Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries (review)

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Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries
by The Gardner Documentary Group
reviewed by Anthony Manousos

An engaging 2018 documentary film, Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries, provides a useful overview of Quaker history from an activist perspective. Thanks to PBS, it has been broadcast to over 250,000 households in the U.S. Director-producer Janet Gardner, Cinematographer Kevin Clouthier, Consultant Richard Nurse, and others on this team deserve kudos for their efforts to make Quaker history come alive. This documentary is intended for a popular audience and is spreading the Quaker message where it most needs to be heard.

The film doesn’t just celebrate Quaker achievements, however; it also presents Quakers’ flaws. For example, it notes that William Penn held slaves – a fact that is becoming increasingly significant throughout the Society of Friends, as our country struggles to decide what to do about monuments that commemorate figures in our past who were complicit with racism.

The documentary also acknowledges the mistake that Quakers made by promoting penitentiaries in the early nineteenth century, based on the erroneous belief that putting people in isolation would help them to repent and become better people. We know now that such isolation is a form of torture. Fortunately, modern Quakers have repented and made amends by supporting programs like Alternatives to Violence and working to dismantle the prison-industrial complex. (I highly recommend Laura Magnani’s 2006 book, Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System.) 

The Quiet Revolutionaries also points out that Presidents Hoover and Nixon, both Quaker, didn’t have very good track records promoting Quaker values. Hoover let his conservative economic ideology stand in the way of his humanitarian impulse to help those in need, and Nixon preferred power over principle.

On the positive side, this documentary highlights the importance of Evangelical Quakers, including the fact that there are more Evangelical Quakers in Kenya that there are Quakers of all types in the U.S. This is a good corrective to the views of Howard Brinton, who wrote what many consider to be the definitive book on Quakerism, Friends for 300 Years. Brinton did not consider Evangelical Quakers to be “real Quakers.” I regard the work of Friends World Committee for Consultation – promoting understanding among various branches of Friends – as work that is vital, so I appreciate this film for promoting a similar view.

The Quiet Revolutionaries also portrays Quaker involvement in progressive causes like abolition and women’s rights. It highlights Margaret Fell, co-founder of Quakerism along with George Fox, as well as other important Quaker women leaders like Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul.  It also lifts up the important but underappreciated Bayard Rustin, who advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on strategies of nonviolent resistance and was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

Further, the film explores Quaker action on behalf of our Peace Testimony and our testimony for Stewardship of the Earth. During the twentieth century, an era of two cataclysmic world wars, Quakers rightly focused on our Peace Testimony, starting right after WWI when British Friends called together the first World Conference of Friends and when the American Friends Service Committee was formed to provide an alternative to military service. Quakers engaged in anti-war protests and activities during WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and through to the endless wars of today. Now in the twenty-first century, as environmental catastrophe and mass extinctions loom, more Friends are directing effort towards Stewardship of the Earth. The Quiet Revolutionaries features a segment on Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) and their efforts to oppose mountaintop mining.

Finally, this documentary reminds us that many Quakers over the years have been “quietists” rather than “activists.” Given this tendency, I hope this film will challenge and inspire us to continue to be “quiet Revolutionaries,” and maybe even turn up the volume a little, so our voices can be heard.  ~~~

Anthony Manousos is a former editor of Western Friend and the author and editor of numerous books and pamphlets. He is a member of Orange Grove Friends Meeting in Pasadena, CA (PacYM).

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