Not all U. S. Friends Meetings are withering away; I live close to two of them (liberal unprogrammed) which seem to be thriving.
But many meetings are shrinking. Several formerly large yearly meetings, particularly in the Midwest & South, are now but shadows of their earlier selves. One of the largest among them, North Carolina, went entirely out of business in 2017, after 320 years.
In many other meetings, pastoral and non-, generational gaps are opening, with now elderly Baby Boomers more or less in charge, while their children’s and grandchildren’s generations seem to be missing or sparse in attendance.
Similar trends are evident in numerous other larger denominations. Church growth “experts,” pastors, debt-burdened seminarians, and others whose paychecks are at stake, are showing signs of panic. Surveys appear seemingly weekly, documenting, lamenting, wringing hands. Some with prophetic pretensions are issuing jeremiads, pointing fingers here and there (mainly at older folks, who are putatively “in power”) for having botched everything and brought on this debacle. But even with Boomers responding by dying off in droves, it seems to continue apace.
And like clockwork, Friends Journal in its February 2018 issue published a piece ominously titled, “Can Quakerism Survive?”
One is tempted to smile at it. In this particular field –showing anxiety, gloom and near-despair about its future — Quakers have been far in the forefront among First World denominations (the way we believe we once were in the vanguard of all the important social reform movements). I have half a dozen such screeds on my bookshelf (see below for some details), and probably a few more that are lost in the overflow shuffle; it’s practically its own subgenre.
Both Friends Journal and the author, Donald W. McCormick, appear blissfully unaware of this, but the first big, deep tolling of the bell of impending Quaker doom came 159 years ago. That’s right, in 1859, a committee of weighty London Friends, frightened by a downward membership trend, awarded a prize of 500 guineas (worth $25000 or more in today’s dollars) to Friend John Stephenson Rowntree, for his essay, Quakerism, Past and Present: being an inquiry into the causes of its decline in Great Britain and Ireland. (Online here.)
Rowntree’s essay was elegantly written, conversant with church and Quaker history, and moderate in his proposed remedies (mainly: loosen up on restrictions against “marrying out,” and for pete’s sake quit with the dorky-looking clothes.) His small book was widely read and discussed, and seems to have had some impact: marrying out soon become at east tolerable; and the old dorky duds faded away, replaced by newer dorky ones.)
Even more intriguing, though forgotten today, was the runner up volume, which was awarded, I think, two hundred guineas. It was called: The Peculium, an endeavour to throw light on some of the causes of the decline of the Society of Friends, especially in regard to its original claim of being the peculiar people of God, by Thomas Hancock (online here).
Hancock’s analysis was the more trenchant, his proposal more radical: The Society of Friends was done, he concluded; it had completed its tiny role in God’s big plan. The only proper course for it now was to lay down its separate existence & all pretensions of “peculiarity,” then turn in a body to the one true Christian Church, namely the Roman Catholic. Well, Kyrie Eleison . . .!)
Compared to Hancock, Friend Donald McCormick’s 2018 suggestions — that meetings form outreach committees and start talking about all this — is pretty thin gruel. And a skeptic could point out that his reported “data” for this hair-on-fire piece comes from one local California meeting, and a single visit to its Pacific Yearly Meeting.
Meanwhile, today’s yearly meetings which have suffered the most decline (including the one which just folded) have talked about little else for decades, and made a plethora of “outreach” schemes (mostly called “evangelism”) an abiding centerpiece of their programs and budgets. All, by the way, to no avail.
So yes, things are changing among American Quakers. Some meetings seem to be coping with this pretty well. But what about the others?
I don’t have any big rescue plans up my sleeve. But I do have a suggestion: maybe it’s time to think outside the “outreach committee/evangelism-program/kidnap-the-Millennials-and-don’t-let-them-out-again-til-they’re-40” box.
I mean, outside.
So who’s got some interesting outside-the-box ideas about building Quaker community in our present plight?
Scot Miller does.
And if you’re in central NC this weekend, you can come hear them and talk to him about them. Saturday, Feb. 24, and then again on Sunday morning, when he’ll “bring a message”, both at Spring Friends Meeting in Snow Camp.
Listen. Think. Talk back. Argue if you want (like I do, but with interest).
Scot is from Michigan, in Barry County, a very red place smack in the middle of a triangular region with Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Lansing at the corners (plus Flint a bit further east).
Scot is a theological hybrid/outlaw: both Quaker and Anabaptist. He recently published a book, Gospel of the Absurd. And his big idea (which might sound “absurd” to some, is closer to Hancock than Rowntree, but is still worth a closer look anyway). It comes down to saying Quakers should turn Amish.
Well, not quite. More Amish–ish.
For starters, is it plain dress & no more “smart” phones or laptops? Shunning dissenters or “sinners”? Trading in our cars for horse-drawn buggies?
Maybe he doesn’t mean for all Quakers to do this Amish-ish thing; maybe there could be an interplay between such groups and sympathetic Friends who still need (or want) to live in town. (After all, somebody’s got to eat all that kale.)
James De Garmo, was raised Quaker in upstate New York, but later turned Episcopalian. In 1895 he published The Hicksite Quakers & Their Doctrines, in which he pronounced the end of the Hicksite movement, and gave it a kind of funeral in print (Then, in a second edition a few years later he admitted wit some amazement that he’d been mistaken, and the Hicksites were not in fact all gone, but were even then growing again. (His book is online here.)
Leapfrogging ahead, in 1970, an interbranch conference in St. Louis emitted a report entitled What Future for Friends? (Its forecast: cloudy skies and possible storms ahead.)
Then in 1986, the late Gordon Browne was asked to speak at the 300th anniversary celebration of two meetings with the same name, Middletown, near Philadelphia. Browne was a well-travelled official with the Friends World Committee for Consultation. His title was The Future of Quakerism, and his prediction: sunny skies.
Thirteen years later, almost a century since DeGarmo’s slightly premature obituary, a group at the Earlham School of Religion produced a thick report, Among Friends, A Consultation with Friends about the condition of Quakers in the U. S. Today, in 1999.
Its tales of deepening Quaker woe were fulsome and filled many pages (but sending our best and brightest to ESR seemed to be the remedy of choice). This one is not online but it is reviewed here.
Five years later, British Friend Bill Chadkirk achieved a kind of notoriety in the journal Quaker Studies, with a piece full of charts and graphs and jauntily titled,“Will the Last (Woman) Friend to leave Please Ensure that the Light Remains Shining.”
In his paper, Chadkirk says, “An accelerating decline in membership commencing in 1990 is identified. Trends are extrapolated to determine an end-point in 2032.” (The paper is online here.) So if thee wants to be a British Friend, better hurry up — only 14 years to go, max.
But if thee don’t like these sketches of what awaits us, Friend, fear not — another one or more will be along presently. It may be the only sure thing about our future as Friends . . .