News & Events

2010 Willson Lectures Shared "The Road to ESR"

On April 5th and 6th, Friends were treated to talks by Tom Hamm, Professor of History and Archivist at Earlham College, on "The Road to ESR: Or, the Long, Tangled, and Often Confusing Story of How Friends Came to Embrace Theological Education."

Tom Hamm
Tom Hamm Presents the 2010 Willson Lectures in the ESR Center

Hamm noted that one of the prophetic voices in this long process was Mary S. Thomas of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. She attended the Richmond Conference of 1887, where the yearly meetings who followed the vision of Joseph John Gurney were allowing for Friends’ Meetings to call pastors. Thomas exhorted Friends that "if you let this method in, and I believe in the bottom of my heart that it has nothing to do with the Society of Friends at all, if you let it into the church you will find the theological seminary at the end of it."

Hamm noted salient points of Friends’ history from the over 200 years of history that preceded Thomas’ prophecy, and the several generations that ensued after it, before ESR, as the first Quaker seminary, was born in 1960. The earliest Quakers, in the 1650s, denounced the notion that ministers of Christ could be formed at such great universities as Oxford and Cambridge. He remarked that, in 1654, the first Quaker ministers to confront Oxford, Elizabeth Fletcher and Elizabeth Leavens, ended up being held beneath a town pump by hostile townspeople until they almost drowned.

He traced the Quaker aversion to theological education to an attitude of quietism, that any action, certainly any ministry, that human beings engage in must be born of the Holy Spirit, and not of human will. This position of Friends was put into very stark terms by the 18th century Quaker writer Richard Claridge, who affirmed that "the neglecting of the plainness and simplicity of the Gospel, and running to the schools of linguists, orators, philosophers and rhetoricians, for weapons out of their armory to fight the Prince of Darkness, who understands the wielding of those weapons better than themselves, has been one main cause of that success he hath met with in the world."

Friends had dug themselves into a big hole in regard to theological education, and Hamm painstakingly described how Friends slowly climbed out of that hole over the next two centuries. Quakers were not opposed to education. Hamm remarks that George Fox encouraged education "in whatsoever things were civil and useful in creation," so as early as the 17th century, Quakers had begun to establish schools, but not for the study of theology. By the 19th century, an information revolution had begun to expose Friends to a profusion of reading material, including that with pious or theological content. The editors of one Quaker journal in 1868 opined that "the effect of this reading in directing thought and forming opinion amongst our members, though almost incalculable, is only beginning to be felt."

After the schisms that in 1827-1828 and following years, the eagerness of different branches of Quakerism to get their slant on the Quaker message out only increased the use of printing presses. The establishment of Quaker colleges from 1833 onwards was designed to increase the capacity of Quaker youth, among other things, "to train their religious perceptions in humility to reverence and adore the fundamental Truth as professed by Friends," as one visitor to Swarthmore college put the point. Still, this was some distance from a theologically trained group of ministers. 

The emphasis on the need for an improved ministry among the advocates of the renewal and revival movements that flourished among Gurneyite Friends in the Midwest and elsewhere after the Civil War further pushed Friends down the long, tangled road to the establishment of a seminary. Eventually, by the 20th century, Hamm argued that most Friends "united on the desirability of a Quaker theological seminary" as a means to improve Quaker ministry, but desisted from that enterprise "because of doubts about each other." The available money was also limited; the richest Friends lived on the east coast, where skepticism of a trained ministry ran highest. In the early twentieth century, Friends interested in ministry looked variously to Quaker colleges, Quaker study centers such as Woodbrooke and Pendle Hill, Bible Institutes, and non-Quaker seminaries (often, however, with Quaker faculty, like Hartford Theological Seminary) for their needs in ministerial training. Quaker colleges, like Earlham, had definite disadvantages in ministerial training; an M.A. program in religion at Earlham produced few graduates.

When ESR took shape in the late 1950s and 1960, the disagreements among Friends as to what a theological seminary should teach, if anything, were still very much present. But the outlook of Landrum Bolling and Wilmer Cooper, ESR’s founding dean, was decisive. In Cooper’s words, "Probably the only way such a school would ever start was for a responsible group to simply start it and try to win the support of enough Friends and other interested people to make it a viable undertaking." And that, with the blessing of its Board of Trustees, would be the project undertaken by Earlham in 1960.

Thanks to Tom Hamm for his interesting and entertaining account of The Road to ESR. His lectures were a fitting tribute and addition to the celebration of ESR's 50th anniversary.

Written by Steve Angell
ESR Professor of Quaker Studies