Thursday, January 26, 2012

Are Quakers Christian, or non-Christian, or both?

I am glad that Pima Friends are exploring these questions, since they are at the heart of our Quaker faith, and also a thorn in our side--a painful reminder we still have a long way to go in our spiritual journey towards unity. My response is colored by the fact that I consider myself both a Universalist and a Christian, and I see elements of both in the history of Quakerism and in Quakers today. I see no contradiction between Universalism and Christianity. If you look in the dictionary, you'll see that the first definition of “Universalism” is a Christian who believes that God will save everyone. Phil Gulley, a Quaker pastor from Indiana, got into trouble among some Christ-centered Friends when he made the case for Christian Universalism in the book If Grace Be True, but he was warmly received when he spoke at the Friends General Conference gathering. I think historical evidence shows that early Friends were both Christ-centered and Universalist.

There is no doubt that early Quakers saw themselves as Christian—in fact, they saw themselves as the only real Christians. Many early Friends argued vociferously in pamphlet wars and in tracts like Barclay’s Apology that their approach to Christianity was the most valid one. And early Friends did not hesitate to evangelize and proselytize.

George Fox wrote a letter to American Friends admonishing them to evangelize among the peoples there. Since this is not a passage you're likely to see in your Faith and Practice, it's worth quoting:

Dear Friends and brethren, ministers, exhorters, and admonishers that are gone into America and the Caribbean islands. Stir up the gift of God in you and the pure mind, and improve your talents; that you may be the light of the world, a city set upon a hill, that cannot be hidden. Let your light shine among the Indians, the blacks and the whites; that you may answer the truth in them, and bring them to the standard and ensign, that God has set up, Christ Jesus. For from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, God's name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every temple, or sanctified heart, "incense shall be offered up to God's name." And have salt in yourselves, that you may be the salt of the earth, that you may salt it; that it may be preserved from corruption and putrefaction; so that all sacrifices offered up to the Lord may be seasoned, and be a good savor to God.... And Friends, be not negligent but keep up your negroes' meetings and your family meetings; and have meetings with the Indian kings, and their councils and subjects everywhere, and with others. Bring them all to the baptizing and circumcising spirit, by which they may know God, and serve and worship him.

It is clear from passages like these that George Fox was not only a Christian, but an Evangelical who believed that Christ was the “way, the truth, and the life.” His reference to “salt” and “light” is one that I’ll come back to, since it is the theme of this year’s World Conference of Friends.

On the other hand, some prominent early Quakers embraced a tolerant view of other forms of Christianity, and even of other religions, as is evident in the writings of William Penn, Isaac Penington, and John Woolman. John Woolman wrote:

”There is a Principle which is pure, placed in the human Mind, which in different Places and Ages hath had different Names; it is, however, pure, and proceeds from God. It is deep, and inward, confined to no Forms of Religion, nor excluded from any, where the Heart stands in perfect Sincerity. In whomsoever this takes Root and grows, of what Nation soever, they become Brethren.”

As you may recall, when John Woolman felt led to go among the Indians, he didn't feel a need to convert them. He simply wanted to share what he knew about God, and to learn from them.

William Penn also saw the Indians as having “that of God” in them, unlike the Puritans who saw them as heathen savages who deserved to be exterminated. William Penn wrote about the Indians with great sympathy. He was a Universalist and believed that there was truth in all religions and in all people:

”The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the liveries they wear here make them strangers.”

The issue of whether Quakerism should be inclusive or exclusive—conventionally Christian or faithful to the Inward Light—has long been a divisive one among American Quakers. In the 1820s a split developed between Friends who came to known as “Orthodox” and “Hicksites.” This split was partly because of power—rural Friends felt that wealthy Philadelphia Friends were lording it over them. Urban Friends felt that the rural Friends were out of touch with what was happening in the cities. The Orthodox wanted to become involved in Bible societies and other outreach efforts, like mainstream Christians. Followers of Elias Hicks, a rural Friend from Long Island, wanted to stick with traditional Quaker doctrines, such as the Inward Light, which seemed strange to many mainstream Christians. Elias Hicks was an extremely charismatic and popular preacher who travelled all over the United States and drew huge crowds, including many non-Quakers. The poet Walt Whitman was a big fan of Hicks and had a statue of him in his home in Camden, NJ. You can see glimpses of Hicksite Quakerism in The Leaves of Grass. Perhaps the most controversial teaching of Hicks had to do with the Bible. Hicks totally disapproved of Bible societies and didn't believe that they would do anything to advance “real Christianity.” In a controversial letter Hicks argued that when the Bible was translated into English in the 16th century, and people finally had a chance to read it in their own language, it didn't lead to more Christian love but to religious wars in which huge numbers of people were killed. Therefore, argued Hicks, it isn't the Bible, but the holy spirit that makes you a “real Christian.” As far as Hicks was concerned, only Spirit-led Quakers were “real Christians.”

In the latter part of the 19th century, an Evangelical revival swept through the Western states like a hurricane, bitterly dividing Friends into “real Christians” who were “saved” and the traditional, Inward Light Friends who didn't ascribe to the methods and theology of revivalism, and were therefore “unsaved.”

This revival was a severe trial for Joel and Hannah Bean, weighty Friends who had served as clerks of Iowa Yearly Meeting. The Beans tried to mend fences between these two camps, but they finally became exhausted and retired to San Jose. There they help found a Monthly meeting of the traditional sort, but when they went to get approval from Iowa Yearly Meeting, which had become Evangelical, they were denied. In fact, their recorded ministry status was taken away from them because they failed to answer correctly theological questions given to them in a written test. Never before had such a test been used among Quakers, nor had a recorded ministry status been taken away for doctrinal reasons.. Because the Beans were internationally known and respected, this became a huge issue.

This also led the Beans to do something unprecedented among Friends. They formed an independent monthly meeting, which led to the formation of an independent Quaker association, and finally to an independent Yearly Meeting. As you know, Intermountain Yearly Meeting is an offshoot of this Beanite movement.

All these painful splits were caused by disagreements over theology, over what it means to be a “real Quaker” or a “real Christian.”

Even a broad-minded liberal Friend like Howard Brinton used this divisive language at times. In his memoir Brinton refers to unprogrammed Quakers as “real” Quakers, and implies that pastoral Friends are not so real.

In the 1940s and 50s Howard Brinton worked hard to bring Hicksite and Orthodox Friends together because both practiced unprogrammed worship, but he didn't reach out to pastoral Friends and hardly mentions them in Friends for 300 Years because he felt that programmed worship was not Quakerly.

Given all this divisiveness, I can see why Friends are wary about identifying themselves as Christian or non-Christian. It feels safer, and saner, to keep Christ and God talk to a minimum. I am glad that you are willing to bring up these concerns, however. I think we can be better Quakers if we can be honest and admit our differences and have respectful dialogues about theological issues. We can learn much from each other when we open up and share our beliefs and spiritual experiences. And I think we can communicate with those in the ecumenical and interfaith movement, as well as our neighbors of other faiths, when we feel comfortable talking about theology among ourselves in a Friendly, non-exclusive way.

Until the 1960s or so (I don’t have any data to prove this, but this is my impression), most unprogrammed Quakers identified with being Christian, at least publicly. But many questioned the dogmas of traditional Christianity, and some were drawn to other religious practices, such as Buddhism.

It was for this reason that in the 1980s a group was formed called Quaker Universalist Fellowship to create a space for Quakers who didn’t identify with Christianity per se, but felt that Quakerism could and indeed should embrace people with a variety of faith perspectives. I belong to this group and am grateful to them for publishing my pamphlet “Islam from a Quaker Perspective” and Quakers and the Interfaith Movement. I also manage their blog at

This Universalist approach was controversial at first, and some feared it might create new divisions. But the Universalist perspective met a deeply felt need and has become increasingly popular as people have come to unprogrammed meetings who are “refugees” from Christian denominations where they didn’t feel comfortable, or where they felt spiritually abused. Others have come from other faiths, such as Judaism and Buddhism, and are grateful to find a religious community that is non-dogmatic and welcoming. And a growing number of Friends proclaim themselves non-theists. Among the 50 thousand or so unprogrammed Friends in Britain and the United States, I would guess that probably a minority identify with being Christian in the traditional sense. Most espouse a theology closer to Unitarian Universalism.

This theological diversity has enriched Quakerism in many ways, but it has also led to questions like the one we are considering this morning. Are Quakers Christian? If not, what binds us together? What makes Quakerism distinctive?

Here in the United States, the majority of Quakers are Christian. One third belong to Friends United Meeting and another third are Evangelicals. Worldwide, the vast majority of Friends living in Africa and Latin America are Evangelicals. This is a fact I am being obliged to take more seriously and personally since I plan to attend the World Conference of Friends in Kenya, where Friends are almost all Evangelical. Kenya has 133,000 Quakers, far more than the number of Quakers here in the United States.

Two years ago, I felt a leading to reach out to Evangelical Quakers. This came about when I heard the theologian Marcus Borg speak at the Friends General Conference gathering. I asked him, “What is the biggest challenge for interfaith dialogue.” His response startled me. “The real challenge is not interfaith dialogue, but intra-faith dialogue.” He went on to say that some of the bitterest misunderstandings are among people within a faith tradition. That insight spoke to my condition. It was far easier for me to reach out to Muslims than to Evangelical Quakers.

Something seemed wrong with this picture, so I offered to become a representative to Friends World Committee for Consultation, the umbrella group started by Rufus Jones in the 1930s to enable Friends of different theological persuasions to come together and dialogue.

I believe it is crucially important for Friends to take part in the ecumenical and interfaith movement, and to have friendly relations with Evangelicals and even fundamentalists. To do so, we must be able to articulate our theology as clearly as we can, and we must learn to be compassionate listeners.

One reason I believe that God has led me to this work is because eight months ago I met a remarkable woman at a Peace Parade that took place in Pasadena on Palm Sunday. I went to this parade because the main speaker was Jim Loney, a Christian Peace Team member who was kidnapped along with Tom Fox in Iraq. Tom is one of my heroes and I wanted to honor him.

Meeting Jill was a major turning point in my life. She is an Evangelical Christian who defies media stereotypes. She believes passionately in the Bible as the Word of God and Jesus Christ as her savior, and she also believes passionately in social justice and peace. She moved into a low-income neighborhood in Pasadena to be a good neighbor and serve the poor. She started tutoring programs, a gang prevention program, and worked for affordable housing.

Jill opened me up to a world of Evangelical Christians who share many of our Quaker values. For example, Professor Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary has written powerful books arguing for “Just Peacemaking” and he is also a peace activist. He is part of an Evangelical group called the Matthew 5 project that advocates the abolition of nuclear weapons and the use of diplomacy rather than arms to resolve international conflicts. Jill also knows Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners—an ardent advocate for progressive social change. And finally, Jill introduced me to a young countercultural Evangelical named Shane Claiborne who believes that Jesus is a revolutionary who calls us to work for economic justice. Shane started an intentional community called “The Simple Way” in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia. He was also asked to be the keynote speaker at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

Jill has made me realize that many Evangelicals are open to many of our Quaker theological beliefs, as long as we can justify them biblically. Some, like Ron Mock, a professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at George Fox University, have a keen interest in the theory as well as practice of Christian peacemaking.

Other Evangelical Friends are taking active steps to promote peace. For example, Evangelical Friends in Rwanda founded Friends Peace House in 2000 because of the genocide that took place in 1994 in which estimated 800,000 people, about 20% of the total population, were killed. The surviving Rwandese were traumatized and destabilized. The young Friends Church of Rwanda, only founded 8 years previously, accepted the challenge this posed, and has taken an active part in the rehabilitation of Rwandese society ever since.

In Kenya, where I plan to attend the World Conference, Evangelical Friends are active in trying to insure that violence doesn’t break out during the next election. They are enlisting Friends to help do trainings in AVP. Jill and I hosted in our home a Quaker couple named Joe and Kathy Ossman who are planning to go to Kenya to help with this peacemaking effort.

Ever since 2000 Evangelical and liberal Friends have been working together in the African Great Lakes Initiative to do a variety of peacemaking efforts: trauma healing, conflict resolution training, compassionate listening.

I quoted George Fox at the beginning of my talk who said we need to be “salt” and “light”—which is the theme of this year’s World Conference of Friends. Jesus spoke often about the Light and urged us to a “Light to the world.” He also spoke about salt, which is a preservative and also essential to life (in small doses). How can we, as a world-wide community of Friends, show that we can indeed be a Light to the world, as well as a preservative that prevents the world from sinking into decay and corruption?

To be “salt” and light,” we need to transcend our differences, as Marge Abbott and the Quaker women in the Pacific Northwest have shown by their example. Thanks in part to the trust-building work of these women, Northwest Yearly Meeting joined FWCC. What these Quaker women have shown us is that we need to share our stories, listen to those we disagree with, and be open to a change of heart. We also need to seek common ground wherein we can put our faith into practice. One important lesson I have learned from my marriage to an Evangelical: we don’t have to agree about everything in order to love each other.

This afternoon I will task about spiritual experience and the Inward Light, what many Friends consider the most important aspect of our faith. For now I will leave you with this question: What do YOU think are the most important characteristics of Quakerism?

1 comment:

  1. Expectant waiting. Allowing the fullness of moment to emerge. These are the gifts of Quakerly worship. Universal love and service. These are the gifts of Quakerly life. There are no boundaries but those we impose in order to protect ourselves from the sky. Blessings, Anthony. Love.