| A Book of Quaker Saints by Lucy V. Hodgkin|
A Yearly Meeting preparation session on 'Uncomfortable Quaker Histories' which I attended on Zoom yesterday allowed me to revisit work I have done myself on challenging Quaker myths and legends and got me thinking about how to take this forward.
We were presented with stories of Quakers in Lancaster and in America (including William Penn) who had been profitably engaged in the Atlantic slave trade and who had not always been challenged effectively by their contemporaries. We were also reminded of the ambivalent attitude of some Friends in the past to the poor - only to be helped if they were suitably grateful and knew 'their place' and never wholly accepted as equals. In this context we were asked if a testimony to equality had ever existed.
Back in the 1980s I gave a series of talks on Quaker Myths and Legends, questioning assumptions that were taken for granted at the time such as equality between men and women and how the peace testimony came about. In 1986 I was part of the group who wrote and presented the Quaker Womens Group Swarthmore lecture 'Bringing the Invisible into the Light'. As well as questioning whether equality had always been an integral part of the Society of Friends, the lecture included examples of painful personal experience such as domestic violence among Friends. The lecture was welcomed by many but also provoked very strong negative reactions - disbelief that Quakers could act in this way and denial that Friends were not always perfect in their relations with others. A lot of the discomfort stemmed from our audacity in challenging some Friends' established world view.
We are now looking at our past again through the lens of sexism, racism and classism and what we are finding is uncomfortable. I would say that this is what an honest study of the past should be. There never were Quaker Saints. Quakers have always been humans with human imperfections, shaped by the wider society they found themselves in but also by changes in the practices and attitudes of the Society of Friends through the centuries. I think it is better and more helpful to identify with past Quakers who were not perfect than to put heroes and heroines on a pedestal from which they may come crashing down. We may feel shame at the actions of Friends in the past and seek in some way to make amends but I believe that we should also try to reach for understanding, to learn where we are going wrong now and how we may change and improve.
We may remove the name of William Penn from a room in Friends House but I hope we can continue to give him his due and not reject him totally as a Quaker villain. We should not reject his writings because of some aspects of his life because his words are still valuable. When my meeting was reading through Quaker Faith and Practice several years ago as part of the revision process I was surprised to find that the extracts Friends found most helpful were not the most modern writings but those by William Penn and Isaac Penington.
We need meticulous research, such as we were presented with in the preparation session, looking in detail at Quaker links to slavery, attitudes to the poor and other marginalised groups. The more we learn the more we can understand rather than only condemn. Local studies are a good start but these themes also need to be seen in a wider context - for example the way in which womens' meetings evolved, their purpose and their influence.
I have tried in my biographical posts on this blog to include a broad range of past Quakers, including women of course but also lower class Quakers without much money. There are also 'difficult' Friends and those with mental health problems. Just a few examples are Ruth Follows, Thomas Shillitoe, Benjamin Lay and his wife Sarah, Josiah Langdale and Rebecca Jones. James Jenkins was trying to write honest rather than idealised testimonies to Friends he had known in the 18th century, There is much more work to be done to bring invisible poor Quakers, Quaker servants and Quaker people of colour into the light, but a start has been made.
If there is one lesson we can learn from the past it is that there should be no more Quaker Saints. We must do away with Quaker heroes but I hope we will not go to the other extreme and cast Friends as villains. Idealising the past makes us unable to face reality but so does seeing it only in black and white rather than in Quaker gray.