Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Quakerism's debt to heretics


Rufus Jones wrote a wonderful book called "The Church's Debt to Heretics," describing how "heretical" sects from the Gnostics to the Quakers made important contributions to the spiritual life of the Church; and that's where I got the title for this blog entry about how Quaker "elders" have tried to silence "heretical" Quakers who have stood up for justice and our core Quaker values. It is important to remember that Quaker elders have not always been friendly towards prophets and those who hold who challenge Quaker orthodoxy. Just as the Pharisees and Scribes tried to silence Jesus, some Quaker elders have done their best to silence those who speak out for justice or independent thought. This was true of Elias Hicks, a 19th century Quaker ostracized by Philadelphia Friends. His followers, called Hicksites, founded Orange Grove Meeting, of which I am currently a member. 

The first American Quaker "heretic" to be disowned by Friends was Hannah Barnard, according to Margaret Hope Bacon. "The disownment [Quaker equivalent of excommunication] of Hannah Barnard in 1802 for her liberal interpretation of the Bible was a foretaste of things to come" ("Mothers of Feminism," p. 91). In addition to questioning the Bible, she was fearless in defending our Quaker peace testimony. For find out more about this remarkable woman, see Chuck Fager's essay: http://www.quaker.org/liberal-history/barnard.html


Her disownment was indeed a foretaste of things to come. Throughout the 19th (and 20th) century, Friends who stood up for justice or challenged Quaker orthodoxy often faced opposition from Quaker elders who tried to silence them.

Perhaps best known was Elias Hicks, a charismatic Long Island Quaker who was passionately anti-slavery and deeply admired by Walt Whitman. Hicks felt that the Inward Light was more important and authoritative than the Bible. This did not sit well with some conservative Philadelphia Friends, even though this was also the view of Quaker founder George Fox.  "The elders of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting feared  Hick's heresy and tried to prevent him from speaking." (p. 92). This led to the first great schism among American Quakers. 

Lucretia Mott is celebrated as one of the leading feminists and abolitionists of 19th century Quakerism, but she also faced strong opposition from elders. "The prohibition against women speaking in public was universally enforced and accepted in the early 19th century. Thus when the Scottish radical Frances Wright toured the eastern United States in 1829 and addressed mixed audiences, the shock was great. Some Wilmington Friends were disciplined and threatened with disownment for allowing their children to hear "that woman." The case was appealed to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting where Lucretia Mott, then a young mother and recently recognized minister, campaigned for the rights of families of the families being thus criticized. She herself was spoken to by the elders of her meeting for this intervention--the first, but by no means the last time she felt the weight of Quaker displeasure for her liberal views." (p. 102)

    The Grimke sisters, Southern belles who became advocates of women's rights as well as abolitionists (and the protagonists in that wonderful novel "Invention of Wings" by Sue Monk Kidd), were rebuked by Quaker elders for speaking out publicly. They were also criticized for taking up the cause of women's rights by no less a Friend than John Greenleaf Whittier. He felt it was wrong to mix up women's rights and abolitionism. (p. 106). The Grimke sisters eventually had to leave the Society of Friends when one of them married a non-Quaker, which was then considered grounds for disownment. 


Joel and Hannah Bean, weighty Quakers who moved to Iowa and became clerks of Iowa Yearly Meeting,  were stripped of their recorded minister status by Iowa YM when it became Evangelical. The Beans were later disowned for heresy. They became founders of the Independent Quaker movement that birthed Pacific Yearly Meeting.

It is helpful to remember that elders have tried to silence prophets and independent thinkers since time immemorial, and that prophets are generally not much appreciated in their home meetings. Those who don't know this history are more likely to repeat it. And those who experience the critical response of elders to their prophetic ministry can take comfort in the fact that they are in good company.

It is also worth recalling the words of Jesus, who said, "Blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted for the sake of justice [or My sake, in other versions] for your reward in God's divine order will be great."

In her wonderful pamphlet on eldering, Marge Larrabee tells the story of a Friend who gave vocal ministry during meeting for worship and was later approached by another Friend who said, "Thy message made me uncomfortable."

The Friend who gave vocal ministry paused to reflect on this and then replied, "Perhaps you need to feel uncomfortable."

When we feel tempted to criticize those whose vocal ministry makes us uncomfortable, I suggest we consider asking ourselves these queries:

  1. Are we listening compassionately to where the words are coming from when a Friends give vocal ministry that challenges us? 
  2. Are we willing to find loving ways to help Friends who feel led to give vocal ministry to become better channels of the Spirit?
  3. If we hear a message that makes us uncomfortable, are we willing to examine ourselves to see where is this discomfort coming from? How can we best respond to these feelings in a compassionate way?


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