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. 

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

I have a happy memory of being taken down to the vaults below Friends House to see the originals of Elizabeth Fry's diaries. I've also been involved in the publishing of several books by my meeting in Watford, most particularly '(Mostly) after the Tin Hut', an oral history of Watford Meeting, still very much in the tradition of earlier Friends. The process of creating the book was quite fascinating.