Disagreement happens — get used to it!

One of the core differences among Friends in Indiana Yearly Meeting today is whether gay and lesbian people can be members of our meetings and participate fully in the activities of our meetings. Friends on all sides of this issue have very strong feelings, which they back up with all kinds of reasons – from law, psychology, Quaker tradition and especially from the Bible.

Each of these different kinds of reason deserves its own special treatment. There are pros and cons for each, and reasonable people can disagree on them.

For this post, I’d like to consider some of the arguments from tradition – the idea that what’s been done in the past should always define and control what is allowed in the present and in the future. And rather than just talking about the issue of homosexuality, I’d like to present some issues where Friends have changed over time.

The classic issue, of course, is slavery. Many Friends kept slaves in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. The arguments in favor of slavery were mainly economic, but they were backed up by arguments from the Bible. It took an entire generation of dedicated ministry by many Friends (John Woolman was the most famous) to convince Quakers that slavery was evil, and that Quakers who kept slaves should liberate them or be disowned.

Even though slavery was formally banned by most yearly meetings by the 1770’s, it took many more generations for Friends to deal with the problems which remained. Should slavery be abolished immediately, or should slaves be taken back to Africa? How could Quakers disentangle and divest themselves from all trade connected with slavery and slave-made goods? What financial and educational responsibility should Friends have towards ex-slaves?

A major break took place in Indiana Yearly Meeting in the 1840’s, over participation in the Underground Railroad. The issue by then wasn’t whether slavery was right or wrong; the question was whether it was all right to assist runaway slaves. The tension and the spirit of divisiveness was so great that the yearly meeting broke into two groups – Indiana Yearly Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends. The period of formal division lasted for more than a decade – even though both sides agree that slavery was wrong.

There have been many other issues which have divided Friends. Some have been driven by theology, some by personality conflicts, some by Biblical questions, and some by different views of what Quaker practice should be. All of them provoked passionate and sometimes bitter debate.

Some real-life examples of deeply divisive issues from Quaker history include:

  • can Quakers marry non-Quakers? Tens of thousands of Friends were disowned for this during the first 250 years of our history
  • must Quakers wear plain dress and use plain speech? Again, Quakers were disciplined and disowned for at least 8 generations over this issue
  • can one be a Quaker and use alcoholic beverages? This is an issue which has swung back and forth several times in our history. (Disclosure: as a passionate, life-long teetotaler myself, I wish that Friends were more united on this issue, but I also think that Prohibition was a big mistake.)
  • can Friends divorce? And can divorced people be a part of a Quaker meeting? For a very long time, the answer was no. Even though divorced people are fully welcome in most meetings today, there are still Quaker meetings where they are shunned and ostracized.

At different times, Friends have declared that music and singing in worship were wrong, that attending any kind of public games was a disownable offence (think twice before you go to your next football or basketball game, Friends!), that celebrating Christmas or Easter was unscriptural, or that “plays, romances or novels should be suppressed” (IYM Faith and Practice, 1839, p. 21).

My point here isn’t that every change is right, or that conservatives are automatically wrong. Most Quakers I know are conservative on some issues and eager for change on others.

My point is that people do disagree, and that it’s not the end of the world. In spite of our disagreements, Friends have managed to start many different kinds of missions, build excellent schools, influence the society we live in, cooperate with other churches, and save thousands of lives through relief efforts.

We don’t have to agree about everything. We can still work together! When we focus on what we can build, we thrive. When we focus on our theological disagreements, we crash and burn. Right now, unless we pull back, Indiana Yearly Meeting is officially headed towards another mass crash and burn episode.

Friends in Indiana are demanding that we settle our current disagreement once and for all, in a period of just a year. History shows that most issues take at least a generation to work out, and finding a new sense of unity on most major issues takes 50 to 100 years.

In my next post, I’d like to talk about how Christians with deeply differing convictions can get along. I look forward to hearing from you!

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2 Responses to “Disagreement happens — get used to it!”


  1. 1 Palma Richardson July 19, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    As part of the human race we are always going to have differing ideas about stuff. I’m a firm believer in agreeing to disagree.

    I also have the belief that all organizations ie Quaker included, need to keep moving and shaping to keep it a living institution. Once it becomes fixed or dead, it cannot bend with the wind.

    I find it discouraging that an organization that belives in peace cannot be peaceable about their differences.

    I’m a newer Quaker. About 17 years. Hope this can be worked out.


  1. 1 Living with disagreement — in faith « arewefriends Trackback on September 6, 2012 at 9:12 am

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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