Friday, 8 July 2016

IJBS 2016: Quaker mothers and genocidal castaways

Some highlights from the conference of the International John Bunyan Society in Aix-en-Provence: though some of the highlights, from the sun-baked stone to the sound of the crickets, you'll have to take on trust. Why aren't more conferences like this?

Wrenching my attention back to academic matters, the best papers I've heard so far would include Naomi Pullin (currently stuck in postdoc hell at Warwick) on women Quakers 1650-1750. The standard view, part of the consensus that Quakerism calmed down and got domesticated, is that women stopped being prominent Quaker evangelists and were therefore excluded from ministry. Naomi's point is that, by 1750, 90% or more of Quakers were the children of Quakers. Therefore almost all the work of conversion was being done in the home, by women, with children. She has evidence that Quaker women saw this as their vocation, not too different from the work of the public evangelists of the first generation. So Quakerism may have been 'domesticated': but that didn't make it any less powerful.

The most startling paper, however, was from Nicholas Seager, at Keele, on Robinson Crusoe. I didn't know that Daniel Defoe was a Dissenter: nor that he wrote three volumes about Crusoe. Volume one is the famous one. Volume two is a further set of voyages to Madagascar, China and elsewhere, in which amongst other things Crusoe witnesses and is rather unhappy about various atrocities against pagan peoples. Volume three is his 'serious reflections' on his fictional voyages, a set of essays which are apparently quite dull. Until the end. That's when Crusoe suddenly declares that the Christian powers ought to conquer the rest of the planet in order to allow the Gospel to be brought to all humanity. This is fundamentally an act of kindness, he insists. He does argue that such conquests should be bloodless, 'as far as in them lies'. But he has no doubt it can be done. Perhaps China (a country with which he seemed particularly obsessed) could put a million-strong army into the field. Crusoe is sure that a force of 30,000 German and English foot, and 10,000 French horse, would slaughter them.

In other words: uh????

My first thought hearing Nick summarise this was, it's a spoof. Defoe is being ironic. Nick considered this option and concluded  it's not so, or at least not quite. Yes, this plan is self-contradictory in places and is put into the voice of a fictional character, whose own behaviour on this issue has been very inconsistent across the three volumes. But Defoe did write openly ironic, satirical works and this one has quite a different feel. Nick's conclusion is - I think! - that Defoe half meant it: that he was using the device of the fictional voice to play with a dark fantasy of quick, easy world evangelism-at-gunpoint that he knew was a fantasy but still felt tempted by. I was put in mind of the militaristic fantasies which talk of war can provoke otherwise sensible people into in our own day. It would be so appealing if problems really could be destroyed precisely with laser-guided bombs.

Whether Nick is right about Defoe, I can't say. But it sounded plausible to me: and, more important, fascinating.

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