Amor vincat

Library: Letters etc. of early Friends


A.R. Barclay (1794-1845), a descendent of Robert Barclay “the Apologist,” was a passionate and scholarly evangelical, who was deeply acquainted with the history of Friends.  He lived at a time when theological innovation (the rise of evangelical Quakerism in Britain) stimulated re-interpretations — by traditionalists, progressives, and evangelicals —  of the “true message of early Friends.”  While some (like the Beacon) did this to argue that on key points early Friends were theologically unsound or deeply confused, however venerable,  Barclay sought to reconcile his understanding of the Gospel with that preached by Fox et al. , and to claim that they were really in agreement with him (more or less).

Barclay went past the well-thumbed works (like Fox’s Journal and the Apology), and dove deep into the little-known trove of documents from the beginnings of Quakerism. Indeed, it has seemed to me that no one surpassed his knowledge of those materials until William Braithwaite undertook his great histories in the early 1900s.

Barclay’s scholarship produced two works that heavily influenced later Quaker developments:  the Letters &c of Early Friends, and The inner life of the religious societies of the Commonwealth. The latter was left unfinished at his death (“the Author having been removed by death after a short illness, when a few sentences only remained to be written,” as the Prefatory Note says).  It is a good deal more interesting than one might suppose from the title. He had more interest in the development of the discipline — especially of the roles of ministers and elders — than many Evangelical Friends did, and despite his strong polemical intent, he had something of a historian’s eye (see his rather astonishing chart,  tipped in at page 548 of your copy  of historical developments and corresponding changes in membership, or his treatment of Quaker dress, for women Friends of different classes).

The book influenced J.S. Rowntree’s Quakerism Past and Present (1859), which in turn played a role in developments that resulted in the transformation of British Quakerism in the 1890s, and continued to be read and cited by scholars well into the last century (and I have benefited from it myself).

But perhaps even more important was Barclay’s collection of  Letters &c of early Friends, which I have now added to my Library, downloaded from Google.  (It may also be found in vol. XI of the Friends Library.) This work is a loosely organized collection of primary documents, in three sections (I quote):

I. Historical, or Letters which illustrate the history of the Society of Friends, as regards events, services, or sufferings, in London, and “in the Country,” with some few relating to Ireland.

II. Documents illustrative of the early discipline and testimonies of the Society.

III.  Epistles of Counsel and Exhortation to the Churches, &c. “ is hoped that some of these selected epistles (believed to be now for the first time printed) will be truly acceptable to not a few readers in this day.  The letters and epistles of Alexander Parker, have been more largely taken, as but few of the writings of that eminent Friend have come down to use in print.

Not an easy work to read through from front to back, but as one dips in ad libitum, one encounters many old friends first met as excerpts in books of Faith and Practice, or Quaker histories.   Although thanks to the interwebs it’s not hard to find, you have to want to find it.  I place it here so that all you have to do now is want to read it.