Growing Up Plain Among Conservative Wilburite Quakers: The Journey of a Public Friend

By Wilmer A. Cooper

Friends United Press/Pendle Hill Publications, 1999 | ISBN 0-944350-44-5

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

This is a short, enjoyable look at the life of a man who was led to leave his Conservative Wilburite community to venture into a world that is now strangely more familiar to him than his birthright community. Wilmer Cooper, founder of the Earlham School of Religion and its first dean, writes both from the heart and from the head in this book about tradition and the pitfalls of living in the Spirit amid the flux of American life and culture.

For those who know little about Conservative Quakers, this little book goes a long way toward giving a well-rounded picture of the history, traditions, and future of Friends who are committed to remaining true to the earliest vision of the Religious Society of Friends. Cooper spends two chapters of his work (in addition to one of four appendices) on the history, thought, and traditions of the Conservative Wilburite Quakers. Taken together, this material gives a thoughtful and clarifying statement about the Quaker faith and the changes it has undergone from the mid-19th century to the present. Those who know the history of Quakers—especially the last volatile 175 years—will greatly appreciate this steadying picture of a now-diverse community of believers. Here there are also good, succinct statements about such standard Quaker issues as the resurrection, salvation, perfection, worship forms, the Bible as an authority, ministry, the sacraments, discipline, and Quaker testimonies.

Growing up during the Depression, Cooper's childhood years in a Conservative Wilburite community in rural Ohio meant living in a unique but restrictive community that spoke against things that many of us take for granted today: fiction, drama, dancing, music, games of chance, and the customary holidays such as Christmas and Easter. It was a life of simplicity and "plainness," and even without First Day schools or gathered Bible study. As we follow Cooper's early years, we learn to appreciate his early tradition and to feel his affection for this committed Christian lifestyle. And there are many poignant moments, too, such as surreptitious discovery trips with his father to Holiness religious meetings, his embarrassment at the "thee" and "thou" of the "plain language," a marriage without wedding rings, and his first day at public school. Despite a tradition that discouraged higher education and did not believe in theological training, Cooper moved away from his family and community as he attended college, served in the Civilian Public Service, completed graduate study with a Ph.D., and created a respected school of religion within the wider Quaker community.

This book informs as much as it entertains, delivering a balanced portrait of one life as it was lived within two different traditions, two distinct lifestyles, but within a single Christian perspective. This is a story of love and leadings, of truth's expression in a Spirit-led decision, of one man's appreciation of his childhood faith, and of why this faith community should not disappear in the vortex of a carnal world.

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Copyright © 1999 by Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved