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In Our Time: Quakers and Early Geology

Friday 13 April 2012, 14:00

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: This week Melvyn Bragg refers to the two latest episodes of In Our Time about George Fox and the Quakers and Early Geology. As always the programmes are available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD


Sorry I didn't manage a newsletter last week. This is a double issue. But it won't be twice as long - I promised Ingrid! Last week I hared off from the programme to Heathrow to jump in a plane to go to New York to interview Nick Hytner about One Man, Two Guvnors and its transfer to New York, and Baryshnikov about the male dancer, both for a new series of The South Bank Show we are about to do, and in the process I forgot the newsletter.

The next day was Good Friday when even Ingrid would not be in the office. Therefore pointless to do a newsletter. I wanted to talk about the Quakers I had known back in Wigton in the 1950s. There was a Quaker school on the edge of the town, said to be the first co-educational boarding school in the country. The Quakers came into the town itself to a fine, plain, brownstone meeting house which later became the town library, run by Quaker ladies who I remember as almost beatific in their kindness and assistance. I also remember helping them to put up the boards in front of the books so that the spines of the volumes did not interfere with the calmness of the Quaker meetings, and it was panelled all round the room.

I thought of the Quakers then as pacific, kindly and altogether exemplary in their quietism and even in their meetings (rather than services). It seemed to me (a few years later when I learned about the Celtic monks) to hark back to a purer and more inspirational notion of Christianity, which itself harks back to what we know of the Apostles through Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

We played them at rugby which was a bit unfair because we had a rather larger school than they had. And they have stayed with me as a presence. I wasn't surprised when Tom Morris, the producer of In Our Time, told me that there had been a far greater than usual response to this programme on the audience log etc, and also observed that a friend of his had said that the Quakers were the only people that every faction in Northern Ireland, at the worst times, felt they could talk to.

I like the idea of Pennsylvania. I like the idea of turning to chocolate in order to give people an alternative to drink. I also like the idea that perhaps they didn't understand that to have a glass of red wine AND dark chocolate is irresistible.

In Our Time: Early Geology

This week: geology, which takes me again back to Cumberland and to a man called Otley. He lived upstairs in one of the little half houses in Keswick and was a geologist of great note. He was part of that cluster of talent in the Lake District around and about the time of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Southey and Thomas de Quincey.

Once geology had got underway with the Germans discovering that when you went down deep you found a different view of the Earth than that thought of in the abstract by Aristotle, then the British Isles came into their own and undoubtedly, in the 19th and early 20th century, led the way. This is the most geologically varied area of land in the world, and mostly we celebrate that on the surface by appreciating different landscapes from the Highlands to the Chilterns, from Cornwall to the flatlands of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Also in Cumberland you had the great presence of John Ruskin - perhaps the greatest dominating intellectual of the second half of the 19th century in Western Europe - and he spoke of geology as hearing the clink-clink of the hammers of the geologists, which were chipping away and chipping away at his faith.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Mr. Bragg,
    I am a huge fan of your show! I absolutely love it!
    One of the highlights of my week is listening to it via podcast here in the U.S.A.

    I would also like to applaud your work in promoting greater understanding of the King James Bible, especially its history and influence. Please could you do a show on the King James Bible and its legacy. And whilst you are considering that request, would you also consider doing a show on the Book of Common Prayer 1662? I am a former Roman Catholic who now uses the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible as my primary personal devotional resources. Anglicanism is one of the most beautiful Christian traditions and I am constantly trying to deepen my uderstanding of it.

    Keep up the good work! All of the very best wishes!

    Paul Collins

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Doing nothing and saying nothing until the Holy Spirit moves them to speak.Scripture is the source of their revelation,not the Church or any intermediary.Very worthy in some ways.Anabaptism in Luther’s time, unacknowledged and unwelcome,repudiated all law,not bound byformulas, guided by the Holy Spirit.They arrived at communism and sexual promiscuity. It spread to Holland,England and America;historically it’s the source,in softened forms, of Quakerism.Modern branches have nontheistic outcrops.The protestant emphasis on the individual conscience was essentially anarchic.Every individual person has the power of direct communication with God who will guide him into the ways of truth.This power said to come from the “inner light”of his own heart,the light of Christ.Quakers meet for worship avoiding all ritual,without ordained ministers or prepared sermons;often there is silence until someone is moved by the Holy Spirit to utter his message.The silence and the sitting quietly is something we could like.However what is to stop someone getting up and showing us their holiday snaps and describing them in glowing terms.Instead of the ministers handing out commonplaces,here it is liable to just be anybody.If they are no more than what they claim to be-a “Society of Friends”,who are we to argue?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Thank you Melvyn for another interesting 'In Our Time' - 'Geology'
    However, I was surprised and disappointed that you omitted to even mention William Smith - the father of English Geology who walked thousands of miles of the British countryside to research its geology by eye and hand, on his own. Then, in 1815, at his own expense. he published the first geological map of Britain.
    Is this a sign of the class snobbery which is still very much alive in this country?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I listened to the programme on "The Quakers" with particular interest. Having been a Quaker myself for many years. I am an ex-pat Brit, living in Pennsylvania. I well remember when living in Somerset being fascinated by the older Meeting Houses that were off the beaten path; reflecting the need by early Friends to meet in secret. There are quite a few lovely old Meeting houses here in Pennsylvania, as one might expect. But you got one thing glaringly wrong. Pennsylvania was not named for William Penn. And as a good Quaker he would have been distressed that this assumption had been made. In fact, Penn tried to have the Commonwealth name "New Wales" , but was prevented. Pennsylvania was named in honour of his father; Admiral Sir William Penn. And apparently, King Charles II was insistent on this point. A local example of Quaker modesty exists in the town of Berwick, Pennsylvania. Founded by Quaker Evan Owen. Evan refused to have his name remembered by calling the town "Owensburg" or some such, and gave the honour of naming the town to the first female settler. Mary Brown had been born in Berwick-on-Tweed, and thus; Evan Owen's Welsh roots have been forgotten. In fact, due to Evan's modesty; we are not even sure of his last resting place, there being no marker in the cemetery. Quaker modesty is commendable, but hell for historians.

    Fiona Siobhan Powell.
    Folk Historian/Storyteller.
    Living in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Long before the marine origins of the Himalayas came to the attention of science, classical scholars were attempting to explain similar evidence of marine origin in European mountains.In the 6th century BC Xenophanes that seashells were embedded in the rocks of mountain ranges far from the coast,the Earth and sea must once have been mixed up together. Aristotle(384-322BC) thought earthquakes and volcanoes were caused
    by hot winds that forced their way through fractured rocks deep underground, occasionally bursting through the Earth’s surface.Aristotle posited the slow rate at which the earth physically changes beyond one person’s lifetime. For many centuries true explanations were beyond the reach of human enquiry,religon and mythology fed upon the hellish underworld of earthquakes,volcanic fire and brimstone.Chinese administrators had kept a detailed record of earthquakes since 780BC and in the 2nd century AD invented the 1st seismograph to detect distant earthquakes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    During the 17th century the heated debate between religion and science over the Earth’s origin further propelled interest in the Earth and brought about more systematic identification techniques of the Earth’s strata. The Earth’s strata can be defined as horizontal layers of rock having approximately the same composition throughout.The science of geology has advanced by stripping away the religious topsoil which formerly covered it from Archbishop Usher’s pronouncement of the age when the earth began(4004 BC). Two feuding theories developed to explain the Earth’s origin with designated followers: the Neptunists whose theory supported that of the Bible’s Great Flood and the Plutonists who believed the Earth gradually formed over an immeasurable amount of time. Imperialism forged new voyages of discovery. Charles Darwin made geological observations on such a voyage, providing evidential support of his revolutionary theory of evolution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Again a religious debate ensued; two conflicting groups, uniformitarians and catastrophists, argued over the age of the Earth. Charles Lyell, an influential uniformitarian, published his book in 1830 the “Principles of Geology” which proposed that the Earth changes very gradually and is immeasurably old.Christian reasoning sought scientific evidence to prove that the Great Flood had occurred and had formed the rock strata of the Earth.An interesting argument was that God had placed fossils in the ground to confuse us!Hutton’s theory of the gradual solidification of molten rock led him to the conclusion that the Earth was immeasurably old and could not possibly fit within the limits of the inferences from the Bible. Plutonists believed that volcanic processes were the chief agent in rock formation, not water from a Great Flood. From the works ofeducated men, as well as others, it became acceptable by the mid 18th century to question the age of the Earth. This questioning represented a turning point in the study of the Earth. It was now possible to study the history of the Earth from a scientific perspective rather than a religious one. Without chronology there can be no history.It was the scientific study of the age of rocks rather than the religious study of the rock of Ages,that freed geology from the umbrella of the Bible and mythology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Can I second Mike 694's comment?
    I was a student of geology some years ago, and was amazed at the omission of William Smith. I can't believe he would simply be overlooked, and can only conclude it was purposely done.
    Maybe it was thought that his work on mapping was covered by other people mentioned, and not of significance in the 'scientific' progress of this subject? I'd really like to know.


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