I’m reading Bill Taber’s fascinating history of Ohio Conservative Friends called The Eye of Faith. Like any good history there’s a lot of the present in there. There’s a strong feeling of deja-vu to the scenes of Friends in conflict and various characters come to life as much for their foibles as their strength of character (there’s more than a few bloggers echoed there). I’m now a few years into the second great separation, the Wilburite/Gurneyite split that brewed for years before erupting in 1854.
I’m not one of those Friends who bemoan the various schisms. The diversity of those calling themselves Friends today is so great that it’s hard to imagine them ever having stayed part of the same body. Only a strong authoritarian control could have prevented the separations and even then, large masses of the “losing” party would have simply left and regrouped elsewhere: the only real difference is that one party stops using the Quaker name. Here in South Jersey, where the only Gurneyite meeting wasn’t recognized by either Philadelphia yearly meeting for almost a hundred years, we’ve got dozens of Methodist “meeting houses” with graveyards full of old Quaker family names. Fascinating histories could be written of Friends who didn’t bother to squabble over meetinghouse deeds and simply decided to congregate under another banner.
One concept I’m chewing on is that of the “remnant.” As I understand it, the doctrine comes largely from Revelation 12 and is used by small theologically-conservative Christian sects to explain why their small size isn’t a problem; it’s kind of like Mom saying it’s better to do the right thing than to be popular. When the remnant community is a relatively isolated locale like Barnesville, there’s also the image of the Land That Time Forgot, the place where the old time ways has come down to us most fully intact. There’s truth to the preserving power of isolation: linguists claim the Ozark hillbilly accent most clearly mirrors Shakespeare’s. But Ohio Friends aren’t simply Jed Clampett’s Quaker cousins.
Like most rural Quaker yearly meetings, Ohio Yearly Meeting Conservative has lost much of its membership over the last hundred years. I don’t have statistics but it seems as if a good percentage of the active members of the yearly meeting hail from outside southeastern Ohio and a great many are convinced Friends. This echoes the most significant change in U.S. Quakerism in the past fifty years: the shift from a self-perpetuating community with strong local customs and an almost ethnic sense of self, to a society of convinced believers.
The keen sense of self-sufficiency and isolation that held together tight-knit Quaker communities over the centuries are largely non-sustainable now. In our media-saturated lives even Barnesville teens can get the latest Hollywood gossip and New York fashions in real time. Yes it’s possible to ban the TV and live as a media hermit in a commune somewhere, but even that only gets you so far. Once upon a time, not so long ago, a Friend could situate themselves in the wider Quaker universe simply by comparing family trees and school ties but that’s becoming less important all the time. For those of us who enter into the Society of Friends as adults – majorities in many yearly meetings now – there’s a sense of choice, of donning the clothes. We play at being Quaker until voila!, some mystical alchemical process happens and we identify as Quaker – even if we’re not always quite so made-over into Quakerness as we imagine ourselves.
At the Ohio sessions a few Friends really loved Wess Daniel’s statement that “A tradition that loses the ability to explain itself becomes an empty form” (see his wrap-up post here). One Ohio Friend said he had heard it postulated that isolated and inward-focused communities like Ohio Conservative were God’s method of preserving the old ways against the onslaught of the modernist age (with its mocking disbelief) until they could be reintroduced to the wider world in a more forgiving post-modernist era. Looked at that way, Quakerism isn’t a quaint relic in need of the same botox/bleach blond “NOW!” makeover every other spiritual tradition is getting. Think of it instead as a time capsule ready to be opened. An interesting theory. Are we ready to look at this peculiar thing we’ve dug up and reverse-engineer it back into meaningfulness?
Kirk W. over at Street Corner Society emailed me that he had recently put the Journal of Ann Branson online. She features heavily in the middle part of Taber’s book, which is the story of Conservative Ohio finding its own identity. Kirk suggests, and I agree, that her journal might be considered one of the artifacts of the Ohio time capsule. I hope to find some time to read this in the not-too-distant future.