Paul's Perambulations

June 20, 2008

Book Review on Quakers published in Journal for Peace & Justice Studies

Filed under: Religion — admin @ 10:16 am

Readers who would like some background information about Quakers might find helpful my review of Yount’s How the Quakers Invented America (published this month in the Journal for Peace & Justice Studies, v17, #1).  I  have copied it into Comments.

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  1. How the Quakers Invented America, David Yount. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007

    Paul Sheldon, Department of Psychology, Villanova University

    What can be expected from a book with the surprising title “How the Quakers Invented America”? Being a long-time Quaker with a deep interest in history, I know that the many significant Quaker contributions to the building of our great nation are rarely, and even then barely, mentioned in books on American history. My initial hope was that David Yount’s book might right that wrong, giving credit where credit is due. On the other hand, I also immediately noted that the title makes a broad – more accurately a consciously over-broad – claim, and the scholar in me reluctantly resigned myself to a reading that must be accompanied by a measured dose of skepticism.

    I discovered from leafing through the pages that the book is much more about the author’s personal experiences with and understanding of Quakerism today than about Quakers in American history. In fact, the book’s title derives from the first chapter, a mere 17 pages in length, and the remaining chapters represent a wide range of topics concerning Quaker belief and practice today. That’s not what I had expected from the title, but still it could be interesting and a worthwhile read.

    A thorough reading revealed the author’s ability to take a wide range of approaches to the subject matter. Some sections were stimulating, and other parts personally reflective and thoughtful. Some ideas were controversial. Such a range of approaches can be instructive if the reader is aware of whether a statement is one side of a controversial topic, represents a well-established practice of a majority of followers, or is personal opinion held by a small minority. Unfortunately Yount tends to present all as a sort of Quaker gospel, and thus leaves unsuspecting readers with many misimpressions. There are no footnotes or other references in this book, and the bibliography is idiosyncratic. Nowhere does the author thank anyone for reading the pre-publication text, and the numerous (and sometimes egregious) factual errors show the result of this omission.

    The Preface offers the first evidence that this book is not a balanced or scholarly effort, but rather a personal interpretation of Quakerism. The author writes, “Quakers cherish the present, which is the only permanence of which anyone can be certain. That may explain why all contemplative people are content…” The inference that contemplative Quakers feel content flies in the face of a rich history of Quaker activism that flows from George Fox more than three hundred years ago to John Fox in our time.

    The title chapter is an interesting attempt to show the many contributions that Quakers made to this country. Unfortunately, having made the exaggerated claim that the Quakers “invented” America, the author feels compelled to try to support this contention and in the process makes some serious errors. For example, “It is no coincidence that the American Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in Quaker Philadelphia.” Yount’s got the place right, but the reason the Declaration occurred in Philadelphia was not because of any connection to the Quaker concern for individual freedom, as the author wishes to imply. Indeed, the founding fathers would have been happier had the Philadelphia Quakers (who did not support the revolution) lived someplace else. A bit later Yount writes that the “Quaker sense of simplicity in dress, manner, and language was quickly adopted by their fellow countrymen and women and continues to this day.” What does thee think of such nonsense? In a section entitled “Equality of the sexes” (indeed, a significant religious contribution of Quakers), the author describes Quaker Mary Dyer as “America’s first martyr for religious freedom.” In fact, two of her male co-religionists had been previously executed. In this same chapter he writes, “As early as 1715 there was not an acre of unsettled, unproductive property within fifty miles of Philadelphia.” The author is making the point that the colony was a success, but the statement is clearly a boastful exaggeration. This profoundly un-Quakerly tendency of the author feels particularly awkward when, in a later chapter, he exaggerates the colony’s lack of success. With similar hyperbole he describes William Penn as “the greatest swordsman in Ireland” apparently to increase the impact on the reader of Penn’s conversion to Quaker pacifism. In a section about plain living, he writes “Benjamin Franklin…aped plain dress to impress Friends in Pennsylvania society.” That doesn’t sound like the Ben I know. Yount starts his “invention” story of Quaker objection to slavery with an event in 1712, apparently unaware that the world’s first principled objection to slavery was a declaration of the Quakers of Germantown Monthly Meeting in 1688. And in writing about Quaker marriage, he misses the significance of the fact that because Quaker marriage was a spiritual union between two people, it did not require a license or the permission of any state or church apparatus (a contribution ahead of its time). The author totally omits any mention of the innovative Quaker “one fair price” sales practice, a religious testimony that represented an economic innovation that became standard practice.

    Things improve somewhat in Chapters Two and Three. The author gives an introduction to basic Quakerism in “Faith versus Feeling” and “The Meaning of the Light.” To newcomers to Quakerism, this material may remove some common misconceptions. His selection of quotations from a great variety of unrelated sources is sometimes helpful and sometimes distracting. But helpful information is there, as in “Friends revere scripture but do not worship it . . . Rather, they worship a living, personal God . . . All one needs to do is to allow the Light to enter and enlighten us.”

    Chapter Four “The Significance of Jesus” and Chapter Five “How Quakers Approach the Bible” introduce topics that have vexed Quakers almost as much as they have confused those trying to understand Quakers. Yount acknowledges that he is presenting views held primarily by certain eastern Quakers. In particular, these views seem to relate to his own Quaker Meeting (Alexandria Friends Meeting, Virginia) and his personal values. That is fine so long as this point is understood by readers from other faiths. At one point he asks “. . . what significance can Jesus have for each and every Friend?” and lists some interesting ideas for consideration. However, these views should not be attributed to “each and every Friend.” Far from it. In Chapter Five, after a number of pages that describe the history of the bible and seem to be from an essay unrelated to Quakers, he delves into some good material regarding George Fox and the founding of Quakerism. This represents an informative and fairly standard recital of some founding principles of the Religious Society of Friends. Yount quotes from Fox’s journal “’There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy . . . I was to bring people from all their own ways . . . to know the spirit of Truth in the inward parts . . . and I was to bring them off . . . forms without power.” Yount describes how George Fox had to “change not only his mind but his heart and then prove that he was a changed man by what he did from then on.”

    Chapter Six “The Good Quaker” is perhaps the best chapter in the book. In this short essay, by means of describing Quaker practice, the author gives a sense of what Quakers believe. This is because faith and practice for Quakers are two sides of the same coin. “By their fruits you shall know them” is the oft-quoted biblical text that accompanies this understanding. Yount writes, “Friends look first of all to how people actually behave – not to the creeds they profess or to how well they express themselves . . . lacking the benefit of clergy and staff, every member is equally responsible . . . . Preferring silence to outspoken piety, they let their lives speak for their beliefs.” The result is that “friendly persuasion . . . seeks not to score points but to win hearts.”

    Chapter Seven discusses a particular thesis regarding the eventual demise of Penn’s “Holy Experiment” (the title of this chapter). Yount acknowledges that Boorstin’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958) is a favorite book, and Boorstin’s well-known thesis regarding Quakers forms the basis for this chapter. Yount wholeheartedly accepts Boorstin’s thesis that the Quakers’ faithful adherence to their religious standards spelled the doom of their Holy Experiment. Apparently Yount is either unaware or not interested in any competing ideas or theses. It can be argued that, for the better part of a century, Penn’s colony was uniquely successful due in no small part to adherence to Quaker principles, including the peace testimony. At the very least, I am surprised at his failure to acknowledge Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979), and I would recommend Baltzell’s book for anyone interested in a scholarly account of the controversy regarding the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Quaker “Experiment.”

    Chapter Eight “Living in the Light of Eternity” is apparently derived from a prior book by the author on the same topic and is mainly a personal account of his views on eternity. Readers may find this interesting, but it says little about “Quaker” views on the subject and bears not the slightest relationship to the title of this book. Chapter Nine “Why did the Quakers Stop Quaking” is an essay that makes some interesting, if not novel, points about changes that have occurred since the heroic activism of George Fox and other early Quakers. Modern Quakers do not wish to be confrontational. But to live one’s faith in today’s world may indeed require us to confront the world and its values. The issue is not whether one is confrontational or not, the issue is “Are Quakers willing to live their faith?” That is an excellent question that many Quakers (including this reviewer) must grapple with.

    The last three chapters are short essays on a range of topics. Chapter Ten “A Peculiar People” deals primarily with the author’s personal experiences in becoming a Quaker late in life. Chapters Eleven and Twelve continue this personal approach to religion, and readers who appreciate such writing may find them of considerable value.

    The Concluding chapter (fittingly titled “Conclusion”) strives to show how Quaker principles and values have continued to influence America from the colonial period to the present time. The author’s subject matter ranges from Susan B. Anthony and James Michener (both Quaker) to the American Friends Service Committee.

    Books that entice the general public to read about Quakers are rare. From that perspective, this book can promote some understanding of Quakerism. And so, despite its many errors and misstatements, I can recommend this book as a quick and easy read, with an interesting (if quirky) personal style. However, for those wanting a more balanced and informed introduction to Quakerism, there are better books. I would recommend Friends for 350 Years by Brinton and Bacon (2002). My best hope is that Yount’s book may whet readers’ appetite to read something more substantial or, better yet, attend a Friends Meeting to see (as Quakers put it) if it “speaks to their condition.”

    Comment by admin — July 7, 2008 @ 10:27 am

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