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Quakerism: The Basics (review)

Tom Head
On Freedom (January 2022)
Quakerism: The Basics
by Margery Post Abbott and Carl Abbott
reviewed by Tom Head

Two of our Western Friends, Marge and Carl Abbott, long-time members of Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, Oregon, have teamed up to offer a book providing a clear, simple, and accessible overview of the Society of Friends. While the book serves as an introduction for newcomers, it also offers to all of us, new or old, an excellent review of our faith and history.

Prior to the publication of Quakerism: The Basics, we already had many books about Quaker history and beliefs. In fact, the Abbotts list a dozen such books in their own bibliography, and many of our pamphlets and books of discipline also contribute to this genre. But the Abbotts have successfully taken on the task of looking at Quaker history, theology, and witness, and have written a new cogent, readable, and concise overview of everything Quaker, past and present.

It is no easy task to stand back from global Quakerism and sum up the whole of our history, beliefs, and practices. What came to mind more than once as I read the book were the beautiful, full-color images of the Earth from the Apollo astronauts; while we knew a lot about the Earth before the space age, the perspective offered by space travel clearly added something more to our sense of the planet. In the same way, Marge and Carl have taken a journey, clearly standing back from the entirety of Quaker experience, attempting to capture a vision of the whole, and have thus added something more to our understanding of our faith community. Their perspective of the Quaker world is vivid, realistic, and alive.

Quakerism: The Basics is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter focuses on Quaker work in the world: social witness, peace, justice, integrity, equality, care for the needy, and care for the Earth. The next three chapters cover the history and theology of Friends: the 17th century and the origins of the Society of Friends, the variety of Quaker beliefs and practices as they evolved in the 18th & 19th centuries, and the further evolution of Quakerism around the globe in the 20th century and beyond.

Following the historical reviews, the next chapter describes a wide variety of styles of Quaker worship and practice found around the world today. Then comes a discussion of ministry, mission, and testimony, and an exploration of the diversity and complexity of ways that Friends discern what is true and right and apply that in their daily lives. The Abbotts conclude Chapter 6 with a message that feels like the authors rising to speak in a meeting for worship:

We conclude this chapter by breaking the wall of neutral scholarship with our personal challenge to contemporary Quakers: We are called to be patterns and examples in twenty-first-century campaigns for peace and ecojustice, as difficult and decisive as the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century drive to abolish slavery. We must all let the living waters flow through us – where we live locally and in the wider world fellowship. We must dedicate ourselves to building the peace that passes all understanding, to the repair of the world, opening our lives to the Light to guide us in each small step. 

The final chapter continues to examine Quakers in the 21st century, the tensions that divide us, as well as the convergence that is also part of our faith journey. The core of the book is followed by an interesting appendix on Quakers in fiction, a helpful glossary, and an extensive bibliography. Quakerism: The Basics is a gift to us all, and I expect it will be widely read and used in meetings and churches throughout the Quaker world.  ~~~

Tom Head is now a member of Chico Friends Meeting in California. He was for many years a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting and then a founding member of Bridge City Friends Meeting, both in Portland, Oregon. He is a Professor of Economics Emeritus, George Fox University.

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