Why are Quakers so hung up about our histories and biographies? Doug Gwyn says it’s because we have no creed, so we rely on stories.
Newcomers to Friends—and sometimes Friends that have been in the Society of Friends for many years—are sometimes puzzled why so many Quakers seem to be really hung up about our history and Quaker biographies and things like that. I think it’s because, you see, we have no creed. We don’t distill our faith into doctrines that sort of stand outside of history and can be recited at any time. So our Quaker spirituality is non-doctrinal but theological in the best sense of the word in a narrative story and history way that is very rich.
Narrative Theology: The Importance of Quaker Histories and Biographies
I’m Doug Gwyn. I’m a Friends minister, which in my life has turned out to be a Friends pastor, a writer in Quaker history and thought, and a traveling minister among Friends.
A Theology That Unfolds through Story
If we have a theology I would say that it’s a narrative theology, which is a fairly contemporary term that means simply a theology or an understanding of God that unfolds through story. Because we are a religion of experience and “What canst thou say” of your own experience. That necessarily unfolds in story, and we read the great biographies or journals of Friends often because they are inspiring stories and they cause us to reflect upon our own lives and our own experience in fresh ways that we might not have thought of otherwise.
Understanding Our Quakerism in Context
It’s also particularly as you get from biography to history, then it’s all this mix of how our faith is interacting with changes in society and injustices and wars and all sorts of things that we’ve had to struggle with and find creative responses to, or Quaker history can help us look at a current dilemma for Friends and see how previous generations of Friends responded to a similar dilemma. Sometimes we find that we’re dealing better with a certain social issue than Friends did 200 years ago, or maybe we’re not doing it as well and we see some heroic and prophetic lives being played out that we can use as models and inspirations for our own lives and the lives of our meetings.
So I think there’s something very rich to being interested in our history because Quakers have a unique trajectory through time and it encourages each of us to live our own lives more uniquely and spirit-led.
What Quaker Biographies Would You Recommend?
Most people find The Journal of John Woolman most inspiring. He was a 18th century, colonial New Jersey Friends minister in the non-professional sense of the word in our tradition that led him to travel among Friends and visit among native Americans and work for the abolition of slavery and things that he did from a very deeply centered, spiritual place and life journey that can still inspire many of us today. So the Journal of John Woolman, even though it’s far back in time, still inspires many Friends and others today.
The Journal of George Fox is a bigger challenge… a personality something more like the apostle Paul, who challenges many people at least on the level of personality if not ideas. So that’s a more acquired taste.
What Quaker Histories Would You Recommend?
The best short history I know that comes up close to the present would be John Punshon’s history of Friends, Portrait in Grey. John Punshon was an English Friend who also taught over in the United States among Friends quite a bit as well and he wrote a nice reasonably short one volume history.
A little bit longer history, a book called The Quakers by Hugh Barbour and William Frost is also another good one volume introduction to Quaker history. You’ll find a lot to chew on with either of those books.
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.
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