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  • “The Jews” and “the Pharisees” in Early Quaker Polemic
  • Clay Javier Boggs (bio)

In the beginning, it seemed as though the medieval thinkers replicated me.

—Kalman Bland1


Ever since George Fox wrote his Journal in the 1670s, the creation and maintenance of Quaker archives and the writing of Quaker history have largely remained within the domain of members of the Society of Friends. Such exclusivity has had its costs. Quaker historiography has been characterized by hagiography and apology as denominational historians project their idealized versions of the Society of Friends onto the early movement. The early Quakers have thus tended to “replicate” their historians.

In the twentieth century leading Quaker scholars such as Rufus Jones, Hugh Barbour and Douglas Gwyn have written sympathetic histories of the early Friends that reflect their own vision for contemporary Quakerism. Rufus Jones, who promoted a liberal and mystical Quakerism, represented the early Quakers as Spiritualists who drew from a continental tradition of mysticism.2 Hugh Barbour, who was motivated by the ecumenical desire to “open the way for deeper discussions between liberal and conservative Quakers, as well as between Friends and non-Friends,” described the early Quakers as Protestants who fully belonged to the Puritan milieu.3 Douglas Gwyn, who intended to reinvigorate the Society of Friends with a passion for transformation, attempted to re-write early Quakers as an apocalyptic movement.4 These efforts at denominational history have used early Quakers as a foil to promote their visions for contemporary Quakerism, and, in the process, replicated Quaker historiography as an essentially filiopietistic pursuit.5

In the past fifty years, the denominational tradition within Quaker historiography has begun to weaken its grip. Social, cultural and political historians, such as Christopher Hill, Barry Reay and Leo Damrosch have written histories of the early Quakers that break free from the restraints of hagiography. More critical analysis of the early Quakers, their ideas, and their role in society has challenged the perception that early Friends were saints. Scholars such as Hill, Reay and Damrosch have criticized the effects of the denominational influence on Quaker historiography from George Fox’s time to the twentieth century.6 [End Page 1]

Although these critiques reveal the limits of traditional Quaker historiography, they do not negate the important role that history plays in contemporary Quaker life. The Society of Friends has much to gain from its past that may not be of interest to political, social or even religious historians of seventeenth-century England. However, Friends need to listen to the concerns of non-Quaker scholars who have witnessed our historiographical practices from the outside. Making George Fox and his cohort into saints (or idealized versions of ourselves) makes for bad history. It also inhibits our ability to think critically about our own practices. As H. Larry Ingle writes,

The ultimate tragedy of this myopic course for Quakerism, however, is even more profound. Having no theologians, the Society of Friends depends on historians to keep the human key to its repository of past traditions and experiences. For this reason, if for no other, Quaker practitioners of history have an important added inducement for accuracy and completeness. 7

Ingle lays out the costs of hagiography for the Society of Friends. When Quaker historians get the early movement wrong, the denomination loses a rich source of “traditions and experiences.” Ingle, who is a thoroughgoing critic of Quaker historiography, still sees a vital function for Quaker history by-and-for Quakers. Seeing seventeenth-century Friends as they really were, he argues, could give contemporary co-religionists access to the practices, thoughts and feelings of our forebears, providing us with an essential means for self-reflection.

Like Ingle, I take the position that Quaker history plays a necessary role in the religious life of contemporary Friends. I am enthusiastic about the prospects for a denominational history that transcends hagiography and apology. What, I ask, if we let go of the assumption that early Quakers were saints and allowed them to emerge as the complex historical figures that they really were? We might be able to stop using seventeenth-century Friends as a foil for our visions of how contemporary Quakerism ought to be...


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