Presenting the work of Quaker atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others who practice Quakerism without supernatural beliefs

Doctrinally Open Membership in the Religious Society of Friends

Doctrinally open membership is becoming more accepted by Friends.  What is this method of arriving at membership decisions?  How does it affect other areas of Quaker life and what does this imply for the future of the Religious Society of Friends?

The Method

Consider a typical Friends meeting.  Members gather in silent worship.  They cooperate in service to others.  Attenders are welcome to participate in the life of the community.  When an attender feels a stirring toward membership this is communicated to the Overseers Committee who initiate a clearness process.  Meeting members and the applicant visit with each other, exploring the responsibilities of membership and the needs of the meeting and the attender.  They all learn more about each other.  They study the ancient and modern traditions of the Religious Society of Friends (RSoF), and the written Discipline that guides the meeting.  They study the history of their local meeting and its current condition.  They center on each others beliefs and the challenges of living in a doctrinally diverse community.  They ask whether seeking membership is an appropriate step for the attender and for the meeting.  They sit with these questions and worship together.  In time it usually becomes clear how to proceed.  If not, they can continue the process, or call on others for help, or simply wait.  When the clearness committee is satisfied, they take the issue to the rest of the meeting members for their consideration. 

This does not mean that everyone is accepted, since there is the clearness process to go through.  Nor does it mean that people have to change their beliefs to suit one another, or change the way they express their beliefs.  They only need to listen and to love.

This is called doctrinally open membership (DOM) because the participants are committed to loving each other, beliefs and all.  They accept that Quakers differ in their beliefs and are still Quakers.[Note #1]

A Rationale For This Method

Behind this open method of selecting members, are a few simple observations: People live good lives while holding different beliefs, and Quakers are no exception.  The beliefs we hold are the products of our personal and cultural histories.  Action need not be based on beliefs; in fact, the link may be in the other direction.  Agreement on beliefs is not necessary in areas several areas where we previously thought it was (for instance, we can find unity in purposes rather than beliefs.)  Love is stronger than differences in belief.  We can, and must, learn to love those whose beliefs differ from our own.  Love surmounts all barriers. 

We can trust DOM because it works well and allows us to accept people who differ without losing the essence of who we are, to adapt to changing times and new knowledge, to enjoy the variety in our meetings and our Society, and to reach out to the whole world. 

Calls For Doctrinally Open Membership

Through the years there have been many calls for doctrinal openness in our Society.  In 1908, looking forward to the eventual reunification of the two Philadelphia yearly meetings, a Friend made this dramatic announcement during annual sessions: “Unity does not necessarily mean agreement; indeed, it is not inconsistent with wide difference in opinion, expression and purpose.  Unity is love, not likeness.” (quoted in Moore, 1981, p. 136)

Twenty years later, Jesse Holmes campaigned for greater openness with a letter titled, “To the Scientifically Minded”: “It is a Society of Friends.  Friends claim no authority but owe each other friendliness…Our unity consists in having a common purpose, not a common creed”. (1928/1992, p. 22)

Henry Cadbury issued a plea for inclusiveness in his 1957 Swarthmore Lecture: “It would be a pity if the natural variety in Quakerism were artificially restrained.  Even unconsciously we are subject to powerful tendencies to conform to a single standard in religion as well as in other ideologies and practices.  If the role of Quakerism among the denominations is precisely one of enriching the variety and challenging their standards of uniformity, we ought by the same token to welcome variety within our own small body and ought to object to the impoverishing effect of attempting to get ourselves and our fellow Quakers into one mould.” (1957, pp. 47-48)

In 1991 Dan Seeger called our attention to the way opening before us: “Perhaps it is given to us to show how a great people can be gathered into a unified and loving community while respecting, and even celebrating, its individual members’ distinctiveness.  But one thing is certain – we Friends cannot preach reconciliation in the world at large unless we ourselves are reconciled.” (Seeger, 1991, p. 7)

Doctrinally Open Membership In Meeting Disciplines

Moving toward DOM is a gradual process, often asserted and denied in the same Discipline.  DOM is seen in the emphasis on membership as an appropriate step for all parties concerned, a step that fits everyone’s needs.  It is seen in the phrase “in unity with” which, in Quaker terms, means cooperation rather than agreement, a heartfelt desire to go forward in unison even as our views differ.  There are fewer instructions to be sure that the applicant accepts the fundamental principles of Friends, and fewer lines stating or implying that Friends hold particular beliefs. 

Here are some doctrinally open and closed passages from the yearly meetings in Baltimore, Britain, Iowa (Conservative), New England, New York, and Philadelphia.

Examples of Doctrinally Open Statements

On the role of the discipline: “The Discipline suggests rather than commands, and raises questions or queries rather than giving specific answers.  It places upon the individual conscience rather than external authority, the responsibility for the discipline of the spirit.” (Iowa Yearly Meeting, Conservative, 1974, p. iii)

On diversity: “Friends are aware that religious truth comes to different persons in somewhat different ways, and that seekers find themselves in various stages of growth in religious experience.  An open mind and heart and an earnest desire for ever-increasing Light are matters of deep concern.” (Iowa Yearly Meeting, Conservative, 1974, p. 33) 

“Within the community there is a diversity…of experience, of belief and of language. Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal experience. Some find traditional Christian language full of meaning; some do not. Our understanding of our own religious tradition may sometimes be enhanced by insights of other faiths. The deeper realities of our faith are beyond precise verbal formulation and our way of worship based on silent waiting testifies to this.” (The Yearly Meeting in Britain, 1995, #1.01)

“Because membership in a meeting means membership in a community, one of the tests of membership is compatibility with that community.  Applicants need to feel in harmony with the community they are joining.  They should be able to accept the diversity of Friends, both locally and at the national and world levels.” (New England Yearly Meeting, 1985, p. 128)

 “Are you comfortable with a Society whose unity of spirit coexists with a diversity of beliefs?  Are you prepared to join a Meeting family which includes people whose perspectives may differ considerably from yours?” (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997/2001, p. 36) 

On unity: “Membership includes a willingness to live in spiritual unity with other members of the RSoF.  Members are expected to participate in communal worship, to share in the work and service of the Society, and to live in harmony with its basic beliefs and practices.” (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997/2001, p. 34)  Please note that among Friends “unity” refers to the distinctive Quaker way of arriving at decisions.  It involves a commitment to community without implying unanimity of opinion about the issue at hand or identity of belief.[2]

“Remember that moral and spiritual achievement is not what is required in an applicant: sincerity of purpose is. Complete agreement with all our testimonies is not necessary. It is important for the life of the Society that the applicant is broadly in unity with the views and practices of Friends.” (The Yearly Meeting in Britain, 1995, #11.17)

“Friends accept into active membership those whose declarations and ways of life manifest such unity with Friends’ views and practices that they may be expected to enter fully into religious fellowship with the meeting.” (New York Yearly Meeting, 1998, p. 82) 

On creeds: “The Society of Friends has no formal creed.  We are a religious fellowship based on common religious ideals and experiences rather than on a common creed or liturgy.  Each person must prayerfully seek individual guidance and must follow his Inner Light….All seekers who in spirit and in truth try to find and follow the will of God and who are in sympathy with the principles and practices of Friends, we welcome to our fellowship.” (Baltimore Yearly Meeting, 1962, p. 8 )

“Applicants are not expected to state their religious beliefs in any prescribed fashion, but may assume that their own search for an understanding of the Truth will be valued by other ‘seekers and humble learners in the school of Christ.’” (New England Yearly Meeting, 1985, p. 128)

“Quakers have traditionally been wary of creedal statements as limiting our understanding of God.  Friends of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting have further avoided prescribed declarations of faith and statements of essential truths as hindrances to communication with the Divine.  The rejection of creeds does not imply the absence of doctrine or statements of belief.  From the earliest times of our society, individual Friends, as well as small groups of Friends and Friends’ Meetings, have issued written statements of their beliefs to the world.  Among the doctrines finding wide acceptance by Friends are a universal saving light and continuing revelation.” (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997/2001, p. 86)  (Statements and doctrines are not creeds as long as they are not required of the members.)

“Words must not become barriers between us, for no one of us can ever adequately understand or express the truth about God. Yet words are our tools and we must not be afraid to express the truth we know in the best words we can. It is this conviction which has prompted the selection of a wide variety of extracts for inclusion in this book, confirming our testimony that truth cannot be confined within a creed. We must trust that faith is robust, compassionate and ‘not quick to take offence’, and that the Spirit which gives the words is communicated through them.” (The Yearly Meeting in Britain, 1995, p. 13)

“In the Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a way.”  (The Yearly Meeting in Britain, 1995, p. 17)

On the purpose of the clearness process: “When a person applies for membership, the ensuing interview between the appointed visiting committee and the applicant provides an opportunity for the primary purpose of determining the readiness of the Meeting and the applicant for this step, and for the visiting Friends to become more fully acquainted with the applicant.  The topics (for discussion) are not meant as an examination, nor are there ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers….The interview should take place in the spirit of a common search.” (Iowa Yearly Meeting, Conservative, 1974, p. 39) 

“The Society of Friends desires to admit to its fellowship all persons who find that its fundamentals meet their religious needs.” (Baltimore Yearly Meeting, 1962, p. 66)

Examples of Doctrinally Closed Statements

On theism: All the Disciplines assume that Friends are theists: “The Light Within is the fundamental…experience for Friends (that) guides us in our everyday lives and brings us together as a community of faith.” (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997/2001, p. 16)

“The meeting for worship is the heart of the RSoF.  It draws us together in the enlightening and empowering presence of God, sending us forth with renewed vision and commitment….When Friends worship, we reach out from the depths of our being to God, the giver of life and of the world around us.  Our worship is the search for communion with God and the offering of ourselves – body and soul- for the doing of God’s will.” (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997/2001, p. 17)

“Membership is also a way of saying to the meeting, and to the world, that you accept at least the fundamental elements of being a Quaker: the understanding of divine guidance, the manner of corporate worship and the ordering of the meeting’s business, the practical expression of inward convictions and the equality of all before God.” (The Yearly Meeting in Britain, 1995, #11.0)

On Christianity: Some passages in the Disciplines suggest Quakers are expected to be Christians: “Membership in the RSoF, as a part of the Christian fellowship, is both a privilege and a responsibility.  Ideally, it is the outward sign of an inner experience of the Living god and of unity with the other members of a living body….Faith in God and an effort to follow the life and teachings of Jesus under the guidance and authority of the Light Within are the bases of our Quaker faith.” (New England Yearly Meeting, 1985, p. 235)

“Friends’ peace testimony arises from the power of Christ working in our hearts….The Society of Friends has consistently held that war is contrary to the Spirit of Christ”. (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997/2001, p. 76)

To summarize, in these Disciplines we have found both doctrinally open and closed statements.  It is encouraging that there is openness and that monthly meetings are given great latitude in applying the guidelines.

Statements are closed when acceptance is assumed, required, or expected.  An assertion that all Friends accept a particular belief is a creedal statement, even if applicants are not asked to recite it. 

Friends expect individuals and meetings to interpret these statements.  For instance, they can accept the reasons for saying “equality of all before God” without necessarily agreeing on their concept of God.  It is enough to behave as do those who agree, to behave as if they agreed, sincerely and with complete commitment.  If readers of our Disciplines do not know about the responsibility of interpreting, we could lose members who would otherwise be fine additions to our community.

Usually, Disciplines reflect practices in the Quaker community rather than establish them, although by drawing together a sense of the meeting they do influence later developments.

To  be more open, theistic and Christian passages could state that many or most Friends hold these views.  Also, it would help to emphasize openness at several points in the Discipline, rather than just in the membership section and the paragraph on creeds.  Those who are familiar with DOM might not need this but the test is in the reaction of readers who do not know about our openness.

Doctrinally Open Membership And Quaker Traditions

The traditions considered here have been present among Quakers since the beginning although their interpretation has changed over the years.  These traditions have been instrumental in allowing development within the RSoF.  These are the roots of today’s DOM.

Membership practices of the earliest Friends: “For the first several generations of the Quaker movement there was no such thing as formal membership.  Persons were known as Quakers if they participated in gathered meetings and were prepared to witness in public to their beliefs.” (New England Yearly Meeting, 1985, p. 127)  Later, visiting committees were used.  Here is a report of one from 1697: “They did not ask me questions about this or the other creed, or about this or the other controversie in religion; but they waited to feel that living Power to quicken me, which raised up Jesus from the dead.” (Claridge, 1701, p. x)

The role of doctrine in the early Society: these were sensitive people who responded to conditions they encountered.  The doctrinal explanation for what they did came later: “Ever since its earliest days Quakerism has been something appreciated by the adherent rather than deliberately advertised.  For that reason it has not depended on definition and formulation.  These have followed ex post facto.  They are not blueprints of a course of development to be recommended.  They are analysis of the deposits of experience.” (Cadbury, 1959, p. 7)

Emphasis on the individual: authority rested in the experience of each Friend who was in a direct relation with God. There is light in every person.  Messages and statements of belief are treasured even when they differ from ones own.

Corporate religion: worshiping with others, submitting to the judgment of the group, was found to be essential early on.  DOM is compatible with this in its emphasis on membership as a corporate clearness process, on worship and service as group activities, and the importance of unity amid diversity in the meeting.

Interpretation: Early Friends were encouraged to respond to the light in which the Scriptures were written.  This was a surprising and dangerous stand.  Writing and speaking are products of history, both that of the particular author and cultural histories shared with others.  This places an awesome responsibility on each reader and listener.

Continuing revelation: we change; knowledge, truth, and insight do not just happen once, but again and again.

Witnessing to the world: we are taught to let our lives speak, to be patterns in everything we do; our faith is measured by its fruits.

A noncreedal religion: This supports DOM but it support doctrinally closed membership practices (e.g. if statements are not creeds unless members are required to recite them, or if the prohibition of creeds refers to details but not to core beliefs such as the inner light, Christianity, and the peace testimony.)  To support this interpretation statements disavowing creeds are often paired with statements of accepted belief.[3]  With DOM, the RSoF becomes more strongly noncreedal.

Universalism: each person is highly valued, any person can be saved, we can live well with a variety of beliefs, and we can learn from those who believe differently than we do.

But what about the central theist traditions in the RSoF, that of God in each person, God intervening in our lives, and the injunction to do God’s will?  We can talk about these beliefs differently without denying their importance.  We can differ and still live together.  Let the measure of our beliefs be our lives.[4] 

Implications For Other Areas In Which Unity Of Belief Has Been Important

Inevitably there will be problems if we open the membership process but do not provide alternatives in other areas where doctrinal agreement is expected.

For instance, if our members beliefs vary how do we maintain our distinctive character?  Individual Quakers make different selections from a large set of Quaker behaviors.  This includes many options in areas such as beliefs, manner of worship, testimonies, and life style.  We each take some of what is available in these and other categories, and then we interpret what we have taken in the light of our own histories.  What is unique about Quakers isn’t one thing but the cumulative effect of many decisions by many Quakers, past and present.  Among this diversity, Quakers gather.[5]

Another area where conformity of belief is thought necessary is in building unity in our meetings.  Arriving at a sense of the meeting is possible when people disagree – unanimity is not the way it is done.  Unity can be based on values and purposes we hold in common.  Friends commit to help each other realize their highest aspirations.  To do this, they need each other.  It is an active, cooperative process.  Unity can be based on the function of our lives rather than the structure of our beliefs.  Our lives become our religion.[6]  Many groups do this, the best example being loving families whose members hold contrasting beliefs.  Teams and social change coalitions and multi-ethnic communities show us that diverse people can learn to behave in unity. 

Does effective faith-based action require agreement about beliefs?  Others ask if collective faith based action is possible when our faiths differ.  There are many sources of our behavior, not just beliefs, and many beliefs can accompany the same action.  Also, sensitive, caring people can respond directly to circumstances rather than doing so as a calculation based on their beliefs.  This is simply living love.

It is often said that Quaker action grows out of Quaker belief, but the relation goes in the other direction, too.  This was seen when the early Quakers were moved to mend the world, with the basis in Quaker doctrine coming later.[7] 

In general, the link between beliefs and action is not as strong as we often think.  A belief can lead to many different actions, and many beliefs can lead to the same action.  For example, Christianity was the basis for both slaveholding and abolition, and many religions accept the Golden Rule.  Among Friends, George Fox provides a basis for widely differing Quaker practices, and many different sorts of Quakers agree on the peace testimony.  Also, knowing a person’s beliefs does not tell us how they will behave, and changing beliefs is not a particularly effective way of changing behavior.  The tenuous connection of belief and action is actually a wonderful gift: it is why people live good lives while holding many different beliefs, and why people whose beliefs differ can love each other.[8]

If DOM is to be successful we need to address all the areas in which unanimity of belief has been thought necessary.  Consider how many Quaker practices are defined by reference to the belief that God intervenes in the world.  Can someone whose belief in God does not allow this worship with other Quakers, respond to leadings, discern right action, and help find a sense of the meeting?  I think so.  Quaker behavior is available to all Quakers.  I love sitting on a bench in meeting for worship with an evangelical Christian on one side and a Buddhist on the other.  We may speak differently but we are all there together, waiting.  Messages come from one and pass to the other, moving freely in a space beyond all barriers.

The principles we are considering here are relevant to doctrinal disagreement involving any meeting action, such as whether to marry a couple or how to spend money.  There are also topics that do not come up in meeting but may in other contexts such as a marriage.  Partners whose beliefs differ may have to cooperate in raising a child.  They can seek unity in common purposes.  People who focus on a religion of life do not need to agree on their religious beliefs.

For generations beliefs have separated humans.  Now, in our meetings, let us show what can be accomplished by people determined to love each other, beliefs and all.[9]

Relations Within A Doctrinally Diverse Faith Community

When thinking, speaking, and writing, we each incorporate some religious terms and leave others aside.  Part of the art of listening and reading is in translating the speaker’s words into our own.  The responsibility for this usually rests with the listener.  Speakers focus on speaking and listeners on listening and translating and interpreting.  (There are a few exceptions such as when we speak for other Friends or speak to listeners who are ignorant about our diversity and the need to translate.)  We need not translate if we simply respond to what controlled the others words, to the message within the words, answering the spirit instead of the letter.  Or we can pass over our differences in silence, leaving space for more important dialogue.

I have a hierarchy in how I respond to the beliefs of others: I try to help them find their own views before presenting mine, and to present mine before criticizing theirs.  Of course, the best way to talk about beliefs is with our lives.

We often need to practice patience – literally practice it until we get good at it.  We each have situations in which we speak rapidly and unwisely and we need alternatives for those occasions.  Like children we are finding our way, imperfectly. 

Each person we meet presents an opportunity to learn more about living.  If they have strongly held beliefs, bask in their light.  At all times respond to the best in the person and the words.

There are many methods for learning how to reconcile our differences.  A starting place is to study the worship sharing groups for Christians and universalists sponsored by Friends General Conference. (Seeger, 1991)

Advantages Of Doctrinally Open Membership For The Religious Society Of Friends

In my opinion, DOM is the single most important step the RSoF can take to assure long term health and relevance.  It opens the doors of our meetinghouses in so many directions!

With DOM we can attract a greater variety of people giving us a richer cultural and personal diversity.  Meetings will benefit from new ideas and energy and our diversity will allow us to speak more readily to more people outside the meeting. 

Many Quaker traditions have the happy effect of setting the occasion for growth.  These include our emphasis on individualism (with corporate oversight), interpretation of writings, universalism, and continuing revelation.  DOM helps assure our continued development.

The RSoF has long benefited from having people of diverse viewpoints within its bosom.  Thank goodness Lucretia Mott remained a Quaker!  They have helped us through the difficult process of releasing previously cherished views.  Today some Friends proceed without the divinity of Christ, miracles, and immortality.  There are meetings that welcome deists, unitarians, universalists, nonChristians, and nontheists.  For some the loss of the familiar must have seemed like the loss of everything, but then new possibilities opened up.

DOM is a method that can help build relations between individuals, within families, in our meetings, between branches of the Society, and with other faiths.  We hope it will improve the condition of Friends who are suffering because of differences in beliefs.  It can also be useful in meetings where there is agreement on beliefs because there are always hidden differences and new ones may emerge.

DOM will be more successful if it is part of a larger program.  We need to help people learn about the alternatives to doctrinal agreement in all areas of Quaker life.  Our Disciplines need to mention doctrinal openness repeatedly, not just in the membership sections.  And we need to help as people struggle with their doubts about doctrinal openness.

Dear reader, please trust this new membership practice, and the new role of belief in the RSoF.  There are alternatives to using unanimity of belief as a basis for choosing members.  There are other ways to define who we are, achieve meeting unity, and take appropriate action.  It seems to me that at times we are a creedal, belief driven Society.  This isn’t necessary and there are wonderful alternatives.  Oh the joy when we focus on what unites us rather than what divides us! 

As important as our beliefs are to us individually, they are not unique.  We will agree with each other in many ways, although not necessarily in any one way.  This can give us new confidence in dealing with people whose beliefs differ from your own.  DOM doesn’t solve all our problems, for some meetings will still have trouble with membership decisions, but it is a step on the way toward the Quaker lives we seek. 

DOM is emerging slowly, in parts and in places.  Our Disciplines and our practices are not consistent, but we are learning how to be an open and diverse community.  As we remove unnecessary barriers, new light will come into our meetinghouses and into our hearts.


1. For me, beliefs are statements about the essential characteristics and experiences of our lives and what we are most willing to struggle for.  Beliefs need not involve the supernatural or unproven assumptions, although for many people they do.  In this paper, “belief” is interchangeable with “faith,” “doctrine,” and “experience.”  These differ but I doubt that is relevant for our discussion here.

This paper is about the behavior of Quakers, and thus about events rather than static concepts, even when my words seem to indicate otherwise.  For example, “belief” stands for “believing,” and “membership” stands for the behavior of accepting new members.  The word “Quakerism” does not appear in this paper except in quotations from the writings of others.

Unity is possible without agreement on definitions, although sometimes listeners need to know more about a speaker’s words.  The responsibility for clarifying definitions can be shared by speakers and listeners.  We are advised to reach behind words to their source and respond to that: “The background of individuals vary greatly, so the outward symbols and names people use may raise unnecessary barriers.  The spiritual facts behind these terms are the essentials.” (Iowa Yearly Meeting, Conservative, 1974, p. iii)

2. In Quaker parlance, unity is different from unanimity: it does not imply everyone holds the same opinion, and nor is it consensus which can be achieved over the objections of a few holdouts.  Unity signifies a deep, personal commitment to go forward together: “It is our ability to pass through our particular views to the common center of our spiritual lives that makes the Friends business method both difficult and rewarding, and ultimately sustaining.” (Watson, 1976, p. 18)

“It is sometimes assumed that unity can be found only by the submission of a minority to the decision of a majority.  This is not so…(N)either should it be assumed that positive steps cannot be taken without unanimity….Throughout our history as a Society we have found that through the continuing search to know the will of God, a different and a deeper unity is opened to us.  Out of this deeper unity a new way is often discovered which none present had alone perceived and which transcends the differences of the opinions expressed.” (London Yearly Meeting, 1968, #719 and #720)

3. This pairing of open and closed statements is common.  Here are two examples from the Canadian Yearly Meeting Discipline: “Suitability for membership is not determined by tests of creed or practice, nor by the profession of conversion.  Nevertheless, there are certain broad principles of faith and practice which afford a basis for association.  Unity is essential upon the spiritual and practical nature of Christianity, the reality of divine communion in worship, and the presence of the Inner Light, or that of God, in everyone.” (1969/1995, pp. 43-44)  And, “We are convinced that our distinguishing testimonies arise directly out of the experience of Friends, but complete agreement with us, whether of formal belief or practice, need not be asked for.  Care should be taken, nevertheless, to ascertain how far the applicant unites with the views and practices of Friends, not only from an intellectual standpoint but from the realization that these are based on faith in the Spirit of God as manifested in the life and teachings of Jesus and the light in the hearts of everyone.” (1969/1995, p. 44)

4. Alice and Staughton Lynd describe a Christian basis for this emphasis on the lives we lead: “We believe that there is Scriptural authority for an approach to Jesus’ teaching based on what people do, not on what they think.  Jesus says that people who feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, and comfort the afflicted, will experience salvation even if during their lives they are unaware of Jesus and give no thought to him (Matthew 25:31-46).  Saying ‘Lord, Lord’ is not the path to salvation, for the righteous will be known by their fruits not by their words (Matthew 7:20-21).  The unbeliever who does good deeds – the Good Samaritan – will be preferred to the church member who passes by on the other side (Luke 10:30-37).” (1996, p. 29)

Another example of looking past beliefs to people’s lives comes from the United States Supreme Court.  In deciding that agnostics can be conscientious objectors, they wrote: “We believe that…the test of belief ‘in a relation to a Supreme Being’ is whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption (from the draft).  Where such beliefs have parallel positions in the lives of their respective holders we cannot say that one is ‘in a relation to a Supreme Being’ and the other is not.” (quoted in Bien & Fager, undated, p. 216)

5. Henry Cadbury saw doctrinal openness as a solution to confusion about who we are, and how we differ: “Nobody can put down in writing either for a Christian or a Quaker what he has to be.  He can put down in writing some of the things he can honestly attribute to those two groups; and we select from them, unconsciously I’m sure, those features which are congenial to us.  I guess you know that in the Society of Friends people select very different things. (1966, p. 9)  He also pointed out that as members of an open Society we carry a great responsibility: “If we are as a group and as individuals unconfined by any compulsory conformity we are nevertheless under an inner compulsion to choose for ourselves and to be as obedient to individual duty as though we were regimented and conforming to wholesale standards.” (1959, p. 29)

6. Religion as ethical living is described by Henry Cadbury: “(M)y own religion, as nearly as I can tell,…is mainly neither emotional nor rational but expresses itself habitually or occasionally in action….It is one part of our Quaker tradition that “religion is a way of life.”  We think sometimes that the best way to know religion is to see a religious personality in action….If you know John Woolman’s Journal you will know what I mean by a religious personality in action…(T)he amazing revelation which he gives is that of a sensitive conscience feeling its course in a series of soul-searching problems – public problems that he felt must be personally decided.  Such forms of religion do not often get recorded, but they are none the less real and important. (1936/2000, pp. 27-28)  For more on this approach, see Cresson, 2002. 

7. Henry Cadbury wrote, “Ever since its earliest days Quakerism has been something appreciated by the adherent rather than deliberately advertised.  For that reason it has not depended on definition and formulation.  These have followed ex post facto.  They are not blueprints of a course of development to be recommended.  They are analysis of the deposits of experience.” (1959, p. 7)

Cadbury wanted us to look at the relation of belief and action in a new way: “I think we often tend to rationalize as tho (action) all grows out of some Christian or Quaker historical attitude that can be articulated.  Our predecessors did not usually do so.  Their action was much more spontaneous than inquiry as to whether it fitted a belief, e.g. as in the inner light.  If what they did actually did fit, I think that was a later discovery….A view increasingly conspicuous to me is the priority of action to belief, or at least an alternating growth of the relation between them. (1962, pp. 1-2)

As Margaret Hope Bacon put it in her biography of Cadbury: “Action, he was to say over and over, could lead to belief and to the nurturing of religious life, as well as belief to action.  It was another way of reiterating the Quaker faith that if one takes a step in the light, more light will follow.” (1987, p. 48)

8. If beliefs are tenuously linked to actions, how did the standardization of beliefs in religion become so firmly established?  Requiring agreement on beliefs works well in some situations.  It is effective when adaptation is not important.  It avoids the danger that individuals making their own decisions might abandon beliefs you cherish.  Agreement on belief also seems justified if certain beliefs mean eternal salvation and others mean damnation, and it makes sense if specially trained people are the only ones qualified to make decisions about beliefs.

9. It helped me become more patient with all this when I noticed how short human history is.  We are about 25 generations removed from medieval times (at 20 years a generation.)  Your 600 times great grandparents probably lived in the Stone Age, before farming, villages, and writing.  We still bear the imprint of the old ways.  No wonder we have problems living with people whose beliefs differ from our own.  Thankfully, a new relation of humankind and their beliefs is possible.  It starts with acknowledging that people can live good lives, and work and worship together, and love each other while holding different beliefs.


Bacon, Margaret Hope (1987). Let This Life Speak: The Legacy of Henry Joel Cadbury. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Baltimore Yearly Meeting (1962). The Book of Discipline…. Baltimore MD: (author)

Bien, Peter & Chuck Fager (undated). In Stillness There is Fullness: A Peacemaker’s Harvest. Bellefonte PA: Kimo Press

Cadbury, Henry J. (1936/2000). “My Personal Religion”. Universalist Friends, No. 35 (Fall-Winter 2000): 22-31, with corrections in No. 36 (Spring-Summer 2001): 18.

Cadbury, Henry J. (1957). Quakerism and Early Christianity (Swarthmore Lecture). London: Allen & Unwin.

Cadbury, Henry J. (1959). The Character of A Quaker, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #103. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill.

Cadbury, Henry J. (1962). Quaker Principles and Action. (Notes for talk at Stony Brook, Baltimore). Unpublished manuscript in the Quaker Collection at Haverford College, Haverford PA.

Cadbury, Henry J. (1966). “Quakerism and/or Christianity.” Friends Bulletin, 35(4), 1-10.

Canadian Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (1969/1995). Organization and Procedure. (Location not given): (author).

Claridge, Richard (1701). Lux evangelica attestata, quoted in Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, Worcester, MA: New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1986, p. 129.

Cresson, Osborn (2002). A Tender Concern for Religious Skeptics. Unpublished manuscript.

Holmes, Jesse (1928/1992). “To the Scientifically-Minded.” Friends Intelligencer, 85(6): 103-104; reprinted in Friends Journal, (1992) 38(6): 22-23.  Also published as a brochure, To the Scientifically-Minded. Philadelphia: Friends General Conference (undated), and in Spanish, A Los Intellectuales. Philadelphia: Friends’ General Conference (undated).  Also reprinted in the magazines Atlantic, Christian Century, Harpers, and Unity (Wahl, 1979, p. 295).

Iowa Yearly Meeting, Conservative (1974). Discipline. Des Moines, IA: (author)

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Lynd, Alice and Staughton (1996). Liberation Theology for Quakers, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #326. Wallingford PA: Pendle Hill

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5 responses to “Doctrinally Open Membership in the Religious Society of Friends”

  1. As I prepare to ask for admission to the Atlanta Meeting, I found this post helpful and comforting. Thank you from a newly tender Quaker.

    1. David, congratulations on finding your way to the doorstep of Atlanta MM!
      As you know, disciplines are mosaics with parts that support diversity in religious thinking and parts that support orthodoxy. In this they reflect the membership of the YM and its history. The results are complex and imperfect. It would be good to have a collection of passages supporting and limiting religious diversity for each YM Discipline. I have one for Iowa YM (Conservative). Anyone who would like a copy just has to ask.
      Fare well, f/Friend.

  2. Sam Barnett-Cormack Avatar
    Sam Barnett-Cormack

    I found this very interesting, as I seek to find more community and fellowship specifically linked to non-theism within the Society of Friends. Don’t get me wrong; I find great fellowship with other Friends, most of those I am in regular contact with being broadly Christian, but I feel a hunger for discussion of our traditions and practices through a non-theist lens; I feel what I tentatively consider a leading to the goal of promoting discussion of non-theism in Quaker context among wider circles of Friends, including promoting the idea of non-theism (which in this case I do not include polytheistic, but some pantheist and pagan views fit my definition for this purpose) within religion. Many use the term non-theist as a slightly less challenging equivalent to atheism, only including atheists, agnostics and similar, and precluding any religiosity or spirituality, and I feel a drive to open the discussion with them that non-theism, and even scepticism, do not exclude that side of life.

    For reference, I’m in the UK, with most of my engagement with the Society being through Young Friends General Meeting (which I serve currently as Website Coordinator). I’d love to be able to raise the idea of non-theism within YFGM.

    1. Sam, you raise important issues. My inclination is to promote discussion of unity and diversity among Friends, which brings along with it discussion of nontheism and many other points I care about personally. I only need us to agree that the Religious Society of Friends is better for including a variety of Friends. If my views are advantageous they will rise on their own, and I’m a more effective change agent when barely trying to elicit change.

      As to religiosity and spirituality, hopefully even when I reject concepts or reduce them to observable terms, I still deal with the evidence of them, and with your reactions to them, and what brings you to react this way.

      Working with young people is the future, but it’s a minefield because people are so sensitive to whether it is done without inappropriately influencing the outcome. I have great sympathy for quiet, skeptical backbenchers. Have you ever had someone sidle up to you afterward and thank you for saying something they were thinking but couldn’t speak about?

      A detail: in the U.S. Christian Friends often object to our leaving out the word “Religious” when we write or say “Society of Friends,” even though first generation Quakers did it. It’s easy for me to accommodate them since religion need not involve the supernatural.

      Go well,

  3. Another approach to doctrinal openness is to actively involve compatible attenders in the life of the meeting where, in some cases, these attenders clearly and openly are not considering membership in the Religious Society.

    Yet their ways are compatible, they celebrate Quaker testimonies and contributions in the world, and their skills are considerable. If such a person practices among Friends year after year, in our meeting they might eventually be nominated to Oversight.

    Indeed, I don’t think our operating manual (Faith and Practice) specifically forbids the clerk from being a non-member.

    By state requirement, we need an identifiable membership and should be able to point to our officers. Nonprofit structures, churches included, have no “clerk” in any case, so maybe the Assistant Clerk is “executive director” for the state’s records, while the Clerk is a non-member, perhaps a visiting rabbi of great compassion and repute.

    The Meeting recognizes what a golden opportunity this could be and after a little seasoning, Business Meeting gives us the green light. Let this rabbi be clerk for a couple years, why not? We know and trust this person. Doctrine is not an issue.

    This may sound far fetched, but lets remember how the AFSC is considered a “Quaker organization” and yet depends a great deal on non members. Meetings may be the same way.

    Some of our longest term most dedicated participants are not seeking membership. They don’t feel it’s a requirement to be among Friends at the deepest levels. That’s probably in part owing to our not reserving any corner of the life of the Meeting to members in particular (other than the process of becoming a member).

    Think of rides at a carnival. You may become a member of the carnival (get a card in the mail), but the rides stay open to all. You may become a member of an art museum. That doesn’t mean you should close off some rooms and make them “members only”. That somewhat defeats the purpose of an art museum, which about sharing art with the world, more than stroking member egos.

    Likewise, a Quaker Meeting is not about denying a seeking public an opportunity to experience Quaker community — including its committees, other events. Members have no special secrets. We’re not Masons or Mormons or Illuminati (even if there’s some overlap, among attenders especially).

    I’m not saying just anyone should be able to walk in off the street and jump on any committee. Nominating has a real job to do, and getting the right balance of attenders and members on every committee is a kind of alchemy. Some attenders are especially good at it.

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