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"And posterity we doubt not shall reap the benefit of our endeavours, what ever shall become of us." – John Lilburne, England's New Chains, 1649
The "Street Corner Society" website has a staff of one, with contributions by other people (and always open for more). The theme here is history—appreciating the radical enthusiasms, the spirit-led convictions and the life's work of a wider group of people, living and dead.
The site launched in April, 1997, when I was finishing graduate studies in sociology. The book Street Corner Society is a classic work in sociology—a key text in the ethnographic field-study approach I had adopted—and the title seemed to bridge from my academic pursuits into what was yet to come.
At this site, Street Corner refers to the loose public space of the street corner and the market square, once so important for early Friends, and to the urban edginess found in parts of the Quaker movement even today. Society refers to our wider society, at the conceptual intersection of history and biography.* There is also, in the name of this site, a tacit nod to the Religious "Society" of Friends – which was the more respectable name adopted in the 18th century by the people who were originally "known scornfully as Quakers." And Society also anticipates the conviviality we may feel at the electronic crossroads today.
Street Corner Society, the website, thus refers to a common space where the historical experience of Friends and other groups connects with issues of our day, and where we as modern-day Friends and fellow-travellers may discover ourselves more clearly in a broader, historical context.
I was raised a Quaker. My parents joined the Society of Friends after World War II, when many young people were seeking better alternatives to militarism and social inequality. (See Mike Hopkin's essay for a sketch of the period; he puts a lot of emphasis on what was happening on college campuses.) Quaker testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity, and integrity were important for our family when I was growing up, including the biblical and christian contexts for those radical approaches. None of it was heavy-handed, and I've never felt the antipathy toward scripture and religious thinking that is sometimes seen from "refugees" into liberal Quakerism from other religious denominations.
When I was young, we lived in West Philadelphia, in an area called Powelton Village where racial integration was consciously fostered by the local neighborhood association, with communal houses, a cooperative nursery school, and other social amenities seldom seen in the '50s and early '60s. Many of these activities had a strong Quaker component. Powelton Preparative Friends Meeting was held for years in people's homes, later in a rowhouse storefront. For a couple of years when I was young, our family was part of an intentional community called the Baring Street Fellowship, started by Lewis and Sarah Benson who a decade later led the New Foundation Fellowship.
As a Friends World College student in the late '70s, I was in London doing a field project in journalism, and engaged for about a year with a 'collective' that published The Leveller, a civil-libertarian socialist-feminist culture and politics magazine. In exploring the origins of the name "Levellers," I discovered an association between Levellers and Quakers. Another publication I worked for, People's News Service, used the printing facilities of Calvert's North Star Press, the name of which invoked Giles Calvert and made another connection to the early Quaker movement.
Christopher Hill's book The World Turned Upside Down had recently been published and was coming to the attention of Friends. Up to that point, my experience of modern Quakerism was of a loose, one-size-fits-all approach toward faith and practice. History isn't a particularly strong suit for Friends, and it seemed to me that in Hill's book I had stumbled into a hidden stash of secret materials and connections which explained much of what I considered the better side of Quakerism.
I've been exploring these connections ever since, and when the web developed – some twenty years later – this seemed a good way to "share the wealth."
From its start-up in 1997, the Street Corner Society website has been dedicated to John Lilburne. When I first wrote that dedication, I didn't know much about Lilburne—other than that he was a leader of the Levellers and he had joined the budding Quaker movement before he died. He was, I knew, one of the people—along with James Nayler and Edward Burrough—cited by Christopher Hill as radical early Friends who died before they had a chance to help lead the wider movement in post-Restoration England.
In recent years, I've grown to appreciate the contributions of other early Friends—e.g., George Fox (the 'founder'), Richard Farnsworth, Isaac and Mary Pennington, and William Penn—but I continue to believe we poorly understand the Quaker movement if we bracket off the revolutionary spirit of the 1640s and '50s. And in learning more about John Lilburne and his companions in the Leveller movement (e.g., William Walwyn), I find that they exemplify that spirit and its contribution to the character of the Society of Friends.
The selection of materials on this site is affected by an underlying theme:— How does any radical movement establish itself and then persist over time? How did (and does) a spiritual movement, born in a moment of freedom, provide space and opportunity for generations to follow, while keeping its integrity with the insights, values, and testimonies that were important to the first generations? Frankly speaking, what did (and what do) people give up by joining a group such as the Religious Society of Friends — in the 1690s, say, the 1740s, the 1840s, or the 1920s (or today) — and what do we gain?
In other words, why (do we/did they) bother to maintain a "religious society," carrying on "in the manner of Friends"? Why not just relax and have a good time, attend to the cares of this world, and fight—in the style of battle accepted by so many—the wars that people of the day engage in? Really, why not?
I'll leave the last word to Edward Grubb, a Quaker historian who wrote a hundred years ago about the flood of publications produced by the first Friends:
THE rise of the quaker movement in England, which began with the public preaching of George Fox, just about the time of the execution of Charles I, was marked by a surprising outburst of literary activity. . . . Books and pamphlets, broadsheets and public letters, followed one another in rapid succession, setting forth the new way of life, defending it against its adversaries, and pleading for liberty of conscience and of worship. The organisation by which they contrived to get so large a mass of writing into circulation is not yet fully understood. But the fact that they found readers affords noteworthy evidence of the ferment of men's minds in that day, and of the dominance over their thoughts and lives of the religious interest.
Of all this vast output, there is not much that could possibly, by its intrinsic qualities, find any permanent place in English literature; its chief interest now is for the curious student of religious history. Nor can it be said to have influenced in any appreciable degree the intellectual outlook of English-speaking peoples, except in so far as it was one of the unnoticed factors in the evolution of religious thought from the hard dogmatism of puritan days to a more liberal and ethical interpretation of Christianity. Most of the early quaker writings, having served their temporary purpose, were read, so far as they continued to be used at all, by the adherents of the new conception of religious life, and by few or none beside.
(Grubb's essay on The Early Quakers is found at Bartleby.com in an online edition of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907-21), Vol. VIII, The Age of Dryden. Grubb's collected essays on Quaker Thought & History are included at this site.)