The Quaker time capsule

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?

Update:

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.

  • Abbey

    As a Bar­nesville native/old neigh­bor of Bill Taber’s/blossoming Quak­er, I’m in the per­fect posi­tion to do some field research for you.

  • Field research! Abbey, I have this image of you with a shov­el in the dark­est hours of the night dig­ging through Fran Taber’s flow­er gar­den look­ing for that cap­sule! Prob­a­bly not what you were offer­ing?
    There’s cer­tain­ly lots of field research to be done in those musty old jour­nals, in long talks with friends, in prayer and faith­ful­ness.

  • This book seems like some­thing for me to check out, as well. I read Wilmer Cooper’s “Grow­ing Up Plain,” which didn’t have the sense of true “his­to­ry” I was look­ing for. It was real­ly about Cooper’s own jour­ney, which is fine, but I sup­pose I want­ed to know more about the Con­ser­v­a­tive Quak­er move­ment over­all, as well as more about Bar­nesville in the present. Sounds like a good read.
    Lau­rie

  • @Laurie: I remem­ber hear­ing Wilmer com­plain one time that he want­ed to write one book and his pub­lish­er want­ed anoth­er, which might account for the awk­ward fit between what “Grow­ing Up Plain” promis­es and what it deliv­ers. “The Eye of Faith” isn’t exact­ly a mem­oir but Bill’s his­to­ry has a good eye for the kind of detail that illu­mi­nates a larg­er truth and I got the dis­tinct impres­sion that he was writ­ing his­to­ry as a gen­tle reminder to the present of both the promis­es and pit­falls of the Con­ser­v­a­tive path.