Is Quakerism in Decline?

August 25, 2011 § 14 Comments

Along with budget documents, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting released at this year’s annual sessions a sheet outlining membership statistics for the past twenty years. Declining membership is one of the factors driving PYM’s current financial crisis. I want to look at these figures in some detail in future posts, but for me they raise a bunch of questions I want to look at first:

  • Is Quakerism in decline?
  • What do we (what do I) mean by “decline”?
  • What factors would we consider to be reliable indicators of decline?

Declining membership is the most obvious indicator and I think it’s worthwhile to try to understand its patterns and especially its causes. Hence the posts that will follow analyzing PYM’s data. But I would like to propose some other indicators and ask my readers to add theirs. I would also like to hear comments on these indicators from members of yearly meetings besides the two I have some knowledge of—PYM and New York Yearly Meeting: Are other yearly meetings in basically the same condition as these two East Coast yearly meetings? Are there noticeable differences between FGC and FUM and Conservative yearly meetings (also Britain Yearly Meeting) in their experience of these indicators? I would like to start a worldwide project of self-evaluation using roughly the same set of parameters to determine whether Quakerism is in decline and, if so, perhaps why.

My instincts tell me we are in decline in a number of ways, but going over PYM’s membership statistics made me wonder why I felt that way and whether there was real evidence for such a subjective feeling. Was it possible to get past personal anecdotal impressions to a more rigorous conclusion? So I’m hoping we can use the blogosphere to begin answering these questions.

Here’s my list of indicators:

  1. Membership—what are the trends and patterns?
  2. Financial support—what are the trends and patterns?
  3. Gathered meetings—how many meetings are experiencing gathered meetings and how often? (I would leave the definition of ‘gathered meeting’ up to the meeting or the commentator, rather than try to define it myself for others.) I believe this is the most important indicator we have.
  4. Seasoned Friends—how many monthly meetings have Friends whose knowledge of Quakerism is deep enough to teach it either in an adult RE program, or to recognize when the meeting is acting in ignorance of our traditions?
  5. Quaker ministers—how many meetings have members whose work, either among Friends or in the world, has either been formally recorded or is generally recognized in the meeting and/or supported by the meeting in some way?

Got any more?


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§ 14 Responses to Is Quakerism in Decline?

  • Bill Rushby says:

    An issue of *Quaker Religious Thought* has appeared recently with “The Future of Friends” as its theme. I recommend it to you. QRT, #123-124. It is a double issue, so the price is $16.00.

  • miles secker says:

    1. The data for Yearly Meetings in North America and the British Isles show conclusively that attendance is in decline and that most members and attenders are middle-aged to elderly. Some of these will be birthright Friends and some others will have been members for a long time; but not all! Two ‘generations’ are missing.
    2. Support from members is in decline a) because of 1) above and b) because members support other activities such as Amnesty or USAid or MSF.
    3. Despite having an older membership ministry has become less inspired and more like personal ramblings.
    4. Because of the decline ‘Seasoned’ Friends attend less and their membership lapses.
    5. This question is unclear.

  • Polly says:

    I think one way to measure this question is using the indicators of conversion, birth rates and retention rates. I recently read a book about the Amish faith and while they have very low converstion rates, they have high birth rates and high retention rates so their overall numbers stay the same.

    I would guess that liberal unprogrammed Friends, which are the ones I’m most familar with, have low conversion rates, low birth rates and perhaps low retention rates which is cause for concern.

    • I was thinking the same thing and I think we might be able to tease conversion and retention rates out of the PYM data, and it includes birth rates. So I’ll be reporting on this soon, perhaps. Depends on whether my vacation cuts the work short.

    • Bill Rushby says:

      Actually, the Amish are growing very rapidly, doubling in number every 20 years, I believe.

  • I’m aware of an untapped source of data in my own Meeting (15th Street in NYYM), and there may be a similar resource in many other meetings: the list of attenders at business meetings appended to the minutes of each session.

    By going over the minutes of the past 30 to 50 years we could easily develop a statistical picture of the trends in how many people cared enough about the business of the meeting to attend MfB.

    I haven’t done this analysis for 15th Street, but my subjective impression is that at the attendance at Meeting for Business has been much more steady than the on-paper membership would suggest.
    Another ineicator would be a look at the record found in treasurer’s reports of how much was contributed to the Meeting year by year.

    Neither of these measures would say much about the spiritual state of the meeting, but they might tell us more than membership statistics about the actual participation in Meeting life.

    • Sounds like a great resource. If only one had the time. . . The British Friend Alastair Heron has done just this kind of analysis for what was then London Yearly Meeting, but I’m not quite sure anymore which book it is. I think it’s On Being a Quaker: Membership – Past – Present – Future, published in 2000. It’s been years since I read it and now I can’t find it in my library. I think I loaned it to somebody.

      I’ll have to go to the library and review it, then digest it for my readers.

  • Ummm…yeah. Without a doubt. Serious decline. To the point that I doubt there will be much left in the Liberal, Unprogrammed Q mtgs (particularly in our area) in 10 years. Typically when I go with my husband, we’re talking single digit attendance. That combined with the PYM stuff that’s been going down and entire generations missing from most meetings (two, usually), the writing’s on the wall.

  • John Edminster says:

    I too would like to get past personal anecdotal impressions to a more rigorous conclusion. I know of three ways of achieving the kind of rigor that compels belief: the way of science and logic; the way of art; and the way of prophecy. I’d be happy to see these three sisters corroborate one another here, but in the absence of well-argued quantitative data, and in the absence of a ballad or a painting to awaken hope, tears or awe in me, I’d be content with a prophet’s word about the state of Quakerism today, for a prophet speaks the truth of God to something in the soul that recognizes it as the truth of God (as when Nathan cried “Thou art the man!” to David, 2 Samuel 12:7, or when George Fox asked “what canst thou say?” and Margaret Fell’s heart answered, “we are all thieves!”). A prophet’s word on whether Quakerism is or is not in decline might be all we need to hear on the matter; and then we’d also know what to do about the situation. Here I’m not posing as such a prophet, but only, I hope, preparing the way in my readers’ minds for the appearance of one.

    Would it be a good thing or a bad thing for Quakerism to be in decline? In Israel’s grimmest hour of slavery, God raised up Moses for its deliverance. In its darkest hour under Roman tyranny, its Savior came. Christendom was in the “dark night of the apostasy” when the Quaker publishers of truth came forth. Other religious traditions tell of the wretched condition of the faith when the great prophet, teacher or avatar arises: “Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness, O Bhārata, then I send forth Myself.” (Bhagavad Gita 4:7-8).

    Now suppose we had quantitative data to show that almost all Friends’ meetings had an adequate complement of seasoned elders – but suppose those elders were largely ignorant of the most urgent need of suffering men and women, clear and continuous guidance from the living God, and the presence of that God at every moment of life! Then Quaker meetings might continue to putter along, doing good works and having mildly religious experiences followed by good fellowship over potluck meals and then the committee meeting, but with never a word spoken about our nightmarish orphaned condition in a world of sin and danger and pain and mortality! If to be insane is to be out of touch with reality, and the greatest reality there is is the fullness and lovingkindness and eternal perfection of God, in whom we live and move and have our being, then is this experienced world not one enormous, cruel insane asylum? Come ye to the waters, everyone that thirsteth! Come to the Friends’ meeting house, unlike any other house of worship you’re ever likely to find, where panting souls drink directly from the Fountain of Living Waters! If our meeting houses could only be such refuges for men and women who were fully awake to the gravity of our fallen condition, sick of their idolatrous addictions to the perishable goods of the world and trying to let Christ the Physician restore them to their original perfection – how could Quakerism be in decline if our meetings were occasions of such wondrous healings and awakenings?

  • Richard Gordon Zyne says:

    I am a fairly new attendee to a Friend’s Meeting in Maryland (about a year now) and have very positive feelings about Quakerism in general. I consider myself to be more of a Quaker Universalist and have come out of many years as a member of a Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I wish the two bodies would merge, but I know that that is not going to happen. While the UUr’s are very welcoming, warm, exuberant and virtually “bounce off the walls” the Quakers are extremely reserved, taciturn, and mysterious–not welcoming at all. Non-programmed worship is extremely difficult for new folks who may want more of an “entertaining experience”. UUr’s often provide good music and much chatter. The “name tags” also help greatly. There are still many folks in the meeting whom I don’t know. They don’t even share their names with me, which is a shame. There is great depth and love in the Society of Friends, but “that light” is often not visible to new folks who still think of Quakers as those strange folks from Pennsylvania . . . Quakers, Amish, Shakers, you know those kind of folks.

    • cabaretic says:

      I have to say that as a former UU, I have noticed the same kind of icy reception you’ve described there as true with some Friends. Some UU churches are not this way, just as some Friends Meetings/Churches are not.

      If I had to wager a guess, I think we’re kind of at a break-even point that a previous poster suggested. For every member who joins, another leaves. Friends tend to be seekers, but sometimes their path takes years, sometimes attenders can be fickle, and sometimes attenders are just plain wary of committing. Membership numbers must be combined with those of regular attenders to get a more accurate picture.

      • Rick says:

        I too was a UU before I became a Quaker. Having been to a number of different UU and Quaker meetings over the years and I must say that no two are alike. I have been to UU churches where I was warmly welcomed and ones where I was totally ignored. It was pretty much the same with the Quakers. (But I must say that even in Quaker meetings I went to at least one person would come up and greet me even if others didn’t.)
        I think Quakerism is in decline. Every year it seems there are reports of less Quakers than the year before. Fortunately my meeting has been able to maintain a balance. For every one who has left/passed away it seems that a new person has come in. I think the problem is that we don’t actively seek new members. We somehow expect seekers to find us on their own. We should be doing an active outreach into the community. Only that will save us from extinction. We have a lot to offer the world. It is time we let people know it.

  • Tom Smith says:

    I don’t wish to raise too much of a “thorny” issue, but what is the “definition” of Quakerism. I believe that the numbers should clearly be differentiated among the “branches” of Quakerism. Essentially all “churches” in the EFCI (Evangelical Friends Church International) would be in the category of ministers. Essentially all of the FUM only (“excluding” the dual membership FGC/FUM – BYM and NEYM) churches could be classified as ministerial, but many in the African, especially East Africa, YM have essentially “lay” ministers who get paid little if anything.

    I suspect the FWCC has some “official” membership numbers for most Yearly Meetings, but those do not include some Quakers, for example, Central YM, mainly in Indiana and surrounding states.

    For me, there has always been a “core” of “Friends” in essentially all “branches” but that the decline of “core beliefs” has been driven by those on the “Protestant” side that now permits some to even “accept” water baptism and the eucharist and those on the “opposite side” that now permit essentially any “belief” to be called “Quaker.”

    I wish you well and may even contribute what I can with some “research.”

  • Looking at Illinois YM’s minute books online (1968-2010), (, membership has slightly increased over time from 997 in ’68 to 1056 in 2010. Population of the state has increased from 11.1M in ’70 to 12.8M in ’10. ILYM isn’t declining numerically, but we aren’t growing significantly, either.

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