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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  • Hey Martin-
    My first expo­sure to Clark­son came as a sur­pris­ing jew­el among the shelves of moul­der­ing time-worn leather-bound books in an Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing library. I still go back to him now and then when I need some per­spec­tive on shifts in the Society.
    You’re right about his expla­na­tions of plain dress being some­thing oth­er than the “sim­plic­i­ty” tes­ti­mo­ny gone retro, which the unfa­mil­iar often con­sid­er it to be. I changed the way I look the day a Cal­i­for­nia judge refused to let me tes­ti­fy in my own defense because I wouldn’t raise my hand and swear an oath for him. Now every­body knows in advance that I may turn out to be a loose can­non. And like Clark­son observed, it also keeps me out of places I would pre­fer not to want to be in. It has had a pro­found change on the way I live, too.
    Start writ­ing, bud.

  • When I found Ursu­la Jane O’Shea’s _Living the Quak­er Way_ squir­reled away on the shelves of the Swarth­more Library a few years ago, that had the same kind of effect on me, ie see­ing Friends’ his­to­ry from the per­spec­tive that we have declined and need to renew our move­ment – regard­less of what hap­pens or doesn’t hap­pen to our institutions.
    But the past is a dry hole. O’Shea wasn’t try­ing to recre­ate it, but rather to return to the spir­it that cre­at­ed it: “The charism of ear­ly Friends was their gift of sight and action to live at home in the upside-down world of God’s reign. We need to reclaim their gift of see­ing the Way of God clear­ly despite the dis­tur­bance and dis­trac­tion of their times… Learn­ing to respond to the signs of our times, mod­ern Friends have a dou­ble resource in the Quak­er tra­di­tion of inward wait­ing and active per­sis­tence. This tra­di­tion calls for giv­ing care­ful atten­tion to the inward guide, in the inspi­ra­tion of the indi­vid­ual and in the dis­cern­ment of the com­mu­ni­ty, and then match­ing this inward focus with the hard expe­ri­ence of liv­ing out tes­ti­monies that are not at home in the world.” She talks about apply­ing this prac­tice to the chal­lenges with­in our Meet­ings as well as out in the so-called Real World.
    I have many times come close to dis­pair­ing of Friends… and the notion that a com­mu­ni­ty could ‘dis­cern’ any­thing what­so­ev­er with­out its indi­vid­ual mem­bers seek­ing and find­ing God in their own souls. But my own Meet­ing con­tin­ues to sur­prise me; just watch­ing how all my efforts to get us to renew our­selves have fall­en flat – and yet new peo­ple, live peo­ple are find­ing us and wak­ing us up. We may for­get God, as a group; but God doesn’t for­get us!

  • John

    I have an 1806 first edi­tion of Clarkson’s “A Por­trai­ture of Quak­erism …” and every­where Chris­t­ian has an upper case C. Could you say in which edi­tion a low­er case chris­t­ian appears?

  • John

    I for­got to add my oth­er, and prob­a­bly more impor­tant ques­tion: can you tell me what ear­ly 19th-century Friends thought of Clarkson’s book? Did any Friend resort to print about it, do you know? Thanks for any direc­tions you can sug­gest>