In praise of an editor past

Frances William Browin from the September 15, 1968 Friends Journal.
When I became an editor at Friends Journal in 2011, I inherited an institution with some very strong opinions. Some of them are sourced from predictable wellsprings: William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s foundational mid-century style guide and the editorial offices of the Chicago Manual of Style. But some is all our own, logically tested for consistency with Chicago but adapted to Quaker idiosyncrasies.

One of our most invariable (and contested) formats comes from the way we list congregations. Quick aside for non-Quakers: you will often see a Quaker meeting listed as  Town Monthly Meeting, Town Friends Meeting, Town Quaker Meeting, etc. People often have strong opinions about the correct ways to write them out. Sometimes an author will insist to me that their meeting has an official name that is use consistently but I can usually find this isn't true within a few minutes with the help of Google.

To cut through this, Friends Journal uses “Town (State) Meeting” everywhere and always, with specific exceptions only for cases where that doesn’t work. Town, state abbreviation in parentheses, capital-M meeting. This formatting is unique to Friends Journal--other Philadelphia-based Quaker style sheets don't follow it. We’ve been doing it this distinctively and consistently for as long as I can remember.

Fortunately we have digital archives going back to the mid-1950s thanks to Haverford College's Quaker and Special Collections. So a few months ago I dug into our archives and used keyword searches to see how far back the format goes. Traveling the years back it time it's held remarkably steady as "Town (State) Meeting" until we scroll back into the fall of 1962. The October 15 issue doesn’t have consistent meeting listings. But it does announce that longtime Friends Journal editor William Hubben is going on a six-month sabbatical, with Frances Williams Browin filling in as acting editor.

It didn't take her long. The next issue sees a few parentheses unevenly applied. But by the November 15th issue, nineteen meetings are referenced using our familiar format! There’s the “member of Berkeley (Calif.) Meeting” who had just published a pamphlet of Christmas songs for children, an FCNL event featuring skits and a covered-dish supper at “Swarthmore (Pa.) Meeting” and the announcement of a prominent article by “Kenneth E. Boulding, a member of Ann Arbor (Michigan) Meeting.”

I've tried to imagine the scene... Browin situated in her new temporary office... going back and forth, forth and back on some listing... then finally surprising herself by shouting "enough!" so loudly she had to apologize to nearby colleagues. At the end of the six months, Hubben came back but only as a contributing editor, and Browin was named editor. Friends Journal board member Elizabeth B Wells wrote a profile of her upon her retirement in 1968:

Her remarks usually made sparks, whether she was expressing an opinion (always positive), exerting pressure (not always gentle), or making a humorous aside (often disturbing). For in her amiable way she can be tart, unexpected, even prejudiced (in the right direction), then as suddenly disarmingly warm and sensitive.

This sounds like the kind of person who would standardize a format with such resolve it would be going strong 55 years later:

She was so entirely committed to putting out the best possible magazine, such a perfectionist, even such a driver, that her closest colleagues often felt that we knew the spirited editor far better than the Quaker lady.

It’s a neat profile. And today, every time an author rewrites their meeting’s name on a copyedited manuscript, I say a quiet thanks to the driven perfectionist who gives me permission to be prejudiced in the right direction. Wells's profile is a fascinating glimpse into a smart woman of a different era and well worth a read.

Normcore and the new-old Quaker plain

In the last few weeks, the fashion segment of the Internet has gone all a-buzz over new term "Normcore." Normal, everyday, clothing is apparently showing up in downtown Manhattan—gasp! Like many trendy terms, it's not really so new: back in the nineties and early oughts, Gap ruled the retail world with posters showing celebrities and artists wearing t-shirts and jeans available at the local mall store. "Normcore" is just the leading edge of the utterly-predicable 20-year fashion industry pendulum swing.

It also perhaps signals a cultural shift away from snobbery and into embracing roots. One of the most popular posts on the New York Times's website last year celebrated regional accents (apparently Philadelphians are allowed to talk like Philadelphians again).

An analogue to this fashion trend has been occuring among Friends for a little while now. The "New Plain" discussion have revolved around reclaiming an attitude, not a uniform.

If you read the old Quaker guide books (called "Books of Discipline" then, now more often called "Faith and Practice"), you'll see that unlike other plain-dressing American groups like the Amish, Quakers didn't intend their clothes to be a uniform showing group conformity. Instead, plainness is framed in terms of interior motivations. Avoiding fashion trends helped Friends remember that they were all equal before God. It also spoke to our continuing testimony of integrity, in that Friends were to dress the same way in different contexts and so vouchsafe for a single identity.

When I began feeling the tug of a leading toward plainness it was for what I began calling "Sears Plain," indicating that I wore clothes that I could find in any box store or mall. I developed a low-maintenance approach to fashion that freed up my time from shopping and the morning dressing ritual. Modern plainness can lesson the temptation to show off in in clothes and it can reduce the overall wardrobe size and thus reduce our impact on the environment and with exploited labor. But all this is nothing new and it never really disappeared. If you looked around a room of modern Quakers you'll often see a trend of sartorial boringness; I was simply naming this and putting it in the context of our tradition.

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Over time I found that these motivations were more prevalent in the wider culture, especially in the minimalist techie scene. Steve Jobs famously sported a uniform of black turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance sneakers (explained in 2011). In a 2012 profile, Barack Obama talked about limiting his clothes to two colors of suits so that he could free up his decision-making energies on more important issues (I wrote about his fashion in "Plain like Barack").

Non-celebrities also seem interested in working out their relationship with fashion. My articles on modern plainness have always been a big draw on my blog. While my fellow Quakers are sometimes mildly embarrassed by our historic peculiarities, outsiders often eat this stuff up. They're looking for what the techies would call "life hacks" that can help them prioritize life essentials. If we can communicate our values in a real way that isn't propped by appeals to the authority of tradition, then we can reach these seekers.

So now that "Normcore" is appearing in places like Huffington Post , the New York Times and fashion magazines, will Friends be able to talk more about it? Do we still have a collective witness in regards to the materialism and ego-centricity of fashion marketing?

Russian Old Believers in Millville NJ

A few weeks ago we were con­tact­ed by some­one from the St Nicholas Cen­ter (http://​www​.stni​cholas​cen​ter​.org) ask­ing if they could use some pho­tos I had tak­en of the church my wife is attend­ing, Mil­lville N.J.‘s St Nicholas Ukrain­ian Catholic. Of course I said yes. But then my cor­re­spon­dent asked if I could take pic­tures of anoth­er church she had heard of: St Nicholas Old Believer’s Church. It’s on the oth­er side of Mil­lville from our St Nick’s, on an ancient road that dead ends in woods. We had to vis­it.

The Old Believ­ers have a fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry. They were Russ­ian Ortho­dox Chris­tians who refused to com­ply with litur­gi­cal changes man­dat­ed by the Patri­arch and Czar in the 1650s. As usu­al, there was a lot of pol­i­tics involved, with the Czar want­i­ng to cozy up with the Greek Ortho­dox to ally Rus­sia against the Mus­lim Ottomans, etc., etc. The the­o­log­i­cal charge was that the Greek tra­di­tions were the stan­dard and Russ­ian dif­fer­ences latter-day inno­va­tions to be stamped out (more mod­ern research has found the Rus­sians actu­al­ly were clos­er to the old­er forms, but no mat­ter: what the Czar and Patri­arch want, the Czar and Patri­arch get). The old prac­tices were banned, begin­ning hun­dreds of years of state-sponsored per­se­cu­tion for the “Old Believ­ers.” The sur­vivors scat­tered to the four cor­ners of the Russ­ian empire and beyond, keep­ing a low pro­file wher­ev­er they went.

The Old Believ­ers have a fas­ci­nat­ing frac­tured his­to­ry. Because their priests were killed off in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, they lost their claims of apos­tolic suc­ces­sion – the idea that there’s an unbro­ken line of ordi­na­tion from Jesus Christ him­self. Some Old Believ­ers found work-arounds or claimed a few priests were spared but the hard­core among them declared suc­ces­sion over, sig­nal­ing the end times and the fall of the Church. They became priest­less Old Believ­ers – so defen­sive of the old litur­gy that they were will­ing to lose most of the litur­gy. They’ve scat­tered around the world, often wear­ing plain dress and liv­ing in iso­lat­ed com­mu­ni­ties.

The Old Believ­ers church in Mil­lville has no signs, no web­site, no indi­ca­tion of what it is (a life­long mem­ber of “our” St Nick’s called it mys­te­ri­ous and said he lit­tle about it of it). From a few inter­net ref­er­ences, they appear to be the priest­less kind of Old Believ­ers. But it has its own dis­tinc­tions: appar­ent­ly one of the great­est icono­g­ra­phers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry lived and wor­shipped there, and when famed Russ­ian polit­i­cal pris­on­er Alek­san­dr Solzhen­it­syn vis­it­ed the U.S. he made a point of speak­ing at this sign­less church on a dead end road.

Links:
* Wikipedia: http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​O​l​d​_​B​e​l​i​e​v​ers
* Account of US Lithuan­ian Bespopovt­sy com­mu­ni­ties: http://​www​.synax​is​.info/​o​l​d​-​r​i​t​e​/​0​_​o​l​d​b​e​l​i​e​f​/​h​i​s​t​o​r​y​_​e​n​g​/​n​i​c​o​l​l​.​h​tml
* OSU Library on icono­g­ra­ph­er Sofronv (PDF): http://​cmrs​.osu​.edu/​r​c​m​s​s​/​C​M​H​2​1​c​o​l​o​r​.​pdf
* Solzhenitsyn’s 1976 vis­it: http://​www​.freere​pub​lic​.com/​f​o​c​u​s​/​f​-​n​e​w​s​/​2​0​5​7​7​9​3​/​p​o​sts

In album St Nicholas Old Believ­ers, Mil­lville NJ (9 pho­tos)