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”.

Evil as spiritual

May 19, 2018 § 10 Comments

What do I mean when I say that for me, evil is “spiritual”?

By spiritual I mean transcendental. Real evil transcends individual consciousness. Psychopaths and sociopaths not evil, they are sick. Evil for me is social. Yet it even transcends normal social interaction. It has a power of its own, though it has no existence in itself.

Here, I am deeply influenced and inspired by Walter Wink’s series of books on the Powers. I’ve reworked some of his ideas for my own understanding, but I think his basic approach is right on—defining angels, demons, etc. as the spiritual dimension of “sociological” phenomena, the ways that humans embody collective impulses to power in human systems, institutions, and collective behavior more generally.

But how can an institution or a collective behavior have a spiritual dimension? The spiritual dimension of these collective human systems, institutions, and behaviors lies in their power to affect and even infect individual moral choice, very often against the will, or at least the natural inclination, of those involved.

Mobs are the most obvious example. “Good,” “Christian” men and women caught up in a spirit of rage or fear to do something or enable something that they would never do on their own—haul a wrongly accused black man from the county jail to string him up in a tree, cover up or stay silent about the fact that your pharmaceutical company’s drug causes heart attacks.

But here it gets tricky. I am saying that the forces that turn a society or a person toward harm, toward violence and oppression, are manifestations of evil. The evil is the momentum in collective human behavior that calls to the darkness that dwells within each of us, the shadow side of our consciousness, and that turns us away from the light, that animates harmful behavior.

That momentum has no existence apart from human experience and consciousness. It is not self-existent; it is not the devil. Or rather, the devil is not some independent, sentient spiritual embodiment of evil, but rather the force of evil as a phenomenon that emerges sometimes spontaneously in the interaction between individual humans through their fears, desires, and hatreds when they are gathered together in human collectives and someone or something lights the spark. The spirit of evil manifests in these collectives and takes on a life of its own.

These negative harmful impulses can manifest in a mob, or in the Third Reich, but they live in human interaction, in parking lot conversations, media content, Facebook posts, popular songs and stories. They are collective nightmares given mouths and hands and feet.

And some persons get energy from these manifestations, these impulses. For me, evil people are people who get energy from doing harm, very similar to the way we get energy from sharing love with each other, only turned back to the shadows, towards deep wounds, needs, fears, and negative impulses.

This is essentially a Jungian argument. We’re talking about the collective unconscious, which is the “consciousness” that dwells in a “body” or infrastructure comprised of human groups, institutions, and systems. We are talking about collective memory stored in stories, art and literature, in the news and the “media”, in religious liturgies and theologies, in political ideologies, Facebook trends, Oscar reception speeches, urban myths, and conspiracy theories.

When a human collective experiences trauma, the memories and the wounds evoke an impulse to repress the experience, to deny it or push it down.

But this does not work. Just as psychic wounds cause neuroses in individuals, collective trauma causes collective neuroses. Just as individuals store the impact of trauma in their psyches and even in their bodies, so human groups store their shared pain in their narratives and their institutions. This repression affects collective behavior. A generation traumatized by the Great War punishes a generation of Germans, who then lash out against their persecutors with another war and traumatize another generation.

The whole thing turns “evil” when it enters a down-spiraling feedback loop, a maelstrom into the shadows caused by holding the microphone up to the speaker, a group listening to its own angry and fearful voice and getting more and more worked up.

But the collective needs the voices—and the ears—of real people. The collective consciousness needs its tongues and hands and feet. Someone has to be Hitler. Someone has to propose the lynch mob. Someone has to say, we’re going to cover up this data about our drug or product. Someone has to get off on this cycle—or at least get something out of it.

For me, the momentum behind this kind of feedback loop is what I call evil.

Still, calling something or someone evil says more about the person doing the calling than about the thing they are calling evil. What am I saying when I call something or someone evil? What do I become? I want to explore this in the next post.


May 19, 2018 § 4 Comments

Back to sin and evil, the topic of my last post.

While according to Wilmer Cooper, Rufus Jones offered a viable new understanding of sin for liberal Friends, Cooper’s little article does not address Jones’s understanding of evil, and I don’t know Jones’s work well enough myself to fill in the gap. However, Jones’s “theology” of sin points in a direction that feels congruent with liberal Friends’ attitudes toward evil. Just as we are uncomfortable with the idea of sin, we are even more nervous about evil. Many of us just don’t want to think it really exists.

Here I suspect that Jones’s ground-breaking theological innovation of a divine-spark understanding of that of God in everyone is part of the reason. If there is something divine or at least quasi-divine about the human, then where does human evil fit in? How could the two coexist? I suspect that this cognitive dissonance explains part of our our unease with evil.

But there’s more to our unease with evil than believing that we all have a divine spark. I think we associate evil with theism and with the traditional Christian understanding of divine judgment and the war between good and evil that’s implicit in that worldview. And this links in with our cultural distaste for conflict in general.

Because “evil” calls for a much more radical response than mere human brokenness and mental disease, which are our usual alternatives. One feels called to a kind of spiritual warfare if you face a kind of spiritual darkness—a la the Lamb’s War. I suspect that modern liberal Quaker sensibilities and sensitivities are loathe to wade past the shallows of moderation into the deep waters of spiritual warfare. I myself can’t help but be repelled by the image of Bible-thumping evangelicals quoting Ephesians on the whole armor of God—while I am also weirdly attracted to it.

So taking evil seriously does cause problems. But so does denying its existence.

That’s why I’m headed out into those waters. Something important seems missing to me if you can’t recognize evil when you see it, some dangerous blindness. And that blindness inevitably leads to a dangerous moral reticence and confusion.

I “believe in” evil. I think it does exist. And I believe that people can be evil.

I think of the Third Reich as the  touchstone for virtually any modern discussion of evil. An entire nation swept up in a vision of hate, torture, death, and domination, with it’s individual disciples, its Himmlers and its Mengeles—these realities take me past the moderate shallows of human frailty into something much deeper and essentially spiritual in nature, something beyond the social, political, psychological, and/or medical in the human experience.

I am defining evil as something spiritual. What do I mean by this? This post would be very long if I continue, so I’m going to break here and resume in a subsequent post.

Sin and Evil

April 27, 2018 § 11 Comments

Ever since Dick Cheney was our torturer-in-chief, I have been thinking about the place of sin and, especially, of evil in modern liberal Quakerism and I’ve had some trouble sorting my own thoughts out. But I recently returned to my research for my book on Quakers and Capitalism and focusing on the rise of liberal Quakerism at the turn of the century, I started reading Thomas C. Kennedy’s British Quakerism, 1860–1920: The Transformation of a Religious Community (a terrific and very thorough book). In it I ran across a bibliographical citation that I hunted down: “The Influence of Rufus Jones on the Quaker view of sin and evil,” by Wilmer A. Cooper (Quaker Religious Thought, Volume 66, Article 4; available here).

Cooper claims that no one has had more influence on modern faith and practice than Jones and I found his little article very compelling. It has inspired me to finally start a series on sin and evil, starting with this historical piece. So here are some excerpts and some thoughts about about Jones’s take on sin.

Origin of sin. Cooper claims that Jones believed the source of sin to be “inherited ‘relics’ of fears, of appetites, of impulses, of instincts, and of desires” that arise from our biological nature, not as ‘original sin’ but as “raw material which is to be reshaped and molded into character”. (quotes are from Jones) At some point in our evolution, instinct and moral insight “collided” to give us a conscience, knowledge of good and evil.

This evolutionary approach actually makes some sense to me, in contrast to the utterly impossible and historically catastrophic myth of a first couple who were tempted by Satan, gave in, and infected the whole human race with original sin.

Transformation, not forgiveness. Coming from this view, Jones did not see sin as a debt to be paid or a condition to be forgiven, but a condition that required a transformation of “personality”. (“Personality” is a term much used by Friends around the turn of the century and does not mean what we usually mean today—our style as a person; but rather it denotes our personhood, the full expression of who we are as persons.) So sin comes, not from some human breaking of our relationship with God, but rather from a surrender of our will to lower instinctive impulses.

To Jones’s evolutionary approach I would add psychology, impulses that come from the unconscious, from our woundedness and our conditioning, especially as children. And then there’s mental illness. I want to treat these things separately in subsequent posts.

Thus, according to Jones, “there is nothing fundamentally wrong or bad about persons as such. There is no essential perversity of will.” (Cooper) Therefore what we need in Jones’s view is “spiritual illumination and moral re-enforcement. Christ is the source of both of these.” (Jones) What we need is not repentance but enlightenment coupled with renewed effort in the spirit of Christ.

Sin and liberal Quakers. This seems to me an elegant modern refreshment of the original Quaker focus on “perfection”, overcoming sin over and again, day in and day out, temptation by temptation, by turning toward the light of Christ within us, rather than through a one-time conversion based on faith in the atonement of Christ on the cross.

And, except for the Christ part, it does jive with how many Friends of my acquaintance seem to view sin, not as some inherent corruption in human nature, but essentially as a mistake. I’ve heard many Friends, for instance, claim that the biblical word for sin actually means “to miss the mark”, as though a sin was someone trying to do the right thing and failing.

To me, that seems like a liberal, make-nice idea designed to back us away decisively from the old theology of blood atonement and cuddle up to the idea of that of God in everyone. Hogwash. I do “believe” in sin and it’s choosing to do the wrong thing, not missing some aim at the ideal.

Atonement. As for atonement, Jones “did not reject the need for Atonement but took the view that the atoning role of Christ was exemplary. . . . This view holds that Christ atones for our sin by providing an example, a model, which draws us toward God and excites us to emulate the life of Jesus and the way of the cross.” (Cooper)

I don’t think an “example” really qualifies as “atonement”; I would quibble with the semantics here. But I am clear that atonement through a propitiatory blood sacrifice required of his (sic) son by a judging deity is not only repellant to me as a moral person (talk of bad example!), but unthinkable in the the mind of Jesus himself, and thus a heretical, and dangerous, pagan belief. Such blood sacrifices were required by Baal, God’s arch-rival in Hebrew scripture (Baal was a sacrificed dying-and-rising god himself). Thus such human sacrifice was the ultimate abomination in the eyes of the Hebrew prophets. This rejection of filial sacrifice in the Jewish tradition goes all the way back to Abraham and Isaac. Or for that matter, in the negative example, to Cain and Abel, which was not a murder, but a human sacrifice on the model of Romulus and Remus and other brother sacrifices at the founding of a people.

What about evil? But this is all about sin, not evil. Cooper has really wrongly titled his article when he includes evil. So—next time, about the origins, and even the very existence, of evil.

William Taber on Vocal Ministry

February 24, 2018 § 1 Comment

I recently discovered in my papers a lecture on vocal ministry that William Taber delivered on October 28, 1996 as part of Pendle Hill’s Monday Night Lecture series. It spoke so powerfully to my condition that I want to share parts of it here. I do not feel comfortable sharing the whole thing because a note appears at the top saying, “(please do not copy for publication without the author’s permission)”. Bill Taber is no long with us, so I can’t ask his permission. I’m a little nervous about sharing any of it, but have decided to do so because it was, after all, a public lecture, and because it is so good, and because I would like to think that, as the most nurturing elder of my own ministry that I’ve ever had, he would be okay with it.

In this post, I want to focus on the call to vocal ministry. Here’s Bill:

“. . . ministry among Friends has traditionally been understood to be evoked by a “call” from God, so that ministry becomes a “calling” or, to use the Latin form, a “vocation.” . . . Hopefully, this immediate sense of calling takes place each time a person speaks in meeting.

But there is a deeper and more persistent sense of calling to the ministry which has occurred to some Friends throughout Quaker history—and it is still occurring today. . . . Modern unprogrammed Friends who experience this traditional calling and longing to be about the work of God often experience great frustration because there seems to be little or no place for ministry as a vocation in the modern Society of Friends. . . .

Part of their frustration lies in the fact that we modern Friends value expertise and genius in virtually every field except the spiritual, so that we don’t know how to recognize and encourage a person who is spiritually gifted and called to this work. Every generation of Friends, including this one, has had its quota of people who in other cultures might be called budding shamans or seers or medicine men or medicine women. In earlier Quaker eras these budding Quaker shamans were watched over and nurtured and in subtle ways encouraged so that many of them were able to respond to the ever beaconing Call to become a sanctified instrument of the Divine Will.

. . .

Hopefully members of Worship and Ministry committees will be attentive to those who speak in meeting, and be quick to sense such people’s yearning for more fellowship and accountability in relation to spoken ministry. Since most contemporary unprogrammed meetings no longer follow the old Quaker practice of recognizing and “recording” the gift of ministry, those who speak in our meetings are much more on their own, in an individualistic sense, than was true in classic Quakerism. Thus, it could be possible that a contemporary Friend could be a frequent speaker in Friends meetings for many years without ever experiencing any of the continuing education and accountability which was once the case when every recorded minister was expected to meet with the local meeting of ministers at least four times a year, as well as with the quarterly and yearly meeting sessions of ministers and elders. It may be neither appropriate nor wise to go back to the old system, but perhaps way might be found so that our contemporary “public Friends”—that is, those who speak frequently in our meetings—can be given occasional opportunities to meet with their peers, so that they can explore the difficulties of the art or the technology or the craft of following the inward motion while walking the razor’s edge*. It might also be helpful, at such occasional gatherings, to read and ponder together the old advices and queries for ministers and elders (or some modern equivalent).

  •  I think “The Razor’s Edge” may have been the title of this lecture. The document I have does not have a title. By the razor’s edge, Bill is referring to the delicate balance between speaking with authority and yet with humility, between waiting and boldness, between being self-led and Spirit-led.