[This is a talk that I gave at Manhattan Beach Community Church this Sunday, July 29.]
I’d like to start as Quakers often do with a couple of minutes of silent worship or reflection. Then I’ll talk about the origins and theology of Quakerism and leave time for some questions.
In the second part I’ll talk about Quakers and the anti-slavery and women’s rights movement in the 19th century. I’ll also discuss the splits that took place among American Quakers in the 19th century that have persisted till today. These divisions led to the formation to the Friends World Committee for Consultation, a world-wide Quaker umbrella organization in which I play an active role.
In the final part of my talk, I will discuss the reinvention of liberal Quakerism in the 20th century and where Quakers are today. I will speak about Howard and Anna Brinton, Quaker theologians who had a huge influence on me and many other liberal Quakers.
Let me begin by sharing a little about my spiritual journey to Quakerism. I have been a Quaker since 1984 when I joined the Quaker Meeting in Princeton, where I was born and raised. I was 35 years old when I became a Quaker and had never heard much about them, even though Quakers in Princeton went back to the early 18th century, when our Quaker meetinghouse was built. Prior to attending the Quaker meeting, I had been attending the Presbyterian Church during my grad school days at Rutgers University, where I earned a doctorate in British literature. I’ve also explored many other religious paths, including Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and most recently Islam and Sufism. I consider myself an interfaith Quaker—that my email monicker—and a Universalist Christian.
What drew me to Quakerism was its unique mode of worship which is the epitome of simplicity. Without any prearranged program, we gather together in silence and “wait upon the Lord.” During this time of expectant, open worship any one is free to share vocal ministry as Spirit moves him or her. I felt very at home in this form of contemplative worship which is utterly egalitarian and guided by the Spirit. I also appreciated the Quaker commitment to hands-on peace and a justice work.
Over the years, I have been active in many Quaker projects. In the 1980s I was involved in the Sanctuary Movement and a Soviet-American book project that was part of the Citizen Diplomacy movement that helped to end the Cold War. In the 90s I helped start a youth service program with the American Friends Service Committee and brought teen groups to Mexico. Starting around the turn of this century, I edited a Quaker magazine for eleven years. I’ve also published many articles and books, some of which I’ve brought here for ‘show and tell.” And I’ve served on many Quaker committees, most recently Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Now that I am retired, I consider myself a full-time volunteer Quaker peace activist. I should also mention that I was married to a Methodist pastor named Kathleen Ross whom met her at Quaker center for study and contemplation called Pendle Hill where we were both students. Kathleen and I had a wonderful marriage until she passed away of cancer in 2009. Two years later, I remarried to an Evangelical social justice activist named Jill Shook. Jill attends Quaker meeting and has taken part in many Quaker gatherings from Washington, DC to Mexico City and Peru. She has helped me to reach out Evangelical Quakers. I owe a great deal to Kathleen and Jill, two amazing women who took part in my Quaker world.
That’s my Quaker life in a nutshell. Here is my take on Quaker history and theology:
Summary of a talk at Manhattan Beach Community Church
Quakerism started in the 17th century, a time of bloody religious wars. From the time of Martin Luther till the English Civil War, a period of just over 100 years, over a million Christians killed each other because of doctrinal disputes.
George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, was born in the English midlands in 1624 and was 18 years old when the English Civil War began. During this period, King Charles was executed by the Puritans who took over England and started a Commonwealth led by their General and “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell.
George Fox was a working class seeker who became the charismatic leader of Spirit-led movement that has left a significant mark on history. One of the distinctive features of Quakerism was its rejection of war as contrary to the teachings of Christ.
"We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world."
Declaration of Friends to Charles II, 1660
Although individual Quakers have taken part in war, the Religious Society of Friends has remained faithful to this peace testimony for over 350 years. In 1947, Quakers received the Nobel Prize for Peace.
The Quaker movement that Fox started arose from Puritans and other dissenting Protestant groups, breaking away from the established Church of England. The Quakers, especially the ones known as the Valiant Sixty, attempted to convert others to their understanding of Christianity, travelling both throughout Great Britain and overseas, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of these early Quaker ministers were women. They based their message on the religious belief that "Christ has come to teach his people himself", stressing the importance of a direct relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and a direct religious belief in the universal priesthood of all believers. They emphasized a personal and direct religious experience of Christ, acquired through both direct religious experience and the reading and studying of the Bible. Quakers focused their private life on developing behavior and speech reflecting emotional purity and the light of God.
Inward Light: the Most Important Quaker Teaching
The Quaker belief that the Inward Light shines on each person is based in part on a passage from the New Testament, namely John 1:9, which says, "That was the true light, which enlightens every one that comes into the world." Early Friends took this verse as one of their mottos and often referred to themselves as "Children of the Light".
Moreover, Friends emphasize the part of the verse that indicates that the Light "is extended to all people everywhere", even "people who have never heard of Christianity n a meaningful way or at all can share in the Light, if they sincerely respond to God's grace.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Romans 2:14–16)."
The principal founder of what became the Religious Society of Friends, George Fox, claimed that he had a direct experience of God. Having explored various sects and listened to an assortment of preachers, he finally concluded that none of them were adequate to be his ultimate guide. At that point he reported hearing a voice that told him, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." He felt that God wanted him to teach others that they need not depend on human teachers or guides either, because each one of them could experience God directly and hear his voice within. He wrote in his journal,
"I was glad that I was commanded to turn people to that inward light, spirit, and grace, by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God; even that divine Spirit which would lead them into all Truth, and which I infallibly knew would never deceive any."
Fox taught: that Christ, the Light, had come to teach his people himself; that "people had no need of any teacher but the Light that was in all men and women"
Later, Robert Barclay, an apologist for the Society of Friends, wrote: "This most certain doctrine being then received, that there is an evangelical and saving Light and grace in all, the universality of the love and mercy of God towards mankind, both in the death of his beloved Son the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the manifestation of the Light in the heart, is established and confirmed, against all the objections of such as deny it.
Part II: Quaker Activism and Schisms
Early Quaker belief in the universality of the Inward Light led to some radically egalitarian practices, such as allowing women to preach.
Margaret Fell, the wife of George Fox and co-founder of the Quaker movement, not only spoke during worship and spent years in prison for her outspoken religious beliefs, she wrote “Women Preaching Justified,” one of the first feminist tracts defending the right of women to be ministers of the Gospel. Notable Quaker women religious leaders include Mary Dyer and Margaret Fisher. Mary Dyer was executed by the Puritans in Boston for expressing her Quaker beliefs and Mary Fisher went to Turkey to preach to the Sultan even though she was a serving woman!
Quakers were among the first Christians to oppose slavery. Quaker anti-slavery began in the 18th century in the United States with Benjamin Lay and John Woolman.
The women’s rights movement started among Quaker women in the early 19th Century : Grimke sisters, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony
Quakers have been far from perfect. In the 18th and 19th century they adopted the stupid practice of “disowning” (excommunicating) any Quaker who married a non-Quaker. This led to the loss of many members. Membership was also affected by theological splits that occurred among American Quakers in the 19th century, starting in the 1820s. Elias Hicks, a charismatic Long Island Quaker, was “disowned” for his beliefs and this led to a split between Quakers who considered themselves Hicksites and those who considered themslves Orthodox. During this period the Evangelical and Holiness Revivals led to further splits. An influential Quaker named Joel Bean was “disowned” by Iowa Yearly Meeting when it became part of the Holiness movement in the last 19th century. He and his wife moved to San Jose, CA, and started Western Independent Quaker movement, of which I am a part.
Part III: The Reinvention of Liberal Quakerism in the 20th century and Current Activities
One of the major Quaker theological figures of the 20th century was Rufus Jones, a professor of theology at Haverford College who hoped to heal this split among Quakers. One of Jones’ important contributions was to see Quakerism as a creedless, experiential mystical religion at a time when interest in mysticism was on the rise. The other important figure was Howard Brinton and his wife Anna, who helped to “reinvent” liberal Quakerism in the 20th century.
Howard Brinton provided a framework for modern liberal Quakerism by describing our “testimonies” Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality, and Sustainability (sometimes called SPICES). Not a creed or set of principles, but ways in which we live out our faith and experience of the Inward Light.
Today the various branches of Quakerism have learned to coexist and cooperate through an organization called the Friends World Committee for Consultation, which was started by Rufus Jones in 1937. There are evangelical, holiness, liberal, and traditional Quaker understandings of Quakerism and Christianity. There are also Non-theist Quakers whose spiritual practice is not reliant on the existence of a Christian God. To differing extents, the different movements that make up the Religious Society of Friends/Friends Church avoid creeds and hierarchical structures. In 2007, there were about 359,000 adult Quakers worldwide. In 2012, there were 377,055 adult Quakers, with 52% in Africa.
Around 89% of Quakers worldwide belong to the "evangelical" and "programmed" branches of Quakerism[—these Quakers worship in services with singing and a prepared message from the Bible, coordinated by a pastor. Around 11% of Friends practice waiting worship, or unprogrammed worship (more commonly known today as Meeting for Worship), where the order of service is not planned in advance, is predominantly silent, and may include unprepared vocal ministry from those present. Some meetings of both types have Recorded Ministers in their meetings—Friends recognized for their gift of vocal ministry.
Liberal Quakers are best known for our activist work through organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).
Conclusion: Quakers are relatively few in numbers, but our influence is far greater than our size would warrant. We attract very committed people our society and we are often on the front lines of movements for social change.