Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
A Brief History of ‘A Guide to True Peace’
What follows is a brief textual history of the Quaker contemplative work, “A Guide to True Peace”.
The work is based on the works of three continental Quietists; Madam Guyon, Archbishop Fenelon, Miguel Molinos. The ‘Guide’ weaves together passages from these authors’ works. Primary sources include “A Short Method of Prayer” by Guyon, “The Spiritual Guide” by Molinos, and “Maxims of the Saints” by Fenelon. These works are not quoted directly and some changes are made in the borrowing. In addition to the weaving together of these works, the ‘Guide’ threads a large number of biblical quotations throughout the short work.
The work was compiled by two British Quakers, William Backhouse and James Janson. I don’t know which Meeting they belonged to.
Although this collage of sources may seem like a somewhat arbitrary procedure, the result is a truly excellent work on Christian contemplation. The work reads smoothly, even elegantly. It has been very popular among Quakers for two centuries. And it has also gained a following outside of specifically Quaker contexts. For example, Tozer recommended the ‘Guide’ in his list of Christian Classics. And it is currently in print in several editions that are not specifically Quaker sponsored.
The first edition was published in 1813. It was well received.
The second edition was published in 1815. It is, according to the frontispiece, ‘corrected and enlarged’. The order of the chapters is changed from the 1813 edition, and it is, overall, a somewhat longer work. There are other editorial changes as well having to do with sentence structure and the source of biblical quotations.
The 1815 edition became the standard that all subsequent editions of the ‘Guide’ followed; that is to say, for example, the chapter order of the 1815 edition is the one that all subsequent editions use. The 1815 edition is, therefore, the most influential edition of the ‘Guide’, as all other editions depend on it and are ultimately traceable back to it. And a few of the newer versions available today have used the 1815 edition as the basis for their current, edited, editions.
The 1815 edition was published with a second work, “A Short Work, But of Greatest Concern”, by William Tomlinson. I am completely unfamiliar with this work or its author and I have not been able to find an online version of it; though I did find out it was first published in 1696. I hope to track down a copy of it to see what it has to say. It appears the subsequent editions dropped the Tomlinson work; I believe it is unique to the 1815 edition.
The first American edition was published in 1816. So American Quakers picked up on the ‘Guide’ very quickly.
There is a different edition published in 1818 which is also labeled ‘First American Edition’. I am not sure why both the 1816 and 1818 editions claim ‘First American Edition’ status; but tentatively I think it is possible that the 1818 publishers were unaware of the 1816 release. The two editions are not identical, containing some minor differences in punctuation and capitalization, so they are genuinely different editions. The 1816 edition was published in New York and the 1818 edition was published in Philadelphia.
Editions continued to be published every two to five years throughout the nineteenth century. They all contain slight variations in spelling (English vs. American), punctuation, and sometimes sentence structure. In addition, some place biblical citations within the text while others use footnotes at the bottom of the page. But the differences are confined to these minor matters.
In 1839 an edition was published that I do not yet have a copy of. But it would be the basis for later editions published by Harper and Pendle Hill.
In 1846 the ‘Third American Edition’ was published and this seems to have been particularly successful. A lot of subsequent editions can be traced back to this printing. Reprint houses, and several recent ‘modernizations’ use this as their source text. The 1846 edition also contains William Shewen's "Counsel to the Christian Traveller". Subsequent editions did not keep the work by Shewen.
Skipping ahead to 1946, this is a significant edition that was published by a major commercial publisher, Harper and Brothers, in both New York and London. It is 'based on' the 1939 Edition. The publication of the ‘Guide’ by such a prestigious publisher reflects that the audience for the ‘Guide’ had grown beyond a specifically Quaker audience. As a work of devotion it has a broad appeal. The ‘Guide’ is not a work of theology; it is a practical work offering instruction in the prayer of inward silence. Doctrinal views are almost absent from the work and because of this a wide range of Christians could access its teachings without feeling they were somehow stepping outside the boundaries of their specific tradition. Having said that, the ‘Guide’ is an explicitly Christian work; in that sense its approach is not a universalist one. That is to say the ‘Guide’ privileges Christianity. This would have been the standard view among Quakers and other Christians; it would not have been controversial.
The one peculiar feature of the 1946 edition is the removal of the biblical sources from the text. Quotation marks are placed around the citations, but no reference is offered; not in the text itself, not in any footnote, nor in endnotes. This edition contains a well-known ‘Introduction’ by Howard Brinton. In the ‘Introduction’ Brinton states that the 1946 edition is ‘based on’ the 1939 edition. So it is possible that the references were first removed in 1939; I’m not sure as I haven’t seen the 1939 edition as yet.
In 1978 the Foundation for Human Understanding printed the ’46 edition in pamphlet form. The FHU is a contemplative community, somewhat on the fringe, founded by Roy Lee Masters. I had previously thought that the FHU had altered the ’46 edition and that these alterations were the basis for some online distorted versions that have recently appeared. But in a letter I received from the FHU I have been assured that this is not the case. They sent me a reprint of their 1978 pamphlet, published in 2007, and it is an exact reproduction of the ’46 edition. I find the association of the ‘Guide’ with FHU intriguing because it indicates the widespread influence and usage of the ‘Guide’ beyond specifically Quaker circles. FHU informs me that they “never conducted courses or used” the text for study, but that the ‘Guide’ was considered insightful and so made available to members.
In 1979 Pendle Hill reprinted the ’46 edition, an exact reprint. It was the most widely available edition among Quakers for some decades.
About 2007 or 2008 several online editions of the ‘Guide’ appear. They appear to be based on the third American edition. But they have seriously altered the teachings of the ‘Guide’. In particular, passages in the First Chapter are so altered that they actually say the opposite of all printed editions of the ‘Guide’. At this time there is no authentic online edition available; a sad situation. I have attempted to track down the source of the alterations, but haven’t been able to uncover it. The alterations seek to change the nature of the ‘Guide’ by changing passages about the nature of interior silence. The issue is whether or not interior silence is non-conceptual or verbal in its nature. The ‘Guide’ stakes out a claim for a non-conceptual understanding of silence; while the online versions alter those passages so that they instead advocate for a silence which is verbal and conceptual.
From 2009 right through 2012 several new editions have been published. There are currently three ‘new’ editions available. By ‘new’ I mean editions which have significantly edited the ‘Guide’, as opposed to simply reprinting an earlier edition. These refer to themselves as ‘modernizations’ and seek to use a more modern vocabulary, sentence structure, and paragraphing. The results, to my mind, are mixed. Some of the new versions have extensive changes; others are edited with a lighter touch. I may not be the best judge of these modernizations because I have such a strong fondness for the original. I can see, though, that some people would find a newer style more accessible. But truth to tell, I think if you really want to access the ‘Guide’ I would suggest going for a reprint of an older edition. Reading the ‘Guide’ is no more difficult than reading Jane Austen. In some ways, I think the newer modernizations have created new barriers to understanding by chopping up paragraphs into smaller units and sentences into smaller bites. When this is done connections become lost and, from my point of view, there is a loss of beauty and flow.
And what about the future of the ‘Guide’? The ‘Guide’ seems to have a secure place in Christian devotional literature. Current publishers of the ‘Guide’ are not Quaker publishers. So from that perspective the audience for the ‘Guide’ seems to be increasing. But what about the ‘Guide’s’ presence among Quakers? My view is that the ‘Guide’ might be a means for modern Quakers to recover the more contemplative dimension of their tradition which, in modern times, has been overwhelmed by activists either of a religious or political nature. The ‘Guide’ is a Quaker work, but only if one places a priority on union with God through Jesus Christ.