Rufus Jones: Friend

For more than four decades Rufus M. Jones was the most influential and best loved of Quakers. As professor of philosophy at Haverford College, the author of more than fifty books, and a speaker in enormous demand, he touched young and old; an inveterate traveler, he reached out to men of all beliefs, and the radiance of his spirit was a beacon in a half century which suffered from two World Wars. We turn to JANET WHITNEY, biographer and novelist, for this memorable portrait of a great Friend.


I FIRST met Rufus Jones in the autumn of 1917. I had just come to this country as a young bride, and my American husband took me out to a large Quaker gathering called the Five Years Meeting in Richmond, Indiana. Maple trees roofed every street with gold, and the fallen leaves made a carpet of gold underneath. In the large meetinghouse delegates from sixteen American Yearly Meetings had assembled to do business, with “fraternal delegates” from Philadelphia and London as guests. I was put on the highest bench behind the desk of the presiding officers, and a, big banner on the wall above me read “London” in large letters because I was a fraternal delegate from London Yearly Meeting. At the close of the morning’s session a tall, lean man with scanty reddish hair and a mustache rose up in one of the seats in front of me, turned round and held out both his hands and look mine, and said, “Thee’s welcome here! I’m Rufus Jones.”

I was deeply thrilled. For to all Quakers in all countries Rufus Jones was a living symbol of Quakerism. A witty Friend once made a catchword about him: —

Rufus Jones just twirls his thumb
And makes all Quakerism hum.

The Religious Society of Friends depends in an extraordinary way on person to person influence. It has no pope, no bishop, no moderator, no head executive assembly, council or committee, or central governing body. ll consists ol autonomous groups called Yearly Meetings whose boundaries have been fixed by geography and custom. Even London Yearly Meeting, the parent of all other Yearly Meetings and the oldest in the world, has no authority beyond Great Britain. But in each generation traveling Friends (and often one Friend in particular) arise, who by personal magnetism, a contagious faith, and a devotion to an occasional, voluntary, itinerant ministry, act as a living cement to fix the whole Society together; comparable to the blood which was said to be the unknown ingredient in ancient Roman cement. The outstanding Friend of this kind in the late nineteenth century was my grandfather by marriage, Bevan Braithwaite, a barrister by profession, and a Greek and Latin scholar. He was nicknamed in his day “the Bishop of the Society of Friends.” Rufus Jones was the outstanding Friend, the unofficial “Bishop,” of the generation following.

Rufus Jones was born and brought up in a conservative New England Meeting, South China, Maine, and he never withdrew his membership from that body. As professor of philosophy at Haverford College, he was resident during the major part, of his life in the area of the Orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and he shared in and stimulated its concerns. Beyond the Alleghenies he visited many pastoral meetings and so became an integral part of western Quakerism. In this way, by his strong personality and winning friendship, and by his fresh presentation of what Quakerism really stood for, he bridged gulfs which up to the time I met him had not been bridged in any other way. Not that all agreed with him by any means, but they found it easy to discuss with him, to argue with him, to quarrel with him (as he would say) “in love.”

Copyright 1954,by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

Rufus Jones did not win his way to this position easily. He told a story of how once when he was an awkward, tall young man, unused to public speaking, he rose in a Quaker meeting and broke the solemn silence with what many considered a most bizarre sermon; and when his halting periods came to an end and he sat down, an elderly woman Friend rose on the facing benches and acidly remarked, “Our Lord said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He did not say, ‘Feed my giraffes.'”

How the giraffe became the lamb has some aspects of an American success story—a poor New England farm boy developing into a national and international figure. The success was a by-product. The ambition was to serve God. “While I was too young to have any religion of my own,”he wrote in Finding the Trail of Life, “I had come to a home where religion kept its fires always burning. I was not christened in a church [Quakers do not practice the sacraments], but I was sprinkled from morning to night with the dew of religion. At Meeting some of the Friends who prayed shouted loud and strong when they called upon God, but at home He always heard easily, and He seemed to be there with us in the living silence. My first steps in religion were thus acted. It was a religion which we did together. Almost nothing was said in the way of instructing me. We all joined together to listen for God and then one of us talked to Him for the others. . . . Pre-eminently there was Aunt Peace, my father’s oldest sister, who lived with us, one of God’s saints. As soon as I came into the arms of my Aunt Peace, she had an opening, such as often came to her for she was gifted with prophetic vision. ‘This child,’she said, ‘will one day bear the message of the Gospel to distant lands and to peoples across the sea.’ ”

Under the encouragement of Aunt Peace, Rufus with his energy and initiative earned a scholarship to the Quaker boarding school at Providence, Rhode Island (now the Moses Rrown School). At Haverford College (another scholarship) he pastured on the friendship of his professor of mathematics and philosophy, Pliny Chase. In later years, at Harvard, he was a marked student under William James and Josiah Royce, George Santayana and George Herbert Palmer. James and Palmer in particular were not only valued teachers but loving friends until their death. Study abroad brought Rufus other friends, the most famous the young Sabatier, just beginning on Saint Francis, who fed his growing interest in mysticism. Reading in French, German, and Italian widened his outlook. He once wrote, “Plato and Plotinus, Dante and Goethe, have been throughout my life of prime importance to me.”

It was characteristic of Rufus Jones that he did not go straight from Haverford to Harvard, although on graduation he was offered a Harvard fellowship in history. He chose instead an ill-paid teaching post in a Quaker boarding school in New York State. The art of teaching was the art of communication. And boys and girls responded to such an approach, and presently gave him their love and attention. Problems of discipline melted under the young leader’s enthusiasm and simplicity, and the trouble he took to make his lessons interesting. Life look on added tempo in Rufus’s classes.

His next call came from his home state. As an assistant master and later as a school principal of Oak Grove Seminary in Vassalboro, Maine, Rufus continued the preparation for his unknown future. There were times when he felt as if he were dissipating his energy. He read passionately (nearby Colby College Library furnished books) but he did not know what to read for. The urge to write produced a biography of his uncle and aunt, Eli and Sybil Jones (Quaker ministers), and then found no other outlet for ten years. Yet exercising his powers in these various ways limbered his mental and moral muscles, matured his character, and made his years of graduate study at Harvard, when they came, far richer.


IT WAS in a sunny wood on holiday in the foothills of the Alps that Rufus Jones found his aim at last, in one of the few definitely mystical experiences of his life. “I was on a solitary walk . . . wondering whether I should ever get myself organized and brought under the control and direction of some constructive central purpose of life, when I fell the walls between the visible and invisible suddenly grown thin, and I was conscious of a definite mission of life opening out before me. I saw stretch before me an unfolding of labor in the realm of mystical religion. I remember kneeling down alone in a beautiful forest glade and dedicating myself then and there in the quiet and the silence, but in the presence of an invading life, to the work of interpreting the deeper nature of the soul and its relation to God.”His work in philosophy under Bruno Fischer at Heidelberg persuaded Rufus Jones that the best approach to an understanding of mysticism was to be found in philosophy and psychology. When some years later the time for Harvard came, this field, and not that of history, was where he did his ripe study. It thus became manifest that a deep, though at the time unknown, life purpose lay behind his rejection of the first opportunity to go to Harvard. The fellowship in history would have deflected him. He had been, as Quakers say, “led.”

From then on, the bar against his writing was lifted, and it poured out on a flood tide. For more than fifty years he published a book every year. Most of them were short books, easily read, directed at the great public; the others were historical or philosophical works which took many years to produce. The dynamic faith that was in him provided an endless subject. It demanded ever-fresh outlets of expression, and the stream became clearer and deeper. His life “grew" into a pattern around this central purpose. Variety of activity provided recreation and not distraction. Editing the American Friend, organizing the Five Years Meeting, promoting conferences of Friends, visiting endless meetings up and down the country, or abroad, all fitted in with his writing and speaking.

Once, when our friendship was firmly established, I asked him how he had managed, with all the other things he did, to get any books written. He meditated a moment, twirling his thumbs over his waistcoat, his eyes small and kind behind his strong lenses, and then said, “Well, I wrote my books on Tuesdays.”

That remark not only gave me great delight, but it furnished a key to Rufus’s accomplishment. There were vacations, there were sabbaticalslake them for granted. What counted was the regular habit, the weekly sitting down in the quiet study after breakfast and driving his rapid pen on his free day. He told me that having given consideration, in reverie and reading, through odd times in the week, about what he should write, he lost not a moment when he sat down at his desk.

Rufus Jones had a well-organized mental kitchen and practiced a New England thrift in using up every scrap. When he gave a course of lectures at a conference or at a university, he afterwards incorporated them into a book. This was the origin of the two books which I had read before I saw him, Social Law in the Spiritual World and The Double Search. Other books contained the crystallization of spontaneous sermons which Rufus had delivered in Quaker meetings up and down the country, and had written out afterwards, from memory, in a condensed or an expanded form.

Men and women have always flocked to anyone who will sound in the market place that he has bread to sell “without money and without price.”The new voice, the new conviction, comes with power. It may shock or offend but it attracts. Here’s somebody who really means it. Rufus Jones linked the new psychology to religious faith and he was hungrily listened to.

It is now well known [he wrote in The Double Search in 1906] that isolated personality is impossible. He who is to enjoy the rights and privileges of personality must be conjunct with others. He must be an organic member in a social group and share himself with his fellows, while at the same time he receives contributions from them. In like manner God and man are conjunct.

I believe that no psychological discovery has ever thrown so much light upon the meaning of atonement and prayer as this fact of the conjunct life does, and I hope that many others may come to feel the freshness and reality of these deepest religious truths as I have felt them. . . .

Beyond the edge of what we are there is always dawning a farther possibility — that which we ought to be-the a fronte compulsion. This is one of God’s ways of revealing Himself.

Christ is God humanly revealed. As soon as we realise that personality is always a revelation of the ultimate reality of the universe there are no metaphysical difficulties in the way of an actual incarnation of God. It is rather what one would expect. There is no other conceivable way in which God could be revealed to man . . . only a Person can show Him.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.”

Reading and friendship and travel and hard work and new experiences had all done their part in developing this energetic faith. But it is prayer from which the soul draws its chief nourishment. And it is sorrow that drives a man to prayer.

The earliest sorrow that had fallen upon the voung teacher, struggling in his first job, was the discovery that his wife, lover of flowers and nature, had developed tuberculosis. There followed the breaking-up of the family, the wife being sent to Saranac and the two-year-old son to grandparents. In his autobiographical books Rufus Jones never retraces that sad path. There is a heavy melancholy that is worse than sharp sorrow. Those who have endured long anxiety and depression can find a fellow in him. Without the remedies to tuberculosis that now exist, Sarah Jones, in spite of Saranac and her own fine spirit, slowly died. Her son was then live years old. An extraordinarily close and lender relationship grew up between the widowed father and the motherless child. Lowell — called by his father “Nolly”—was nine and a half when Rufus Jones married Elizabeth Cadbury. Elizabeth was a woman whose shy and warm heart devoted itself from that moment to her husband’s life in complete selflessness, and found a rich return in the reflected light of his career.

Less than two years after this new establishment of a happy family life, Nolty suddenly died. It may have been a lightning attack of polio; the doctors then could not name it. The lively eleven-year-old boy, on a visit to his grandparents, had shown no sign of illness. His lather and stepmother were on the high seas, for a summer of lectures at Woodbrooke in England. It was now that Rufus Jones had the second of the definitely mystical experiences of his life. Walking alone on deck in the summer night in a serene frame of mind, he was suddenly melted and overwhelmed by a sense of the Divine Presence in an all-enveloping Love. No words, no premonition, no human attachment entered into this ecstasy. Next morning the ship docked at Liverpool, and a cablegram was handed to him giving the news of his son’s death; and he knew then for what he had been prepared.

Years later he wrote: “What I did for him cannot be known—there is no one to tell it; but I live still to say that no human being could have done more to teach me the way of life than he did. He helped me to become simple and childlike, gentle and loving, confident and trustful. . . . I know that nothing has ever carried me back, or up, or down into the life of God, or done more to open out the infinite meaning of love, than has my visible separation from Lowell, for the mystic union has never broken and it can know no end.”


ON April 30, 1917, a small group of representative Quakers met in Philadelphia from all parts of the country and formed a committee to unite all Friends in America in national service of a kind consistent with the Quaker “testimony against all war.”This committee presently called itself the American Friends Service Committee and elected Rufus Jones as its chairman. A deputation from it was welcomed into company with the first Red Cross commission sent overseas In the government to investigate needs and opportunities on the field.

The new American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia adopted a statement which said, “The alternative to war is not inactivity and cowardice. It is the irresistible and constructive power of good will.” And they called on American citizens of all faiths “for the invention and practice on a gigantic scale of new methods of conciliation and alt ruistic service.”

The work of the American Friends Service Committee is too well known to need enlargement here. Their English Quaker partners presently united all forms of the English work under the Friends Service Council. Thirty years later, in 1947, the Nobel Peace Prize was given jointly to the Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee, in recognition of the fact that their work was providing one of the greatest influences for peace and good will yet known among mankind.

Rufus Jones always emphasized that the Quaker volunteer workers have one guiding principle: to undo or to assuage the ravages of war. They recognize no enemies, no aliens, no inferiors, no outcasts, no favorites. Need alone obtains their attention. In their warm and humble effort to help they will stop at nothing. They will scrub the floor, or bind the wound, or plow the garden, or feed the child; and always they will comfort the heart. The comfort they bring is like new bread to the hungry, because the workers never get stale or case-hardened. Not only their religious faith but the constant turnover of personnel ensures this. Most volunteers can only afford to give their time gratis for a year or for two. So fresh ones are always flowing in, ail anxious to share their treasure — mental, spiritual, material — with the victims of war and war’s aftermath.

I pause at this point to take notice of a warning. The younger generation, in the person of my distant son, writes me not to “blow an off-key trumpet.” He remarks: “Rufus Jones made an important contribution to the cause of human brotherhood, but the cause of human brotherhood is much broader than Quakerism. Many Quakers forget this and feel that they are somehow God’s chosen people and that anything they do to further the cause of human brotherhood and peace on earth is automatically far more important than anything done by non-Quakers.” May we be forgiven for this horrible sin. He continues: —

“Actually I think the foundation of the American Friends Service Committee was a world contribution (especially in conjunction with the feeding of German children after World War I) but . . . it must be viewed in the perspective of a very large and complex world, where tremendous forces ebb and flow, and where the depth and complexity of human problems is 100 times greater than I think most Quakers have ever allowed themselves to suspect.” There is too much truth in the reproach.

Rufus Jones’s message, whether in print or spoken, usually ran beyond the borders of the Society of Friends. His irrepressible high spirits set electric currents going wherever he went. He broke down opposition with laughter. In wartime he told a story of a belligerent female who called over a fence to a youth milking a cow, “Young man, why aren’t you at the front?” The young man replied, in simplicity, “Because there is no milk at that end.” Speaking at a Commencement on the rising cost of higher education and the doubt of parents and guardians as to whether it was worth it, Rufus remarked, “They often feel like the Israelites in the wilderness, who excused themselves to Moses for their Moloch worship when he came down the mountain, saying to him, ‘Behold, we put in all this gold and we got out this calf!’ ”

I was at Swarthmore Commencement one year when Rufus was the speaker. ‘Times were depressed and colleges were running low. Haverford was feeling a pinch; but the brilliant Swarthmore President, Dr. Frank Aydelotte, had a report to offer full of fireworks — fellowships, gifts, scholarships, bequests. When Rufus Jones rose, he began his speech impromptu: “What Dr. Aydelotte has been telling us reminds me of the story of the little city girl who was shown over a silver fox farm. When she had stared at everything she said to her guide, ‘And how often do you skin ‘em?’ ”

His opponents in the sphere of religion and theology realized uneasily that the magnetism of Rufus Jones’s personality and the dynamic of his message were bound to break up stereotyped patterns. Some resisted him as long as they could. He liked to tell how once, when he went on invitation to give an address to a large gathering of Friends, “a member of the group who strongly disapproved of my position broke the period of silent worship, which came before I was introduced, with a vocal prayer that began with the words: ‘Thou knowest, O Lord, that now we are about to hear a great many things that are not so!’ ”

What was Rufus Jones’s message? It was founded on a return to the old Quaker mysticism, a belief in direct and immediate conference with the Holy Spirit, through the Inward Light. Each contact with God is an act of faith. “Faith is more than insight,” said Rufus Jones. “It is always the beginning of action. It is propulsive. It forlifics the will. It begins as an experiment and ends as an experience. I carried this idea through a number of aspects of life, and endeavored to show that ‘faith’ instead of being a weak basis of religion is one of the strongest of all the pillars upon which life rests, and that even knowledge itself is possible only on the ground of assent to truths not yet demonstrated.”

As he ripened into maturity and power, his modest house on the campus of Haverford College became a mecca not only for Quakers but for pilgrims of all faiths and of no faith from all over the world, drawn by the magnetism of his books and the fame of the Service Committee. Rufus became keenly aware of the belief held by George Fox that Quakerism was not for the few, that it was in reality a spiritual movement for the many. As George Fox had not set out to found a sect, but to renew the sense of contact with the living spirit of God in any sect or people anywhere, so Rufus Jones felt that the Society of Friends, now drawing attention from so many people who had never paid it attention before, could find a spiritual service far beyond its borders. He therefore persuaded his fellow Quakers of the benefit of a loose organization to be called The Wider Quaker Fellowship which any people who cared to could join. Roman Catholic priests are eligible for membership in The Wider Quaker Fellowship, as are Unitarians and Hindus and agnostics. The common meeting ground is perhaps the mystical church, always deep in the Quaker heart, and much emphasized in the teaching of Rufus Jones. The organization of this Fellowship, an entirely new idea to Friends, shows perhaps more than anything else what a change in emphasis was made by American Quakerism under Rufus Jones’s leadership during his lifetime, from being exclusive and “select” to seeking for all means of outreach.

Quakers of all varieties have always united on three main “testimonies”: the testimony against war, the testimony against judicial oaths (as implying a double standard of truth), and the testimony against extravagance and display. Rufus Jones interpreted the last this way: “I hold that the simple life in food and drink, in speech and in clothes, in houses and land, must in the last analysis come back to a more fundamental simplicity, that of the inner spirit. And I was convinced that this inner spirit of simplicity brings out a unique fellowship with God, an intimate friendship of spirit with spirit — a love that casts out fear.”

Heresy hunters might find objectionable material in his utterance, and sometimes did, and Rufus had to clarify his orthodoxy. “Another truth which I endeavored to interpret, with vividness and reality, was the perfect union of the divine and human nature of Christ. When I began my work, there were two well known tendencies in evidence. On the one hand the divinity of Christ was emphasized to such an extent that his humanity was quite lost. He was thought of as a Being from another world, of another order, supernatural, mysterious, unlike us at every point. On the other hand there was a tendency to deny his uniqueness, to insist on a humanity for him like ours, and to grant him nothing more. He was a highly endowed, prophetically gifted man. Here once more the real trouble lay in the misreading of the full truth of both the divine and the human. . . . For me that chasm was unreal. God is and always was here. We have intimate commerce with one another. We could not be persons in any real sense without partaking of God, nor could he be really God and not share with us in grace and love and fellowship. He needs us, and in a deeper sense we need him. The vine must have branches to be a vine. In The Double Search, I was drawing on my own experience when I said, ‘The discovery of God and communion with Him are first fruits of the mystic nature of personality. The edge of the self is always touching the circle of life beyond itself to which it responds. The human heart is as sensitive to God as the retina is to light waves.’ ”

Once when he was ill, Rufus Jones invited me over and we talked about the fear of death, from which, not having had it during the wars, I was then suffering a severe attack. He lay back on his pillows, laughing, looking tremendously happy, and said, “That’s a four o’clock in the morning fear. Everybody is at a low ebb then. 1 have discovered that there is a religion of experience, beyond any argument or theory. As when my little boy died, I have found it absolutely real that God holds one’s hand. There’s nothing, anywhere, to be afraid of.”