By Mr. Simon J. Kyte on 22 Jan. 2008
The traditional interpretation of the birth of Quakerism is associated with the series of events which took place in Lancashire and Westmorland in 1652. On Pendle Hill Fox had a vision drawn from Revelations of a `great people in white raiment’. Pendle Hill did have associations with witchcraft from the trails and murders of 1612 but Dandelion does not give the real source of inspiration any attention: on the other side of Pendle Hill lay Grindleton, the de facto home of English non-Conformity. The Seekers are mentioned but only given brief context. In fact they were important as some key early Quakers such as Howgill and Burrough were formerly Seekers (and Howgill may also have been a former Grindletonian) and the movement had a strong impact on some of the northern Dales of Yorkshire. The `raiment’ vision was fulfilled in Sedbergh. Just outside, Howgill was preaching to a Seeker congregation at Firbank Fell. But to Fox, `seeking’ was now over (in spite of the traditional view that Quakers are `waiting’), Christ was available personally and `meantimes’ had given way to the `endtime’.
The book’s understanding of early Quakerism is relatively conventional, arguing that Quaker theology began at a low point of Fox’s life. In reality, there is now plenty of evidence of use of the term amidst the New Model Army. Fox’s Dissent experience included his (Ana)Baptist uncle and his time amongst the army camps but it proved unsatisfactory. He was thrown to the inward, the return to Eden through the flaming sword. To Fox the inward was now the authentic spirituality. The outward could now be defined as part `the world’. Pefectism (i.e. the possibility of being incapable of sin) brought the early Quakers into disrepute amongst other sects and allowed misinterpretation by groups such as the Ranters. Technically both the Catholic Church and the Church of England accept their temporary nature. God will eventually be immediately present to his people and the ministry of the Churches will belong to the realm which passes away. For early Quakers that `passing away’ was already being realised. All other variants of Christianity were apostate and anachronistic.
Dandelion keeps the term `Restoration Quakerism’ but accepts that it can be pushed back as far as 1653. Hill, the leftist historian, argued something rather different: that from 1652 changes in Quaker theology were driven by expansion in the south rather than in traditional strongholds. Variant theological backgrounds led to different interpretations of endtime and the Second Coming. Inconsistent direct revelations were a major issue. There was more focus on Jesus and a watering down of the perfection doctrine. Critical was the Nayler Incident in 1656. One of the others involved was Dorcas Erbury. Dandelion gives her no attention but she was the daughter of William Erbury who had preached universal redemption, quoted Böhme and denied Christ’s divinity. Nayler was accused of having raised Dorcas from the dead in Exeter gaol although he denied this. Dorcas described Nayler as `the holy one of Israel’ and claimed `no other Saviour but him’. The lack of attention to the possible early influence of Erbury is – in my opinion – a major oversight.
The Quietist period takes its usual drubbing. The Quakers shift from being God’s co-agents to a corner of the world preoccupied with sin, which necessitates policing. However, the focus on Jones’ belief that this period was underpinned by the Continental philosophies of Molinos, Fenelon and Guyon seems to deny that absolute passivity was an element of some sections of proto-Quakerist Seekerism.
Dandelion then gives a very detailed and easy-to-understand coverage of the complex splits which emerged in the Quaker trans-Atlantic Quaker movement post-1827. Elias Hicks’ focus on the Inner Light led him to a position where he rejected the Bible as authoritative. The split spread via the New York and Ohio Yearly Meetings (YMs) in 1828. British Friends were united in rejecting Hicks, even though there were at least four competing trends for the soul of Quakerism in Britain. Isaac Crewdson’s response was so extreme that it disunited him from many Friends – namely, that the Inner Light had no scriptural basis and was an illusion. In 1836 Crewdson left the Quakers as did some others in Manchester, Kendal and London. The Hicksite split concealed wider splits with Orthodoxy between those who wanted to be true to the traditional position and those who saw themselves as part of a larger Christian movement. Wilbur held firmly to the idea that the Quakers were a `peculiar people’. Gurney wanted to remould Quakers around a more general, Protestant evangelical tradition.
Part 2 of the book is about worldwide Quakerism today in 6 general types, largely related to American schism histories: those associated with Friends United Meeting (48%), those who rejected FUM to become Evangelical Friends International (30%), unprogrammed YMs belonging to the Friends’ General Conference (8.9%), conservatives who maintained some residual concept of `the hedge’ based mainly in America but without isolated groups worldwide affiliated to Ohio YM (Conservative) (0.4%), & unaffiliated liberal YMs (6.8%). The sixth group consists of Central in Indiana and Santidad in Bolivia who have no contact with any other Quaker grouping – including one another.
As Liberal Quakerism developed in the early twentieth century, it was able to present itself as `recovering’ traditional Quaker ground whilst actually making significant breaks with tradition. Within what Dandelion labels `liberal-Liberal Quakerism’ Christianity has given way to Pluralism. From the perspective of his system of graphics, extreme liberal Quakerism has `fallen off the edge’ with `theology a story, God an option’. Therefore for most the Second Coming can longer be part of the story; `For those without a first coming, a second coming makes no sense.’ To be fair (and not meaning to take issue with Dandelion) this position has some tradition within the Quaker movement. It is more or less the position Robert Barclay took in 1678 – controversial then and still controversial now.