John Bright, Radical Politics, and the Ethos of Quakerism *

By Holton, Sandra | Albion, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

John Bright, Radical Politics, and the Ethos of Quakerism *


Holton, Sandra, Albion


During his own lifetime John Bright (1811-1889) assumed an iconic status in the history both of Quakerism and of middle-class radical politics as "the Tribune of the people." Yet he remains an anomalous figure, difficult to place in the frameworks that presently organize the historiography of modem Quakerism, and of reform politics in the nineteenth century. In large part this reflects a failure among his biographers and social historians of this period to analyze in any depth the relation between his politics and his spiritual life. His religious values have been variously denied or given a nodding acknowledgment as fundamental to his radicalism. And where the religious basis of John Bright's radicalism is accepted, there are varying and contrasting accounts of that relationship. (1)

Though his religious affiliation remained central to his own sense of identity, and to how he chose to represent himself in public life, even Quaker perspectives on the history of their own church are presently unable to explain the emergence of such a figure--he remains an odd-man-out, one very much revered, but representing some abrupt shift within Quakerism. Hence, the influential account of nineteenth-century Friends by the Quaker historian, Rufus Jones, suggests that John Bright took his religion in quite new directions. Jones sought, through his historical work, to emphasize the origins of Quakerism in Christian mysticism. So from this perspective, John Bright is necessarily atypical of Quakerism and something of an anomaly. Jones seeks instead to explain him in terms of the uniqueness that accompanies "genius," identifying him as one who "transcended" the "group-ideas and group-sentiment," the "powerful group-tendencies within the Society" of his day. It was John Bright's genius, by this account, to o ffer his own "translation" of Quakerism, and what is more to offer "a notable public interpretation of the spirit and ideals of Quakerism." (2) Elsewhere, Jones is less emphatic, arguing "the hedges were already broken through" between Quakers and the wider society when John Bright entered public life. (3) By explaining John Bright's politics in terms of the "humanitarian" legacy of Quakerism and the decline of religious quietism, Jones makes an elision between the prominence of Friends within philanthropic and moral reform organizations (not so controversial among early nineteenth-century Friends) and political activism (which was). In such ways, he sidesteps discussion of the deep concern of many "weighty" Friends at the appearance of a radical activist in their midst.

Those writing from the perspective of mainstream history have similarly tended to read the political radicalism of John Bright as if it were simply a reflection of the values of Quakerism, and the turning outward of the previously socially-secluded Religious Society of Friends that was underway in his youth. G. M. Trevelyan's classic biography argues, for example, from notions of an independent, freedom-loving national character, of which John Bright becomes the epitome. But he also puts considerable emphasis on the "pervading spirit among Quakers whereby "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity formed part of their inherent and inbred religion." (4) This unexamined elision between the values of the French Revolution and Quakerism presumably rests on an understanding of the historical origins of this church in the religious and political debates that raged during the English Civil War, and of the radical theology of its founders.

Trevelyan places John Bright's entry into politics in the context of the reformed Parliament of 1832, but he also follows Jones in making an elision between public benevolence and political engagement: "in the new and more liberal age now dawning, a closer relation to politics was to be expected from a people so actively philanthropic as the Quakers." (5) He similarly suggests that the political preoccupations of the Bright family were uncharacteristic of Quakers, while he is more frank than Jones in noting the criticism that rained down on John Bright's head from his fellow co-religionists. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

John Bright, Radical Politics, and the Ethos of Quakerism *
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.