Going lowercase christian with Thomas Clarkson

Vist­ing 1806’s “A por­trai­ture of Quak­erism: Tak­en from a view of the edu­ca­tion and dis­ci­pline, social man­ners, civ­il and polit­i­cal econ­o­my, reli­gious prin­ci­ples and char­ac­ter, of the Soci­ety of Friends”

Thomas Clark­son wasn’t a Friend. He didn’t write for a Quak­er audi­ence. He had no direct expe­ri­ence of (and lit­tle appar­ent inter­est in) any peri­od that we’ve retroac­tive­ly claimed as a “gold­en age of Quak­erism.” Yet all this is why he’s so interesting.

The basic facts of his life are summed up in his Wikipedia entry (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​o​m​a​s​_​C​l​a​r​k​son), which begins: “Thomas Clark­son (28 March 1760 – 26 Sep­tem­ber 1846), abo­li­tion­ist, was born at Wis­bech, Cam­bridgeshire, Eng­land, and became a lead­ing cam­paign­er against the slave trade in the British Empire.” The only oth­er nec­es­sary piece of infor­ma­tion to our sto­ry is that he was a Anglican.

British Friends at the end of of the Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry were still some­what aloof, mys­te­ri­ous and con­sid­ered odd by their fel­low coun­try­men and women. Clark­son admits that one rea­son for his writ­ing “A Por­trai­ture of Quak­erism” was the enter­tain­ment val­ue it would pro­vide his fel­low Angli­cans. Friends were start­ing to work with non-Quakers like Clark­son on issues of con­science and while this ecu­meni­cal activism was his entre – “I came to a knowl­edge of their liv­ing man­ners, which no oth­er per­son, who was not a Quak­er, could have eas­i­ly obtained” (Vol 1, p. i)– it was also a symp­tom of a great sea change about to hit Friends. The Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry ush­ered in a new type of Quak­er, or more pre­cise­ly whole new types of Quak­ers. By the time Clark­son died Amer­i­can Friends were going through their sec­ond round of schism and Joseph John Gur­ney was arguably the best-known Quak­er across two con­ti­nents: Oxford edu­cat­ed, at ease in gen­teel Eng­lish soci­ety, active in cross-denominational work, and flu­ent and well stud­ied in Bib­li­cal stud­ies. Clark­son wrote about a Soci­ety of Friends that was dis­ap­pear­ing even as the ink was dry­ing at the printers.

Most of the old accounts of Friends we still read were writ­ten by Friends them­selves. I like old Quak­er jour­nals as much as the next geek, but it’s always use­ful to get an outsider’s per­spec­tive (here’s a more modern-day exam­ple). Also: I don’t think Clark­son was real­ly just writ­ing an account sim­ply for entertainment’s sake. I think he saw in Friends a mod­el of chris­t­ian behav­ior that he thought his fel­low Angli­cans would be well advised to study. 

His account is refresh­ing­ly free of what we might call Quak­er bag­gage. He doesn’t use Fox or Bar­clay quotes as a blud­geon against dis­agree­ment and he doesn’t drone on about his­to­ry and per­son­al­i­ties and schisms. Read­ing between the lines I think he rec­og­nizes the grow­ing rifts among Friends but gloss­es over them (fair enough: these are not his bat­tles). Refresh­ing­ly, he doesn’t hold up Quak­er lan­guage as some sort of quaint and untrans­lat­able tongue, and when he describes our process­es he often uses very sur­pris­ing words that point to some fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between Quak­er prac­tice then and now that are obscured by com­mon words.

Thomas Clark­son is inter­est­ed in what it’s like to be a good chris­t­ian. In the book it’s type­set with low­er­case “c” and while I don’t have any rea­son to think it’s inten­tion­al, I find that type­set­ting illu­mi­nat­ing nonethe­less. This mean­ing of “chris­t­ian” is not about sub­scrib­ing to par­tic­u­lar creeds and is not the same con­cept as uppercase-C “Chris­t­ian.” My Luther­an grand­moth­er actu­al­ly used to use the lowercase-c mean­ing when she described some behav­ior as “not the chris­t­ian way to act.” She used it to describe an eth­i­cal and moral stan­dard. Friends share that under­stand­ing when we talk about Gospel Order: that there is a right way to live and act that we will find if we fol­low the Spirit’s lead. It may be a lit­tle quaint to use chris­t­ian to describe this kind of gener­ic good­ness but I think it shifts some of the debates going on right now to think of it this way for awhile.

Clarkson’s “Por­trai­ture” looks at pecu­liar Quak­er prac­tices and reverse-engineers them to show how they help Quak­er stay in that chris­t­ian zone. His book is most often ref­er­enced today because of its descrip­tions of Quak­er plain dress but he’s less inter­est­ed in the style than he is with the practice’s effect on the soci­ety of Friends. He gets pos­i­tive­ly soci­o­log­i­cal at times. And because he’s speak­ing about a denom­i­na­tion that’s 150 years old, he was able to describe how the tes­ti­monies had shift­ed over time to address chang­ing world­ly conditions. 

And that’s the key. So many of us are try­ing to under­stand what it would be like to be “authen­ti­cal­ly” Quak­er in a world that’s very dif­fer­ent from the one the first band of Friends knew. In the com­ment to the last post, Alice M talked about recov­ered the Quak­er charism (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​h​a​r​ism). I didn’t join Friends because of the­ol­o­gy or his­to­ry. I was a young peace activist who knew in my heart that there was some­thing more moti­vat­ing me than just the typ­i­cal paci­fist anti-war rhetoric. In Friends I saw a deep­er under­stand­ing and a way of con­nect­ing that with a nascent spir­i­tu­al awakening. 

What does it mean to live a chris­t­ian life (again, low­er­case) in the 21st Cen­tu­ry? What does it mean to live the Quak­er charism in the mod­ern world? How do we relate to oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions both with­out and now with­in our reli­gious soci­ety and what’s might our role be in the Emer­gent Church move­ment? I think Clark­son gives clues. And that’s what this series will talk about.

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1840 Anti-Slavery Society Convention

This is a cool painting that we'll be using to accompany an upcoming Friends Journal (friendsjournal.org) article on Lucretia Mott.

Lots of cool things about this. #1 is that we made positive ID of the picture via Google Goggles image search (technology FTW!). #2 is that the image map on the linked page lets you pick out a number of the participants; Lucretia's not labeled but presumably she's the woman next to James Mott, who's near the right side looking down. #3 is that the fiery speaker is none other than Thomas Clarkson, the Anglican whose "Portraiture of Quakerism" is a must-read for the Quaker geek set. #friendsjournal #art

Embedded Link

Template:Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[edit] Using an Imagemap. The image map is mostly obvious as it will show you what will happen if you just move your cursor over the picture. The one thing that does confuse is trying to see a full vi...

Posted December 13th, 2011 , in Uncategorized. Tagged

Early Friends as reference, not justification

My response to the excellent Greg Woods' If I wanted to live by 1600s standards, I would be Amish. Greg talks about the over-obsession with Early Friends and the tendency to use them as ways to accuse others of un-Quakerism. 

The academic obsession with Quaker history is about 100 years old or so. From the beginning the rise of "Quaker history" has been tied to the arguments of the day. We want to boil "Quakerism" down to it essentials and separate out what is core from what was an artifact of 17th century England. Each branch raises up historians who argue that its churches' focus is the essential of those early Friends.

I consciously try not to use early Friends as justification. But I do use them for reference. I think a lot of the problem is we all have stereotypes about them. When I go back and read the old Books of Discipline, I find them much more nuanced and interior-focused than we give them credit for. 

Greg mentioned taverns, for example. It's not that earlier Friends thought everyone couldn't handle their liquor. They saw that some people couldn't and that spending a lot of time there tended to affect one's discernment and God-centeredness. They also saw that some people got really messed up by alcohol and eventually came to the conclusion that the safest way to protect the most vulnerable in the spiritual community was to stay out. 

The observations and logic are still valid. I've known senior members of past Quaker communities who have had alcohol problems but we don't know how to talk about it because we've decided it's a personal decision. 

What I try to do is not focus on the conclusions of early Friends but to drop into the conversations of early Friends. As I said, the old Books of Discipline are surprisingly relevant. And I love Thomas Clarkson, an Anglican who explained Quaker ways in 1700 and talked about the sociology of it more than Friends themselves did. It's a good way of separating out rules from knowledge. When we ground ourselves that way, we can more readily decide which of the classic Quaker testimonies are still relevant. That keeps us a living community testifying to the people of today. For what it's worth, there's quite a bit of mainstream interest in the stodgy traditions most of us have cast off as irrelevant....

Blogging for the Kingdom

Warn­ing: this is a blog post about blogging.

It’s always fas­ci­nat­ing to watch the ebb and flow of my blog­ging. Quak­er­ran­ter, my “main” blog has been remark­ably qui­et. I’m still up to my eye­balls with blog­ging in gen­er­al: post­ing things to Quak­erQuak­er, giv­ing help­ful com­ments and tips, help­ing oth­ers set up blogs as part of my con­sult­ing busi­ness. My Tum­blr blog and Face­book and Twit­ter feeds all con­tin­ue to be rel­a­tive­ly active. But most of these is me giv­ing voice to oth­ers. For two decades now, I’ve zigzagged between writer and pub­lish­er; late­ly I’ve been focused on the latter.

When I start­ed blog­ging about Quak­er issues sev­en years ago, I was a low-level cler­i­cal employ­ee at an Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion. It was clear I was going nowhere career-wise, which gave me a cer­tain free­dom. More impor­tant­ly, blogs were a near­ly invis­i­ble medi­um, read by a self-selected group that also want­ed to talk open­ly and hon­est­ly about issues. I start­ed writ­ing about issues in among lib­er­al Friends and about missed out­reach oppor­tu­ni­ties. A lot of what I said was spot on and in hind­sight, the archives give me plen­ty of “told you so” cred­i­bil­i­ty. But where’s the joy in being right about what hasn’t worked?

Things have changed over the years. One is that I’ve resigned myself to those missed oppor­tu­ni­ties. Lots of Quak­er mon­ey and human­ly activ­i­ty is going into projects that don’t have God as a cen­ter. No amount of rant­i­ng is going to dis­suade good peo­ple from putting their faith into one more staff reor­ga­ni­za­tion, mis­sion rewrite or clever program.It’s a dis­trac­tion to spend much time wor­ry­ing about them.

But the biggest change is that my heart is square­ly with God. I’m most inter­est­ed in shar­ing Jesus’s good news. I’m not a cheer­leader for any par­tic­u­lar human insti­tu­tion, no mat­ter how noble its inten­tions. When I talk about the good news, it’s in the con­text of 350 years of Friends’ under­stand­ing of it. But I’m well aware that there’s lots of peo­ple in our meet­ing­hous­es that don’t under­stand it this way any­more. And also aware that the seek­er want­i­ng to pur­sue the Quak­er way might find it more close­ly mod­eled in alter­na­tive Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. There are peo­ple all over lis­ten­ing for God and I see many attempts at rein­vent­ing Quak­erism hap­pen­ing among non-Friends.

I know this obser­va­tion excites some peo­ple to indig­na­tion, but so be it: I’m trust­ing God on this one. I’m not sure why He’sgiven us a world why the com­mu­ni­ties we bring togeth­er to wor­ship Him keep get­ting dis­tract­ed, but that’s what we’ve got (and it’s what we’ve had for a long time). Every per­son of faith of every gen­er­a­tion has to remem­ber, re-experience and revive the mes­sage. That hap­pens in church build­ings, on street cor­ners, in liv­ing rooms, lunch lines and nowa­days on blogs and inter­net forums.We can’t get too hung up on all the ways the mes­sage is get­ting blocked. And we can’t get hung up by insist­ing on only one chan­nel of shar­ing that mes­sage. We must share the good news and trust that God will show us how to man­i­fest this in our world: his king­dom come and will be done on earth.

But what would this look like?

When I first start­ed blog­ging there weren’t a lot of Quak­er blogs and I spent a lot more time read­ing oth­er reli­gious blogs. This was back before the emer­gent church move­ment became a wholly-owned sub­sidiary of Zon­der­van and wasn’t dom­i­nat­ed by hype artists (sor­ry, a lot of big names set off my slime-o-meter these days). There are still great blog­gers out there talk­ing about faith and read­ers want­i­ng to engage in this dis­cus­sion. I’ve been intrigued by the his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of Thomas Clark­son, the Angli­can who wrote about Friends from a non-Quaker per­spec­tive using non-Quaker lan­guage. And some­times I geek out and explain some Quak­er point on a Quak­er blog and get thanked by the author, who often is an expe­ri­enced Friend who had nev­er been pre­sent­ed with a clas­sic Quak­er expla­na­tion on the point in ques­tion. My track­ing log shows seek­ers con­tin­ue to be fas­ci­nat­ed and drawn to us for our tra­di­tion­al tes­ti­monies, espe­cial­ly plainness.

I’ve put togeth­er top­ic lists and plans before but it’s a bit of work, maybe too much to put on top of what I do with Quak­erQuak­er (plus work, plus fam­i­ly). There’s also ques­tions about where to blog and whether to sim­pli­fy my blog­ging life a bit by com­bin­ing some of my blogs but that’s more logis­tics rather than vision.

Inter­est­ing stuff I’m read­ing that’s mak­ing me think about this:

Hanging with the high schoolers

At the PYM High School Friends retreat, Fall 2009Had a good time with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting high school Friends yesterday, two mini-session on the testimonies in the middle of their end-of-summer gathering. The second session was an attempt at a write-your-own testimonies exercise, fueled by my testimonies-as-wiki idea and grounded by passages from an 1843 Book of Discipline and Thomas Clarkson's "Portraiture". My hope was that by reverse-engineering the old testimonies we might get an appreciation for their spiritual focus. The exercise needs a bit of tweaking but I'll try to fix it up and write it out in case others want to try it with local Friends.

The invite came when the program coordinator googled "quaker testimonies" and found the video below (loose transcript is here):

Sorting Quaker peculiarities in the modern world

Friends nev­er set out to start to their own reli­gion; what became seen as the more “pecu­liar” Quak­er prac­tices were sim­ply their inter­pre­ta­tion of the prop­er mode of chris­t­ian liv­ing. At some point some of these prac­tices became forms, things done because that’s what Quak­ers are sup­posed to do. The empti­ness of this ratio­nale led some of those in lat­er gen­er­a­tions to aban­don them alto­geth­er. Nei­ther path is very sat­is­fac­to­ry. Those of us inspired by the Quak­er tra­di­tion and have to sift through the half-remembered ancient forms to under­stand their ratio­nale and con­tin­ued relevancy.

When read­ing through Thomas Clarkson’s account of Friends cir­ca 1800, I was struck by the dif­fer­ing lengths of expla­na­tion need­ed for two cus­toms. read ear­li­er install­ments of my series you’ll know that Thomas Clark­son was a British Angli­can who  spent a lot of time with Friends around the turn of the 19th Cen­tu­ry and pub­lished an invalu­able multi-volumn apol­o­gy in 1806. “A Por­trai­ture of Quak­erism” explains con­tem­po­rary Friends prac­tices and defends them as legit­i­mate ways to lead a “chris­t­ian” life. 

The two prac­tices that struck me were 1: the Quak­er cus­tom of using “thee” in speech and, 2: of using num­bers for the names of days of the week and months of the year. Clark­son makes a good defense of the rea­sons behind the practices: 

Many of the expres­sions, then in use, appeared to him to con­tain gross flat­tery, oth­ers to be idol­a­trous, oth­ers to be false rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the ideas they were intend­ed to con­vey… Now he con­sid­ered that chris­tian­i­ty required truth, and he believed there­fore that he and his fol­low­ers, who prefessed to be chris­tians in word and deed, and to fol­low the chris­t­ian pat­tern in all things, as far as it could be found, were called upon to depart from all the cen­surable modes of seech, as much as they were from any of the cus­toms of the world, which chris­tian­i­ty had deemed obje­tion­able. (p. 275 – 6, my edi­tion, p. 199 in this edi­tion in Google Books).

Clark­son takes the next four pages to explain some gram­mat­i­cal his­to­ry. In Fox’s time, “thee” was still at the tail end of being replaced by the grammatically-incorrect “you” for the sec­ond per­son sin­gu­lar, a cul­tur­al change that was a “trick­le down” of the courtier’s desire to flat­ter so-called supe­ri­ors in church and state. To a band of reli­gious reform­ers large­ly drawn from rur­al North Eng­land, the reap­pro­pri­a­tion of “thee” was a bold cul­tur­al state­ment. It spoke to both a gram­mat­i­cal integri­ty and a desire to flat­ten social class­es in a rad­i­cal­ly ide­al­is­tic reli­gious society.

Fol­low­ing the his­to­ry les­son, Clark­son turns to names of the days of the week and months of the years. Most are pagan names. Good chris­tians seek­ing to hon­or the one true God and deny any false gods shouldn’t spend their days invok­ing the Norse gods Tyr and Woden or the Roman gods Janus, Mars. Replac­ing them by Third Day, Fourth Day, First Month and Third Month strips them of their roots in non-christian cultures. 

As Clark­son well knew, the ques­tion 150 years lat­er (and now 350 years lat­er) is whether these old pecu­liar cus­toms car­ry any weight beyond a kind of 17th Cen­tu­ry Quak­er nos­tal­gia. As he writes:

There is great absur­di­ty, it is said, in sup­pos­ing, that per­sons pay any respect to hea­then idols, who retain the use of the ancient names of the divi­sions of time. How many thou­sands are there, who know noth­ing of their ori­gin? The com­mon peo­ple of the coun­try know none of the reasons.

When I look at old cus­toms I ask two questions:

  1. The Ele­va­tor rule: could I explain to my pecu­liar­i­ty to a non-Quaker “aver­age Joe” in under two minutes?
  2. The Chris­t­ian rule: could I make the argu­ment that this prac­tice is not just a Quak­er odd­i­ty but some­thing that every faith­ful and earnest Chris­t­ian should con­sid­er adopting?

In these cas­es, thee fails and num­bered days passes.

Let me explain: I can’t real­ly explain why I would use thee with­out going into a expla­na­tion of pre-17th Cen­tu­ry gram­mar, talk­ing about dif­fer­ent forms of sec­ond per­son sin­gu­lar in the his­to­ry of the Eng­lish lan­guage and the reten­tion of the sec­ond per­son sin­gu­lar in most romance lan­guages. By the time I’d be done I’d come off as an over-educated bore. 

In con­trast I can say “Wednes­day is named after the Norse god Woden, Thurs­day after Thor, Jan­u­ary after the Roman Janus, etc., and as a one-God Chris­t­ian I don’t want to spend my days invok­ing their names con­stant­ly.” A one-sentence expla­na­tion works even in mod­ern Amer­i­ca. I’ll still be seen as an odd duck (noth­ing wrong with that) but at least peo­ple will leave the con­ver­sa­tion know­ing there’s some­one who thinks we real­ly should be seri­ous about only wor­ship­ping one God: mis­sion accom­plished, really. 

I know faith­ful Friends who do use thee. I’m glad they do and don’t want to double-guess their lead­ings. But for me the test of keep­ing it real (which I think is a ancient Quak­er prin­ci­ple) means hold­ing onto odd­i­ties that still point to their origins.