“An Introduction to Quakerism” by Ben Pink Dandelion

When you take into account the author’s name, this book is surprisingly serious; perhaps Ben Pink Dandelion felt that he had to overcompensate for the expectations his name might generate. But he had no need – as the man in charge of the Post-Graduate programme at Woodbrooke, and as the deliverer of this year’s Swarthmore Lectures, he has clout enough.

 He’s also, naturally, a Quaker, and the publisher is CUP: two further reasons for the book’s being a formal academic study, free from an authorial persona’s intrusion. It’s an authoritative, academic, survey of Quakerism, its history, its present, and its prospects.
Being myself what Dandelion calls a “liberal-Liberal Quaker” (i.e. one for whom traditional Christian doctrine not only has to be open to developments in science and (especially Biblical) textual criticism, but also one for whom theology has become a story, and God an option (p134)), what I got most from the book is a sense of the break Quakerism has made with its explicitly Christian past. Admittedly, there’s the continuity of reference to “inner light” – modern liberal Quakers continue to find spiritual authority within themselves – but even this has fundamentally changed, from an original “inward light” – i.e. coming into the self from outside – to the modern “inner light” – starting within. Rufus Jones, who, with Joseph Rowntree, more or less created modern liberal Quakerism in the late 19th century, is responsible for promoting this (almost) sleight-of-hand (p132-3). What unites most Quakers worldwide are the commonality of ritual and the peace testimony: there is nearly always (at least some) unprogrammed worship in meetings, and all Quaker groupings share a commitment to peace. What’s interesting, and strangely moving, is the commitment of Young Friends to each other across the liberal / evangelical divide. Here they do seem to be leading older Quakers (as they do perhaps in Britain over the suggested abolition of membership).

The book is clear and convincing. Occasional repetitions give the sense that it has been been written, or at least is intended to be read, episodically, and this is no fault in a reference book. Sometimes, however, a full editorial read-through would have cleared up some slight confusions: for example it is only after at least three usages that the phrase “higher criticism” is explained.

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