British Quakerism 1860-1920: the Transformation of a Religious Community.
Wilfrid Littleboy, a chartered accountant, served twenty-eight months in London's Wormwood Scrubs prison during the First World War. He was a "Quaker absolutist," incarcerated for his "Everlasting No," his refusal to accept any of the forms of non-military service available to conscientious objectors after the government introduced conscription in 1916. At one time, allegedly, the Scrubs housed the largest Friends meeting in London as increasing numbers of respectable, middle-class Quakers found themselves behind bars. But these pacifist heroes were not typical, accounting for only 5 per cent--fewer than one hundred and fifty--of military-age Quaker males. Over six times as many served in the armed forces; two hundred signed up in the first heady rush of patriotism in the summer of 1914 alone. Somewhere in-between the absolutists and the warriors lay the majority of Friends, reluctantly prepared to render aid unto Caesar by serving in auxiliary capacities.
These Great War divisions form the principal focus of Thomas Kennedy's first-rate, meticulously researched account. Not a Quaker himself, but a deep admirer, Kennedy's initial interest in the Friends stemmed from his earlier work on the No-Conscription Fellowship and a consequent encounter with the absolutists of the Friends Service Committee. As he self-deprecatingly remarks in his introduction (p. 2), he was at first guided by a "naive sense that the British Society of Friends was a sort of seamless web, enduring in largely unbroken sequence from its seventeenth-century origins to its fearless stand against the Great War." Subsequent research revealed something far more complex and interesting. The dominant planks of twentieth-century Quakerism--liberal theology, social activism, and pacifism--emerged only after intense internal straggle in the decades before the War and, crucially, in the crucible of war itself.
In less skillful hands much of the description of factional infighting and doctrinal niceties would read only as dull and worthy esoteric detail, for enthusiasts and denominational historians only. But Kennedy's graceful prose, balance, and fair-mindedness elevate the book to a much higher plane, of interest to a far broader band of social, political, and gender historians (his discussion of women in the Quaker Movement is especially fine). He begins his account by detailing the apparent triumph of the evangelicals within Quakerism during the early to mid-nineteenth century. The fiery, radical proselytism of founder George Fox in the seventeenth century had given way to a century of inward-looking, socially exclusive, commerce-oriented quietism. A dwindling band of peculiar people clung to their plain speech and dated dress and eschewed all forms of public entertainment. But the evangelical revival turned many Quakers from the "Inward Light," stressed biblical fundamentalism and social conservatism, and de-emphasized the Quaker sense of difference. The relaxation of rigid restrictions on speech, dress, and marrying with outsiders allowed Friends a greater degree of integration into the Victorian social mainstream.
Evangelical dominance, established by 1860, was itself assailed by a younger generation feeding on new evolutionary notions in science and the practices of textual criticism in biblical studies. A group of Manchester liberal Quakers around David Duncan, a merchant and manufacturer with Unitarian tendencies, staged a spiritual rebellion in the 1860s. It ended with his disownment and, in 1871, his sudden death from smallpox. "How wonderful are the ways of Providence!" wrote the leading evangelical high priest, Joseph Bevan Braithwaite. "How clearly may we trace the Hand that has graciously guided and thus far protected our little Society from the inroads of a dangerous skepticism ... that he Himself may have all the praise" (p. 79).
Such distasteful rejoicings proved to be premature. Over the next couple of decades a number of more cautious and less heterodox Friends than Duncan nudged their co-religionists towards the so-called Renaissance of Quakerism. A key moment came at the Manchester Conference of 1895, under the influence of inspirational liberal modernizers like John Wilhelm Rowntree. Still, a worryingly large segment of prominent Quakers backed the British war in South Africa at the turn of the century, prompting activists to revitalize Quaker peace principles during the ensuing decade. The stage was set for the drama of the Great War, when a powerful minority moulded by the Quaker Renaissance, and working mainly through the London Yearly Meeting, confronted state authority, established a policy of non-co-operation, and flirted with socialist ideals of political and economic justice. In the process Quakers frequently found themselves in the unlikely company of assorted freethinkers, anarchists, and eccentrics. In political terms, the war marked the decisive transition for most Friends from the Liberal to the Labour Parties.
Kennedy would have us believe that British Quakers have had an impact disproportionate to their tiny numbers. This is difficult to gauge, as he acknowledges, but it is reasonable to suggest that the better treatment of war resisters in World War II was partly thanks to them, and that they have made an important if unquantifiable contribution to the cause of civil liberties, peace movements, and religious freedom. At the very least they deserve an honourable mention among the awkward squad of dissenters, nonconformists, and the bloody-minded that so enliven British history. They resolved to create God's Kingdom on Earth. "That they have so far failed to do so," Kennedy writes (p. 420), "comes as no surprise; nor should anyone be amazed that they have never ceased to try."
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2003|
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