‘I do not hide my past, but I would not want it to discount whatever I have done since.’
I am glad that Friends have been looking at their history through new lenses and realising that some of our best-loved stories, such as the campaign to abolish slavery, have a shadow side. Charles Carter, reviewing Roger Wilson’s Quaker Relief 1940-1948 in the Friend in 1952, wrote: ‘Many of us have been discovering… that much of the service we thought so unique and so valuable was being done on a larger scale by others, more quietly, more efficiently, as part of their simple duty. It may be that Quakerism will not regain its effectiveness until we have learned to be ashamed of the proud myth of our uniqueness – and have learned to do our duty quietly and well, unsustained by thoughts of our own great significance.’
But there is a danger in seeing history in black and white snapshots, and missing the larger movement of change. Consider a snapshot of me at nineteen: I was the proud descendant of a colonial governor, with a privileged education. My attitudes were snobbish and elitist, and I had never known financial want. I was a serving soldier, fighting without qualms against a freedom struggle in a British colony. I do not hide this past, but I would not want it to discount whatever I have done and written since. I am no longer the same person.
One of the main influences in my changing came from my local colleagues when I was working in Uganda. They accepted me and my background; they gently guided and taught me; they told me when they thought me wrong; they introduced me to their African ways of seeing things – and they ignored me when they wanted to! They changed me into a better person. Can we handle our Quaker history with similar understanding and generosity?
It is true that William Penn had enslaved people in his household. We rightly wish he would have freed them. But this omission does not invalidate his astonishing constitution for Pennsylvania, his part-abolition of the death penalty, his respect for the natural environment, or his peaceful and honourable dealings with the first-nation’s peoples. And we can still honour the way that Anthony Benezet, John Woolman, Benjamin Lay and others convinced their Yearly Meeting to denounce slavery in one generation, without ignoring how many Friends were involved in the slave trade.
To take a more modern instance, our present concern for LGBTQ rights is not less sincere because a majority of Friends once thought homosexuality an illness or a sin. It is because these beliefs were common that we can be proud of publishing Towards a Quaker View of Sex in 1963, and moving towards our present position.
Amid all our failures of vision and practice, we are a people who have kept developing – at our best when self-critical and guided by principle. It is right that we stop demanding acclaim for some simplified pictures of historical moments. But we can still feel good about the way we keep moving forward.
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