The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 7

June 1, 2018 § 1 Comment

The Great War

Britain Yearly Meeting was not truly unified against the war. Almost 1000 Quaker men served in World War I, one third of the men of military age. One hundred died. (Kennedy, p. 313) An indeterminate number of Friends drifted in the middle, unsure of what to do. But those who chose to resist ended up defining the yearly meeting’s official stance and even the character of Quakerism itself.

And the peace testimony was “generalized”, by which I mean that war itself was declared the problem, not this particular war, or any particular war for which there might be good reasons to oppose in the specific case. The peace testimony became absolutist, at least in its definition, if not always in its actual employment. A “just” war was now deemed an oxymoron.

The absolutist stand even prevailed officially over an alternativist stance, according to which many Friends felt that alternative service was the appropriate action. Many Friends took that route, but the yearly meeting chose absolute refusal as its testimony, even though this represented only five percent of eligible Quaker men. Their moral influence “far outweighed the paucity of their numbers.” (Kennedy, p. 351)

This was the first direct Quaker confrontation with the state in more than 200 years. The absolutists went to jail. For a while, Wormwood Scrubbs prison was the largest Friends meeting in London. The experience also turned Friends against solitary confinement, which they had originally pioneered.

This stand did more than cement the peace testimony. It also helped cement the new liberal theology, especially the “divine spark” interpretation of “that of God in everyone” that Rufus Jones had introduced a decade earlier. As William Littleboy put it in his Friends and Peace, the peace testimony was a “direct inevitable outgrowth from . . . distinctive message of early Quakerism . . . the universality of the Divine indwelling.” (Kennedy, p. 315)

And of course it cemented an action-oriented engagement with the social order. It also cemented the new infrastructure for organizing witness work—the committee. LYM created the young men’s Service Committee in 1915 to “strengthen the Peace testimony among Friends of military age.” (Kennedy, p. 318) The Friends Ambulance Unit was formed, and the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. Quaker Henry Hodgkin helped form the Fellowship of Reconciliation. For the first time since the dismantling of the traditional faith and practice of recorded ministry, Friends had an established structure for organizing around a concern.

The war also activated resistance on two new fronts, and helped define two new evils: female emancipation against female subjugation, and democratic socialism versus capitalism.

More about these in subsequent posts.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 6

May 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

Liberal Quakerism gains momentum

After the Manchester Conference in 1895, in the years leading up to the First World War, Friends, especially young Friends, kept finding new avenues for their interests, new ways to express their growing confidence in a progressive Christianity.

Seebohm Rowntree formed the Friends Social Union in 1903, which claimed to be the first Quaker group to undertake a systematic approach to social concerns, focusing on housing, poverty, unemployed and unemployable labor, constructive philanthropy, and labor colonies. It published a guide, “How to Form a Social Services Committee” and other pamphlets, organized a lecture series, and otherwise encouraged the study of social problems among Friends.

Young adult Friends had formed the Friends Christian Fellowship Union (FCFU) in 1874 on the model of the YMCA and began including women in the mid-1880s. In 1910, FCFU organized a separate meeting for young Friends alongside LYM sessions, then a young Friends conference at Woodbrooke, and then the first National Conference of Young Friends in 1911.

In 1909, London Yearly Meeting formed an enlarged Peace Committee in response to the growing militarism of the British public. In 1912 the Committee presented to the yearly meeting a document entitled Our Testimony for Peace, the first official document in Quaker history to state explicitly that the peace testimony “follows necessarily from the foundation principle on which the Society . . . is built . . . our belief in and experience of the Light Within.” (Kennedy, p 309) This document became the foundation for resistance during the Great War.

Then in 1914 their fears were realized and Friends on both sides of the Atlantic were thrown into a crucible that would seal for the rest of the century the changes that had been developing over the past twenty years.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 5

May 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Social testimonies

The liberal shift away from evangelicalism gained momentum in the 1880s, at least in Great Britain, and crossed a threshold at the Manchester Conference in 1895. But the social consciousness expressed during the Conference lagged a little behind the exploration of liberal theology, spirit, and attitudes—with one exception.

While the noblesse oblige of the “new philanthropy” dominated most of the Conference’s presentations on social action, Samuel Hobson made a bold case for socialism, for sweeping structural changes in the social order. “Our doctrine of the ‘inner light’,” he said, “is but the spiritual manifestation of the socialist doctrine of economic evolution.” (Kennedy, p. 278) Hobson thought of socialism as a secular religion in spirit.

He wasn’t alone. By 1898, he had helped form the Socialist Quaker Society (SQS). London Yearly Meeting wouldn’t give them a room during the 1899 sessions, but 100 Friends attended a meeting elsewhere. Eventually, LYM relented and SQS remained a regular feature of LYM gatherings for a couple of decades.

Thus, “By the turn of the new century modern scientific social reform, as opposed to old-style philanthropy, came into vogue among non-socialist Friends,” a combination of Inward Light theology and “positivist theories of a science of society.” (Kennedy, p. 280)

The socialists were never a large group, nor were they representative, but they were clear in their vision and very vocal. They ended up having an influence on British Quakerism far beyond their numbers and even beyond their existence as the SQS.

Virtually simultaneously, Charles Booth’s 17-volume study of poverty in London was transforming social thinking among British elites. His was the first statistical sociological study in history—the very kind of “positivist science of society” that these young Friends found so attractive. But Booth’s study was too huge, too dense, and too inaccessible to appeal to wider audiences than interested intellectuals.

One of those intellectuals, however, was Seebohm Rowntree, brother of John Wilhelm. He undertook a study similar to Booth’s of his home town of York, where his family’s chocolate factory and the railroad were the only major employers. He interviewed 11,560 families or 46,754 individuals and analyzed their situations. The resulting book, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, published in 1901, became a bestseller and changed the course of British public policy and politics.

It was well organized, well written, and short enough to digest. It proved scientifically that most poor people worked and that they were poor because they didn’t make enough money, not because of their character—that is, too much gambling, drinking, carousing, and sex. I’ve discussed Rowntree’s book and its impact elsewhere in this blog in greater detail than I will here.

My point now is that social consciousness among Friends took a decisive and dramatic turn with the rise of Liberal Quakerism. It turned away from the moralizing exhortation that had characterized evangelical social witness and moved beyond the paternalism of private philanthropy to address social ills as structural and systemic for the first time.

Quakerism was right on the cusp of a new vision of the testimonial life. Liberal Friends felt motivated by what they felt was Christ’s inward light. They were not constrained to the moral issues they found in Scripture, and at the same time, they found support in Scripture for the causes they cared about through a new kind of creative reading that the higher criticism of the Bible had encouraged. And they began to defend their efforts with Rufus Jones’s innovative interpretation of Fox, the belief that everyone possessed that of God within them. They were ready to begin codifying what we now call the testimonies in the way we so often use them today, as principles articulated as guides for behavior, and as continuing revelation in the spirit of Christ.

That impulse awaited only the spark that was ultimately supplied by the Great War. With the onset of war, and especially of conscription, the Society was forced to make a stand regarding the war and to explain it. Though more Friends served in the war than chose the path of conscientious objection, the choices the resistors made galvanized the Society and by the war’s end, the “peace testimony” was not just London Yearly Meeting’s official stand, it had become a defining trait of Quakerism itself.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 4

May 27, 2018 § 1 Comment

The Manchester Conference and beyond

Though nominally under the care of the mostly evangelical Home Mission Committee, most of the organizers and most of the presenters of this momentous event were liberal Friends. The overall theme of these presentations was the compatibility of modern ideas with Quaker tradition. Nearly one third of the presenters were women, which was quite unusual for the time.

The young liberals found their collective voice at Manchester; they found each other, and they found some allies. The impulses that had manifested as hitherto regional efforts for renewal, like the Yorkshire Movement and the Manchester Friends Institute, coalesced into a Society-wide collective consciousness and led to new innovations.

The venerable George Cadbury, keen to do something to revitalize an ”earnest, life-giving, educated Gospel ministry”, put up the money for a plan of John Wilhelm Rowntree’s that eventually became the Summer School Movement: “a week, 10 days, or a fortnight” somewhere in the country to “widen the imagination, to stimulate a desire for greater spiritual power and more ability to give it expression.” (Kennedy, p. 172)

The first program, in 1897, included sessions on the Old and New Testament, biblical exegesis, and church history. It lasted two weeks and 400 Friends attended. It was such a success that plans were made to make Summer Schools a regular program and study and reading circles sprouted up in local meetings. The next Summer School was held in 1899, then one was held at Haverford in 1900.

By 1903, Cadbury had given over his estate in suburban Birmingham to make the school permanent and thus was born Woodbrooke College, “an academy where dedicated individuals would engage in brief but intense study of scripture and the principles of Quakerism to prepare them for apostolic service on the highways and byways, gathering souls for Christ and the Society of Friends.” (Kennedy, p.177)

The liberal movement was off and running.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism, Part 3

May 26, 2018 § Leave a comment

The liberal movement gets going

Shortly after the publication of A Reasonable Faith and The Gospel of Divine Help in 1884 and 1886 respectively, the liberal movement began gathering momentum. A key impetus was the Richmond Declaration issued from the Richmond Conference held in Indiana in 1887, which was endorsed by most American yearly meetings. But even many evangelical Friends in Britain were unnerved by the Declaration.

According to Kennedy in British Quakerism, when John Bevan Braithwaite brought it back to England for certification, “he stirred up a nest of opposition which would eventually prove to be a decisive factor in the overthrow of the evangelical oligarchy which dominated British Quakerism for half a century.” (P. 113) Many resisted the contents of the Declaration, but it was the move towards a Quaker creed—of any kind—that really exercised most British Friends, though even its writers had not intended the Declaration to be ‘a preliminary to Church membership, or to the holding of any office in connection with the Church.” (p 116-17)

London Yearly meeting considered the Declaration during its 1888 sessions. The meeting house was crammed with 1100 Friends “crowding every seat & aisle & doorway”. The debate lasted more than five hours. As reported by John W. Graham, one of the liberals, “The minute was most satisfactory. It gave no shadow of sanction to the document & said why—(1) We had never decided before the deputation went [to Richmond] that we wanted a creed. (2) We are not allowed to change this. (3) Many Friends object to its contents.” (p 117)

Quoting Kennedy:

“But a judgment had been made and it changed the British Society of Friends forever. The Angry God of the Age of Atonement (a reference to Boyd Hilton’s The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785–1865, which figures prominently in my book on Quakers and Capitalism) had been ushered out of the large Meeting room at Devonshire House and replaced by a kinder, gentler but ultimately more elusive Deity. . . . The successful struggle of liberal Friends against the imposition of a credal statement, a pastoral system and other evangelical innovations as well as the expanding influence of ‘modern thought’ gave progressive young Friends increasing assurance that they were not only in tune with the times, but also with the future of British Quakerism.” (p 118)

In the next few years, William E. Turner, one of the authors of A Reasonable Faith, began publishing a new liberal Quaker journal, The British Friend (1891). John Wilhelm Rowntree, who would emerge as the movement’s leader, formed the Yorkshire Movement in 1893, along with JB Braithwaite’s son William Charles (author of the two histories, The Beginnings of Quakerism and The Second Period of Quakerism), WC’s fiancee Janet Marland, and Edward Grubb. These young people traveled throughout Yorkshire to galvanize youth and foster more thoughtful and stimulating vocal ministry.

And then came the Manchester Conference in 1895.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism—Part 3

May 23, 2018 § 5 Comments

Two Influential Books

While the Duncanite controversy in Manchester in the 1860s revealed some cracks in the evangelical edifice of British Quakerism and some yearning on the part of young Friends for something more, it took a while for both the resistance and the seeking to mature. Kennedy, in British Quakerism, points to two books as a crucial turning point in these processes. Both were written to minister to this yearning for “a reasonable faith”.

The first was published anonymously in 1884 with the title A Reasonable Faith: Short Essays for the Times. The authors, cited originally as “Three Friends”, were later revealed to be William Pollard, Francis Frith, and William Z. Turner. The second was Edward Worsdell’s The Gospel of Divine Help: Thoughts on Some First Principles of Christianity, Addressed Chiefly to the Members of the Society of Friends, published in 1886.

These two books were enormously popular among younger Friends and enormously influential. These writers believed that “the same Divine enlightenment which has taught the world all that it knows of Religious Truth” was still at work and guiding them to interpret the fundamental principles of Religion “rather by the spirit than by the letter”. (Three Friends, p. 6) The Three Friends go on to say:

“In accordance with these fundamental principles we understand the Bible to be not simply either a Revelation or the Revelation, but rather the Record of a Progressive Revealing of Spiritual Truth; each part adapted in its day to the gradually maturing intelligence of mankind (sic) in their inevitably slow progress towards a true understanding of those things which lie furthest from the elementary perceptions of men (sic)—‘the things not seen.’

And further we do not find in the facts or probabilities of the case, nor does the book itself claim that we are to look to the Bible (invaluable as its Spiritual Revelations are) as the sole religious Light and Teaching of the World; nor that the Most High withholds from any living man (sic) some measure of the same Divine Influence which ‘inspired’ the religious element of the Bible.”

We see here some of the essentials of liberal Quakerism in formation: a determination to find, express, and live into a faith that is relevant in the modern world; faith in a continually revealing God; and, consequently, a respect for the Bible that nevertheless makes room for creative and reasonable interpretation and ultimate deference to the teachings of the Light; and a universalist rejection of an exclusivist Christianity.

Worsdell goes in the same direction regarding the Bible with some of the topical subtitles for his chapter 4, The Interpretation of Scripture”: “The principles of Accommodation and Spiritual Insight.—Progressiveness of Divine Revelation.—How are we to be trained to see spiritual truths for ourselves.—When reason and conscience demand it, we are intended for our own discipline’s sake to rise to conviction as to matters about which Scripture is not explicit.”

The Three Friends also redefined doctrine to mean “that which refers to the practice of Christianity” (emphasis theirs), according to the original meaning of doctrine as ‘teaching’, rather than doctrine understood as just theological principles. Here we see the beginnings of the liberal Quaker shift toward defining Quakerism in terms of values and practice, rather than theology.

I am reading these two books now and plan to ‘report’ on them more fully in subsequent posts.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism—Part 2

May 22, 2018 § 4 Comments

Reaction to Evangelicalism

Liberal Quakerism was to a large extent a reaction to the evangelicalism that had dominated British Quakerism and much of American Quakerism throughout the nineteenth century, beginning with its emergence as a movement in the late eighteenth century.

Evangelical Quakerism emphasized a renewed attention to the Bible and a preeminent faith in its authority. The movement also laid stress on faith in Jesus’ atonement on the cross as the only path to salvation from sin.

In both regards, evangelicalism undermined the role of the light of Christ in the human heart as the foundation of Quaker faith. For the early Friends, salvation came from Christ’s immanent presence in their hearts and lives. It was not the result so much of a historic event, but of the transformation of the soul in the now. And when Christ is speaking directly to you inwardly, the Bible necessarily assumes a secondary, if reliable, spiritual authority.

After the separations in the 1820s, Orthodox and Hicksite yearly meetings severed ties with one another and in their isolated silos, the two branches solidified and then ossified. This gradual desertification manifested especially in vocal ministry. Fewer and fewer Friends were recorded, meetings increasingly endured long periods of silence. In London Yearly Meeting (LYM; now Britain YM), what vocal ministry meetings did receive became increasingly narrow and exhortative, even carping. At least that’s how it apparently felt to young people, whose prospects for meaningful expression of their spiritual gifts dwindled significantly over the decades.

Meanwhile, membership dropped precipitously, as meetings applied discipline increasingly rigorously for walking disorderly in all manner of ways.

In 1859, a prize of one hundred pounds was offered by an anonymous British Friend for the essay that best explained this decline and that offered the most promising solutions. A young adult Friend named John Stephenson Rowntree, of the Rowntree chocolate family, won the prize with his Quakerism, Past and Present. The Rowntree family would continue to provide leadership in the movement deep into the twentieth century.

Following Rowntree’s suggestions, LYM revised its book of discipline in 1861 and stopped reading out members who bought pianos or married Presbyterians. Simultaneously, young adults in Manchester convinced their elders to allow them to establish the Manchester Institute, a kind of singles club for young adults that sponsored weekly presentations and discussions on religious topics. The Manchester Institute became a kind of Petri dish for cultivating new ideas and empowering young minds.

In 1861, a 36-year-old named David Duncan gave a presentation that set things rolling. He claimed the Inner Light as the Quaker essential. He emphasized God’s continuing revelation. He defined Quakerism as a life, not a formula. He sought to reclaim the message of early Friends. He later wrote:

“We must resist the domination of those who have lost the tradition of our fathers, who are sacrificing the genuine principles of Quakerism, and putting in their stead the hollow sounding phrases of a pretentious and pharisaical formalism.” (Kennedy, p. 51)

He had launched a liberal resistance against evangelicalism.

A firestorm ensued. Ultimately, he was disowned by Hardshaw East Monthly Meeting. But he left a legacy. It would take another generation, however, for this legacy to bear full fruit.

The Rise of Liberal Quakerism—A Short History

May 22, 2018 § 5 Comments


The history of liberal Quakerism’s emergence is fascinating to me and consequential, I believe, for an understanding of Quakerism today. I’ve been reading books that touch on this history in one way or another, expecting that I would eventually start blogging about what I’ve found.

As part of my research for my book on Quakers and Capitalism, I have been reading Thomas C. Kennedy’s British Quakerism, 1860–1920: The Transformation of a Religious Community, an excellent book that I highly recommend.  Having just finished Kennedy’s book, I feel I’m ready for this blog series.

1860–1920 (and more particularly, 1895–1920, beginning with the Manchester Conference and ending with the World Conference of All-Friends) is the period in which liberal Quakerism arose and it’s one of the theses of my book that it brought with it a new spirit of engagement with the social order, which had languished for two hundred years since the persecutions ended the Lamb’s War in the late 17th century. “Social order” is the term British Friends used around the turn of the twentieth century to indicate the economic order—capitalism—which was at the time changing very fast and very radically, and also, more broadly, the social institutions in the wider society that impinged on or related to the economic order.

Since Kennedy’s book is so hard to find (I found one copy for sale at $125; the copy I’m reading happened to be in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s library), I thought I would write a few posts encapsulating the book’s contents as a resource for my readers who might be interested but can’t get a copy. When I’m done, I will bring all the posts together into one pdf file.

So this is the introduction. In the next post, I’ll begin this “book report”.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Liberal Quakerism—A Short History category at Through the Flaming Sword.