Friday, 26 February 2016

Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill by Douglas Gwyn


This book review was first published in Quaker Studies, Volume 20, Issue 1, September 2015.


Douglas Gwyn, Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill (Philadelphia: PA, Plain Press, 2014) ppxi + 499. ISBN 1-5005-4936-3, Paperback, £12.58.

In this detailed and engaging book, which is suitable for both scholars and the serious but non-academic reader, Douglas Gwyn has produced a work that offers something far more complex and wide-ranging in scope than a simple history of a Quaker institution. He describes his approach as historical theology, which “…examines how religious ideas, ideals, and practices have evolved over time through a particular institution, interacting with changes in the wider culture’ (p.vii). There are many riches on offer here. In addition to a detailed timeline, an extensive bibliography and comprehensive indexing, there are chapters on the social and religious context in which Pendle Hill was founded and on its first six years (1930-36), three chapters on ‘the Brinton years’ (1936-1952), indicating the importance of this period, and a chapter for each of the remaining six decades from the 1950s to the 2000s. Finally, in an appendix, Gwyn provides a short comparative analysis of Pendle Hill and Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, with an emphasis on how these two institutions have responded to changing circumstances over time and, in particular, the challenges of ensuring on-going financial viability. Throughout the book and at each stage of its history, Gwyn highlights the significant place that publishing has played in the life of Pendle Hill and he offers a number of concise but informative profiles of notable individuals associated with the community whose lives and writings have been influential among Friends in North America and beyond. These include profiles of Rufus Jones, Henry Hodgkin, Anna Brinton, Howard Brinton, Parker Palmer, Sandra Cronk, and Chuck Fager. In many ways, this story of the life and times of Pendle Hill represents a fascinating case study about how groups establish and maintain counter-cultural intentional communities within a wider society which is unsympathetic and often actively hostile to their values. In particular, to use a common Quaker phrase, it raises key questions about how such a community can successfully negotiate the challenges, dangers and obstacles of being ‘in the world but not of the world’. In this study, Gwyn considers such matters at three main levels: how does the community provide a sustained and practical alternative way of life to the rest of its faith community and to the wider world; how is the community impacted by the dominant economic, social and political forces that surround it; and how is its life impacted by changes within its own denomination?

In terms of offering a positive alternative to the world, Gwyn notes how Pendle Hill was founded and sustained by a Personalist philosophy and a strongly communitarian ethic, making the community a tiny residual enclave of Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment’ (p.2). In particular, the life of Pendle Hill has been characterised by a monastic-style combination of work, study and worship that seeks to engage the mind, body and spirit of those participating in its daily life (p.18). In the context of the domination of Capitalist economic relations, the community has focused on nurturing people and relationships within the confines of a specific place in opposition to globalised commodification. By this lived witness it has proclaimed, contrary to the logic of the market, that social capital really does matter (p.15). Gwyn concludes that ‘the Brinton era was surely the classic period of Pendle Hill’s eighty years, a heroically anti-heroic time of prophetic counterpoint to the global cataclysms of depression and war’ (p.433/4). He argues that, in this sense, Pendle Hill has been an on-going experiment in the life of the transcendent reality and not some kind of theoretical utopia (p.434). Inevitably, despite its counter-cultural ethos, the community has found itself influenced and, in some cases, dominated by the powerful economic, social and political forces that surround it. As well as telling the story of Pendle Hill, Gwyn uses this narrative to trace key aspects of twentieth-century American history (p.439). In particular, the impact of the twin crises of World War Two and the Vietnam War on the life and mission of Pendle Hill is clearly hard to over-estimate. Gwyn acknowledges that all places are socially constructed (p.10) and that the relationship between the Personalist philosophy of the community and the Capitalist commodification of nature and human activity in the surrounding world has been an on-going tension and challenge (p.13).

It is also the case that a faith-based intentional community will be shaped by the characteristics of its own faith community and how these change over time. Gwyn notes that Pendle Hill has exemplified some of the limitations associated with the social and ethnic profile of the wider Liberal Quaker community. In particular, this has led to a real and sustained failure to adequately address issues of racial justice and inclusion. In addition, changes in the culture of American Liberal Friends has been reflected over time in a general shift away from an intellectual world-changing focus on economics and historic Quaker concerns towards a more individualistic, therapeutic and pluralist approach (pp.444-445).

A persistent theme in this story is the community’s struggle to survive within an economic and political environment which is not sympathetic to its ethos and values. It seems inevitable that this has revealed itself at times in a division between those who have explicit responsibility for the organisation’s governance, and are more inclined to follow the path of pragmatism and realism, and those whose principal loyalty is to the alternative vision of the community, who resist any perceived watering-down of this vison. Gwyn suggests that during the 1970s and 1980s in particular, there was a community versus institution tension in which the community had a more idealistic/utopian identity compared to the pragmatic and rationalizing imperatives embodied by the institution (p.436). It seems that such tensions between potentially competing visions of the institution’s future and survival are likely to remain pertinent for the foreseeable future.

In considering what the ‘angel’ or collective gestalt of Pendle Hill might be, Gwyn concludes that the community has represented ‘a Quaker/pacifist/personalist experiment that, although diminished over time in its visionary clarity, is still potently experienced in its effects upon participants’ (p.432). Clearly, over its eighty-year history, Pendle Hill has successfully equipped and strengthened individuals, enabling them to resist, reform and even revolutionise the world around them (p.433). For example, the fruitful partnership between Pendle Hill and the American Friends Service Committee has made a significant impact in addressing the imperialism and military-industrial establishment of American society, exemplified especially in the influential 1955 publication Speaking Truth to Power (p.435). And what of the comparative position of Pendle Hill and Woodbrooke, given that the former was modelled in part upon the latter? Both have experienced life-threatening institutional crises, but the institutional responses have been somewhat different. Gwyn implies that although the reshaping of Woodbrooke has been successful in terms of financial and business viability, this has been at the expense of a reduced emphasis on the joys of community life and, by implication, a less visible imaging of an alternative way of living (p.464). He therefore recognises the value in Pendle Hill’s sustained commitment to longer-term residential programmes and to the proto-monastic mix of worship, study and work, even if this continues to make the community’s future look somewhat precarious.

Through this rich and nuanced study of the joys and struggles of a Liberal Quaker educational community set within twentieth- and early twenty-first-century American society, Douglas Gwyn has produced a wealth of valuable material that will engage and fascinate anyone interested in the study of faith-based education, community-building and the relationship between counter-cultural movements and their wider economic, social and political contexts. It should inspire and provoke further research in all these areas.

Stuart Masters
Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, England

Monday, 22 February 2016

Early Quakers and Islam: Slavery, Apocalyptic and Christian-Muslim Encounters in the Seventeenth Century (Justin Meggitt)



This book review was first published in the Journal of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (August 2014).

Early Quakers and Islam: Slavery, Apocalyptic and Christian-Muslim Encounters in the Seventeenth Century, Justin J. Meggitt, Uppsala: Swedish Science Press, 2013, 103 pp., £13.40 (paperback), ISBN 978-91-89652-43-9

In this small but fascinating book Justin Meggitt engages in an exercise of ‘micro-history’ in which a focus on the small scale and specific can enable bigger questions to be posed. (p.17). Using the example of Quaker-Muslim encounters in the seventeenth century he seeks to consider how differences in religious experience and belief can impact on interfaith relations, specifically Christian representations of Islam and relationships with Muslims in the early modern period. In particular he asks why the representations of Islam in the writings of early Quakers were so different from those dominant in Europe at the time. This book is mainly addressed to a scholarly audience but is written in an accessible style which means it will be of value to a more general readership interested in the history of Christian-Muslim relations. Although the book is relatively short in length at 103 pages, in addition to the main text, it contains a large amount of very valuable information within the footnotes and references (there are 370 footnotes along with 145 primary references and 289 secondary references).

Following the Introduction, in Chapter Two Meggitt provides an outline of the early Quaker movement which emerged during the turmoil of the seventeenth century English Civil War and Commonwealth periods. He notes that this movement was explicitly opposed to the Christendom alliance of church and state and was founded on a Pentecostal and apocalyptic experience that led Quakers to assert that God teaches all people directly and inwardly through the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit. In Chapter Three he describes ‘Barbary Slavery’ in which over one million Europeans were sold in the slave markets of North Africa between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. This was a reciprocal phenomenon in which Europeans also enslaved Muslims. Between 5% and 10% of Barbary slaves were from Britain and this included a number of early Quakers. The practice had a strongly negative impact on European perceptions of Islam in the early modern period. Chapter Four considers the overwhelmingly hostile representations of Islam and Muslims that had been dominant in Europe since the Crusades. Chapter Five, by focusing on a number of English books written in the early modern period, looks at how these hostile images were also dominant in English culture. Chapter Six highlights other examples of English writings of the period which represent exceptions to the dominant view. These were often produced by writers who had significant direct experience of Islam and of Muslim countries. Meggitt notes that “perhaps unsurprisingly, literature produced by those early modern English who lived or regularly travelling in Muslim-majority lands…provide us with a rich vein of anomalous pictures of Islam…” (p.36). Chapter Seven recovers the largely forgotten story of those early Quakers who were enslaved in Barbary and the letters written to them by the early Quaker leader, George Fox. Meggitt notes that although life for the Barbary Quaker slaves was characterised by extreme deprivation and regular violence, there is little evidence of attempts to coerce the Quakers in matters of religion. In Chapter Eight, Meggitt shows how this situation highlighted important paradoxes for early Quakers. In particular, at this time the enslaved Quakers were freer to practice their religion in Barbary than Quakers were in England. Following the collapse of the English Commonwealth and the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Quaker worship along with that of other nonconformists had been outlawed and a large number of Quakers were imprisoned for openly practicing their faith. In a letter to Quaker slaves in 1683, George Fox wrote “I think you have more liberty to meet (for worship) there than we do here; for they keep us out of our meetings, and cast us into prison and spoil our goods” (p.54). In Chapter Nine, the author argues that early Quaker belief had a significant impact on their representation of Islam and Muslims. Since they believed that God’s Spirit had been poured out on all people, professing Christians could not assume any preferential position in relation to non-Christians (including Jews and Muslims). What mattered was not religious affiliation nor outward doctrine but the experience of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit which was directly available to all people. Following her audience before the Turkish Sultan Mehmet IV in 1658, early Quaker minister Mary Fisher wrote “they are nearer the truth than many nation, there is a love begot in me towards them that is endless” (p.60). In his final chapter Meggitt argues that, although ideas about the apocalypse are usually associated with violent conflict and destruction, the early Quaker apocalyptic emphasised restoration and harmony. This vision of old divisions reconciled is reflected in the words of the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Galatians “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). He concludes that the universalist apocalyptic of the early Quaker movement enabled them to overcome to some extent the dominant European perspectives that helped create the Orientalist way of thinking about Muslims and Islam.

This work makes a modest but valuable contribution to the scholarship of Christian-Muslim relationships in the early modern period and of European representations of the Ottoman Empire and of the Muslim world generally. It also demonstrates why Quakerism, although firmly rooted within the Christian tradition, holds a strongly universalist understanding of the availability of the Holy Spirit which undercuts any exclusivist definition of God’s people based on race or religious identity. Meggitt’s book has the potential to prompt further research into the potential impact of heterodox visions of Christianity and Islam on interfaith relations. In his magisterial work on the sixteenth century European Radical Reformation George Hunston Williams notes a similar connection between universalist Christian spiritualism and a relatively enlightened and inclusive attitude towards people of other faiths. He notes that Christian radicals such as “Muntzer, Franck, Castellio, Coornhert and Denck regarded Muslims along with Jews and righteous pagans as already a part of the Ecclesia spiritualis insofar as they conformed to the inner Word”[1]. This subject demands greater attention. In his particular contribution to such a project Justin Meggitt provides us with an engrossing and fruitful exercise in ‘micro-history’ in which he succeeds in utilising a deliberately specific and small scale focus to raise much bigger and more general questions. Those interested in the study of Christian-Muslim relations owe him a small but important debt of gratitude. 

Stuart Masters
Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, UK


[1] Williams, George Hunston (2000) The Radical Reformation, Kirksville (Truman State University), p.1226.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

'W' is for Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers



 1. Introduction

The Diggers and their key spokesman Gerrard Winstanley were a fleeting product of the English Revolution whose ideas have been influential among religious and political radicals ever since. The evidence suggests that Winstanley later became a Quaker. What were the key characteristics of the Digger religious vision?

2. The Fall – Emergence of Private Property

Winstanley linked the fall of humanity with the emergence of private property and argued that with the restoration of Israel all would again enjoy the fruits of the earth as a common treasury (Bradstock 2011, p.55). He believed that the prelapsarian community would be re-established when Christ/Reason came to reign once more in human hearts and private property was abolished (Bradstock 2011, p.60).

3. Christ in all People and all Things

Winstanley’s theology was based on a belief in Christ/Reason as an indwelling spirit, a “living power of light that is in all things." Christ/Reason is an active force of love, justice, and wisdom which preserves of the whole creation. Without it there would be madness and disorder. Winstanley defined Christ/Reason as a moral guide within people which they could either attend to or ignore. He called for an end to all outward forms to allow Christ/ Reason to rise up in people and all things as a second coming. Here we see a form of pantheism in which the creation is "the clothing of God" (Sunderland 1991).

4. Belief in Transformation/Divinisation

Winstanley was convinced that moral reformation and freedom would follow not from changing institutions but through Christ's Second Coming within people (Sutherland 1991). He wrote “when (Christ) hath spread himself abroad amongst his sons and daughters, the members of his mystical body, then this community of love and righteousness, making all to use the blessings of the earth as a common treasury amongst them, shall break forth again in his glory, and fill the earth, and shall be no more suppressed: and none shall say, this is mine, but every one shall preserve each other in love.” (Bradstock 2011, p.63).

Inward change would lead to outward change so digging was an outward symbol of inward change. It demonstrated God's power and, it was hoped, would hasten the internal change in men's hearts (Sutherland 1991). What had happened within and without him would also happen within others - “I have writ, I have acted, I have peace and now I must wait to see the Spirit do his work in the hearts of others” (Bradstock 2011, p.56)

5. Experiential Faith

Winstanley stressed the immanence of God, who could be known by all without the aid of church or clergy. Each person has the capacity to judge all things by experience (Bradstock 2011, p.63/4) He asserted that those who worship God as others tell them to, or imagine that God is in heaven above them, do not see that God is actually a light within them. He used the word Reason for God because "I have been held under darknesse by that word [God], as I see many people are" (Sunderland 1991). 

6. Anticlericalism

For Winstanley, the clergy, landowners and lawyers were an unholy trinity upholding the present iniquitous system (Bradstock 2011, p.68). As we have seen he laid great stress on individual experience against the presumptions of the clergy and scholars. He desired for everyone to speak "his own words, not another mans as the Preachers do, to make a trade of it." He railed against collecting tithes while many lived in poverty and accusingly exclaimed that "Priests and zealous professors" worshiped the devil. In an introductory letter to the tract Truth Lifting Up its Head, Winstanley asserted that clergy and scholars did not have "the alone priviledge to judge; for the People having the Scriptures, may judge by them as well" (Sunderland 1991). 

7. Spirit over Letter

Like many other radical movements Winstanley gave priority to the Spirit over the letter. Regarding the assertion that the Scriptures are God because the Word was God, Winstanley answered that if God is the written word, then He has been torn to pieces by "the bad interpretations of imaginary flesh." Winstanley interpreted the spirit as the Word and the Scriptures as the testimony of men about that spirit. He encouraged his readers to "learne to put a difference betweene the Report, and the thing Reported of." He argued that without the spirit, the Scriptures were worth considerably less. He called the writings of the Apostles "reports or declarations" of the Gospel. The writings themselves were not the Gospel. He suggested that "declaration or report of words out of the mouth or pen of men shall cease; but the spirit endures for ever; from whence those words were breathed: as when I have the thing promised, the word of the promise ceases” (Sunderland 1991).

8. Metaphorical Biblical Interpretation

Winstanley interpreted biblical narratives as metaphor for current inward and outward experience. For him the Bible stories continued to be lived out in contemporary struggles between rich and powerful, poor and weak (e.g. Cain continued to murder Abel over and over again). He felt that the ‘Adam’ dwelling in each person would be overcome by the ‘Second Adam’ which is the power of Christ. This was a struggle between flesh and spirit, darkness and light played out both within each individual and within society (Bradstock 2011, p.58). Winstanley described this internal conflict over who governs within a person as a struggle between two powers, Jacob and Esau, "the two Adams in mankind." He urged his readers to internalize biblical history. Adam and Christ, Cain and Abel, Abraham, Moses, and Israel were to be seen within (Sunderland 1991). Similarly, heaven and hell were present states: heaven being God’s order, and hell the conditions men and women have created for themselves on earth (Bradstock 2011, p.68).

9. Links to Quakerism

In 1664 early Quaker minister Edward Burrough informed Margaret Fell that “Winstanley says he believes we are sent to perfect that work which fell in their hands; he hath been with us” (Bradstock 2011, p.72). Winstanley's theology contained many elements that were consistent with that of the early Quakers. This included his denial of external forms, the raising of the Holy Spirit over the letter of the law or Scripture and his vision of salvation coming by a spiritual rising up of Christ in all men and women rather than through a physical return. When he and William Everard met General Fairfax they refused to remove their hats because he was ‘but their fellow creature’. They also undertook not to use force even in self-defence (Bradstock 2011, p.54).

9. References

Bradstock, Andrew (2011) Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England (I.B. Taurus)

Sutherland, Donald R. (1991) The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley and Communism (unpublished MA thesis)