Have Friends changed?

Indiana Yearly Meeting is locked in a controversy over whether a local meeting can accept gay or lesbian people as attenders and members. Whichever side you come down on this issue, one of the main arguments underlying it is a desire to be faithful to Scripture and to Quaker tradition. We like to see ourselves as upholding, practicing and passing on unchanged the truths which we have received from Friends in the past.

What we don’t often realize or admit publicly is that Quaker tradition has changed – sometimes slowly, not always gracefully, but we have in fact changed many times over the years. The changes have not been trivial, and they have often been accompanied by heart-searching debate and major conflict. The idea of Friends as a harmonious, conflict-free body is a myth.

Here are some issues on which Friends have changed dramatically during the last 300+ years:

  • Slavery – Friends did have slaves, and it took a lot of convincing by John Woolman and others to get Quakers to free their slaves and several generations of work to disentangle ourselves from being tied to the slave economy
  • Attending “public amusements” such as athletic games, musical events, circuses, races, dances, reading novels, romances, and plays were disownable offenses for more than 200 years. Quakers today feel free to go to football and basketball games, concerts, and to read anything we want. [Disclosure: I have lived in Indiana for 23 years now and have never even watched a Pacers or Colts game on TV.]
  • Plain dress and speech – this was once one of the most distinctive Quaker testimonies. You could tell a Quaker by the way he/she dressed and spoke. Now only a tiny minority of Friends use “thee” and “thou” or dress plainly
  • Separate business meetings for women and men – originally set up to ensure that women would have an equal voice; along with separate entrances into meetinghouses and sitting on different sides of the worship room, this practice was largely laid down in the late 1800’s.
  • Use of alcoholic beverages – Friends originally allowed this, then gradual moved towards temperance or non-use and in some yearly meetings towards militant temperance. In the last 50 years, some Friends privately use drink alcohol, though most yearly meetings warn against it. [Disclosure: I am a life-long teetotaler, and I wish that Friends would re-engage this testimony more seriously today.]
  • Divorce – once a disownable offence and stigmatized in many meetings well into the 20th century, divorce is now treated with compassion and divorced people are accepted everywhere into membership
  • Service in the military – also a long-standing Quaker testimony, which is still officially upheld today. However, many Quaker young men volunteered during the Civil War and were not disowned, and in some meetings during WWII over 50% of young men in were in the military (though many served as medics). Paying war-related taxes of any kind was once a disownable offence but is now done routinely by most Friends.
  • Marrying non-Quakers was once the major reason for being disowned; Quakers also cautioned against wearing special clothes or going to unneccessary expense for weddings
  • Bankruptcy – in the 1700’s, many meetings would pay the debts of a bankrupt Quaker in order to “clear the good name of Friends,” and then disown him. Quakers were strongly warned against making risky investments
  • Hireling ministers – one of the strongest Quaker no-no’s, this was reversed in many Orthodox meetings in the late 1800’s. It is still a major issue dividing FUM and FGC Friends.
  • Gossiping and talebearing – say no more! Quakers are as guilty of this as anyone else, and the current controversy in Indiana Yearly Meeting has led a major increase in this practice.

The bottom line: we may argue today about whether Friends will accept a change, on what grounds or to what degree, but the claim that we have never changed is simply nonsense.

Friends have changed dramatically, and we’ve done so many times. And in most cases, change from a traditional practice has taken place gradually over a generation or two. Sometimes change has come peacefully and almost without comment; other times Friends have felt so strongly about change that we have divided, only to come back together again in a few years.

I don’t ask Friends on either side of the present controversy to abandon their faith, or to do anything contrary to their conscience. I still believe that we can find a way to live faithfully together. Between the strident and uncompromising voices at either end of any conflict, there is usually a sensible and acceptable “middle way”.

But Quaker history shows that change does happen. And to Friends who promise that they will never change, I would quote one of my father’s favorite sayings – “Never is a very long time.”

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2 Responses to “Have Friends changed?”


  1. 1 Steve Berry September 11, 2012 at 10:09 am

    How do the feel about Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection? As I recall, that Darwin’s Theory was a controversial issue among Indiana Friends 90 years ago but in the end none of the Earlham professors who taught Darwin’s Theory were discharged for having done so. And, it’s not only Genesis, of course, that we interpret differently today. There are many customs and practices that were taken for granted in both the Old & New Testaments that we would look at askance today.

    • 2 Zeke September 12, 2012 at 1:13 pm

      Hopefully, they feel that science is compatible with a belief in God and that the Bible is not the primary source of knowledge and inspiration for Quakers.

      There are many expressions of Quaker values which have changed over the years, but the basic beliefs that underly those expressions of faith have not. With plain dress as an example, Quakers refused to participate in a fashion/textile industry which colored the cloth being used with toxic chemicals dyed using slave labor. As the world changed, and less abusive processes and practices came into production Quakers abandoned plain dress.

      However, those same values applied to the world today would lead Quakers not to buy pver-priced clothing, made using child labor working in deplorable conditions in Third-world countries. So as the world changes, and knowledge is gained, Quakers do change the way they express their values.


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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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