Sometimes I’m remiss at actually sharing articles I’ve worked on as part of my duties as Friends Journal’s editor. It’s especially ironic this week given that one of the most talked-about recent Quaker articles comes from the February FJ issue.
Don McCormick’s piece has a bold title: Can Quakerism Survive? He talks about thr decline that many Friends geoups have been experiening and wonders who it is that might have. vision for twenty-first century Friends.
The article has garnered over eighty comments. The range and depth of that conversation has been humbling as as editor. But this is a good cross-section of visions of Quakerism. An excerpt from McCormick:
Over the past 40 years, I have been part of and seen organizations that had high ideals and did good work but were focused on internal dynamics and paid little attention to threats to their existence. As a result, they went under. I worry that our yearly, quarterly, and monthly meetings will also.
Barring a very improbable series of events we will more than likely be looking at President Trump once the numbers have been tallied overnight. And not just him but a radicalized Trumpian Congress, Senate — and because of the successful stonewalling against Obama’s nomination — Supreme Court. We’ve not just elected an authoritarian: we’ve also taken away the entire system of checks and balances that might be able to hold him back. Add to that the expansion of the raw power of the executive branch in recent years and it’s the setup for a dystopian TV show.
We’ve seen seemingly stable countries fall apart under conditions like this. We claim American exceptionalism but history is littered with the corpses of democracies that didn’t make it. This will be the biggest test of our civic values in our lifetimes. We might well experience things the American republic has never seen: the imprisonment of a losing opposition leader, the rise of organized hate crimes, wholesale theft of incredible wealth by a new oligarchy, the divying up of the world back into empires… The model of a kind of alt right soft dictatorship is well developed by this point and Trump has been clear throughout both his career and his candidacy that it’s his vision.
We do not get to choose our era or the challenges it throws at us. Only someone with historical amnesia would say this is unprecedented in our history. The enslavement of millions and the genocide of millions more are dark stains indelibly soaked into the very founding of the nation. But much will change, particularly our naivity and false optimism in an inevitable forward progress of our national story. We must respond with courage and grace. We’re going to get a lesson in what’s really important. Time to engage.
It’s one of those quotes we frequently hear: that George Fox said a minister’s job was “to bring people to Christ, and to leave them there.” But when I go to Google, I only find secondhand references, sandwiched in quote marks but never sourced. It turns up most frequently in the works of British Friend William Pollard, who used it as kind of a catch phrase in his talks on “An Old Fashioned Quakerism” from 1889. Suspiciously missing is any search result from the journal or epistles of Fox himself. It’s possible Pollard has paraphrased something from Fox into a speech-friendly shorthand that Google misses, but it’s also possible it’s one of those passed-down Fox myths like Penn’s sword.
So in modern fashion, I posed the question to the Facebook hive mind. After great discussions, I’m going to call this a half-truth. On the Facebook thread, Allistair Lomax shared a Fox epistle that convinces me the founder of Friends would have agreed with the basic concept:
I’m guessing it is paraphrase of a portion of Fox’s from epistle 308, 1674. Fox wrote “You know the manner of my life, the best part of thirty years since I went forth and forsook all things. I sought not myself. I sought you and his glory that sent me. When I turned you to him that is able to save you, I left you to him.”
Mark Wutka shared quotations from Stephen Grellet and William Williams which have convince me that it describes the “two step dance” of convincement for early Friends:
From Stephen Grellet: “I have endeavoured to lead this people to the Lord and to his Spirit, and there is is safe to leave them.” And this from William Williams: “To persuade people to seek the Lord, and to be faithful to his word, the inspoken words of the heart, is what we ought to do; and then leave them to be directed by the inward feelings of the mind;”
The two-step image comes from Angela York Crane’s comment:
So it’s a two step dance. First, that who we are and how we live and speak turns others to the Lord, and second, that we trust enough to leave them there.
But: as a pithy catch phrase directly attributed to Fox it’s another myth. It perhaps borrowed some images from a mid-19th century talk by Charles Spurgeon on George Fox, but came together in the 1870s as a central catch phrase of British reformer Friend William Pollard. Pollard is a fascinating figure in his own right, an early proponent of modern liberalism in a London Yearly Meeting that was then largely evangelical and missionary. Even his pamphlet and book titles were telling, including Primitive Christianity Revived and A Reasonable Faith. He had an agenda and this phrase was a key formulation of his argument and vision.
He is hardly the first or last Friend to have lifted an incidental phrase or concept of George Fox’s and given it the weight of a modern tenet (“That of God” springs to mind). More interesting to me is that Pollard’s work was frequently reprinted and referenced in Friends Intelligencer, the American Hicksite publication (and predecessor of Friends Journal), at a time when London Friends didn’t recognize Hicksites as legitimate Quakers. His vision of an “Old Fashioned Quakerism” reincorporated quietism and sought to bring British Friends back to a two-step convincement practice. It paved the way for the transformation of British Quakerism following the transformational 1895 Manchester Conference and gave American Friends interested in modern liberal philosophical ideals a blueprint for incorporating them into a Quaker framework.
The phrase “bring people to Christ/leave them there” is a compelling image that has lived on in the 130 or so odd years since its coinage. I suspect it is still used much as Pollard intended: as a quietist braking system for top-down missionary programs. It’s a great concept. Only our testimony in truth now requires that we introduce it, “As William Pollard said, a Quaker minister’s job is to…”
And for those wondering, yes, I have just ordered Pollard’s Old Fashioned Quakerism via Vintage Quaker Books. He seems like something of a kindred spirit and I want to learn more.
Maybe the web’s form of hyperlinking is actually superior to Old Media publishing. I love how I can put forward a strong vision of Quakerism without offending anyone – any put-off readers can hit the “back” button. And if a blog I read posts something I don’t agree with, I can simply choose not to comment. If life’s just too busy then I just miss a few weeks of posts. With my “Subjective Guide to Quaker Blogs” and my “On the Web” posts I highlight the bloggers I find particularly interesting, even when I’m not in perfect theological unity. I like that I can have discussions back and forth with Friends who I don’t exactly agree with.
On the blogs, Robin Mohr wrote about Friends leadership and vision and the “Nakedness/You’re Not a Quaker” responses continue with two more follow-up’s among this week’s Editor Picks. Elsewhere, the Modern Quakers and Clothing project has been collecting some great personal stories. And on a housekeeping note, donations for QuakerQuaker have been pretty light lately; please consider helping out.