Author Chat: Chuck Fager on Progressive Friends

Mitchell Santine Gould reviews Chuck Fager’s new book Angels of Progress: A Documentary History of the Progressive Friends 1822­–1940 in the current issue of Friends Journal.

Transcript: Welcome to this Friends Journal author chat. I’m Gabriel Ehri, executive director here at Friends Journal, here today with Chuck Fager. Chuck Fager is a Quaker historian, author, and former director of Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He’s the author of two new books: “Angels of Progress: the documentary history of the Progressive Friends” and “Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism & Helped Save America.” He joins us from Durham, North Carolina.
Thanks for joining us, Chuck.
So, Chuck, How did Progressive Friends get their name? What does Progressive mean?
Well, it was a name they gave themselves, and they felt that they were more progressive than a rather hidebound Quaker elite that they were challenging and also getting disowned by. There were a number of groups that were kind of essentially split from the Hicksites — we don’t have time to explain any of that stuff, so I hope viewers will just understand — they split from the Hicksites and started organizations of their own, or yearly meetings, really, and they called them Progressive.
What in particular were the social issues that were the most prominent in their split from the Hicksites?
Well, they were external and internal; that was one of the things that caught my attention. Externally, they were particularly interested in the abolition of slavery. The Quaker establishment, both Hicksite and Orthodox, was dead set against abolitionism. They were against slavery in theory; in practice, they were up to their necks involved with the slave economy, making money off of it, and they just said “leave it all to God, pray away slavery, and otherwise shut up.” And people like Lucretia Mott and the other early Progressives said “No. God told us to get to work.” And so that was the matter of where they got disowned for that. And that was the external one, and then the internal issue was that Quakerism in their day was a top-down hierarchical body, and they said, “that has to go.” We have to have something like equality inside equality as well as outside, and that was a very big struggle also.
So, we see that some of our sort of candy-coated myths about Quakers always being morally upright in what we like to think of the right side of history are not really true when you look back at the establishment Quakers in the 19th century.
Well, yeah, I mean, there were some good people there trapped in bad structures and obsolete structures. And I’m afraid my work here has done a whole lot of myth busting for me, and I think it would also be the case for readers. The idea that there was a Quaker testimony of equality, that’s a complete myth. That notion has really only been invented in the last 25 to 30 years. That includes equality for women. Even though women had more space in Quakers than they did in other churches, Quaker women were not equal in the society until about 250 years after Fox started preaching, the end of the 19th century. It was actually 1922 when good ol’ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) actually made women equal. 1922! That’s really something. So, that’s just a couple.
And then the idea that Hicksites were all tolerant liberals and always got along fine, unlike the squabbling Orthodox… and how do we know that? Because Howard Brinton told us so in this famous book, here we go: [holds up “Friends for 350 Years”]
I have the place marked.
Right, the big lie.
“They got along fine, unlike the squabbling Orthodox.” And that’s completely untrue. I don’t know where he got that idea. I think, out of his left ear somewhere. So anyway, the idea that Quakers were always at the forefront of good social reforms, you know, well, helping end slavery was certainly a feather in our cap, but what about supporting prohibition, which both the Progressive Friends, the Hicksites, the Orthodox, Evangelicals, they were all for it for 100 years. And they succeeded. And that’s turned into a disaster, the effects of which are with us still today. Not to mention the notion that we always stood for free expression. They didn’t stand for free expression internally. And there were lots of groups, and unfortunately Progressive Friends are with this, they were all for censorship of what they called demoralizing literature. I think some of them would have been able to take “Harry Potter.” But “The Hunger Games?” Not a chance. And they wanted newspapers to exclude anything interesting about sex, violence, gory crimes. I mean, this is really something to read about. And of course, maybe the top myth of all? The idea that Rufus Jones invented liberal Quakerism. I know that feels good for you Haverford folks, but ain’t so. Those are just a few myths that Progressive Friends helped bust up.
So you really cite Progressive Friends as the inventors of Liberal Quakerism, and it also sounds like in your view, today’s Liberal Quakers have taken that, the idea of progress further down the line.
Well, yes, today progress for liberal Quakers translates to, you know, voting Democrat, listening to NPR, driving a Prius, but it’s still with us. It’s totally still with us.
Why do you think the history of Progressive Friends, which is what you set out to uncover in your two books, “Angels of Progress” and “Remaking Friends,” why do you think that history was overlooked for so long.
Well, I think there’s a few reasons. One was that the Progressive Friends weren’t interested in history, they were interested in the future. They wanted to change the future. So they didn’t bother to write it. Secondly, it was Orthodox Friends who were interested in history, so most of the major Quaker historians have been out of the Orthodox tradition. So it’s not like I want to say there was a conspiracy, but Orthodox historians lived on one side of a very thick cultural wall, and there’s stuff they didn’t see. And the Progressive Friends were part of it. So for instance, Rufus Jones wrote a big fat two-volume work on the later periods of Quakerism covering the period where the Progressive Friends were active, and he devotes half of one footnotes to the Progressive Friends in about 900 pages. Well, I mean, okay, he’s got his priorities, but that just doesn’t cut it. But then, the third factor, and maybe even more and more important in the end, and this is not really the Progressive Friends’ fault, but Liberal Quakers today, they don’t believe in history. They don’t need it. And personally, I believe that that attitude is part of our middle-class entitlement outlook. We don’t need any of this stuff. If we need it, we’ll go to the store and buy it. And that troubles me a lot, and it troubles me right here where I am, in Durham, North Carolina. We have lots of good Liberal Quakers, but they don’t think they need to know anything about Quaker history. They don’t need to know anything about the Bible. They don’t need to know anything about Christianity. And they wonder how come people who have really retrograde about the Bible and Christianity have taken over the state, and taken over the South. Well, one reason is, we’re not even in the game, because we don’t know any of this stuff. And we haven’t felt that we need it. And that’s a big, big, big mistake.
And in reading “Remaking Friends,” you know, you’re citing this as a concern way back in 1920, when a lot of the most prominent figures in your history were saying, you know, Quakers as we know it are going to die out, because we’re not Biblically conversant. We’re not going out as missionaries and growing the flock. A lot of these are the same concerns that Liberal Quakers that I’m around complain about today.
Well. yes. The last generation of what I would call Progressive Quaker heroes — Jesse Holmes, Jane Rushmore, Henry Wilbur — those people, they were very very liberal, but they felt it was important, for instance, for Friends to know about the Bible, because the Bible was both an obstacle — it was used to defend all sorts of retrograde things — and a resource. That’s what Quaker reformers used against slavery. Same thing with Christianity. Generally speaking, they pushed, they were advocates of Quakers knowing about that. IT’s different, and they made it clear, it’s different knowing about stuff in the Bible, and believing it all. You didn’t have to believe it all. But it was important to be familiar with it.And it’s not only for defense, there’s some good stuff in there, too, and that’s all true today. Yes.
One of the things you note in the sort of afterthoughts in “Remaking Friends” is that we’ve lost, in some ways, the tradition in Liberal Quakers of recording Friends as ministers, recognizing people that have some sort of prophetic gift, and sending them out there to essentially evangelize for Quakers and for Quaker beliefs. So is that a mistake that we don’t do that?
Well, we didn’t lose it. Liberal Quakers laid down those offices. They abolished them. And I think it was the absolutely right thing to do. We don’t have time to go into all the reasons why, but for me you can sum it up pretty clearly in a variation on an old chestnut: power corrupts, and religious power corrupts religiously. So, I believe in celebrating outstanding or notable ministry and faithfulness. I’m all for that. We don’t do nearly enough of it. But that’s different from establishing and elevating offices like that of Ministers or Elders.
You know, it’s not hard to become a Quaker elder. I’m one. How did I do it? I kept on breathing. And soon, pretty soon, I’m a Quaker elder. You want to be a Quaker elder? Hang around awhile. Because you have an asset. It worked for me, and it will work for you. The clock.
An office would only make it trouble. We had trouble with this. One of the problems of not knowing our history is that we don’t know that these things, they didn’t get lost in a desktop shuffle. They were laid down, they were abolished, and they were abolished for very good reasons. Basically chronic abuse of power. I hear voices these days saying, “Oh, we ought to have it again…You can trust us. We won’t yield to the temptations of power. Nooo, not us! We’re different, we’re better, we’re new. Our consciousness has been raised.” Well, I’ve got a bridge to sell you, if you believe that. I’ve got a bridge, and a few other things, too. Don’t do it! If people want to have informal committees for support and to help them develop their ministries, that’s fine. Make it official?No. Bad idea.
In reading these books, one thing that I really appreciated as a reader was that you seem to be having fun recreating the scenes based on the documents that actually led to what you did uncover as a historian. Was it fun to write these?
Well, in some ways it was. I mean, I certainly wanted to do it, and I’m glad I did it, but actually it was very tough in lots of ways, because the period that I covered from about 1840 to 1940, it starts with a slide into war, and it ends with a slide into war. And I felt like I was looking through somebody’s window onto a scene from 1840 to 1860, and here’s all these Quakers — even some I disagreed with — wanting to end slavery and wanting to do so peacefully, and I know they’re all going to fail. And they became very real to me, and it was difficult to live through that.
So it was actually pretty grueling. I’m certainly grateful to Pendle Hill for the chance to spend 9 months as a Cadbury Scholar doing research on it. And if I’ve made it vivid for readers, than I’m glad of that, too.
Okay. That’s all the time we have today. Just to set the table a little bit, you can read a review of Chuck’s book “Angels of Progress” in the August issue of Friends Journal. This is “Angels of Progress,” which is the documents of the Progressive Friends with a little bit of commentary, and then the second book, “Remaking Friends,” is a narrative history. And both of them are available at or at QuakerBooks. Thank you, Chuck. I appreciate you joining us.
Thank you, Gabe. I appreciate it.

Gabriel Ehri

Gabriel Ehri is the executive director of Friends Journal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.