Friday, 20 January 2017

Quakers, progress and the long pilgrimage

Progress as a theme of the Swarthmore Lectures

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy tells me that a robust sense of confidence in human progress characterises the philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  Be that as it may, it is striking that a hundred years ago the word on the lips, and issuing from the pens, of Quakers was that of progress. A number of Swarthmore Lectures have progress as their theme.  The 1911 Lecture Human progress and the inward light by Thomas Hodgkin was a call to Quakers to embrace Darwinian evolution.  It is remarkable that such a call was necessary fifty years after the publication of The Origin of Species. The 1913 Lecture, Social service : its place in the Society of Friends by Joshua Rowntree was about the value of social service and philanthropy in the life of a Christian community.  The quintessential progressivistic Lecture was that by T.E. Harvey.

Edmund Harvey (1875-1955) sat in Parliament first as a Liberal and later as an Independent Progressive (sic).  He was not in Parliament in 1921, when he gave a Swarthmore Lecture entitled The Long Pilgrimage, which is an exposition of the idea and reality of human progress in the light of Christian hope.  Progress is understood by Harvey as the spiritual growth of the individual rather than the acquisition of material possessions or economic well-being. Harvey’s vision is a grand one, of human progress driven by a Christian idea of the human personality. It contrasts with the impending Swarthmore Lecture by a sitting MP, Catherine West, which, as I have blogged elsewhere, looks like it will be a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party properly belonging to the Quaker Socialist Society’s Salter Lecture not a Swarthmore Lecture.

There may be a number of reasons why a hundred years ago progress had become a keyword of Quaker discourse.  Dating from the Manchester Conference, Quakers had aligned themselves with Darwinian, science and liberal scholarship.  Another influence may have been the progressive movement elsewhere, for example the muscular progressivism espoused in the US by Theodore Roosevelt, and perhaps even what was seen, even after the First World War, as the triumph of European values.

Whatever happened to Quaker progressivism?

It is for consideration why progress has ceased to be a keyword of Quaker discourse.  The explanation cannot be the catastrophe of the First World War, because the admirable Foundations of a True Social Order (1918), about which I have blogged separately and which represents the culmination of the progressive movement in the Society of Friends, was issued in the War's closing stages.  In addition, Edmund Harvey’s optimistic lecture post-dates the War. Perhaps the economic slumps of the inter-war period, the Second World War and then the Cold War made division, rather than progress, the hallmark of the period.  In the theological and theoretical sphere, the pessimism of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) may have been influential.  Be that as it may, what seems to me a key factor in the emergence of Quaker pessimism seems to have been globalisation and the succumbing of British Yearly Meeting to left-wing populism, which seems to date from the 1950’s, when the emergence of CND led to the growing influence in the Society of unilateralists and the political left with its anti-establishment rhetoric.

It is regrettable that Quakers, as internationalists, seem to disregard, even deprecate, the improvements across world in the last thirty years or so.  It is time that Quakers (and others), rather than fixating on inequality, caught up with the revival of optimistic progressivism represented by such books as Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg,

An independent charity has asked what's happening to poverty. (  It says that looking at the sheer numbers of individuals in poverty (in the UK) can be misleading. As the number of households in the economy grows, (which it is doing as we are all living longer) all else being equal the number of individuals below the poverty line will also tend to grow. Looking at the proportion of the population below the poverty line gives a more accurate idea of how poverty is changing over time. In all of these cases, it's worth noting that poverty has fallen substantially over the longer term.  In fact, despite the popular perception, humanity has never been safer, healthier, more prosperous or less unequal.  Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. The risk of being caught up in a war, subjected to a dictatorship or of dying in a natural disaster is smaller than ever.  This is the message from Norberg’s book.  

It is true that some communities in the developed world perceive themselves as having been left behind by globalisation, and similarly that young people may seem disadvantaged with respect to property ownership compared with their parents, but this should not blind us to the stupendous progress made across the world in the last thirty years or so in improving life expectancy and reducing absolute poverty.  We are still on Harvey’s Long Pilgrimage.

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