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. …