Thursday, February 6, 2014

For some reason the past few days I've been thinking about Quakerism as a brand. This is highly unusual for my mindset, but I thought I'd better give it a go and see where I'm taken. History first; Quakerism was a movement before George Fox established himself as the prophet of it. It just so happened that the same Christ that spoke to Fox's condition spoke to lots of others as well. Yet for decades after Quakerism congealed as a recognizable body, Friends wrote, argued, and lobbied against other strands of religious fervor that were similar to Friends but not quite the same. Probably the best known were the Ranters, who, like Friends, believed in the direct revelation and incarnation of the divine (they also were given a name that unfavorably described their actions). In 1676 Robert Barclay wrote a treatise against the Ranters as London Yearly Meeting was coalescing. At the same time greater norm control was exercised by the elders of the Quaker movement, in reaction to the Ranters, who were much more disorganized and anarchic. Likewise the Peace Testimony was drawn up, largely to deflect comparison to the Fifth Monarchy Men, who also believed that Jesus Christ was returning to lead true Christians into the kingdom. Interestingly, the Muggletonians reacted against Quaker belief by insisting that reason was divine, and that God does not generally interfere in human affairs, and thus were intensely anti-evangelical. Quakerism filled a void, but had to establish its position among similar faiths. Some of the theological points may seem arcane, but they were endeavoring to speak the same language to the same people, dissatisfied with the Church of England. Quakers were successful because they brought to the marketplace of ideas: 1. Direct and continuing revelation 2. Egalitarianism 3. A quasi-revolutionary mission to bring more divinity into the world, but one that didn't fall into the millenialist trap or alienate large sections of the population There are probably more, but I can't think of any just now. Let's just take these three. They are still hallmarks of the Quaker brand and even today can't be taken for granted in the world of faith. But all have influenced other faiths, and so they're not exactly new anymore. Most Protestants have taken on the idea of direct and continuing revelation, though few have taken the route Quakers have. Emphasizing the personal experience of Christ (e.g. being saved) is a relatively new phenomenon, directly descended from the holiness movement which infiltrated Quakerism and played a part in the Hicksite/Orthodox split. Continuing revelation is also a recent part of the Mormon church, which now allows congregations a significant degree of latitude in determining divine truth. How do we distinguish Quaker process of discernment from others? We have some bindings, in that Friends (Liberal Friends anyway) are mostly universalist, or at least henotheist, so it'd be difficult to say that our way is divinely ordained. However, we do need to be clear about our reasons and context for embracing direct and continuing revelation. Likewise with Egalitarianism, which has been a multi-fold impulse in that Quakers tried to eliminate prejudice and elevate to ministry all regardless of sex, race or class, responding only to that which spoke divine Truth. This project is still a struggle both for Quakers and the wider church, but at least there have been many churches to try to take on social differences even if they haven't been able to maintain that radical edge. Unitarian Universalists are a modern church that lifts up egalitarianism to a higher degree than Quakers, or at least fosters more conversation about it. Quakers also tend to talk a lot about the egalitarian mission, but don't often talk about how they walk the walk and what struggles that entails. No faith group in the history of religion has successfully walked the line of bringing divinity without alienation without straying to either side occasionally. Fervor is powerful but fickle. Ask where the Temperence Union, the Utopians, and other moral crusaders have gone. But also ask how the Christian right has been so successful. Quakers have by-and-large reacted to the alienation shown towards the christian right, by alligning more with secular quasi-revolutionaries, and sometimes actual revolutionaries, but this has led to confusion of divine light and human-centric justice. In the aftermath of the Occupy Protests in Philadelphia, a member of Central Philadelphia MM, which had played bathroom and shower host during the protests and continued to host the meetings of the core group, was remembering to me the time of the Vietnam War when many meetings saw their numbers rise in response to the draft and anti-war activism. From his reckoning, the meeting's association with Occupy had resulted in no new participants or attenders. My contribution to why this might be was that the US had greater church participation rates in the 60's than it does now and that may explain some of it, but I think now it might be something different. I think that the Vietnam War, in its starkness, touched off a greater spiritual battle and a greater moral reckoning for the largely middle class influx of attendees, that class inequality, in its mundane privilege, fails to provoke. Some Friends do a good job with the language of privilege, but can they sustain the divine joy while working on messy political issues? I really hope so. I don't really think Quakers need to change much in substance. Quakerism attracts new members even as it loses some. But in presenting its substance, Quakers could really use some clarity on what exactly it brings to the hearts and lives of those who practice it. Maybe clarity is the wrong word, because there are many experiences of Quakerism, but exposure. Some argument of how Quakerism gets religion right.


  1. Two points: 1. You're right. Quakers need more exposure and would profit immensely from the refreshing interaction with non-Quakers that exposure would bring. 2. Fuhgedaboutit. Quakers (mostly) recoil at any exposure that would allow others to seriously question their beliefs. My take is that what draws many Friends to Friends is that, as a body, the sect is so, so forgiving of personal conduct. Above all, what they want is to not be questioned.

  2. Hi there. I´m interested in talking more about your ideas. I live in Sweden, was raised evangelical/pentecostal, but gradually have turned to anarchism and also been losing my faith, but recently become more and more interested in quakerism. Would you like to email me?