Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries

by Elaine Learnard
Conscience Bay Meeting


For an Interest Group at Summer Sessions, we joined filmmakers Janet Gardner and Dick Nurse by Zoom to hear about the making of the documentary Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries. Our conversation was facilitated by Karen Tibbals of Rahway and Plainfield Meeting, who holds an MA in Quaker Studies from Earlham College. Janet and Dick are members of Princeton Meeting of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.


Janet told the story of how she first thought of making this film. She had joined some Philadelphia Quakers making a pilgrimage to sites of Quaker history near Lancaster Prison in England. Janet was learning much about Quakerism’s beginnings, the early persecution and suffering of Friends, and Fox’s vision of a great people gathered. On a gray and misty day, she struggled to make the difficult trek up Pendle Hill in the fog. As she reached the top to sit and look out over the scene of Fox’s vision, the clouds parted and the sun came out, and she wondered, “Is this a leading?” As we see in the resulting film, it was indeed a leading and one to which Janet, later joined by Dick, was steadfast in following through.


The film is organized by topic, not as a chronological history.  Janet and Dick did not think of themselves as experts at the beginning of the project, so they sought out and met with individual Quaker scholars and activists. From each person they learned of another, with their list of contacts and historical information growing as they worked.  They were learning how to explain the “history and mystery” of Quakerism, as Dick puts it; the facts and then the corrections of the many popular misconceptions about Quakers, including that we do not even exist anymore!


They had challenges in filming.  Filming a meeting in progress? Not necessarily welcome. Filming actors in reenacted scenes? Not necessarily easy, on a limited budget in a different country.  Filming at historic sites? Not necessarily available as needed.


They had to develop funding for the film, beginning with a Kickstarter fund and donations from individuals, ultimately getting support from several Quaker foundations. Additionally, Janet received a Guggenheim Fellowship while they were working on the film, which helped them move work along.


Karen enjoyed seeing the film and told the filmmakers that she found it accurate and balanced, not painting an unblemished picture of all that Quakerism has been in the world but telling the truths.  Yes, early Quakers were active abolitionists, but nonetheless most did not welcome people of color into full participation in meetings.  Karen asked why some things were left out, such as Elizabeth Fry’s prison work. The answer was that they could not fit everything of importance into an 80-minute film.  Important stuff got “left on the cutting-room floor,” at least figuratively.  Karen did note that though the film talks about the testimonies that we describe today as the SPICES, which is important information for folks who do not know about Quakerism, the Quakers in earlier centuries would not have used a set formulation and would have talked about testimonies more broadly.


Janet and Dick are eager to promote Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries to educate more people about Quakerism. The website for the film is www.quakersthefilm.com. A DVD of the full film, the version we showed for Summer Sessions, will be available for purchase. The website for Janet’s company (www.gardnerdocgroup.com) also has information about her many documentaries on diverse topics.