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

Two cheers for Quaker history

A Friend on the nontheist Friends e-mail discussion list at some point challenged us to seriously study early Quaker history, and not just dip into it, “to develop our knowledge of and insights into the origins and development of the tradition or movement we have committed to.” Good advice, no question. And yet I felt compelled to offer a counterpoint, which I repost here with some changes:

I am one of those who has only dipped into Quaker history, dipped far less deeply than many Friends in my own meeting, immeasurably less deeply than most of the Friends on this list. Even with my modest reading I can easily see huge flaws in the argument for orthodoxy based on Quaker history. The greatest flaw, perhaps, is that there is no significant period in history where Friends were united in an orthodoxy, unless one considers the mere name of Christianity to be orthodoxy. And that view hardly holds up when one considers that the early Friends were enthusiastically rejecting the nominal Christianity of their time.

It’s good to know these things, and we are very fortunate to some have Friends among us who study that history deeply and broadly, particularly to have such Friends in the unapologetically universalist strain of Quakerism which is my home. Without these historically grounded Friends, we would certainly forget the best and the worst in our tradition, and make the same mistakes again and again, and lose the gold. (Actually, we probably will make some of these mistakes anyway, but maybe not as badly as we would otherwise.)

But I wouldn’t describe what I have committed to as primarily, or even substantially, a tradition or a movement. First and foremost I have committed to a community, and secondarily to a way of being together in community. That way is certainly traditional in some sense, but the better part of it by far is experimental/experiential rather than traditional. I suppose another way of saying this is, the best part of the tradition is the experimental part. A tradition of mistrusting tradition.

In the end we absolutely must rely on our flawed intuitions, though we also test those intuitions against each other, and against reality. History does not tell us what to do. It never has and it never will. We have to feel our way through, straining to distinguish between what is life-giving and what is life-denying.

We depend on the diversity of gifts and temperaments in our community, and our personal styles and tastes in learning and literature is one part of that diversity. Myself, I read some Quaker history, and have enlightening conversations with Friends I trust who read far more, but the focus in my reading is not primarily historical or Quakerly. I read far more fiction and poetry, mostly because it excites me, but also because it steeps me in the cussed, complex, contradictory nature of being human in the world, which is my primary interest in life. Being who I am, I think I bring more value to my community from that sort of focus, than I would if I read a lot of Quaker history.

Fact is, when I read early Quaker writers, and even moreso when I read esteemed non-Quaker Christian writers, I often find myself violently disagreeing with what they write, and not only in the sense of not accepting their theological assumptions as objective truths. A great deal of Christian writing strikes me as anti-life, anti-energy, anti-world, always wanting to move to a plane of existence other than the one we actually live in. I can often see a thread of profound truth lurking underneath the surface, but not nearly as potent as the truth I find, say, in Kafka or Dostoevsky or Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth or Cormac McCarthy–writers who are thoroughly drenched in the world we live in. (If I knew the name of the writer of Job, I would add it.)

So, I’ll pick up a Pendle Hill pamphlet now and then if it catches my eye, but I don’t think I will seek to become thoroughly grounded in Quaker history, and I’m not going to fret about it. My meeting house has many rooms.


13 responses to “Two cheers for Quaker history”

  1. I find history to be helpful and interesting–and sometimes so inspiring that I make changes in my life (e.g., John Woolman).

    And I understand that some might find our unfolding over time to be a drift away from “original intent.”

    I’m not sure originial intent can be fully explored so long after the fact. Going through many changes over time is what all communities (or societies or religions) do, including those that seem stuck in time ( like the Amish, who really aren’t as stuck in time as people think).

    Renewal is an on-going process, IMO, a fluid one that resists a stopping point and has an uncanny way of dealing with obstacles. I think we’ve seen this throughout our history. More importantly, we may be seeing the outcomes that come when a group of people rely on a more personal and experiential type of faith than with a set in stone type of religion.

    However, it seems to me that if we set up one certain point in history as a template or a deal-breaker, we run the risk of fundamentalism–something I suspect Friends from across the Quaker spectrum would find uncomfortable.

    I hope we don’t frame renewal in an adversarial way–that just slows down the more organic process. It saddens me when feelings and attitudes about renewal are taken as argument when they can function so well as discussion or dialogue.

    Looking forward to what is to come even though I suspect I may be on the fringe. With many different POVs we have so much potential for something very interesting and nourishing to develop.


  2. I like this post, finding it very respectful of a point of view other than your own while holding your own voice clear and strong.

    I’ve only been reading in the Quaker blogosphere for a few months and am finding it a stimulating and thoughtful experience.

    I’m a very small-time buff of Quaker history and like your point that there will always be enough historians around to do a better job of it. Best not to worship the past as a false idol, and I think you can do that while understanding how our traditions and forms have served us and continue, with seasoning, to provide guidance.

  3. Hystery Witch Avatar
    Hystery Witch

    Perhaps the simplest definition of history is “the study of change over time.” Although there are those who look to history to justify a conservative reliance on the forms and habits of their ancestors, I prefer to look at history as a record of experimentation, courage, passion, failure, and striving. It is a collection of stories, an anthology of journeys and homecomings. It is the breadcrumbs left behind by sojourners.

    I can think of no noteworthy historical figures, be they Friends or feminists, abolitionists, adventurers or leaders who did not disrupt the status quo. If history teaches us anything it is that we are always changing. There is an absurdity in thinking that there was some kind of utopian moment or some kind of crystalization of the perfect philosophy. As history moves along, our context changes and our forebears truths can no longer feed our reality. We can look to the past for inspiration but we cannot go back.

    As for finding the right Christian path as a Friend, I prefer to look to Lucretia Mott (that rebel and gender transgressor) who called Christ “a bold non-conformist.”

  4. Cath, I guess I can hardly be against renewal,can I? I mean, it’s such a positive, optimistic word, making something new again. But you’re absolutely right to question the idea of renewal based on a template of the past. I was sad to see your thoughtful and friendly comments along those lines–as well as questions around the issue of inclusion/exclusion–dismissed on another blog recently.

    It seems to me, almost everywhere on the web I see Quakers calling for renewal, that’s the kind of renewal they’re talking about: turning back to the old days when Quakerism was perfect. Most of what I see called renewal, I would call reaction: reaction to the fact that Quakerism like everything else is changing, reaction to the liberal impulse toward greater diversity, greater openness, and–here’s the real source of the reaction–greater uncertainty.

    The good news is, it won’t work. Quakerism won’t move backward; it will move forward. That’s the direction of time.

    Carol, I appreciate your kind words. I hope I haven’t changed your mind with this comment, a little testier than the original post.

    HysteryWitch, you speak my mind.

  5. I see the history I know (mostly of the US, but some world history) as a constant move forward, but with significant push and pull from both progressive and conservative movements. And I think rightly so.

    Women first asked for the vote in 1848. We didn’t get the vote until 1920 and didn’t vote in great numbers until many decades later.

    What would have happened if women had gotten the vote in 1848?

    What if the US allowed same-sex marriage the first time a couple asked for a marriage license a couple of decades ago?

    Every movement forward is made moderate by conservatism. And forward movement is necessary and right.

    So why shouldn’t Quakerism be the same?

    It always has been. You look at Quaker history and see only forward movement, but I see a dance in and out of forward movement and conservatism. The most exciting and growthful times have been when those two things could co-exist together.

    Take, for instance, a recent study done by some Quaker body I don’t remember (maybe FCNL?) that found every Yearly meeting that had only one affiliation to a larger body (FGC, FUM, EFI) had their census numbers drop in the last two decades. The only YM’s that had growth were dually affiliated YM’s (FGC/FUM for instance).

    New York YM is an excellent example of this–they’ve seen tremendous growth in the number of people attending and getting involved. And their conflict is precisely progressive/conservative (around GLBT issues).

    Both renewal (conservatism) and forward movement (progressivism) need to exist together for vibrancy.

    And if history’s any guide, you won’t have one without the other.

    (I don’t understand the spam prevention question: how do you spell cat? isn’t it just “cat”?)

  6. Hi, Jeanne–good to hear from you.

    Yes, all you need to do is enter “cat”. This works for spam prevention because automated “spambots” don’t understand the question (or any question), and so invariably fail the test. I think this sort of test works better than character recognition spam preventers, which some people have a hard time reading and understanding.

    You are absolutely right that the forces of change and conservatism always co-exist–that is inevitable. But it’s not a cooperative sort of coexistence–these forces are in constant tension, and eventually change wins out, for better or worse. And the best, least reactionary sort of conservatism has some positive value in that it slows change down, and sometimes prevents some really poorly thought out radical change from happening. This is not the sort of conservativism–more properly called reaction–that seeks to return to the past because the past is better. What I value is the sort of conservatism that recognizes that everything is connected to everything else, and that some seemingly positive change, if too quick and radical, can have disastrous unintended consequences–for instance, radical change can provoke reactionary, regressive political movements.

    You ask, “What would have happened if women had gotten the vote in 1848?” and “What if the US allowed same-sex marriage the first time a couple asked for a marriage license a couple of decades ago?” For the most part I would say, that would have been a good thing, a generation or two of women and same sex couples would have lived in a more just society. But another possibility–perhaps this is what you had in mind in asking the question–is that a quicker moving reform it could have provoked stronger political reaction and set the cause of justice back a century. It’s really hard–impossible in many cases–to answer this sort of question. History is lived forward, but understood backward. We cannot know what would have happened in any sort of alternate history, but can only make guesses.

    I guess I would say I wish to align with the forces of progressivism, knowing that the forces of conservatism are there to slow me down. I would say this has been an essential role of Quakers in history.

    It’s possible your example of yearly meeting growth accurately reflects general trends–without seeing the numbers I will reserve judgment. But I can say with certainty that it is not true that “every Yearly meeting that had only one affiliation to a larger body (FGC, FUM, EFI) had their census numbers drop in the last two decades.” That is clearly not the case in our own Northern Yearly Meeting, which has grown a great deal in the past 20 years, and I’m sure there are others.

  7. Actually, I should have done my research before I shot my mouth off.

    I was taking my numbers from memory because I’d read this blog post that made some generalizations based on a report from Friends Journal.

    The actual study is here and it looks at a 35-year period from 1971 and 2007. The study couldn’t consider Northern because they don’t have numbers from 1971.

    The study looked at YM’s in the aggregate, rather than individually, and if one YM had a growth but another YM had an equal decline, then the net was zero.

    And I was WRONG about NYYM! They actually were the only YM in the joint FUM/FGC group that had a decline. All the other YM’s had a significant increase.

    I’m wondering where you got your numbers about Northern. I’d like to see them!

    But to your point, “I would say this has been an essential role of Quakers in history.”

    I’d say that is true of individual Quakers and you could make an argument that this might be true of some monthly meetings. But Quakers have been human throughout history and I see lots and lots of resistance to change in Quaker history. The split over evangelism is one such thing–the evangelical movement of the 1800s was seen as indeed progressive, and was rejected by many people who wanted to conserve the original Quaker form of worship.

    This conservation created the unprogrammed worship you enjoy today.


  8. There are no direct numbers behind my statement of Northern Yearly Meeting’s growth, so I guess I’m out of line calling myself certain. Let’s say instead I feel highly confident, based on conversations with medium- and old-timers with Northern Yearly Meeting, and also from some documents on the NYM web site. Most of the conversations have been with Twin Cities Friends Meeting Friends who have been active in NYM, but also occasionally with members of other meetings throughout NYM.

    Two or three years ago at NYM Sessions, there was an opening exercise where everyone lined up according to the number of years they have been going to NYM sessions, and each was asked to share something about the early years. How much smaller it was back then, came up again and again. Beyond that I’ve talked to Friends individually at NYM and in our meeting, and the theme of consistent and strong numerical growth has been common. This should not be too surprising given that it is such a relatively young yearly meeting.

    In the 35-year window you’re talking about, rather than a 20-year window, I suspect the growth would be even clearer.

    From the NYM web site:

    The past twenty four years have witnessed vigorous growth in the size of the NYM Gathering. This was manifested by increases in attendance (325 in 1996), establishment of new meetings and regional gatherings, expansion of the budget and extension of age diversity as many of the early participants have become “senior Friends.”

    Elsewhere the document put an exclamation point after the attendance number of 140 in 1967, suggesting that number was considered strikingly large at that time. Growth in the gathering is not the same as growth in NYM itself, but I think it’s a reasonable indicator when the trends are this large.

    Also, I began in Twin Cities Friends Meeting (one of the largest meetings in NYM — perhaps the largest) 17 years ago, and the meeting is substantially larger than it was then. We built our large addition early in that period, and already we are running out of room for our First Day School program. I think you were there when I first attended, and might have even more experience of this growth.

    Growth is no proof of doing things right, of course; if it were we would have to concede the greatest righteousness to evangelical mega-churches, and I’m not going to concede that.

    I’ll come back to your comments about conservatism and progressivism. There is a sense in which I agree with your characterization of the split between the revivalists and the Beanites in Iowa, and a sense in which I probably disagree.

  9. James said: I guess I would say I wish to align with the forces of progressivism, knowing that the forces of conservatism are there to slow me down. I would say this has been an essential role of Quakers in history.


    Ah, checks and balances. I think the reverse is also true (and maybe some sideways motion, too LOL). Sometimes the force of progressiveness can nudge the conservatism along.

    I believe creativity is a great (if not the greatest) gift. It’s a flow, really, if we let it be. The urge to put our finger in the flow can be powerful, followed by the urge to put some objects in the flow, and eventually to build a dam or two.

    Whether or not a person (a group, a Meeting) wants to align itself with a point anywhere along the Conservative – Progressive spectrum, we all have to deal with the human trait of wanting to play a part in creating the next move or the next definition.

    Every so often, however, we stop and put a frame around something that has been created (or a fence, or a border of nice plants). That can be very satisfying–as long as maintaining the frame (fence, border) doesn’t become an end in itself.

    Semi-formal gardens are just as pretty as wildness and formal gardens.


  10. I like that metaphor Cath. You really oughta have your own blog.



  11. Jeanne–it’s going to happen.


  12. It seems to me that a knowledge and understanding of history and the development of ideas are extremely useful in defining our own ideas, especially in being confronted with ideas with which we disagree. The past can also be extremely inspiring in demonstrating the power of our predecessors convictions and the lengths to which they went to bear witness to them, whether we agree with the specifics or not. An awareness of George Fox’s life has given me the strength to bear witness to Quaker testimonies in my workplace, though I find I am often uncomfortable with many of the opinions expressed in his writings. However, that very discomfort helped me to reach an understanding of my own belief.

    The mistake is to allow reverence for the past to inhibit the development of the future, and to constrict the present. Have we not always been about orthopraxy, and not orthodoxy, anyway? The way, not the word.

    However, it would be a similar mistake not to recognise that (as James hints at when discussing the role of conservatism in giving pause for thought) not all progress and development is good, and an awareness of the past can help us see that past ideas and ways of doing things may actually have been better than our present ones, and that awareness can help us refine and improve our future progress. I think this is probably true, in particular, in my witness to our testimony with relation to simplicity, equality and environment.

    Also, the tension between the traditions can actually be the driving force of the creativity we need to develop our own ideas and inspire new ones. The whole Quaker tradition was itself born of a time of great political, spiritual and physical conflict, and many of the great ideas of the last centuries can be traced to that period of radical thought and debate. The challenge is to use our Quakerism to ensure that the conflict remains constructive, not destructive as so much conflict can be. The great strength of Quakerism is our tolerance and accommodation of a range of belief.


  13. The late rabbi Mordecai Kaplan said of the Reconstructionist (and nontheistic) Judaism he was instrumental in launching: “The past has a vote but not a veto.”

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