Will the real Quakers please stand up?

It used to be fairly easy to tell people who the Quakers are. Quakers were born in the English Reformation. We got started in the 1650’s, and a lot of Quakers moved to the American colonies, and we’re all descended one way or another from these first Friends.

As history, that’s still true, but it doesn’t really tell about the bewildering variety we find among the many branches of the Quaker family.

Another way to tell people who the Quakers are is to say, there are the unprogrammed Friends (the ones who worship in silence) and everybody else. If you ask an unprogrammed Quaker, that’s still the way they tend to see it. Unprogrammed Friends are the ones who don’t have pastors, don’t have a creed, and don’t have a pre-arranged form of worship. Quite a lot of unprogrammed Friends feel pretty strongly that they are the only REAL Quakers, and that all of those “other” Friends don’t really count – even though those “other” Friends make up the overwhelming majority of the Quaker family worldwide.

For a long time, it was convenient to divvy up Quakers according to which umbrella organization they belonged to. In North America, unprogrammed Friends (mostly) belonged to Friends General Conference. Mainstream Friends (mostly) belonged to Friends United Meeting. And more evangelically-minded Friends (mostly) belonged to Evangelical Friends International.

That neat division ignored quite a few independent and unaffiliated meetings, as well as the small but spiritually very strong groups of Conservative Friends. It also ignored the fact that some yearly meetings (New York, New England, and Baltimore) belong to both FUM and FGC.

But in the last 10 years, the Quaker landscape here in the U.S. has been changing. Three of the powerhouse FUM yearly meetings – Western, Indiana and most recently North Carolina – have undergone serious divisions, which have drastically reduced their membership and destroyed yearly meeting ministries which had lasted for 100 years or more. These yearly meetings have been greatly weakened, and it may take generations for Friends in these areas to rebuild.

One of the major wedge issues has been support for (or opposition to) full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our meetings – as members and attenders, as leaders, as families, and as couples who can be married under our care. Many of the recent divisions among Friends have been sparked by this issue, which is not unique to Friends – it’s also being played out in nearly every mainstream denomination in the country.

A lot of unprogrammed Friends tend to be pretty self-righteous about gay and lesbian issues, conveniently forgetting how much controversy their meetings lived through during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. My own personal observation is among most Friends under the age of 40, of nearly every branch of Friends, it’s a non-issue – polls show that more than 50% of people in the U.S. think that gay and lesbian people should enjoy the same rights as all the rest of us. In 20 years, this may be a non-issue for nearly all Friends in North America.

Another way to divide us up is into “Christ-centered” and “universalist” Friends. It’s pretty hard to dismiss this division, which many Friends feel goes to the core of who we are. I’ve heard and read dozens of presentations and books by Quakers who are passionately convinced that George Fox and the early Friends were unquestionably Christian, and by others who see the Quaker movement as having been universalist from its very beginnings.

The more excited Quakers get about this, the more ready we are to excommunicate one another and write each other out of the book. The lines have been dug very deeply into the landscape, and especially for evangelical Friends there can be no compromise whatsoever. On the other end of the spectrum, I have often encountered a lot of smug superiority among universalist Friends, who feel that they are not only right, but that in a few generations (if there are any Quakers left) history will judge that only they were correct. I find it pretty irritating, and perversely intolerant for a group which usually claims tolerance as one of their main beliefs.

I’m a Christian – or at least I try to be – and a Quaker pastor, which some Quakers see as a contradiction of their understanding of Friends’ beliefs. Probably 80% of my messages on Sunday are drawn from the gospels, and I see Jesus as my Savior. But there are all kinds of people out there, and I see Quakers as a big tent which welcomes all kinds of folks. I’m not inclined to close people out.

I’ve been a minister in yearly meetings which were predominantly liberal (New York and New England) as well as yearly meetings which are theologically more conservative (Indiana and North Carolina). I haven’t changed my own beliefs that much, and I’ve managed to reach people and speak to their hearts and minds everywhere I’ve been.

Outside the hothouse of universalist Quaker workshops, the majority of Friends worldwide identify themselves as Christians. Particularly among East African and Latin American Friends, who outnumber North American Friends of all persuasions by nearly 3 to 1, there is little or no question on whether Quakers are Christians.

Here in North America, Quakers are overwhelmingly white and mostly middle class. We talk a good game about diversity, but the reality is – well, not so much. I don’t think that this means that Quakers are bad people, but we tend to clump together with people who are like us. People argue about how intentional this is. But North American Friends have never really had a sustained, effective outreach to people in our own country who weren’t already pretty close to us.

Quakers are somewhat diverse, but we don’t really handle diversity very well. It makes us nervous the moment we encounter Quaker who really don’t think the way we do. Quakers talk a lot about unity, but the record shows that we have a sorry history of division over the last 200 years.

I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see Quakers give up drawing lines in sand and pretending that they can lock the doors of Heaven against people who disagree with them. I’d like to see us defined both by our deep faith and by our genuine welcome to people who may have taken a different journey to arrive where they are. I’d like to see our meetings reflect more of the racial and social diversity of our society. And I’d like Quakers to laugh more and divide less. For me, that would be a lot more fun than where we are right now.



13 Responses to “Will the real Quakers please stand up?”

  1. 1 Colin South July 28, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    Thank you, as always, Josh. Much of what you describe as differences among Friends can be also be descriptions of differences among Christians worldwide. I hope our differences of understanding, experience and interpretation will, one day, be seen as the greatest gift our gracious God has given us. None of us, I suggest, can grasp the wholeness and completeness of the One God that Jesus of Nazareth illustrated and demonstrated…but in the diversity of expressions of our love and compassion and in our individual grasp of the integrity of these in the theology of our beliefs, we might glimpse the enormity of Love and Truth with which our God graces us all.

  2. 2 Lois Jordan July 29, 2017 at 8:26 am

    Thanks, Josh. When will we Quakers learn that refusing to draw lines to separate can open up all of us to the Light of Christ, the Light of Love? I think the young people will lead us in that direction.

  3. 3 Janette Carson July 29, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Josh, what is your understanding of the “emerging church” movement? Can you comment on it?

  4. 4 Kit Kight July 29, 2017 at 10:28 pm

    Hi Josh,

    A dear friend of my emailed this post to me, and I deeply appreciate what you have written. I’ve grown tired of explaining my Quaker identity to people, as it really doesn’t seem to fit anyone’s idea of proper Quakerism. I wish you well, Josh.

  5. 5 Howard Brod August 1, 2017 at 12:39 am

    I participate in a liberal Quaker meeting that other branches of Quakerism might label Universalist because no one in that meeting is opposed to Love and Light no matter what faith tradition it might emanate from. Contrary to popular opinion among non liberal Quakers, however, there are many self-identified “Christians” among liberal Quakers. One estimate from a recent survey numbered these at 60%, I believe (if my memory serves me correctly), and that is likely about what the percentage is in my meeting, as well.

    Then there are also a good number of additional liberal Friends who have a disconnect with Christianity – but not with Jesus. They point out that Jesus never called himself a “Christian”, and these ones without hesitation will tell you that although they are not a Christian, they do agree with and try to follow the teachings of Jesus.

    Then, of course, there are a good number of liberal Friends who admire the teachings of Jesus but would self-identify as some other faith tradition than Christian, or perhaps even agnostic or atheist.

    Liberal Quakers get a “bad” rap from many Quakers from the other branches of Quakerism, I think, because it is difficult for us to explain (or for them to hear) what our faith tradition is all about. Our whole Quaker experience is a very mystical religious tradition that over the last nearly two hundred years developed due to unfettered ‘expectant waiting’ worship. So the direct experience of the divine upon an individual is taken very seriously by liberal Quakers. There is no theological “group think” going on for liberal Friends. And from that experience we have found that the Light is the Light, no matter what label anyone puts on it. The results are the same within the person, and there is literally no difference in that result whether the liberal Friend calls themselves a “Christian” or “follower of Jesus’ teachings” or a “Buddhist” or an “Agnostic”. This leaves us liberal Quakers concluding that our unity must lie in that Light and the results of it as outlined in Paul’s “Fruitage of the Spirit”. This is why liberal Friends rarely have divisions as the rest of the Quaker world experiences. If doctrines are considered as inconsequential when compared to the Light itself, it is unlikely you will experience a schism ever. Compared to the Light and its effects upon the heart, everything else ‘religious’ is a merely a notion to liberal Friends. It is not holy and it is not sacred. The Light is what is holy.

    Now I ask Friends everywhere, if Jesus (the “Christ”) had a mission to bring Light into the world by being the example of the Light, would he really be hung up on the religious label one called oneself? Would he just care entirely that you, me, and everyone experience the Light as he himself did? Does this make Jesus perhaps a “universalist”, and did not his followers believe that – so much so that they opened up and preached his message of Light to peoples from every nation of the world?

    When one becomes consumed by the Light, things like labels, holy books, religious rituals, and doctrines become unnecessary distractions to the truth of Jesus’ mission: to change the hearts of humankind by introducing us to the power of the Light that is present within all of us – if we only recognize it and turn to it as our overriding identity. Is it not an honor to Jesus that liberal Friends are so consumed with the Light brought to humankind’s notice, that liberal Friends have eliminated every possible obstacle to the unfettered Light in our religious life.

    You may call all of this smug. But it is our reality that we have felt in our silent worship and we cannot deny it. This does not mean that we condemn those who prefer to utilize pastors, doctrine, a holy book treated as ‘sacred’ instead of just informative, various forms (rituals), etc. It’s just that our choice is to try to go directly to the Light that is within each of us.

  6. 6 Marjorie Helene Pollock August 1, 2017 at 7:38 am

    Christian discipleship means being grounded in God, which — by its very nature — causes all that is superfluous to wither away. God’s Love becomes more and more central, as it was for early Friends. Thank you Josh, for continuing to push us in that direction.

  7. 7 kwixote August 1, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Thank you for this!

    My own (unprogrammed) meeting has been thriving, and I think it’s because we don’t rigidly police boundaries: nobody is forced to use universalist or Christocentric language; you can talk about the Bible, but you don’t have to explain things in Biblical terms either. We leave that space open, which is one reason why I think our worship is often deep. We are part of the Conservative tradition (our yearly meeting is NCYM-C), but we also have affiliations with FGC. I think that dual affiliation is important; we are watered by two streams, both of which have rich possibilities.

    The only way to truly open yourself to the Divine is to let go of our silly human notions and perceived differences.

    • 8 Howard Brod August 1, 2017 at 1:30 pm

      Very interesting. Your unprogrammed meeting sounds just like mine in Virginia with the same result. I’ve often thought that NCYM-C and liberal Friends are quite similar in their outlook. I’ve often worshipped with NCYM-C Friends and felt right at home. You have a wonderful yearly meeting. Thanks for sharing!

  8. 9 John August 4, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    Wow!!! I am a Catholic and attended a small Quaker church for several years in my early 20’s. I was impressed by how they lived what they preached and believed. I have known several Quaker pastors and have been awed by their knowledge and love of man. I never knew there were so many divisions in the Quaker church. I guess it is like all other churches…human. I love my own church and would never consider leaving it, but I must admit I learned more about loving and accepting my fellow humans from knowing several Quaker families. The first time I attended a Quaker service, I was stunned, at first, by a very old woman who just stood up and said, thank God for the sunshine today. That was so simple, yet so profound. That is not something I could have done and I will never forget that statement from 47 years ago. Thank God we can have and accept people from all beliefs!!!

  9. 10 simonjkyte August 8, 2017 at 5:43 am

    It seems fairly obvious to me that the movement actually started considerably before 1652

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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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