This impressive book by Douglas Gwyn is unusual in that it has something of the character of an encyclopaedia. Pendle Hill, the Quaker Study Centre in Philadelphia, has been operating for eighty years. In the main, each of the chapters in the book is given to a decade of its history. So if the reader wishes to find out what was going on there in the 1960s, which was something of a watershed, one would look up Chapter 7, and one would find out the prominent people in that period and what they were doing. Heroic types abound in the book, which gives it plenty of human interest.

The background briefings at the beginning of each chapter are often economic and political gems. There is one in particular which has implications for Australia:

“By 2004, US dollar assets held outside the US had grown to 11 trillion. The US was now so large a debtor it held power over its creditors, who now had an interest in seeing it remain strong enough to pay on its debt. By 2007, the US was spending $2 billion daily to balance its account with the rest of the world.”[p.396]

About  then, the centre of the world`s financial power shifted to East Asia. It may well be that political power follows suit, which will be a new world for us.

“Personality” in the book`s title refers not only to the personnel at Pendle Hill, but also to the philosophy of personalism which has had an abiding influence there. According to this philosophy, what is ultimate are human persons, and the Divine Person, God. Persons find their fulfilment in community, hence it is important that politics supports communities in which people find it easy to do good and to be good. Rufus Jones became an eloquent spokesman for personalism, as did Howard Brinton and his wife, Anna, who were at Pendle Hill for about 30 years. Gwyn gives three chapters to them in the book, “The Brinton Years” 1936-1952.

Howard Brinton wrote powerfully about mysticism. Thomas Kelly, a similarly inclined contemporary, gives a useful description of what that is:

“the existence of God…is known only through experience…. The certainty of experience is of a different order than that of logic. It grows through trust and the practice of continuous prayer.” [p.138]

The phrase “that of God in everyone” lends itself to two mystical interpretations: firstly, God is always present within us, but only becomes noticeable with constant prayer (Gwyn calls this the Neo-Platonic interpretation); secondly, God is sometimes noticeably present within us, when he comes from beyond us. (Gwyn calls this the mystical realist interpretation).

A contemporary of the Brinton’s, Henry Cadbury, reminds us that not all Quakers are mystics. Speaking for himself, he writes that his religion “rests largely on a life of honest thinking, and kindly dealing” and responding to social issues. [p.118]

Pendle Hill is residential. In 1958 it had 36 private rooms. Considerable attention is given in the book to the governance of Pendle Hill. There seems to have been continuing tension between the governing board, whose chief concern was financial viability, and staff and students, whose aim was community and learning. In its nine years or so of existence, Silver Wattle has had some trouble finding the optimal form of governing board, and, if Pendle Hill is anything to go by, it always will, though, like Pendle Hill, it will come up with a workable model.

Anna Brinton once described Pendle Hill as being like a “radiant upper story of the world”. Silver Wattle might not be there yet, but on some of the days I`ve been there, it`s been close.

Personality and Place – The life and times of Pendle Hill by Douglas Gwyn was published in 2014 by Plain Press: Philadelphia and Birmingham. pp.497. ISBN 1500549363 [paperback]

Reg Naulty, Canberra Regional Meeting.

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