Quaker-pocalypse: Collapse and Renewal in Quaker Social Witness, Part Two

January 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

This is the second installment in a five-segment series on the history and future of Quaker witness, focusing on how we organize it.


Evangelical witness

Into the desert of late-18th century ossified Quaker ministry emerged evangelical Quakerism around the turn of the 19th century, giving rise to a third phase of Quaker witness. Evangelical witness had a new willingness to engage with the outside world and to minister to some of its needs. The new witness impulse took the forms of social witness against slavery, ministry to prisoners, the temperance movement, expanding women’s rights, and a few others I’m certain I have missed. It matured into the philanthropic movement as wealthy Friends felt compelled to use their wealth in positive ways for social change. Friends led the movement toward philanthropy that you see typified in scenes from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Evangelical witness had organizing principles that had been missing in the previous period: the cause of social ills was sin, and thus the solution was evangelism, calling people away from their lives in sin to a life in Christ. I think of Joseph John Gurney’s deep soul searching after the economic crash of 1828 in Britain, a depression that was worse in some ways than our Great Depression. The Gurney family nearly went under and Joseph John agonized over whether his greed had brought on his trials.

For evangelical political economists (the dominant economic school of the time) and evangelical ministers were laying the blame on those who had overextended themselves in debt through greed. The cause was the sin of greed. The solution was an avalanche of pamphlets and sermons against greed in particular, and sin in general. A clear understanding of business cycles, of boom, bubble, and burst, that would emerge in classical economic circles, had yet to find its adherents.

Evangelical witness was somewhat confrontational, but hardly unreasonable. The discourse was flooded with moral reasons, biblical reasoning, and intelligent argument. But it wasn’t radical. This was no real departure from 1,500 years of Christian religious culture, just a more focused intensification of an already seasoned message about sin and salvation. Thlnk of Elizabeth Fry teaching the women in Newgate prison to read the Bible.

The rise of liberal witness

The next phase of Quaker witness was a radical departure in very important ways from its evangelical roots. My poster boy for this revolution is Seebohm Rowntree, a member of the Rowntree chocolate dynasty located in York, and a member of the cohort of young Friends who gave birth to liberal Quakerism around the turn of the 20th century, a group that included Rufus Jones and Seebohm’s brother John Wilhelm Rowntree. Seebohm Rowntree’s book Poverty: A Town Life was the first widely-read sociological analysis of a social problem in human history. He interviewed virtually all of the households in York and tabulated their economic condition, then drew some conclusions and made his arguments.

His central conclusion about the cause of poverty was truly radical at the time, though it seems obvious to some of us today (though obviously, not all of us): sin was not the problem. Most poor people worked hard, they just didn’t have enough money. Their poverty was not the consequence of their character, as the evangelical model had insisted. It was not lust (too many children), intemperance, gambling, etc., that made them poor; it was the low wages their employers paid them.

Rowntree gave us the first systematic analysis of systemic evil, and he saw that it called for structural solutions. Moral exhortation of the poor would never raise their wages; only their employers could do that, and they weren’t likely to do it on their own. Seebohm Rowntree himself reformed the labor relations in his own family business after writing his book, but he did not substantially raise worker’s wages. Meanwhile, he also argued that the government had an important role to play in making up the gap, in relieving this human suffering, and in trying to regulate business toward greater compassion.

This, too, was a radical departure. Evangelical witness had actively opposed government involvement, seeing it as intervention in a process of conviction and repentance that rightly involved only the sinner and God. Helping poor people with alms actually enabled the sinful life, in the evangelical view. Rowntree saw that the only agent powerful enough to affect the behavior of business—the real source of poverty—was the government. Poverty played a significant role in the creation of the Liberal Party in Great Britain and of Britain’s welfare state. Among other breakthroughs, the book popularized for the first time the brand new idea of a “poverty line”, a formula for measuring poverty and therefore for evaluating programs. His formula was picked up wholesale by Roosevelt’s New Deal labor department and is still the basic framework for policy thinking and poverty metrics today.

Rowntree went on to serve in government in several capacities for the rest of his life. Rufus Jones went on to help found the American Friends Service Committee. With the onset of World War I, Friends recovered their testimony against war and, for the first time since the late 1600s, Quakers were again being persecuted for their witness. Thus the Great War forged a new consciousness in Quakerism and we have been much more focused on “mending the world” ever since.

AFSC illustrates the arc that this witness took as the twentieth century roared on. While many men went to jail rather than serve in the military, AFSC and similar efforts aimed to reduce the suffering that the war was causing. The genius of the Orthodox Quaker Herbert Hoover at organizing relief efforts put him on the political map.

But gradually Friends turned their attention more and more to the structural causes of our problems, as the consciousness that Seebohm Rowntree had ignited began to mature. Committees on industry and the social order in both Great Britain and the US published amazingly searching and radical pamphlets. A small but vocal and influential socialist movement eventually spawned some collective communities in the UK.

World War II returned us toward the peace testimony again. Then the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution of the 1960s helped broaden the “peace testimony” beyond just a testimony against war into a deeper understanding of violence. The Alternatives to Violence Project was born.  AFSC became increasingly an advocacy organization rather than just a service organization. And other testimonies began to proliferate, as we woke up to new evils: environmental degradation, women’s rights (again), racial equality, then an even broader understanding of equality that could include the sanctuary movement, LGBTQ concerns, and so on.

Liberal witness is reasonable in the extreme and not radical, by definition; it is liberal. It works with existing institutions. it studies problems, proposes solutions, argues from science, develops programs, and seeks to move governments into the roles that only governmental scale, reach, and resources can assume.

And it is pursued by Friends through committees organized around concerns—a peace and social witness committee, Quaker Earthcare Witness, Friends Committee on National Legislation, the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC, I think, ,may have led the way into organization by committee. But the rise of liberal Quakerism settled the already significant trend toward abandoning the traditional infrastructure for Quaker ministry that had developed in the 18th century and continued into the 19th. It increasingly relied on membership donations and the operating budgets of local and yearly meetings rather than on the largesse of wealthy philanthropist Friends. And it was  inspired by a more reasonable energy than the apocalyptic fervor that had ignited the Valiant Sixty.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Quaker-pocalypse: Collapse and Renewal in Quaker Social Witness, Part Two at Through the Flaming Sword.