Monday, January 28, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Week 4 - B for Books

Friends House Library
Although as I said under A for Arts, Quakers have often been hostile or ambivalent towards the arts in general, they have had a long history of writing and publishing books about Quakerism. 'Publishing Truth' was seen as an important way of reaching out to the world and telling others about what Quakers believed and stood for. Almost from the beginning Friends also collected writings both by Friends and against them - two copies of the pros and one copy of the antis - and these books and pamphlets formed the basis of the collection founded in 1673 and now housed at Friends House Library in London.

Not all these books were polemic.Writing about and sharing one's spiritual journey was also seen as important and even when these writings were not printed they were often copied and passed around among families and friends. Sometimes these spiritual autobiographies were published after the authors had died although they were sometimes heavily edited to take into account the changing sensibilities of later times.

From an alphabet by Paul Thurlby
Because Quakers were keenly aware of the power of books they wanted to make them widely available, sending out selections to local meetings and providing texts to be sold or given away to anyone interested in order to convince them of Quaker truths. But the Quaker establishment also wanted to control what was published and demanded that anyone who wrote a book about Quakerism had to submit it to the Second Days Morning Meeting (named for the day it met) for approval.

Texts might be edited, rewrites demanded and in some cases publication was denied. Even George Fox fell foul of this body when his Book of Miracles, with its stories of healings, was found too 'enthusiastic' for the times and rejected. Only the index survived from which Henry J Cadbury, in the early 20th century, attempted to reconstitute the original. The idea that Quaker writings had to be approved in order to be published by the Yearly Meeting has only fallen by the wayside in modern times when Yearly Meetings publish very little and any Friend can write a blog. Which is the better situation? Perhaps only time will tell.

Books have been an important part of my own journey to Quakerism. I first visited the Library as part of my Library School work experience and was struck by the warm welcome and good coffee that I received. Later I started a bibliographical MA on spiritual autobiography, which has remained a lifelong interest, and my reading included works by Quakers. Later still, when looking for a job, I remembered the coffee and the librarians and wrote on spec asking if there were any positions available. I got a job, loved it, and learned more about Quakers past and present through the books I read and the people I met. As with many others before me I found that although the writings were important in teaching me about Quakerism  it was the lives and struggles of the writers and their individual voices that spoke to me directly down the centuries. These were people that I got to know and this is the reason that I am including Quaker people as well as Quaker subjects in my alphabet so that others can find out something about the people behind the books. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Week 3 - B for Samuel Bownas

Samuel Bownas is someone whose life and writings have always spoken to me. He was born into a Quaker family at Shap, Westmoreland in January 1677 and his father Anthony died within a month. Money was short and Samuel and his brother received only a basic education, enabling them to write and to read in English. Samuel had to earn money by working at a variety of jobs, including keeping sheep - which put him off the animals for life. At thirteen he was apprenticed to his uncle, a blacksmith, who mistreated him, and later to Samuel Parat, a Quaker of Sedbergh, Yorkshire.

Samuel's mother made sure that he was educated as a Quaker, but although he followed the traditional forms of dress, speech and worship they meant little to him. Going with his mother to visit Friends in prison he noticed that they wept during worship but could not understand why. All his mother could tell him was that perhaps as he grew he would understand.

When he was an apprentice Samuel went to Quaker meeting regularly but gained little benefit from it except that it kept him out of bad company. In his Journal he confessed that "the greater part of my time, I slept". However one day when Samuel was about twenty he was shaken from his lethargy by a visiting travelling minister, Anne Wilson. She pointed her finger at him and addressed him directly, rebuking him as "a traditional Quaker" who followed the outward forms of his faith but who came to and went from meeting untouched and unchanged.

Briggflatts Quaker meeting near Sedbergh
This time Samuel was both touched and changed. He understood what his mother and other Friends had been trying to teach him 'experimentally' - through his own experience. Quite soon too he felt a call to the ministry which was recognised by his local meeting. While he was still apprenticed he did not venture far afield but after three years he began to travel widely, drawing on the experience and encouragement of many fellow-ministers including the older James Dickinson (1659-1741) and his contemporary James Wilson (1677-1769). They let him know if he was becoming too pleased with his ministry and urged him to be faithful. Another Friend, Joseph Baines, warned him against the snares of popularity saying, "Sammy, thou hast needs take care, Friends admire thee so much, thou dost not grow proud."

Travelling in the ministry was Samuel's main focus but in order to do this he felt it important that he should remain financially independent. He worked in the fields during the hay-harvest and at other enterprises so that he could save money for his keep and to buy his own horse so that he would not be a burden upon the Friends he travelled among.

On a visit to Sherborne in Dorset around 1701 Samuel met Joan Slade his future wife. The couple agreed to defer their marriage as Samuel felt called to travel further afield, to America. He travelled by way of Scotland and set sail for Maryland in 1702.

While in America Samuel was particularly engaged to challenge the preaching of the renegade Quaker George Keith, who had taken Anglican orders. Keith had Samuel prosecuted for preaching and thrown into gaol on Long Island, where he was held for nearly a year. Samuel learned to make shoes in order to earn a living and received visits from, among others, someone who he refers to as an 'Indian King'
St Thomas' church Lymington

After his release in 1703 Samuel continued his travels in America before returning home at the end of 1706. Early the next year he and Joan were married and settled in Lymington. Samuel continued to travel but encountered trouble at home when in 1712 he was gaoled for not paying tithes to the vicar of Lymington. Samuel was soon released as the vicar tricked Joan into paying the money in question, a fault which troubled her greatly until she died seven years later.

In 1722 Samuel married again, this time a widow named Nichols, and went to live with her in Bridport. The partnership lasted until she died in 1746 and Samuel used his wife's capital to set up in business, becoming a prosperous merchant. He also read widely and educated himself, becoming well known as a minister. He is described as "of a grave deportment, and of a tall comely and manly aspect" with a strong clear voice, preaching with "divine authority and majestic innocence."

As he had been encouraged by other ministers in his youth, Samuel came to feel that he had relevant experience to pass on to succeeding generations, so he wrote, and in 1750 published, A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister. These qualifications were not to do with academic learning but sprang from experience and from faithfully following one's Inward Teacher. This book was well received, has been reprinted many times and is still, I have found, worth reading today.

Towards the end of his life Samuel felt disillusioned with the Society of Friends as he saw it. He wrote to his old friend and fellow-minister James Wilson, "The Church seems very barren of young ministers to what it was in our youth, nor is there but very little convincement to what was then." Samuel saw convincement as the main point of his ministry and was disappointed by his reception. "'The man spoke well' say they, and that is all I get for my labours."

Samuel became increasingly infirm, "his hands shook and his eyesight failed him", but he continued to attend meetings locally until the end of his life. He died at Bridport on 2 April 1753 aged seventy six. After his death his Journal An account of the life, travels and Christian experiences in the work of the ministry of Samuel Bownas was published, which is also well worth reading today.
Title page of Bownas's journal

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Week 2 - A for Arts

The Presence in the Midst by J Doyle Penrose 1916
Quaker attitudes to the arts have changed considerably over the years. I have only space here for a short survey but will return to various aspects of the subject over the course of the rest of the Quaker Alphabet.
George Fox had a very definite 'puritan' view of the arts. To him these 'jests and toys' were nothing but a distraction from God and Truth and as such were to be entirely avoided by Friends. The only purpose of sports, games, poetry, plays and music as far as he and other early Quakers were concerned was to while away time that should be dedicated to a higher and more serious end. Another objection to the arts was that they were not true. Plays were particular offenders here as not only was the story being told not real but actors dressed up and pretended to be someone else!

Although poetry was allowed to sometimes have a serious purpose, composing it for any but a private audience was frowned upon. The works of Mary Southworth Mollineux (1651-1696) for example were only published after her death, although Fruits of Retirement: or Miscellaneous Poems, moral and divine did go into six editions in the course of the 18th century. Religious poetry was popular among Friends but was not often published, usually being privately circulated and copied into personal commonplace books and journals - which is how much of it survives.

Elizabeth Fry
Both listening to and making music, even privately, were also not approved. This was one of the arts, together with dancing, which Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780-1845) found most difficult to let go of when she turned from the less strict Quakerism of her upbringing to the 'true' Quakerism of her adult life. In Feb 1799 she wrote "How much my natural heart does love to sing: but if I give way to the ecstasy singing sometimes produces in my mind, it carries me far beyond the centre; it increases all the wild passions, and works on enthusiasm. Many say and think it leads to religion, but true religion appears to me to be in a deeper recess of the heart, where no earthly passion can produce it." Her scruples did not entirely disappear however and in 1833 she writes, "My observation of human nature and the different things that affect it frequently leads me to regret that we as a Society so wholly give up delighting the ear by sound. Surely He who formed the ear and the heart would not have given these tastes and powers without some purpose for them."

John Pemberton 1727-95
Paintings were seen as superfluous decoration and portraits were particularly frowned on as leading to personal vanity. This is the reason why there are so few contemporary representations of Quakers in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Those that exist are often done by outsiders who were seldom sympathetic to their subjects. In the later 18th and 19th centuries however the practice of cutting silhouettes became popular and these met with more approval from Friends. Occasional sketches done without the subjects' knowledge have also survived to give us an idea of what particular Quakers looked like.

As time went on however a different attitude to the arts began gradually to spread among Friends. As with other changes in Quaker practice much evidence of this change comes from the attempts by official bodies to stop it! In 1846 for example London Yearly Meeting minuted "We believe [music] to be both in its acquisition and its practice, unfavorable to the health of the soul. . . . Serious is the waste of time of those who give themselves up to it." At about the same time the influential journal The Friend (Philadelphia) expounded "Sorrowful it is, that even some in conspicuous and influential stations, have actually "sat" for their portraits; and this, not for the hasty moment of the daguerreotypist (questionable as even this prevalent indulgence is), but patiently awaiting the slow business of the limner. Shallow indeed must be the religion of him who knows not that in himself, as a man, dwelleth no good thing."

On the other side some spoke up for the seriousness and spiritual value of the arts. In 1895 William Charles Braithwaite wrote "It needs to be recognized that our Society has not escaped the tendency to narrow down spiritual action to certain prescribed ways as a substitute for the reality of the spiritual life. For example, while Friends have been among the pioneers of modern science they have, until recent years, repressed all taste for the fine arts. These, at their greatest, always contain some revelation of the Spirit of God, which is in the fullest harmony with our spiritual faith. In the fields of music, art, and literature, as in others, Friends may witness to the glory of God and advance that glory by their service."

Penn's Treaty with the Indians by Benjamin West
By the beginning of the 20th century this view was beginning to be more accepted. An example of this is the popularity of the 1916 painting by James Doyle Penrose The Presence in the Midst which makes explicit the presence of Christ in a meeting for worship (see top). It joined representations of William Penn's treaty with the Indians and engravings of a portrait of Elizabeth Fry on the walls of many Meeting Houses in the UK and America.

In the 1970s and 1980s British Quakers set up a Quaker Fellowship of the Arts and The Leaveners continue to encourage Friends to engage in both music making and theatrical performance. There are now many Quaker artists, both amateur and professional, expressing their faith through what they make and what they do. 

Quaker Silence by John Perkin

Saturday, January 05, 2013

A Quaker Alphabet. Week 1 - A for Abiah Darby

For the first post in this Quaker Alphabet of people and concepts I have chosen someone with an unusual first name beginning with A - Abiah Darby.

She was born in 1717, the youngest of the thirteen children of Samuel and Rachel Maude of whom six survived their childhood. The Maudes of Sunderland were a prosperous family who made most of their money from coal mining in Durham and Abiah grew up in comfort in Bishopwearmouth in a house called Sunniside.

When she was fourteen her father died and Abiah began to feel the stirrings of a call to the Quaker ministry although she struggled against it for years. Once she even got to the stage of standing up in Meeting but, she says, "sat down again without opening my mouth". While in this state of mind she met John Sinclair, a young man who was not of her social standing but who seemed sympathetic to her feelings. They married in 1734, against the wishes of Abiah's family, and she found that domestic cares "quenched the Holy Spirit" in her. Abiah's mother died soon after the marriage, then her daughter Rachel died of smallpox and her husband too also died, all before Abiah had reached the age of twenty-one.

Abiah moved to Kendal to live with one of her sisters and was greatly influenced by the Friends she met there. She was still struggling against her call to the ministry and was much helped by Elizabeth Shipley, a minister visiting from America, who spoke about "her own experience and long disobedience" almost as though she had been told of Abiah's state of mind.

Another local older woman Friend, Grace Chamber, took a practical interest in Abiah's future and in 1744 introduced her to another visitor to Kendal. Abraham Darby was a prosperous ironmaster from Coalbrookdale in Shropshire and a serious and sincere Quaker. He was six years older than Abiah and his first wife had died in 1740 leaving him with a daughter Hannah, then aged nine. Abiah's friends saw that having passed through sorrow as she had, Abraham could offer her understanding and would support her religious development.

Dale House, Coalbrookdale
They were married in 1746 and Abiah entered into a busy domestic life at Dale House in the heart of Coalbrookdale, giving hospitality both to visiting Friends and to Abraham's business colleagues. She gave birth to the first of her seven children, three of whom died young. Still she struggled against her call, but at last, in 1748 when she was thirty one, she tells us, "I finally did speak these words, 'My Friends, I am engaged to invite you all to get inward and taste and feel with my soul how good the Lord is', the very same words I should have opened my mouth with when fifteen and seventeen years of age."

Painting of Sunniside
From this time on, with the support of Abraham and the close-knit Quaker community in Coalbrookdale, Abiah added the duties of a Quaker minister to her other responsibilities. In 1751 her family moved to a newly-built house, named Sunniside after her childhood home, further up the hill and away from the industrial centre. [The house was demolished in 1856 but can be seen on the left in a watercolour painted by A. Tregellis which was used on the cover of Abiah Darby by Rachel Labouchere, Willam Sessions, 1988.] Abiah continued to offer hospitality to a steady stream of visitors, with many of whom she also kept up a regular correspondence. All her religious activities are recorded in the Journal which she kept throughout her married life.

Abraham died in 1763 but Abiah lived on in Coalbrookdale for another thirty years at the centre of her family and community, both Quakers and others. She was a great support and encouragement to her daughter-in-law Deborah Darby, who also became a travelling minister and found in 'Mother Darby' a kindred spirit. Abiah also encouraged -and disputed with - the local Methodist minister, John Fletcher of Madeley. She lent him books on Quaker doctrines and he did not press against her his legal right to tithes.

  Eventually Abiah's health and strength gradually declined although she remained "clear in her understanding to the last". She died in 1794 when she was seventy-seven and I feel deserves to be remembered as much by the many visitors to Coalbrookdale today as is her son Abraham's Iron Bridge.