Friday, May 27, 2022

No More Quaker Heroes - or Villains

  A Book of Quaker Saints by Lucy V. Hodgkin

  illustrated by F. Cayley-Robinson

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.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Here I go again!

Woman at a window. Jacobus Vrel. 1654

In April last year I decided to try to resurrect this blog. I had good intentions but I only managed three posts in 2021, all in April!

Over the years I have often had problems with writing regularly here although, as I said last year, I have been writing regularly elsewhere. I think perhaps that a blog post feels like a substantial piece of writing - and certainly my historical posts do require quite a bit of research - so that I often feel too intimidated to begin.

With the beginning of a new year I feel inspired to try again, but not to be too hard on myself. I will aim to write once a month (or 12 times a year) and I will broaden my range of topics. Sometimes, as I am doing now, I will just sit down and write and see what comes. I will write about Quakers and Quaker history but may change my format. I hope to share some passages of Quaker writing that have helped me and may even suggest passages to the Book of Discipline Revision Committee! I may also share other passages that I have written in my commonplace book over the years.

Another way in which I hope to continue with this blog is through visual images. Over on Facebook I have been sharing art from my Pinterest boards each day without comment. Perhaps here I can comment about the art, the artist and what the image means to me.

I have good intentions but I have had those before and not written. Let's see how I get on in 2022!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Robert and Mary Jane Catlin Davidson - Quaker missionaries to China


China missionaries on the Yangtze river. Quaker Tapestry panel B7, Service Overseas.

Robert Davidson was born in 1864, the eldest of the six surviving sons of Adam and Mary Davidson of Hillsborough, near Lisburn in Northern Ireland.

Robert's father had served as a soldier in China but had found himself unable to continue to subdue the heathen rather than reach out to them as fellow human beings. He declared himself a pacifist, was discharged from the army and sent back to Ireland where he became a Quaker. He supported his family by opening a grocery shop but also held mission meetings to which people flocked from miles around. Adam wanted to go back to China but bad health and lack of education prevented him so he urged his eldest son to go in his place. 'Go to China', he told Robert, 'and as you meet the Chinese tell them that you come with the Bible and not with a gun, as I mistakenly did.'

Robert (centre) with mother Mary
and brothers Warburton, Alfred and Asher, 1886

Robert was educated at the Friends School in Lisburn until he was fourteen when lack of money forced him to leave and earn his living in a linen factory. His father's words had given him a goal however and when he was nineteen he wrote to the Friends Foreign Mission Association (FFMA) in London asking them to send him to China as a missionary. Friends were hesitant about sending someone so young, uneducated and inexperienced on such a hazardous posting but Robert was insistent and persuaded Henry Stanley Newman of FFMA to visit his father. Henry was impressed and when Adam died in 1885 it was in the knowledge that his son had been accepted for service.

Robert came to London for his training in mission work, an ad hoc course of study designed to fill the gaps in his general education and to give him a basic knowledge of theology, church history, book-keeping and carpentry as well as a three-month elementary medical course. He spent his evenings at the Friends Mission Hall in Hart's Lane in Bethnal Green where his temperamental suitability for mission work could be tested and he threw himself into this with vigour. 

It was also at Hart's Lane that Robert met one of the senior workers Mary Jane Catlin. Ever since she was a child Mary Jane had wanted to go overseas as a Quaker missionary. Remaining at home to look after her invalid mother, she threw her considerable energies into any opportunity for service that came her way. She started adult schools and self-help societies for the London poor, set up and ran convalescent and childen's homes at the seaside at Folkestone and Worthing and qualified as a nurse. At the same time she acted as secretary for innumerable Quaker committees. She later said that during those years she was known for her bag, her bonnet and her Bible.

In spite of the age difference between them Robert and Mary Jane's shared interests and enthusiam brought them together and in July 1886, when he was 22 and she was 39, they married and in September set out together for China.

Eventually they made their way to Szechwan, West China where they arrived in May 1887. They made the hazardous journey from Shanghai 1000 miles up the Yangtze River to Ichang and then 500 miles through the gorges, the boats pulled by trackers with bamboo rope. They studied the Chinese language and customs and developed the Friends Mission against considerable odds through medical and educational as well as evangelistic work. Mary Jane used her nursing and midwifery skills as well as her organisational and administrative abilities to assist Robert and to work herself among Chinese women. They had one son, Robert, known as Robin, born in 1889.

Teapot from Horniman collection
As Quaker missionaries Robert and Mary Jane were allowed to return to Britain from time to time on furlough but it was not until late 1894 that they and their son managed to do this for the first time. They stayed for nearly two years, resting and visiting friends and family but also making direct contact with the China Committee of FFMA and speaking at Quaker meetings throuhout Britain and Ireland. They put on exhibitions of Chinese artefacts and sometimes dressed in Chinese costume. Six-year-old Robin also played a part, demonstrating how to eat with chopsticks and reciting a prayer in Chinese. Before they returned to China Robert and Mary Jane visited the Horniman Museum and talked to Frederick Horniman, himself a Quaker, who bought more than 300 items from their collection which remain in the museum to this day.

The Davidson brothers, 1902, Henry, Warburton, Alfred and Robert
As well as drumming up support for the mission in money and prayers Robert and Mary Jane also hoped for missionary recruits but in this their success was limited. In fact their greatest success was in recruiting their own family, with Robert's brother Warburton arriving in 1898 followed by two more brothers, Alfred and Henry in 1901. In time Robin Davidson brought his bride to China and they too became part of the mission.

In January 1918 Mary Jane died suddenly and unexpectedly of pneumonia at the age of 70. Her daughter-in-law Kathleen wrote, 'There is no fearfulness, no ugliness, no horror in her death. She was wonderful. The order of her house, her accounts, and all she possessed surpasses anything I ever thought of. She must have always been prepared to go.'

Mary Jane and Robert at Szechwan YM, 1916

Four years later Robert married an American colleague, Pearl Page. In his later years he became a lecturer at the West China Union University which he and his brothers had helped to found. When he retired in 1925 he was asked to take on the headmastership of the Friends School in Brummana, Lebanon, where he stayed for five years. 

In 1932 Robert finally retired and settled on the south coast of England in Bournemouth, where his meeting much appreciated his help with young people and his service as an elder. He was far from idle, taking on the secretaryship of the Christian Universities in China Council and of the China Committee of Friends Service Council (which had taken over the work of FFMA). Although his health prevented him from taking up the many invitations he received to return to China he attended many international meetings and it was while he was at one of these in California that Robert died of heart failure at the age of seventy-eight.