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A Gathering of Spirits (review)

Emily Garrison, Rocky Garrison
On Control (July 2019)
A Gathering of Spirits
written by Douglas Gwyn
reviewed by Emily Garrison and Rocky Garrison

Consider the major events of the first half of the Twentieth Century: two world wars, the Great Depression, Jim Crow, women getting the vote. What was happening in the Society of Friends in America during this time? That is the subject of A Gathering of Spirits: The Friends General Conferences 1896-1950, by Douglas Gwyn, as seen through the records of twenty-seven biennial conferences put on by the Friends General Conference (FGC), an organization born of the efforts of seven liberal-progressive yearly meetings. These conferences evolved into annual events in 1963, were renamed “FGC Gatherings” in 1978, and continue to convene annually, primarily on the East Coast. Gwyn uses the minutes, themes, and other available documents from each conference from 1896 to 1950 to trace FGC’s organizational development, to document the evolution of the social and political concerns of this group of American liberal Friends, and to provide a glimpse into the wider cultural influences that may have contributed to this evolution. He includes these wider cultural influences “… partly as a corrective to many Quaker histories that are written as if nothing came before Friends and nothing else was going on around Friends.” (p. xx)

Gwyn calls this period the “heroic era” of FGC, providing nurturance, guidance, and encouragement for Friends and functioning “… as a kind of Greek chorus, registering the affects of the age and lamenting the tragedies of race, poverty, and war, while also singing the praises of courageous Quaker actors in the world.” (p. 258) He specifies that the book applies three frames of cultural interpretation. The first frame considers the transitions of capitalist political economy and the cultural ethos of imperialism during the period. Second, he discusses FGC’s history in terms of its middle-class moorings and links to a wider Protestant and progressive coalition. Third, he considers that history in the context of the wider family of Friends, including British Friends and the evangelizing Orthodox Friends. He also includes an essay, “A Quaker Moral Compass,” as an Appendix. This describes the social vision of FGC Friends as existing along two moral continua: a purity/pollution axis and a gift/debtor axis. The interaction of these two axes is used to describe the dynamic course of Quaker history, including the resurgence of liberal Hicksite yearly meetings and the definition of what is and is not distinctively Quaker in the spiritual and progressive movements during the period.

Gwyn notes that this book complements his history of Pendle Hill, Personality and Place: The Life & Times of Pendle Hill, which describes Pendle Hill as a twentieth-century center for American Quaker renewal. This Quaker retreat center was started in 1930 by both Hicksite and Orthodox Friends, and was thus active in the last twenty years of the period discussed in A Gathering of Spirits. Both books seem to be essential reading for the Friend who seeks to understand the Society of Friends in America in the Twentieth Century.  ~~~

Emily Garrison and Rocky Garrison are from Bridge City Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).

Friends General Conference FGC Quaker history

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