Making Noise About Quiet Revolutionaries

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Janet Gardner’s film in progress delves into the roots of Quakerism

By Ilene Dube

The cylindrical box of oatmeal with the white-haired man in the tall black hat is as iconic as an American image gets. As a result, many associate the Society of Friends with the Quaker Oat Company, imagining people clad in old-fashioned garb riding buggies. Because Quakers convey quality and reliability, their image has been used to market everything from safety matches and whiskey to cigars and even a 19th-century chamber pot—yet many of these are products Quakers wouldn’t even approve of. In the early 20th century there was an unsuccessful effort to get a bill through Congress that would have prevented using religious organizations to promote products but the Quaker Oats lobby blocked it, according to Thomas Hamm, a professor at Earlham College, interviewed in Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries, a documentary in the making by the Gardner Group.

“It is often said that Quakers have an influence beyond their numbers,” says Ben Pink Dandelion, a Quaker scholar affiliated with the University of Birmingham, England, also interviewed in the film.

In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, we are surrounded by remnants of Quaker culture, from schools (Earlham and Haverford colleges among them) to Philadelphia’s historic Bartram Garden, founded by Quakers. Peaceable Kingdom, 61 versions of which were painted by Quaker Edward Hicks, hangs in area museums from Philadelphia to Newark. We have Quaker prisons in our midst— Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was influenced by Quaker thinking, where inmates, in solitary confinement, could be penitent in cells with skylights.

The Society of Friends—the preferred name for Quakers—was among the first group of Europeans to settle along the Stony Brook in Princeton, establishing the stone meeting house that is still in operation today. Built in 1726 and rebuilt in 1760, it is the oldest house of worship in Princeton. Within its walls, worshippers sit in silence, meditating, a silent form of prayer. When a worshipper feels moved, he or she may speak to share a thought or observation, announce a humane cause, or even sing a song.

A fundamental principal of Quakerism is “the light within,” which many Friends interpret as a direct and unmediated experience of the divine that guides everyday lives and brings together a community of people. Meeting for Worship is considered an opportunity for deep personal growth and spiritual nurturing.

Award-winning filmmaker Janet Gardner, who lives in Rocky Hill and New York City, observed films about Muslims, Amish and Jewish culture being screened on PBS, but saw little about Quakers. “Even the series God in America only had a passing nod to Quakers,” she says over fizzy lemonade on her sun porch. “I became passionate about the English part of the story.”

In spring, Gardner, who initially funded the project with a kickstarter campaign, received a Guggenheim Fellowship. “This will significantly enable us to proceed with the principal photography and attract more support,” she says of the film, which is just under halfway complete.

Among the reasons Quaker history may be underrepresented, postulates Gardner, is because Quakers don’t proselytize. Also, their propensity to be thoughtful decision makers—they believe in achieving consensus before moving ahead—may have deterred some film projects. Quakers are often mistaken for Amish and Mennonites, and with Shakers—an offshoot of Quakers with whom they share a physical trembling of the body during worship.

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Gardner and her late husband George Morren, an anthropologist, Rutgers professor and Rocky Hill mayor, joined a pilgrimage in 2010 from Philadelphia to England where George Fox was said to have had his vision. In the mid-17th century, Fox, who was tall and charismatic with a powerful voice, shared his belief in an “inward light” and that there is “God” (Quakers believe in the Christian god) in all of us. After not eating for days, he said he felt moved to go to the top of a hill. His vision, considered the beginning of Quakerism, was that anyone could have a direct relationship to “God,” everyone is a minister.

In 1662, the Church of England passed an act that made Quakerism illegal, and 11,000 were imprisoned, says Dandelion. Four hundred died in prison. Quaker women’s heads were covered with a bridle and a metal piece that cut their tongues— trembling and shaking were considered dangerous hysteria. Fox worked with Margaret Fell, who was married to a pre-eminent judge, to promote the idea that women were responsible for bringing the community to meeting, or worship. Fell and her husband took in Quakers and protected them. For this, Fell’s land was taken away and she was sentenced to time in Lancaster Prison, where Fox was also imprisoned. When her husband died, Fell married Fox.

The original name was the Religious Society of Friends of the Truth. When Fox was in court, the judge, mocking Fox for being charismatic, asked, “Do you shake before the Lord?” and Fox replied “Yes, and you should as well,” according to an early cut of the film.

“They didn’t like the name Quakers, but resigned to it and that’s how they’re now known,” says Gardner.

The former field producer, film editor and news writer for NBC News and WNBC-TV, WRC-TV (Washington, D.C.) and CBS News views herself as a “participant observer.” Gardner says she came to Quakerism slowly. Raised an Episcopalian, she met Quakers, who protest all wars, while she was reporting on Agent Orange for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe, and making films about the Vietnam War and Cambodian atrocities: Dancing Through Death (1999), about the Cambodian monkey dancers, and the Emmy-nominated A World Beneath the War (1997). Quakers, early civil rights activists and followers of Gandhi’s civil disobedience, were among the first conscientious objectors.

In 2010, Gardner made Mechanic to Millionaire: The Peter Cooper Story, about the leader of the industrial revolution for whom Cooper Union, her alma mater, is named (she later studied film at New York University). “When you walked into the building, as I did as a young woman, you felt the breadth of history that Cooper endowed, but his accomplishments were a well-kept secret,” she says. She was interested in the fact that Cooper, whose father was a “fire-and-brimstone Methodist,” was influenced by Elias Hicks, a leading Quaker. Cooper “followed Quaker principles in his philosophy. He believed wealth is a public trust. His was made by many people and he believed he should give it back to the people.”

Through the Princeton Friends Meeting, Gardner met Richard Nurse, her co-producer. She took the courses the Society offers for new Friends, and started reading on her own, learning how Quakers were tortured in England. She learned that there are Quakers all over the world, from Indiana and North Carolina to the United Kingdom. In Kenya there are evangelical Quakers.

Perhaps the most famous Quaker was William Penn, who had become exposed to different ideas while a student at Oxford. Quakers were a radical group of farmers and tradesmen, communing with the divine in fields or their homes, without a church or a pastor. “Penn’s father, an aristocrat, was horrified,” says Gardner. “Quakers believed in equality, simplicity and religious tolerance.”

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Penn’s father had loaned money to King Charles II and died before he could collect the debt. Charles was eager to get Penn and his Quakerism out of England and so gave him the land he requested in the new world, “west of Jersey.” Penn saw Penn’s Woods, as it came to be known, as a place for religious tolerance.

Among the places Quiet Revolutionaries takes us to are Lancaster Prison, Haverford Friends School, Princeton Friends Meeting, the hill where George Fox had his vision, as well as Pennsbury Manor in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, Penn’s country home when he lived in Philadelphia.

“Penn wasn’t a typical Quaker,” says Gardner. “He had nine slaves, although he gave freedom to one.” Quakers were conflicted over slavery and over taking land from Native Americans until John Woolman spoke out against such practices.

Seven years ago, Gardner saw a solo performance about the life of John Woolman. She took the card of the actor, and tracked him down to re-enact Woolman in Quiet Revolutionaries.

Both in the Peter Cooper film and the new one, Gardner hires re-enactors to help tell the story of those who lived more than 100 years ago. Cynthia Edwards, formerly of the New York City Opera, helps with casting, costumes and makeup. For Mechanic to Millionaire, there was a cast of 40 but it was shot at one location. For Quiet Revolutionaries, Gardner has been across the pond and around the country. And yet it all comes back home. In the scene shot at Pennsbury Manor, Princeton Friends Meeting member Marcia Willsie, who runs Ezekial’s Table cooking classes in Princeton, portrayed a kitchen worker, herding geese and kneading bread.

Quiet Revolutionaries has been brewing inside Gardner for a number of years. “I always knew I’d make this film,” she says. “From a budgetary and length standpoint, it’s my most ambitious film.”