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  • Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition by Dan McKanan
  • Larry Ingle
Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. By Dan McKanan. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011. 326 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $34.95.

Friends’ 1661 testimony against wars and fighting confidently announced “that the spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move [us] unto it. . . .”

For Friends, this testimony prohibited fighting wars with carnal weapons because it came from Christ, the final source of authority for Quakers. Dan McKanan, Unitarian-Universalist lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and author of Prophetic Encounters, does not understand such an approach to ethical behavior. He wants to remind readers that “most of the important movements for social change in America have been fueled by religion (p. 265).” A book on this theme is sorely needed so as to bring religion back into the dialogue about what kind of society Americans have tried to create. The way McKanan pursues it, however, chops his effort off halfway up the thigh, leaving his intent little to stand on.

McKanan has little use for a transcendent faith whose source comes from anything like the “spirit of Christ” outside American culture. Instead his “Introduction” informs readers, he roots his definition of radical to concepts of liberty, equality, and, surprisingly, solidarity from the America of the Declaration of Independence. (I say “surprisingly,” because the Declaration explicitly refers to the “thirteen united States” with a plural verb: little solidarity there.) Of course, some religious radicals, such as perfectionist John Humphrey Noyes of Oneida fame, appealed to the Declaration, but just as many others located a transcendent standard beyond American culture.

Thus McKanan must ignore pre-1776 Christians and Quakers—John Woolman (p.43) gets only a glancing reference and famed abolitionist Anthony Benezet not even that; nor does he refer to the revolutionary era’s Friends-spawned Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Yearly meetings that began disowning Friends who held slaves in the 1770s would fit his definition, but he passes by. For some unexplained reason, his historical coverage begins in the 1820s, nearly 50 years after the very Revolution he makes his standard.

Though numerous Quakers appear, Friends are shortchanged in the book. [End Page 44] Lucretia Mott, for example, is described as the most “theologically gifted Hicksite” among abolitionists (p. 46), but her life-long opposition to separate treatment of African Americans merits no mention. Moreover McKanan ignores her inward Guide and suggests she got many of her ideas from one of the founders of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, whose books she did read.

McKanan’s best coverage—supporting the “encounters” of his title—is the 20th century; in fact, his chapter on “The Radical Depression” is the best in the book, even though he is apparently unaware that A.J. Muste, whom Time called “America’s No. One Pacifist,” was a Friend. He expertly charts theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s convoluted course from socialist and pacifist to the darling of Cold War liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He is fair to the American Friends Service Committee, even summarizing its still pertinent 1955 pamphlet Speak Truth to Power, but he overlooks the Movement for a New Society.

The best example of McKanan’s inability to reconcile his insistence on rooting radicalism within American society emerges when he comes to modern radical thinkers such as the lawyer William Stringfellow, and theologians Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Because these demanded that the church “set itself apart from worldly ways” (p. 272), he dismisses Stringfellow as “idiosyncratic” and, finding no place for Hauerwas and Yoder within his scheme, he seems unable to know exactly what to do with them. Struggling with them should have forced him to reassess his definitions.

Finally, there is another problem: too few of McKanan’s endnotes illuminate the sources for his generalizations. He makes sweeping assertions, as for example at the beginning of chapter 11 in which he deals with “The Religion of Socialism,” but none is supported by notes informing his readers where he arrived at his...


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