Monday, July 9, 2012

Reflections on the 2012 Quaker Historians and Archivists Conference

Quaker Diversity, Past and Present:
Reflections on the Quaker Historians and Archivists Conference, 2012
By Stephen W. Angell
About 35 persons attended the Quaker Historians and Archivists Conference at Pickering College in Newmarket, Ontario, from June 22 to 24. (Newmarket is about 25 kilometers north of Toronto.) It was our first time since 1988 to meet in Canada, and at Pickering College (actually, despite its name, a Quaker-founded secondary school which houses the archives for Canadian Yearly Meeting). Program details may be found at
The program contained its usual mixture of interesting surprises. Robynne Rogers Healey, a historian from Trinity Western University in British Columbia, spent a recent sabbatical in South Africa, consulting the archives of South Africa Yearly Meeting. Her paper was on the conflicts between the American Friends Service Committee and South Africa Yearly Meeting between 1977 and 1991 on how to end apartheid. Briefly, many at the AFSC were much more interested in a kind of liberation theology that placed little importance on traditional teachings of Quaker nonviolence. On the other hand, South Africa Yearly Meeting sought to address the oppression and inequality of the South African apartheid system using traditional Quaker methods of pacifism and nonviolence. Healey’s paper featured H. W. van der Merwe, an Afrikaner Quaker and a friend of the Nelson Mandela family and of Steven Biko, and an expert in conflict resolution. In 1984, Van der Merwe set up the earliest meetings between African National Congress exiles and supporters of the South African government, “a key step in breaking the deadlock over apartheid in South Africa.” (Marge Abbott et al., Historical Dictionary of the Friends (Quakers), 2nd ed., 2011, p. 356.) Evidently, the archival resources on this subject are voluminous, and we look forward to hearing more from Healey on this subject.
Sharon Temple
Race relations continue to interest Quaker historians. Allan W. Austin of Misericordia University, whose forthcoming book Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950, will soon be published by the University of Illinois Press, discussed the AFSC’s sponsorship of African-American lectureships on Quaker and other campus in the immediate post-World-War-II context, and the variety of experiences that the African Americans who participated in those lectures had. Betsy Cazden, an independent scholar from Rhode lsland, continues to produce fascinating work on the Quakers, especially in Rhode Island, who lived at the time in the mid-eighteenth century when the Society of Friends turned decisively against slaveholding amongst its members.
Jacob's Ladder
There continues to be a great deal of interest on various groups of schismatic Quakers, as exemplified by the papers we heard. One session was devoted to papers on the Free Quakers, a group centered in Philadelphia that offered support for the American Independence movement during the 1770s when the main body of Friends attempted to remain neutral; also, the Progressive Friends of the mid-nineteenth century, who decried the unwillingness of both the majority of Hicksites and Orthodox to form common cause with antislavery activists of other denominations, for fear that the wayward religious principles of the other groups might infect and contaminate their own members. Both Free Quakers and Progressive Friends emphasized the need for any Friend to consult their conscience whether they might not need to support warlike measures: in the case of the Free Quakers, during the American Revolution; and in the case of Progressive Friends, in support of the Union cause during the American Civil War.
But the most interesting insights of all came not from the papers per se, but from the many Quaker sites of significance in Newmarket, Ontario. Yonge Street Quaker Meeting is celebrating its bicentennial, and it is embarking on a major rebuilding project. Many of the Conference attenders worshipped with Yonge Street Friends at 10:30 AM on First Day morning. It is now a very traditional meetinghouse with old style meetinghouse benches; one can divine where the partition would have been to divide the meeting into men’s and women’s meetings. Its logo surrounds a simple depiction of the meetinghouse with the motto, “Tend to the Light of the Spirit within.” And Friends did so on the morning that Quaker historians and archivists gathered with Newmarket Friends in a lively and gathered meeting for worship.
Ark of the Covenant
The founding of the Yonge Street Meeting is only one of the bicentennials being celebrated this year. On the Seventh Day evening immediately previous, we encountered another when we visited the Sharon Temple, about five kilometers distant from Newmarket. From 1812 to 1887, this was the place of worship for the “Children of Peace,” a group that had separated from Quakers in the same year that the War of 1812 broke out. The charismatic founder of the group was David Willson, a former Presbyterian who became a convinced Friend about 1805. In 1811, Willson asserted in worship that Jesus “was not God . . . but a man endued with divine power.” This seemed an unorthodox enough expression to some Quakers in his Queen Street Preparative Meeting that some Friends bore public testimony against him and, at a Select Meeting of ministers and elders in 1812, demanded an explanation from him of his views. Willson declined to elaborate and decided to withdraw from the Friends Meeting. More than 30 other Quakers withdrew or were disowned at the same time. A vision given to Willson several weeks after war broke out between the United States and Britain caused him to proclaim that the Quakers’ testimony of peace should be raised up higher “as an Ensign to the Nations” – hence the group’s name. After the war, however, the Children of Peace would engage in military drills – both men and, quite unusually for their times, women. Some of the Children of Peace – notably, not Willson himself – participated in an 1837 rebellion against the British led by William Lyon Mackenzie that was a notable precursor to modern Canadian nationalism.
As Willson’s visions and revelations continued, the Children of Peace (who numbered in the hundreds in their heyday from the 1820s to about 1850) diverged from other Quakers in several ways. Although at least nominally devoted to equality, Willson implicitly occupied a unique position as the group’s main (or only?) prophet. By the 1830s, a Select Committee of Elders had developed. The elders had been the rebellious youth when they broke off in 1812, but by the 1830s the Elders needed to keep the younger generation in line. Willson was very influenced by early Socialists such as Robert Owen, and, while the Children of Peace participated in the markets of Upper Canada, they were not really a part of “market economics” as that term is commonly understood, because they did not care to see their produce at the highest price that the market would bear (this became a source of generational conflict within the group, with the elders more dedicated to cooperative economics than the youth). While honoring Christ, Willson, in his writings, also looked toward the coming of a future messiah who would inaugurate a full economic and social equality among all.
One of the original members, Ebenezer Doan, was a master builder. The Children of Peace constructed several notable buildings during their existence, including two meeting houses that do not survive today. But from 1826 until 1832, they constructed their impressive Temple at Sharon. While the Yonge Street Meeting looked like many other meetinghouses in North America, the three story Sharon Temple was quite unique in almost every way. Its hundreds of window panes let in much light. Each of the three stories signified a different person in the divine Trinity.
Inside temple, illuminated
Another unusual feature of the Children of Peace was their eagerness to incorporate Old Testament remembrances. When I walked into the Sharon Temple, the first thing I saw was “Jacob’s Ladder” which at one time provided a way up to the second story. It is now cordoned off – too fragile for modern-day foot traffic. And in the middle of the Sharon Temple is the “Ark of the Covenant.” At some time in the recent past, researchers discovered that the Ark had a false bottom, and that thousands of pages of priceless documents were hidden underneath that false bottom. (David Willson was very interested in the Biblical King David; the term “Davidites,” sometimes used to refer to the Children of Peace, seems very much like a double entendre.) Around the Ark are four central pillars of the temple, labeled “Faith,” “Hope,” “Love,” and “Charity.” And around those are twelve more, labeled with the names of the twelve apostles. The building is rich and resonant with a great deal of Biblical symbolism.
Also in the Temple is a pump organ. The Children of the Peace were one of the first Quakers to love music. Perhaps this was Willson’s birthright Presbyterianism coming out! At any rate, he commissioned a barrel organ, pre-programmed with familiar hymn tunes. Willson also encouraged the Children of Peace to learn to play brass instruments, and hired a band master to teach them! On their monthly march to the Temple to consecrate their alms, the Children of Peace would march right by the Queen Street Preparative Meeting while it was in session, playing away on their brass instruments. Evidently the Children of Peace were among the first to play musical instruments in this part of Canada; not only Quakers, but also Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist clergy in Canada opposed instrumental music in the churches during Willson’s lifetime.
David Willson's Study
Willson also composed hymns, but out of respect for the continuing revelation of the Inner Light, he insisted that each of his hymns only be sung once! (Willson’s light-filled study, where he wrote his hymns and theological treatises, survives and can be seen on the Sharon Temple’s grounds.) Our visiting group diverged in practice slightly on this last detail, listening to a recorded cantata on the subject of peace in the Temple illuminated by candles as darkness fell after a long June day.
The Children of Peace did not survive long after their founder David Willson’s death in 1866. The last worship service in the Sharon Temple was held about two decades later, in 1887. Then the Temple fell into disuse and disrepair. Cows wandered through the temple; about one-third of the windows were broken. But in 1917 the York Pioneer and Historical Society purchased the Temple and its grounds, and historically-minded persons have lovingly cared for this most unusual facility ever since., with a major restoration completed just last year.
Whether it was the Progressive Quakers and Free Quakers, who were represented only in historians’ papers, or the Yonge Street Quakers and the Children of Peace, in whose worlds we were guests for a remarkable weekend, the creativity and the dedication to following the Light Within of Quakers past and present is astonishing and can obviously lead to quite diverse ways of being faithful to the God known to us through revelation, whether Biblical, the fruit of past Quaker witness, or continuing. Thus the richness of this weekend’s events leaves me with much still to ponder!
Steve Angell is the Professor of Quaker Studies at ESR

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