The scandal of early Quaker studies

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.

I’m going to start with Richard Hubberthorne, for reasons I’ll explain next post. (In the meantime, you might read an epistle of his that I just posted on To all Friends everywhere.

6 Responses to “The scandal of early Quaker studies”

  1. 1 simonstl Oct 6th, 2006

    I’m glad to see someone else interested in this.

    I’ve been especially interested in Edward Burrough, whose Memorable Works Of a Son of Thunder and Consolation isn’t readily available. I understand that it may also be incomplete, missing some tracts of 1659-60 that didn’t make Quakers happy in 1672. (At least his works didn’t have to wait until 1716, like Nayler’s.)

    Hopefully we can find ways to make more of this material readily available. I’m already moving all to slowly through Fox’s A New England Fire-Brand Quenched, but I’ll try to find ways to get to Burrough’s material on microfilm and make it more readily available.

    You can find bits of it at:

  2. 2 mark Oct 6th, 2006

    Have you tried Earlham’s Digital Quaker Collection or Google Book Search? Google Books has the Memoirs of Francis Howgill, for example.

  3. 3 mark Oct 6th, 2006

    Oops.. typo on google book search, try this instead

  4. 4 Zach Oct 6th, 2006

    Simon: Ditto.

    Hi Mark, it did occur to me to search for Quaker texts on Google Books the other day, and I was pretty excited at what I found, but I didn’t think there was anything by those guys I mentioned, so that’s a pleasant surprise. The only problem I have with Google Books is that they will often let you download older texts as PDF images, but won’t give you access to the text as text (which they have). This means if you want to read/print/publish an old text other than the way it was scanned, someone’s got to re-type it up from scratch.

    The Digital Quaker Collection I am rather less fond of. It’s definitely wonderful that they are making texts available, but the interface is among the worst I’ve seen. I can’t imagine actually reading through a pamphlet that way.

    Both of which is why I have some designs of starting a little e-press that would publish versions of these old texts (and newer ones perhaps) that would be designed to be readable, perhaps each in an HTML version, a designed-for-screen-reading PDF, and a designed-for-home-printing PDF. One thing at a time though.

  5. 5 kofu Nov 1st, 2006

    Street Corner Society site has been doing this for awhile. For starters, see the Quaker page, including the links in the right margin. Other (overlapping) sets of links are in the right margin of the Historical texts section, and Reflections. More than a handful of people seem to be doing this stuff, without acknowledging the others who are also plowing in the same fields!

    I would say that overall, it’s still a relatively obscure backwater, even for Friends.

    You might be interested to read Edward Grubb’s opinion, written about 100 years ago, about how little interest there was then (and is today?) in the original writings of the early Quakers:

    Most of the early quaker writings, having served their temporary purpose, were read, so far as they continued to be used at all, by the adherents of the new conception of religious life, and by few or none beside.

    The quote is given at greater length in the “About Us” page at the Street Corner Society site, just as an antidote to the seriousness that sometimes plagues us zealots for history. And a whole book he wrote, treating what we may learn from Quaker history, is also posted at the SCS site.

  1. 1 As one passing out of the body: Introduction to Richard Hubberthorne at The Seed Lifting Up Pingback on Aug 3rd, 2007
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