Liberal Friends, or Quakers, acknowledge and embrace a wide diversity of spiritual experience, identity, and belief, including but not limited to Christianity.

The Authenticity of Liberal Quakerism

Republished from with permission from the author.

In a Quaker theology discussion in which I took part, the following question was posed:

“How, in light of the divergence in practice and belief between liberal and evangelical Quakers, can we both rightfully claim to be Friends?”

Here I will consider the liberal side of that query.

In my observation, thoughtful and reasonably well-informed liberal Friends stake their claim to Quaker authenticity on four grounds:

  • their understanding of the Quaker View of the Church;
  • their understanding of the Bible;
  • their understanding of Jesus;
  • their understanding of the last two centuries of Quaker history.

Let me address each of these points briefly.

The Liberal Understanding of the Quaker View of the Church

It was Robert Barclay, in the Apology, who best laid out the distinctive Quaker view of the true church: that it is invisible and universal, not limited to any worldly institution, creed or culture. Further, he asserted that “There may be members of this catholic [that is, universal] Church not only among the several sorts of Christians, but also among pagans, Turks [that is, Muslims] and Jews.” (Freiday edition, p. 173) I think it important to point out that “Turks” and “Jews” were not at all ignorant of Christianity; in fact, they had a special knowledge and intimacy with it, and rejected it. Nevertheless, according to Barclay, they were still fully eligible for membership in the true church.

This was a very controversial understanding of the church in 1678; it remains controversial, even (or perhaps particularly) among Friends more than 300 years later. Yet it was a conviction often repeated by some of the most revered of founding Friends, as well as later luminaries including John Woolman, and contemporary Friends such as Jim Corbett, our own desert prophet. I could fill several pages with quotes of such restatements, which are far more eloquent than I will ever be.

Theologically, I define Liberal Quakerism as:

An ongoing effort to make visible a particular portion of the true Church, by means of the specific traditions and disciplines of the Religious Society of Friends. This very idea of manifesting the True Church is, we believe, rooted in the early Quakers’ unique and inclusive understanding of the Society’s Christian background and origins. The key Quaker disciplines by which this part of the Church is constituted are: silence-based, unprogrammed worship; a free ministry led by the spirit; decision-making by the worshipful sense of the meeting; church structures kept to a spartan, decentralized minimum; cultivation of the inward life of both individual and the group; a preference for unfolding experience of truth, or “continuing revelation,” over creeds and doctrinal systems; and devotion to the historic but evolving Quaker testimonies, especially peace, simplicity and equality.

In tune with this definition, many liberal meetings now express their understanding of the church’s universality by not requiring an explicit Christian profession as a requirement for membership. That is, we no longer consider such profession to be a defining characteristic of authentic religion in the Quaker mode. Instead, when dealing, say, with an applicant for membership, we attempt to delve beneath outward verbal or doctrinal statements to discern a newcomer’s status in this invisible, universal fellowship, as well as their readiness to uphold our distinctive Quaker practices and testimonies.

To be sure, this approach is fallible, and not beyond criticism. I will address one common complaint, that as a result of not requiring a Christian commitment liberal Quakerism lacks identity and limits, in a few moments. This approach certainly does result in faith communities which are theologically mixed, with some members Christian and some not. But this is not seen among us as a drawback; and my point here is that at its base is an idea that we believe is neither new to nor subversive of foundational Quakerism. Thus, acting on its implications in this way does not appear strange to us, as it evidently does to some.

The Liberal Understanding of Scripture

Barclay quoted many scriptural passages in support of this inclusive Quaker view of the true church, such as the famous “Quaker text” in John 1:9 which describes Christ as the “true light that enlightens every one who comes into the world.” Or Titus 2:11, which declares that “the grace of God which bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men (and women).” Again, he cited numerous other similar passages which I will not take time to repeat here. If there is any truth in these passages, as many Friends and I agree with Barclay that there is, can we really justify shutting our doors against those who do not use the same words as we to express what we discern to be their saving experience of this universally available grace? Some would say yes, we can and must shut our doors. But Barclay, numerous passages of scripture, and most liberal Friends say otherwise, and I agree.

The Liberal Understanding of Jesus

Again and again in the gospels, Jesus lifts up as models people who, like the Good Samaritan, held theological notions that were totally incorrect in the biblical framework, and mistaken according to Jesus’ own declared conviction in John 4:22 that “salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22). I believe this pattern of focussing on “heretics” is not an accident. My conclusion is strengthened by a reading of Jesus’ own scenario of the last judgment, in Matthew 25:31-46. In this crucial passage, where “all the nations” are assembled before him, and the “sheep” are separated out from the “goats,” Jesus is very specific in explaining why some will fall into one group and some the other: “I was hungry…thirsty…homeless…you did it to the least of these…you did it to me.” (25:35-40)

But wait. Read the passage again: Nowhere in it does Jesus say to the “sheep” that they are saved because they accepted him as their “personal savior” or affirmed any other doctrinal particular. Nor are the “goats” condemned because they failed to make such declarations. Did the requirement of doctrinal correctness, so important to many today, somehow slip Jesus’ mind here, in what is undeniably a foundational discourse? I don’t think so. Indeed, earlier in Matthew (7:21-23), Jesus sharply challenged such requirements in another comment on the judgment:

Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many wonders?” and then I will declare to them, “I never knew you: Depart from me, you who practice wickedness.”

This is, incidentally, the same passage where Jesus warns his followers to “judge a tree by its fruits,” that is, not by their words and affirmations of some doctrinal orthodoxy. (7:15-19). The clear thrust of these and other passages seems to me to relativize theology and denomination in just the same way Barclay does.

But how can this be?

For some Friends, accepting Christ is the sine qua non, the acid test, the issue above all issues. And of course there are other New Testament passages which do make exclusivist claims. I have considered this issue in two Bible study texts, A Respondent Spark and Wisdom and Your Spiritual Journey. I explore it further in my book on recent liberal Quaker theology and history, Without Apology. My argument, in sum, is that scripture contains many and often sharply diverse views, and no theology I have seen has been able to reconcile them all. Moreover, all Christian-based communities known to me have used scriptural texts selectively to serve as their touchstones, or “hermeneutical keys.” Those who claim not to be scripturally selective are, I believe, deceiving themselves, or being deceived. In light of this history, those who argue for doctrinal Christian exclusivity can indeed make a plausible case from their selected scriptures, employing their hermeneutical keys. But Barclay and inclusive liberals can make a plausible case from theirs as well; and I side with them.

The Liberal Understanding of the Last Two Centuries of Quaker History

Finally, the current mixed theological character of liberal Quakerism is the outcome of a long process of communal reflection and evolution on the shape and place of the Religious Society of Friends, in the world and among the world’s religions. The history of this evolution has not yet been told in a detailed, scholarly way. I understand that Earlham’s Thomas Hamm is soon to turn his formidable talents to a major portion of it, the history of the Hicksite movement after the 1827 separation, and I look forward to the results of his work. In the meantime, other students such as myself are left to make the best impressionistic sense of this rich history that we can.

We know, for instance, from George Fox’s empathetic treatment of Islam and the Koran, which he evidently knew quite well, that a distinctive openness to other faiths was part of Quakerism even at the beginning. To this one could add such classic anecdotes as those about John Woolman’s visits among Native Americans. More recently, many Friends have worked, studied, worshipped with, and learned much from other religious groups, such as devotees of Zen Buddhism.

These and other similar experiences clearly have had an important impact on the faith of many liberal Quakers. Some decry this impact as a dilution or adulteration. I can understand this concern, but in my experience, it seems in most cases to be rather an enrichment.

I would like to add to these examples a few which have loomed large in my own studies. The first comes, not from a strange far country, nor for that matter the even more trackless wilderness of postmodern academia. It is rather from our own good grey Quaker bard, John Greenleaf Whittier. Re-reading Whittier’s religious and Quaker-oriented poems, as I have been doing recently, it has seemed obvious to me that they serve as the imaginative previsioning of the path liberal Quakerism has trod since.

To see what I mean, let’s consider a few stanzas, first from his long poem, “The Meeting”:

I know how well the fathers taught,
What work the later schoolmen wrought;
I reverence old-time faith and men,
But God is near us now as then…
And still the measure of our needs
Outgrows the cramping bounds of creeds;
The manna gathered yesterday
Already savors of decay….

Or from “Miriam”:

And I made answer: “Truth is one;
And in all lands beneath the sun,
Whoso hath eyes to see may see
The tokens of its unity.
No scroll of creed its fulness wraps,
We trace it not by school-boy maps,
Free as the sun and air it is
Of latitudes and boundaries.
In Vedic verse, in dull Koran,
Are messages of good to man….”

There are many other similar passages.

Of course, Whittier was about as loyally Christian in his basic outlook as one could hope for; he was much impressed by the preaching of Joseph John Gurney, the godfather of evangelical Quakerism. Yet his mature faith, as glimpsed in these lines, is simultaneously at one with the inclusive view of the Church which Barclay expounded and which I am describing here.

Some have said such a combination is impossible or self-contradictory. I believe they are mistaken, and call Friend Greenleaf as Exhibit A. In their survey volume, The Quakers, Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost, two leading Quaker historians, rightly conclude that “Whittier’s influence paved the way for the emergence of liberalism among Gurneyite Quakers.” (p. 376)

Evidence for this conclusion can easily be found in sources beyond his poetry. Whittier was a great personal hero to three other central figures in this history. One was Rufus Jones, a longtime favorite target of Orthodox and evangelical Quaker critics. Rufus is about due for a revival, I think, especially as the notion of Quakerism as Puritanism in a broadbrim comes to be increasingly shown up as the partisan myth which it is. The other two figures, who were arguably even more important than Rufus, were Joel and Hannah Bean. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, the Beans were internationally-known ministers, and leading figures in pre-revival Iowa Yearly Meeting. They ultimately settled in California. Their names remind me of the unsuitability of the term “universalist” to describe modern liberal Quakerism. The much more accurate, if uneuphonious appellation is Geoffrey Kaiser’s term, “Beanite” Quakers. A “Beanite,” and not a “universalist” Quaker is what I consider myself to be.

The story of the Beans’ disgraceful treatment by the revivalist insurgents who took over Iowa Yearly Meeting in the 1880s is a modern Quaker epic. It molded history, with consequences that are by no means played out. (Indeed, it now looks as if that revival’s heirs may be about to repeat this exercise by driving from their fold the demons of Friends United Meeting and the various councils of churches. What was it Marx said about the way in which history repeats itself?)

The Beans’ story is also richly ironic, because they began as solidly Orthodox, and even welcomed the early revivals. It was only with reluctance, and against their will, that they ended up as the founders of a vital new liberal Quaker stream.

The best existing account of the Beans is by the evangelical scholar David Le Shana, in his very valuable book, Quakers In California. Le Shana’s rendition is necessarily sketchy, however; and every time I walk into Swarthmore’s Friends Historical Library, knowing that nine boxes stuffed with Bean papers are sitting mostly unexplored on its shelves, my fingers itch to dig into them and have a go at helping fill out this crucial saga. I hope our best scholars will take up that task soon.

The evolution of modern liberal Quakerism can also be traced in the experience of some leading figures of the Quaker missionary movement. One such was Henry Hodgkin, the founding Director of Pendle Hill. Hodgkin spent twenty years at the turn of the century as a missionary in China on behalf of London Yearly Meeting. Not long before his death in 1933, Henry Hodgkin wrote to his brother about how his once strongly exclusivist and evangelical convictions had been changed by his engagement with the best of Asian religions. A striking passage from this letter shows where this evolution was headed. It is very apropos of our inquiry, and so affecting that it was incorporated into London’s book of Christian Faith and Practice, from which I am citing it (Section 102, 1960 edition). It is worth our time to hear a bit of Hodgkin’s testimony:

I suppose it is almost inevitable that during such a [youthful] period one should be so sure of the genuineness and value of one’s own experience as to undervalue other types of experience. It is this which makes people eager missionaries or propagandists and it was as such that I went to China, still very sure of the “greatness of the revelation” and but dimly aware that God, in His many-sided nature and activity, was not one whit less manifest in ways and persons with which or with whom I could have little sympathy. Of course in theory I believed that God used many methods and that all truth was not with me. [But] Down deep I wanted all to be “such as I,” because I could not help feeling that, broadly speaking, what meant so much to me must be equally good for others.

By processes too numerous and diverse even to summarize, I have reached a position which may be stated in a general way somewhat like this: “I believe that God’s best for another may be so different from my experience and way of living as to be actually impossible to me. I recognize a change to have taken place in myself, from a certain assumption that mine was really the better way, to a very complete recognition that there is no one better way, and that God needs all kinds of people and ways of living through which to manifest Himself in the world.”

What a pregnant phrase that is: “By processes too numerous and diverse to summarize….” Thereby hangs a very important tale, I believe, one that can only be hinted at here.

In these Whittier verses, in the lives of Rufus Jones, the Beans, Henry Hodgkin and others, I believe we can see the wheel of liberal Quakerism pivoting in the direction of its present course. Some continue to deplore this as a wrong turn onto a slippery slope that is headed straight for perdition. As you might expect, I do not share this view. Instead, I find in this evolution a logical, coherent, entirely authentic, and vital development of Quaker faith. I look forward to seeing its development explored in its full richness and depth by our best scholars, and hope to take a small part in that work as way opens. Based on this history and my own experience, I welcome the fact that some liberal Friends meetings now include members who are active homosexuals, or who also identify themselves as atheists, Zen practitioners, or modern witches. All such persons can (not must, but can) be good, authentic Quakers; and many are.

Further, those who insist that this doctrinally mixed state means a liberal Quaker can “believe anything,” or that “anything goes” among us, or that our movement has no identity or boundaries, are in my experience simply mistaken. Liberal Quakerism gets along without a creed, yet it also maintains a definite character and limits, which have been frequently applied in practice. For instance, during nearly twenty years as part of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I have seen various persons try to reshape that body into such things as a strict vegetarian sect, a fulltime peace lobby, an evangelical enclave, or various types of pagan or New Age ashrams. Eventually, though, I have also seen such persons either learn to accept us as we are, or move on in search of more congenial groups. That is, it is simply not the case that “anything goes” in this liberal group, at least. In my view, this experience is testimony to the reality of identity and limits in this liberal Quaker body, which is a not untypical one.

To stand up for “Beanite” Quakerism as I have tried to do here is not, of course, to suggest that it is flawless. Liberal Quakers are as prone to sin as any other fallen humans; in particularly we too often live down to some of the stereotypes and caricatures others entertain about us. In Without Apology I list a catalog of what I see as some of its numerous shortcomings. We surely stand in need of grace and mercy every day, in many ways. Nevertheless, I will close by repeating my conviction that the claim of liberal Quakerism to authenticity in the Religious Society of Friends is well-grounded, coherent, and productive of the fruits of the spirit in sufficient measure that I am proud-humbly so, of course-to be part of it, and to have the chance to bear witness on its behalf.

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