Ever since I started reading the early Quakers two years ago, I’ve been scandalized by how little of what the earliest Friends wrote is available today, with the exception of George Fox.
Imagine if the Catholic Church allowed most of the New Testament to go out of print, aside from (say) Paul’s writings, and you had to get access to special academic libraries to read Matthew. Or if Americans let most of the writings of the “Founding Fathers” go out of print, and Franklin and Hamilton were remembered only by a few historians.
That’s not too far from the situation with early Quaker writings today. Of the dozen or so Friends who were writing during the formative first decade of the Quaker movement, many of Fox’s writings are in print, along with some of James Nayler’s and Margaret Fell’s, but the others are all but forgotten.
See if you recognize any of these weighty Friends who were travelling, ministering and writing in the 1650s (and in some cases later): Richard Farnworth; Francis Howgill; Edward Burroughs; George Whitehead; William Dewsbury; Richard Hubberthorne. Believe it or not, there was a time when they were up there with our old friend George. (In London, for example, Fox had much less success than Howgill and Burroughs.)
Now, from a certain perspective, who cares? Our religion is one of ever-renewed first-hand experience. To rewrite a familiar quote, Fox said this, and Dewsbury said that, but what can we say today?
That attitude is all well and good for everyday Quaker living. But as an intellectual matter, this is very unsatisfactory. The earliest Friends are our common reference point as Friends, however much we deviate from them. The less we read and understand them, the less we will understand our tradition and where we (and others) stand in it.
Which is why I would like to put (and see others put) more early Quaker writings online. Especially works by Friends like those I just named, because I think they are unjustly forgotten, and also because I am strongly attracted to their spirituality, which I see as different from that of later generations of Friends.