Reviewed by John Cowan
Chuck Fager can write. Chuck is interesting. Chuck prefers the truth without varnish. Chuck can dig up old documents and pass on the facts of the case. Chuck can take me from Quakerism before the Civil War through the war and up to a little before I was born and make that a short, happy and informative journey. I would come home thinking, “Good. I have an hour. I can read Chuck.”
Two hundred pages of text. Lots of notes. I will give you three examples of topics presented. These three examples touch at most only a third of the book, but will give you a feel for his thinking and writing process.
Near the beginning he sorts us through the distasteful facts, that Quakers against slavery were a small and persecuted group. Persecuted not only by the secular society, but also by most Quakers. The abolitionists, (those wanting to abolish slavery) were a vocal minority. Since they were vocal, their names are remembered, and since they were the minority, they were reviled and tossed out of meetings. Not until the war started were Quakers, on the whole, in favor of ending slavery. We might prefer it otherwise, but some of the most hallowed names from that day, took quite a beating from us on the road to unanimity. We probably identify with them. (“I would have been on their side.”) What are the odds that would be the case?
Something else we would prefer otherwise: In that day when we finally fought valiantly for the good of black people generally, our personal attitudes to the black people we were in contact with remained racist. We found black people inferior and treated them as such. This might explain something in today’s relationship with people of color.
Chuck is a little in self-confessed love with a great person who had a powerful role in forming Quakerism during the late nineteenth Century. Jane Rushmore, a woman of humble origins, as they would have said in that time, began as a one room Quaker schoolteacher. In looking for her first assistant she selected Emma Barnes Wallace about a decade younger than herself, apparently for her bright attitude and curly hair. That is what she noticed across the playground, although Emma was far more than that. Quickly they became an effective pair of teachers and quickly they moved in with one another into what in the day was called “a Boston marriage.” Two women living together, in this case with little comment from others on what very well might have been a lesbian relationship. About that little is recorded. Nobody seemed to care. Should we credit Quakers? Or Boston?
Jane was a powerful influence on the Quakerism of her day. When Philadelphia Yearly meeting decided in deference to the march of progress, to join the woman’s meeting and the men’ s meeting into one meeting they solved the problem of two clerks quickly: The clerk of the women’s meeting, Jane Rutherford, became the clerk of the new meeting. The obvious choice! For decades after innovators relied on Jane and her eloquence to ready the field for their ideas.
In the closing chapters Chuck describes the final upending of Quaker quietism. From the beginning in the United States Quakers ran a tightly controlled operation. No marriages outside of the flock. Supervised personal behavior, complete with “come to Jesus” meetings for the errant. A dull, uninteresting uniform dress. (The same that evoked from Margaret Fox, “Oh what a poor silly gospel.”) Peculiar manners expected. Weird and closed.
As we made the turn to the Twentieth Century we upended not only these off-putting customs but the controlling structure of Monthly Meetings subordinate to Yearly Meetings and Yearly Meetings deferring to the large and historically first meetings. At every level, a secret special council making big decisions. We turned the organization to a Yearly Meeting formed by and in service to Monthly Meetings, and the central command, now Friends General Conference, a service organization to all, and no supreme but hidden decision-making bodies. The preeminence of the individual conscience was respected.
(At the end of the First World War those who had violated the Peace Testimony and gone to war, and therefore had been severed from their home meetings were received back with little fuss.)
Chuck filled a huge gap in my understanding of the shaping of the tradition I joined some time ago. Thank you, Chuck. I recommend this book particularly to convinced Quakers to understand where our adopted home came from and why we are who we are. This book describes the finishing touches in the Quakerism we live in. We have here proof of our capacity to evolve. That is why the word “progressive” is in the title. This was a return to our progressive origins.
However: A heartbreaking end-note from Chuck: “…the Progressive passion for worldly reform. Liberal Quakerism today has retained that, though as the religious basis attenuates, it declines toward being little more than an echo of secular politics, an arena in which Friends are but a self-important speck of foam on waves of much bigger tides. Our value to the world comes of thinking outside that frame…” This wariness about neo-quietism is found in a few closing pages. Similar notes are expressed about forward thinking, evangelism, and oratory. All of which were valued in that day and feared in this day. They are symptoms of a passionate heart and their present absence questions our hope for the future, our trust in our version of the good news, and our ability to say it well.
So we have work to do!