped Gracia’s own, atop the baby’s head. “We were both mothers,” concluded Gracia. “That was enough.”
Chuck’s introduction amply emphasizes the need for historians to catch up with the long twentieth century, considering that the vast bulk of research to date has been directed at previous eras. The resulting anthology is a bit like a history of pop music on a single album: the greatest hits by renowned contributors. Followers of American Quaker history are bound to recognize Betsy Cazden, Thomas Hamm, Stephen Angell, Emma Lapsansky, Doug Gwyn, and Larry Ingle. Not only are the histories by these familiar authors worthy and enlightening; the same can be said of pieces by authors I have not previously encountered: archivists Gwen Gosney Erikson and Mary Craudereuff, and historians Guy Aiken, Lonnie Valentine, Greg Hinshaw, and Isaac May.
The pieces by Erickson, Craudereuff, and Lapsansky are not so much histories as probing examinations of how Quaker history is conducted, and they offer manifestoes on ways our history can better be recorded in the future. For example, Craudereuff articulates the growing awareness that the neglected histories of marginalized groups demand a more generous commitment and dedication.
In the more focused histories, one theme occurs time and again: the tension between “evangelicalism” and “modernism.” Modernism, writes Betsy Cazden, was defined by William R. Hutchinson in 1976 as “a project to redefine Christianity to meet the spiritual needs of modern culture.” These essays chart a struggle between the two impulses, often manifested as controversies internal to the Friends Church movement: over peace; race relations; gay rights; and over the essential question of whether a church exists to save sinners or to serve the Social Gospel of reform activism. Gregory P. Hinshaw dedicates an entire essay to how these matters played out for the Five Years Meeting Friends, evangelical Quakers in the Midwest whose membership once entirely overwhelmed other branches of the Society.
Obviously, the checkered history of attempts to unify Friends Church with Friends meetings throughout the twentieth century exhibits the same sort of struggle, but only because both camps really wanted unification. Careful papers by Thomas Hamm and Stephen Angell address the thorny barriers encountered by reunification movements in the United States and Canada, respectively.
Lonnie Valentine offers compelling insights into how our time-honored peace testimony has played out—or failed to play out—in regards to war taxes. Isaac Barnes May contributes a fascinatingly ironic study of how Quakers actively, and not always ethically, jockeyed to get “their” candidate, Herbert Hoover, into the White House. Finally, one of the benefits of reading this book was to be introduced to an author I haven’t previously followed: Doug Gwyn. I found myself identifying more closely with the philosophical mannerisms of his mind than with any other author, and hope to read more of his work.
None of the admiration expressed here should be construed as suggesting this volume is remotely suitable for a comprehensive twentieth-century history, and of course it makes no claims to be one. Indeed, it shares the same grave defect found in Chuck’s other two histories, Angels of Progress and Remaking Friends: there are only a few words given to Quaker women’s issues. The irony is that the most spectacular Quaker success in the twentieth century was the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the national right to vote. This is because a Quaker, Alice Paul, effectively took the baton of suffragist leadership from the late Susan B. Anthony.
Having richly benefited from Chuck Fager’s unique investigation into the neglected history of the Progressive Friends movement and its evolution towards today’s Friends General Conference (see reviews of Fager’s Angels of Progress and Remaking Friends in the August 2014 and February 2015 issues of Friends Journal), Friends are once again much beholden to him for commissioning new studies of our neglected twentieth century. I want to emphasize that not only did Chuck administrate this historical conference, he also provided funding for it. Furthermore, he showed the courage and initiative to publish it himself. For me, the only remaining question is whether Friends—occupied as we are with the quality of worship, the practical needs of running a meetinghouse, mutual obligations to one another, and so on—can rise to the challenge of appreciating serious history as serious ministry. I hope that this account of my own enlightenment as a result of reading An Early Assessment will convince Friends of the essentially valid nature of this claim.