In early February,  Martin Kelley (Quaker writer and senior editor at Friends Journal) wrote a blog post responding to an event titled “The New History of Quakerism.” The free Zoom event was hosted by Haverford College and featured talks from historians Ben Pink Dandelion and Robynne Rogers Healey (the talk is available to view on Vimeo). Kelley’s response focused on the price inaccessibility of academic publishing, asking, “I understand we’re all caught in these capitalist and academic systems. I just wonder what we can do.” The entirety of Martin Kelley’s post can be found on his blog, Quaker Ranter, but will also be reposted below with the author’s permission.

Comments from CFHA’s Eve Schmitz-Hertzberg: “The founders of CFHA in the early 1970’s felt that Canadian Quakers were forgetting their history. CFHA was founded in an attempt to bring Canadian Quaker history to Quakers. It is important for Quakers to know where they came from and where they are going. CFHA was a mix of Quakers, others interested in history, and academics interested in furthering Quaker history. It seems today that it is the academics who are not connected to CFHA who are taking up what study of Quaker history is taking place. It has not all been said before and history can be revisited to find further understanding.

Martin Kelly is very concerned that leaving the study of Quaker history to the academics and publishing to academic institutions is making this information inaccessible to the average person. Quaker meetings have small libraries that are loaned on a trust basis. They cannot afford to buy the expensive academic books and once on their shelves they easily disappear.”

A Weekly Newsletter and Blog from Martin Kelley
The New Quaker Histories
February 8, 2024

I watched a great Zoom talk this week, hosted by Haverford College and featuring Ben Pink Dandelion and Robynne Rogers Healey. The topic was “The New History of Quakerism” and its focus was on the shifts happening in Quaker academic histories since the 1990s. Dandelion did a fantastic job putting the last 150 years of Quaker historiography in context and laying out the positives of more recent developments: more academic rigor, a wider diversity of voices, changing foci of topics, and strong interest by academic publishers.

Healey identified three major fields in which the new histories are challenging what are often comforting apologetics of previous Quaker studies: the equality of women, slavery and indigenous relations, and pacifism. All these are much more complicated than the stories we tell. She then listed three trends: decentering London and Philadelphia, reevaluating the so-called quietist period, and including academics and histories of the Global South.

Dandelion said these changes were “all for the better,” and while I agree wholeheartedly with him in regards to content, there’s one way in which the new publishing opportunities are failing us: to be blunt, price.

Take the Penn State University Press series, “The New History of Quakerism,” that both panelists have written for. The Creation of Modern Quaker Diversity, 1830 – 1937 edited by Stephen W. Angell, Dandelion, and David Harrington Watt is $125. Quakerism in the Atlantic World, 1690 – 1830 edited by Healey is $90. Quaker Women, 1800 – 1920, edited by Healey and Carole Dale Spencer is $125.

Both Healey and Dandelion acknowledged the problem of inaccessible prices in their talk. Dandelion suggested that meeting libraries might be able to purchase these books but I think that’s more hopeful than realistic. My small meeting certainly couldn’t. I went to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Library and they wouldn’t let me check out The Quaker World (FJ review), the 2022 collection edited by my friends C. Wess Daniels and Rhiannon Grant. It’s got a lot of great authors and I heartily recommend it, but only in absentia because at $250 I’m never going to read it.

As an amateur Quaker history lover, these are all volumes I would love to read, but I’m not writing this because of my own personal anguish (real as it is!) but because the prices are breaking what has been an essential transmission system for new histories. In the late 1980s, Thomas Hamm published The Transformation of American Quakerism, 1800 – 1907 with Indiana University Press. It was $25 and I splurged. It became an important source in my understanding of Quaker divisions and nineteenth-century quietism. Still, decades later, when I write blog posts, or teach Quakerism 101, or answer an online question, I’m often regurgitating perspectives I learned from Hamm.

Go to Facebook, go to Reddit, and people aren’t sharing these groundbreaking histories. Just now, randomly opening Facebook, there’s a post by someone asking about James Nayler, with someone answering it by referencing Hugh Barbour’s mid-1960s history. I love Barbour but he had his own filters and we’ve learned a lot since then.

Every meeting I’ve been a part of had a small number of history nerds in residence who led the Quakerism 101 classes or hosted book groups or Bible study, and they brought their nerdiness to their meeting tasks. To use Healey’s list, many Quakers in the benches still think of Friends’ race relations in terms of abolitionism, still consider early Friends as unalloyed feminists, and rarely give a thought to Friends in the Global South. I recently read a new article about a local meeting that was founded by one of the largest slaveholding families in the area and the only mention of slavery was its much-later anti-slavery society; I really want these kinds of stories to be too embarrassing to publish. Quakers in the benches need the perspectives of these new historians to understand ourselves.

Are there ways that academics can repurpose their inaccessible work so that it can trickle down to a general audience? I’m glad this Zoom talk was open to the public and well publicized: at least some of us could watch it and know the outlines of the changing historiography. But how else can we work to bridge the gap? Blog posts, articles in general publications, podcasts, Pendle Hill pamphlets? What are we doing and what more could we do? I’m in Quaker publishing, obviously, and so part of the problem if there’s a breakdown in transmission. We review the books and QuakerSpeak often dives into history. My friend Jon Watts’s Thee Quaker podcast has some wonderfully nerdy episodes. But all these feel like snippets: ten minutes here, 2000 words there. When I go to learn more, I’m stuck by the limitations of the open internet, caught in JSTOR articles I can’t access, or histories only available in print for $100-plus.

I’m not blaming anyone here. I understand we’re all caught in these capitalist and academic systems. I just wonder what we can do.

Also, special shoutout to Rhiannon Grant, who is the only Quaker academic I know of who is seemingly everywhere: Blog, articles in FJ, installments in the “Quaker Quicks” series, podcast segments on the BBC and Thee Quaker (she even guested on one of my FJ author chats!). Plus she’s on Mastodon, Bluesky, and TikTok and has her own welcome-to-Quakers page. I don’t think this ubiquitous approach is at all replicable for other academics. Even I’m not a proponent of social media ubiquity, preferring to focus on a few platforms.

See Quaker Ranter for more from Martin Kelley.

Categories: Meetinghouse


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