George Fox’s Teapot

It’s as if we are venerating people, particularly George Fox, Margaret Fell, and William Penn, and holding holy relics in the Friends House Library. Like what, I asked. “George Fox’s teapot? Fragments of the tree under which William Penn made his treaty with the native Americans? That’s like fragments of the True Cross.”

Well, should we keep such things? The collection is in part a record of the Society, including what we have valued in the past. It does not all have the documents archivists would now like, to show the provenance, though Quakers are truthful, understanding the temptation to exaggerate a story, so I believe Fox owned the teapot and the Friend who donated it had good reason for believing that, or s/he would not have said it was his. We have limited room, and there are interesting archives which might be more worth our attention.

I suggested selling it, and she said that would be unethical. There would be an assumption, perhaps an agreement, when it was given to preserve it and value it. Also, museums and local councils have a vast treasury of objects and documents, which might be sold to pay off temporary deficits where central government should take action and halt austerity. Public goods should not be privatised. However, we might see if another museum or public collection was willing to take it.

I will not undertake a pilgrimage to see George Fox’s teapot, or pieces of wood, or even locks of Margaret Fell’s hair. I would feel a passing interest if I were in Friends House and it were in a display case somewhere, or someone got it out to show it to Friends. I don’t know why anyone might. The head of library and archives is not a Quaker, and that is fine by me as she has particular expertise as an historian and archivist. She was travelling to see an archive of letters from a first world war conscientious objector to his parents, from prison. For all I know the letters might be a new Dietrich Bonhoffer awaiting discovery, or saying nothing which is not well known and documented elsewhere, but if we take them on we have obligations to preserve them and catalogue them, which takes space and staff time. I am happy that a non-Quaker sympathetic to Quaker values make this decision. I would even trust her discretion in disposing of some of the venerated relics, but some Quakers might object. It might be worth opening a discussion among Quakers, of what the Library’s best uses are.

Talking of tea pots: I had not heard of Benjamin Lay, a Quaker anti-slavery pioneer born in 1682. He influenced John Woolman. He could be offensive, on one occasion taking his wife’s tea set to a public place to smash it, piece by piece. He refused to sell any of it. Tea and china was expensive, and could show off wealth or status. It offended his principles of Equality. A Friend and Friends House employee was making a podcast about him. It had to be signed off by senior staff, and I question that: I would trust him to inform and entertain, and accept what he said even if it were not precisely what I might have said. There is, for me, a wide range of reasonable work which I would accept on the Quaker website, to avoid too many people labouring over it and second-guessing, just as we trust the clerk, rather than a committee, to set meeting agendas.

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