The Ghost of Denominations Past

Denominations are a Protestant thing. For hundreds of years, Protestants have divided into groups based on distinctive practices, writings, worship styles, and ethnic, economic or social backgrounds.

Quakers started out as a denomination. We trace our roots back to 17th-century England and to 18th and 19th-century America. We spend a lot of time talking about how “we are not like those other churches.” We have a collection of famous Quaker writers we like to quote, a distinctive style of doing church business, and several closely-related styles of worship.

Most of all, we enjoy identifying ourselves as Quakers or Friends. We may not agree with what those “other” Quakers do sometimes, but we have invested a great deal of energy and effort into our identity and self-image as Quakers, and we get upset whenever anyone else tries to monkey with it.

For most of the 1800’s and 1900’s, being a denomination meant outward signs of group success – holding large conferences, having a publishing house, a mission organization, schools and colleges, youth programs, institutions for the training and recognizing ministers. Denominations also usually need a good deal of money to build and maintain. It also implied having a strong central authority which could define and enforce what being a member of that denomination means.

Denominations have been beaten up for the last hundred years by theologians, economic forces, evolving worship styles and changing social attitudes. There has been a lot of new competition from independent groups and megachurches, which emphasize that they’re “not denominations” (and don’t have to pay denominational dues, a big plus for their finances).

Indiana Yearly Meeting tried for many years to have its own denominational ministries – we had our own college (Earlham), our own seminary (Earlham School of Religion), a camp (Quaker Haven), a retirement community (Friends Fellowship), a conference center (Quaker Hill), and a social ministry (White’s Family Services). We often shared ownership of these ministries with other Quaker groups in order to spread the cost. In recent years, nearly all of these ministries have gone independent. We also had a central organization with an office, staff, and committees for missions, publishing, youth work, and so on.

Quakers in Indiana have never really been large enough to play in the denominational big leagues. Early in the 1900’s, Indiana Yearly Meeting claimed a paper membership of over 12,000, which was probably about double the number of active Friends. Today we claim less than 4,000 members, and it’s been increasingly impossible for us to continue to be a denomination. We don’t have either the money or the members to stay in the game.

Most of all, the current struggle in Indiana Yearly Meeting shows that we don’t have the ability to enforce what it means to be a Quaker. We can’t do it with definitions, with minutes, with threats or with pressure politics. There’s no Quaker pope or high court either side can appeal to, and no network of alliances strong enough to make the other side knuckle under.

It’s time for us to give up the ghost of denominations past. It’s time for us to come up with something more workable and realistic, affordable and adapted to today’s needs and interests. We aren’t a denomination any more. What can we be together?

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2 Responses to “The Ghost of Denominations Past”


  1. 1 ag January 25, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    I like this post, but keep in mind that even when Quakers were a denomination, they had limited ability to prevent people from calling themselves Quakers. Just think of the “Fighting” (or “Free”) Quakers in the Revolutionary War – they were read out of meeting, and they still considered themselves Quakers, and had their own meeting houses to prove it!

  2. 2 Doug Hahn February 28, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    I am a newly convinced Friend, a member of the Savannah (GA) Monthly Meeting (FGC, SEYM) Previously I was an attender at FUM meetings in Indianapolis and Chicago, geography reather that theology being the determining factor. when I visit my parents in Winston-Salem, I worship at a “welcoming” Conservative unprogrammed meeting. Today on my flight home from Tulsa, I read Seeking God’s Will on Same-Sex Relationships: The Experience of Cleveland Friends Meeting [Paperback] , Marty Grundy (Editor) $6.50, available from Amazon.com and highly recommend reading this history of the discernment of the Cleveland meeting underwent on this issue with Ohio Yearly Meeting in recent decades. This has not been mentioned, to my knowledge, in the on-line discussions I have been following.


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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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