Quakers and Quaker history

Among other things, most of them more urgent, I am working on a book on theological ethics in Quaker perspective, focusing on the concept and practice of testimony. It’s not intended to be a book about Quaker history, nor a book for Quakers. But I do need to get some of the history right. And one of the many things I am currently finding challenging is the way Quakers write about Quakerism; and in particular the relative invisibility of the history of theology or the history of thought.

It is not about a lack of theological training and writing per se; there are and possibly have always been more Quakers writing and studying theology than we tend to let on. (I’m focusing on Britain and North America at the moment; I wouldn’t like to make assumptions about the past or present situation in the growth areas of world Quakerism). It’s more about the relative lack of interest in where our understanding of ourselves has come from, or in the process of historical change. We talk about what Quakers are and do and think, without thinking about the historical specificity of that self-characterisation; and hence appear to claim – and sometimes actually claim – that it has always been thus. (I’m afraid there’s a classic example on the Britain Yearly Meeting website. “…we do not seek to convert anybody, it has never been a part of what we do”. I don’t think the first part is true, though I know what it’s trying to say; but the second part is clearly untrue, as one could probably guess without even reading Quaker history – how exactly are Quakers supposed to have got going in the first place?)

I don’t have a fully-developed critique of this tendency nor a clear enough sense of how widespread it is. (Clearly there are numerous scholars whose work pushes against it). I have real concerns about responsibility towards the past – and about truth. But at the moment I simply find it irritating as an academic, as I attempt to talk about a complex, freighted and historically shifting idea like “testimony” and find relatively little explicit acknowledgement of its history.



One response to this post.

  1. Posted by John Nurse on 14 June, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Is this of any use?
    I wonder if there is a tendency for Friends to get into the box of one’s own experience, and that of one’s immediate circle, and turn away from either a wider context or other ways of seeing. I’ve often had it said to me, when I’ve raised what I see as the usefulness now of how early Friends did things, ‘That was then. This is now.’ Other examples perhaps are: calling in aid the Quaker reluctance to go to law, and then getting in a mess with employment or landlord matters from believing that Friends should be able to sort it; asking questions for which there are well-established research tools without considering that dealing with these matters as an amateur is fraught with problems; wrestling with profound organisational problems and not looking for assistance to people who have made it (part of) their calling to wrestle with the spiritual in such matters.
    Is there something about core Quaker experiences that can allow us to get so caught up in what is now that past and future and context are all unseen? Whereas, in Thomas Kelly’s ‘Eternal Now’, God is in conversation at once with everybody, including early Friends, and with us?
    There is also the traditional Quaker suspicion of ‘professors’. This may feed into a kind of compulsive amateurism that denies any useful expertise in other than mechanical matters.


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