Tag Archives: religion and family life

“The Back Bench” by Margaret Hope Bacon

This book can be categorized as historical fiction, but it is entirely different from “The Last White Rose” (see below). It’s very short. It covers one year in the life of a completely imaginary teenager during a very comprehensively documented historical period, namely 1837 – 1838 in Pennsylvania. The protagonist, 14 year old Myra Harlan, is sent from a Westchester (PA) farm to Philadelphia after her parents die.

Myra’s family is Quaker, the most common religious denomination in Philadelphia at that time, and much of the plot is driven by the schism (or Separation) suffered by Quakerism in 1827. Elias Hicks led a walkout from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Quakers. The two factions were referred to as Hicksites and Orthodox Quakers. (Reconciliation was completed in 1955!)

Bacon makes her position clear. She depicts the Orthodox Quakers as status obsessed and materialistic, the Hicksites as salt-ot-the-earth farmers who practiced virtuous simplicity. Enrolled in the Orthodox Friends Select School for Girls, Myra is advised to keep her Hicksite background a secret. 

The other emphasis in this book is on race. Quakers disowned slave owners, supported abolition (with disagreements over process) and sometimes helped escaped slaves travel to safe areas, including Canada. Myra observes discrimination during Quaker worship – people of color, acknowledged members of Quaker congregations, were seated separately from others during worship. Based on her convictions and experience, Myra ultimately feels led to sit on the back bench with her acquaintances of African descent. 

Bacon wrote many books (mostly non-fiction), the best known being Valiant Friend, (1980), a biography of Lucretia Mott. I LOVE Mothers of Feminism, (1986). I had the good fortune to meet Margaret Hope Bacon at a Quaker event. She was there as a participant (not a speaker or workshop leader). Her name tag simply read “Margaret”. 



“One Small Plot of Heaven – Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist” by Elise Boulding

One Small Plot of Heaven: Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist

Pendle Hill Publications, 1989, 216 pages plus bibliography and index. Why did I pull this old book off my shelf? Just looking for comfort, in these difficult times, and remembering Elise Boulding’s husband Kenneth from a lecture many years ago.

This book is a collection of twelve separate speeches and pamphlets. It’s far from coherent, but I’m glad these essays were assembled in one place, for our benefit. I read Born Remembering (third chapter) many years ago with a discussion group.

This time my attention was drawn to two chapters written THIRTY-FOUR YEARS apart, in 1952 and 1989. The essay from 1952 was entitled Friends Testimonies in the Home. My reaction to it was that Elise Boulding set an impossibly high standard for home making and child rearing! I mean, totally out of sight. On a scale of one to ten, my parenting (~1984 to 2010) would have rated about 0.3. When she wrote this essay, three of her five children had been born. Wikipedia describes her as “home maker and activist”. She lived in proximity to other Quaker families and attended a large meeting that provided substantial attention and support to families. A major focus was on how to raise children who would become peacemakers. Motivation, I think, sprang from post WWII international considerations and Cold War fears.

Thirty-four years later, Elise Boulding was looking at a very different world, and her focus was not on international considerations like war but on her beloved Religious Society of Friends. Quakers had recognized some of their failings, including the occurrence of  violence in Quaker families. How could she have missed this, she asks? She admits to “willful blindness” and describes the “strong effort of the will” it took for her to confront the ugly truth. Then she proceeds to offer analysis based on both Quakerism and sociology.

Boulding identifies and describes what she calls a “residue of emotional turbulence” and “the unacknowledged residue of anger” among Quakers. Yes.

The perfect Quaker family is a “fictive reality” (Boulding’s term).

This is an oversimplification. But I know from personal experience that trying to create the “perfect Quaker family” (or marriage, or persona) can lead to trouble.

The essay and the book end with hopefulness. More hopefulness than I can sometimes muster. Guess I better keep the book around, to help me through dark moments.

What is “dysfunctional” religion?

I started this blog four months ago with a review of Religion for Athiests: a Non-belivers Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton. One “thread” that has run through my reading has been an interest in “dysfunctional” religion. My review (Sept 5) of Beyond Belief by J M Hill falls into this category. Hill’s description of Scientology certainly earns it the label “dysfunctional”. 

But all of this requires more explanation. Flinging around a label like “dysfunctional” sounds unpleasantly judgmental. What do I mean by it?

A respected friend of mine considers ALL religion dysfunctional, asserting that religion has caused more human suffering (especially war) than any other social institution. In his opinion, a rational person does not need religion. Intellectually, I get it, but…I can’t live that way! I am, by choice, deeply involved in a religious congregation. It has helped me through various challenges in life, and had a particularly positive impact on my experience of parenthood. 

I suspect many people feel the way I do. So religion is with us for the long run… Can we discriminate between “good” and “bad” religion? Many books are published that describe people’s experiences with religion “gone bad”. (I will post shortly about several more.)

My definition of “dysfunctional” pertains to the individual. “Dysfunctional” for whom? How much can choice be limited before a person is psychologically crippled? What about disruption of family ties? What if religion requires poverty? I feel misgivings about conscience – should a person put his or her conscience under someone else’s control? And yet, every person who joins a religious order does so by taking a vow of obedience… (I have been told my views are oversimplified and I’m missing important nuances…)

So, I will be discussing books in which people describe their religious experiences. I’m well aware that there may be another “side” to some situations that I have not sought out. I’m an opportunistic and omnivorous reader… onward and upward!