Review of: Quakers, Christ, & the Enlightenment

Quakers, Christ, and the Enlightenment

Madeleine Pennington

Oxford University Press, 2021 (ISBN: 978-0-19-289527-1, 242pp)

The Society of Friends may now be all but extinct, but their historical significance is vast, not least in the realm of intellectual life. It is of no little import that founding acts of the sole superpower of the past generation occurred in the Quaker capital of a Quaker state. The convictions and ethic of that curious religious group continue to find expression in American life and, thanks to its unprecedented global reach, throughout our world. It is therefore welcome to find a work which engages more seriously than perhaps any previously with the ideological development of early Quakerism, in the late seventeenth century.

Pennington’s book, a development of her doctoral thesis, immediately exposes the unorthodoxy of George Fox’s theology, including his perfectionism and reliance on claimed extra-scriptural insights. The seventeenth century theological landscape was however highly volatile and Pennington shows that Fox was merely one influence among many on later Quakers, many of whom became increasingly influenced by enlightenment rationalism following the Revolution. Indeed, early Quaker writings, characterised by metaphysical assertion became almost an embarrassment to a movement which, Pennington argues, earnestly sought ‘theological reputation’.

Theological reputation is an unusual concept but seems to stand for a sort of social acceptance. The Quakers never seriously sought comprehension within the national church in the way that the Puritan movement did, but they did recognise the importance of being considered clearly Christian. The questionable inheritance of Fox and his contemporaries made this achievement more challenging for the movement than it was for other sects. Pennington argues that the very process of winning this acceptance, and the corresponding dialogue with other denominations, drove the evolution of Quaker Christology, which in turn prompted organisational transition. 

The book struggled between two aims of, on one hand, giving ‘nonconformists intellectual agency in their own story’ and, on the other, of making a case for shifting theology driving institutional change. Pennington succeeds in the former, having evidently delved deeply in the Society of Friends archive and with a bibliography that could easily stand for a catalogue of early Quaker tracts and letters (albeit that she herself admits that the tradition is ‘messy’). On the latter count, the enquiry is too weighted toward intellectual life and too little toward organisational analysis to be entirely convincing. Nevertheless, this book is a novel perspective on Restoration era theological and philosophical discourse and a valuable addition to modern Quaker history.

Edward Keene, Little Shelford