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/wiki/Thomas_Clarkson), 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/wiki/Charism). 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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