Does Scot Miller Have the Answer to American Quaker Decline?

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.)

1859: A Tradition Begins

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, with hat, in Flint, Michigan.

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, multi-tasking with Derrida & Holstein, two of his favorite philosophers. . . .

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 Amishish.

Scot doesn’t have much patience with today’s “progressive” Christian [and Quaker] ideas and activism, especially not as a way of building community. And at Spring Friends Meeting He’ll explain why and offer a different perspective and plan. 
Here’s a preview:
You have to wade through a lot of seminary-jargon in his book, Gospel of the Absurd to get to the nub, but then his complaints about current progressive activism pretty much come down to this:
1. Progressive church activism is “Christian” (or churchy) in name only, and in fact usually derived from the same old politics of power, which are secular and often enough demonic. 

2. Its programs and campaigns don’t work well, which ought to be clear from the deepening mess of trouble we’re in. And

3. The other side, “anti-progressive” so-called “evangelicals,” is better at it anyway, in crude worldly power politics terms. Which may make them even worse “Christians,” but they don’t much care what Scot Miller, or thee and me think about that.

Okay, so that’s Scot Miller’s diagnosis of our plight. What’s this turning “Amish-ish” alternative about?

For starters, is it plain dress & no more “smart” phones or laptops? Shunning dissenters or “sinners”? Trading in our cars for horse-drawn buggies? 

Almost; though he’d be willing to dicker some about keeping the cars, and even the phones & laptops.
But otherwise, pretty close. Again, not quite Amish. Amish-ish.
Like this: reform ourselves into autonomous but networked communities. 

Organize the community life around what the Amish call an Ordnung (often rendered “discipline” or rules); and “Gelassenheit,” which suggests an anti-individualist outlook of tranquil modesty and submissiveness to tradition and community. (The community will write its own rules; but they would be real rules, not suggestions or evasive, “Do we feel guilty enough about all the things we’re not doing?” queries.)

Since most  of the Amish groups’ ordnung & rules are unwritten, handed down orally and by practice from youth, Miller’s Amish-ish culture would differ from them by centering on ongoing group study & interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Gospels, and the figure of Jesus in them.

And in the world, this Amish-ish practice would aim to express the typically-ignored calls by Jesus for sacrificial behavior toward others: nonviolence, a giving up of “privilege,” and service to the poor, oppressed, forgotten, including Trump supporters and even white nationalists in the area. (Cf. “Love your enemies,” etc.)
But why on earth should any progressive throw over all that they’ve toiled so hard for to take up this new role?

Miller’s answer, in sum, is threefold:

1. Because Jesus said to, and while Miller is no fundamentalist,  he’s convinced that if we’re to take Jesus (and the Gospels) seriously, that’s what seriousness means;

2. Because such a stance yields a different understanding of the world, and our place in it, one which is more true and promising; and

3. Because action from the bottom and at the margins has more impact than we can perceive with our media-distracted eyes & ears, especially if we can factor in the work of grace.

[Besides the Amish, he says the Catholic Worker movement is another useful model for comparison and study.]
Scot’s own form of this kind of Amish-ish ministry is to run a small dairy farm in west-central Michigan, in the midst of what is popularly called a (very) “red” community; and to do work with addicts and poor people, many in Flint, Michigan.Besides chronic poverty, too many of whom even yet don’t have safe water for themselves or their families (i.e., are still forgotten).
Scot has an idea, a plan to expand this ministry by means of an agricultural community built around his farm, but with  extensions to other communities within reach. He’s looking for people to join in. He hopes it will be organized around a Quaker heritage.

Scot is visiting North Carolina the weekend of February 24-25 to talk about his proposal, the ideas behind them, and the book in which they are expressed.

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.)

The discussion will convene at 10 AM Saturday, February 24, at Spring Friends Meeting, 3323 E. Chapel Hill-Greensboro Rd., Snow Camp NC 27349. (Directions here.) Lunch will be provided, and then discussion will continue afterward as long as seems in good order.

On Sunday, February 25, Scot will bring the message at Spring’s First Day worship, at 11 AM.

The sessions are open to the interested public. There is no charge, but interested persons are encouraged to let us know they are coming so we can plan for lunch.
Spring Friend Meeting, Snow Camp NC
Oh — and just in case you think I’m exaggerating about the succession of doomsday prophecies of Quakerism’s imminent demise, here are a few more I’ve run down:

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 . . .

12 thoughts on “Does Scot Miller Have the Answer to American Quaker Decline?”

  1. Given Scot’s proposal that the envisioned community would be centered on his vision and his farm, I suspect very strongly that he will expect to “own” the new group. Not a promising way to begin!!!

  2. Chuck, Thanks for this insightful historical reflection on Friends! Such an overview helps us get beyond the current hand-wringing, seeing only the present.

    I doubt that the future is looking to the past–Scott Miller’s Anabaptist-Quakerly hindsight. But then I’m biased against “plain” clothes, not interested in farming–did that when I helped my father and grandfather years ago in Nebraska.

    It seems that real growth in a social-spiritual movement comes like a forest fire. We catch the spark, not stir the ashes.

  3. Chuck – Come on over to visit Friendship Meeting. We have cradle to me as members/attenders. Our buildinf fund is well on the way to fund a new Meeting room. Mel

  4. Hi Chuck,
    Your posts are always interesting. Love them. This one leaves me with a question I hope you will be willing to answer, and then a couple comments. I used to live in NC and was part of NCYMC. So the first question is: which YM disbanded? I googled them and found they both still have websites. (Evangelical Friends seem to have a region rather than a YM?) Neither website admits to represents a deceased, pushing up daisies, demised, joined the choir invisible, run down the curtain, kicked the bucket, ex-Yearly Meeting. Not even stunned, or pining for the fjords. I’m not doubting you for a moment, since you still live there and I don’t. I would like to have the 411 on this.
    2. Is that a photo of Scot with family? I can assure Scot that Qs becoming Mennonites of any stripe is not on the agenda at any meeting I’ve ever been part of. We like Mennonites, we don’t want to be them. And, the possibility of any appreciable number of women being yanked back into uniforms that require us to wear funny hats and shapeless dresses is nil. With a capital zilch. From what you’ve told me, it seems Scot wants something Qs offer but can’t give up his hierarchical needs. Rules, not queries? Every #metoo woman is running screaming in the opposite direction. #Timesup on other people telling us what we can and can’t do. I’m sure you wouldn’t even tell us about Scot if he weren’t a decent guy. It’s just that once the rules are in place, they are enforced by whoever is in power later. (Has Scot talked to the large community of ex-Amish in and near Chicago?)
    3. I’m not writing a book because I think that the solution to growing Qs (or indeed any group that wants to last) is short enough to be put in a greeting card. It’s “young people”. I don’t think you find that shocking, but it’s amazing how many people do. A. We need to attract young adults. Qs who don’t know it yet are out there. A few found our meeting and didn’t mind sitting with older people because we weren’t being fuddy-duddies. One of them has a calling to attract more young people and the numbers are showing it. B. It’s a pet peeve of mine that children are taken out of (unprogrammed) meeting. All the way through high school. And then the meeting doesn’t get why they leave. Why would they stay in a process that’s foreign to them? C. Young people are very open and caring. The ones who found us are very happy we run the gamut. Christian, Buddhist, atheist, other. They don’t want the closed-mindedness of people who say our beliefs are the only true beliefs. They are accustomed to viewing all sorts of people as equal and valuable. They have friends across the lines of color, gender, orientation, all the things. They will bring in people older Qs can’t, because we still live segregated from the “others”.
    BTW, you did a great job of showcasing Scot in the post and not giving me a whiff of what your own beliefs are on the subject. Kudos. I think that’s appropriate.

  5. Scott’s idea is attractive to me for certain reasons. As much as I’m interested in farming, I cannot begin that sort of life at 71 years old and like Daniel cannot see many people move to that part of Scott’s idea. I suspect that he has a broader plan that he will explain at Spring. Like Bill, his Scott-centered proposal is suspect in my mind. I also am unimpressed with any move to become like any other group as is the failure to become Methodist-like in the pastoral meetings. I cannot imagine what an effective plan to hold the Quaker movement together would look like but given that Spring and some other meetings are thriving, I would suggest that they and similar meetings of both pastoral and non-pastoral meetings be studied with open and receptive minds. One thought has been something that Bin Farlow and I discussed at length when I was a pastor at Jamestown Friends meeting. We thought that imitation of thepastoral model of protestant churches was a mistake. A Quaker pastoral should evolve organically out of Quakerism and the needs of each Quaker community. We even considered the idea to drop the term, ‘pastor’ out of the Quaker lexicon replacing it with ‘Clerk of Ministry and Worship.’ That would allow the leadership of Monthly Meeting to be three equal clerks while one may have a salary. One other concern that I’ve had for years is the Quaker love of it’s history. It reeks of idolatry and does not speak to the needs of post modern people. To have a strong history and even myth is important and can be honored but to ride the historical horse into the ground is to bury the movement. Prophesy is not in my job description and is above my pay-grade but I do know that being driven from the Quaker movement through meanness in the pastoral division of Quakerism fosters the personal opinion that much of the movement is already dead and gangrenous. Healthy tissue is there in communities like Spring and Fancy Gap Friends. Maybe this time in the movement’s life is a time of debriding. I hope so.

  6. Delightfully cranky, as usual, Chuck, but new Friends I know who have read the excellent FJ piece said the concerns raised by author and commenters ring true to them. Curious visitors often think , “Where’s the beef (Or tofu)?” and drift off when no one can explain the inner light. 150 year old Screeds aren’t bringing them back. When Friends can tell a newcomer what we believe (about the divine,, not which Congressional bill to support), they might give us a second look.

    I admire Scott Miller & wish him well but the deck on our Philly rowhouse isn’t going to fit many cows.

    1. Signe: I agree with you completely on this: “Curious visitors often think, “Where’s the beef (Or tofu)?” and drift off when no one can explain the inner light. 150 year old Screeds aren’t bringing them back. When Friends can tell a newcomer what we believe (about the divine, not which Congressional bill to support), they might give us a second look.”
      I’ve undertaken to do something like that, though it is so far less than a smash best-seller. I put it into an 8 or 9-part set of blog posts on “Quaker FAQs”; and in part 6, I answer the “tofu” question thus: “Can you (i.e., me) summarize Quakerism in only two paragraphs?” I say yes, and then do it.
      Of course, my answer is only my own, my credo, and not (pardon my language) a creed. But on that basis, I’m persuaded that an attentive listener could make a reasonably informed (snap) judgment, as in, “No thanks, I’m not a fan of tofu,” or possibly, “Hmmmm. Tell me more.” You can find it here:

  7. Chuck, you sure go a long way to try and get Friends to think “out of the pew”.

    If we want our meetings to grow, we need to start marking our “brand” to the communities where we are already in. We may even need to PAY some people who know how to reach people who are looking for what we have.

    We also need to stop looking for the “right kind of diversity” to attract to our meeting. Since we are ALL different in different ways why does a “label” matter? Youths; African Americans, Hispanic Speakers, etc. is just plain stereotyping all kinds of communities.

    We need to continue our work to “complete the world” and make some friends in the process. Sooner that we think, some of them will become Friends.

    I believe we “convert by example” and not by “convicement”.

    We also need to make sure the meeting “bullies” do not scare off people they don’t want around.

  8. Perceptive comments by Signe Wilkinson and Free Polazzo:

    “When Friends can tell a newcomer what we believe (about the divine,, not which Congressional bill to support), they might give us a second look.”
    “We also need to make sure the meeting “bullies” do not scare off people they don’t want around.”

  9. I believe a young Friend long ago got under an exercise to revive the Spring meeting, which had become inactive a century or more ago. He began regular worship at Spring, all by himself. Some of his friends followed him there out of curiosity. When they saw what he was doing, they joined him in worship. As a result, the meeting was revived. I hope my memory is correct.

    One time when Darlene and I were roaming around Snow Camp, we stopped at the Spring meetinghouse, which was unlocked. We entered to look around and worship briefly. With no earthly audience to hear us, we took the opportunity to sing a duet. I wish I could remember which hymn we sang! These many years later, with my wife no longer living, I remember this episode fondly!

  10. A saying comes to mind: “Bloom where you’re planted”. The rural based community concept works for Scott because that is where he already is. Look at QVS for another model. In more than a dozen urban communities young Quakers, most recent graduates of Quaker colleges or similarly compatible exeriences, commit to living in intentional Quaker community while working at community service and community development type jobs, with support from the local Friends meeting. It’s closer to the Jane Adams model than the Amish-ish model. But it is looking very successful, and most of the “graduates” of the QVS year continue in Quakerism and in Friend compatible careers. Look up their website. Exciting things are happening.!

  11. After more than 70 years as an unaffiliated rogue, it seems to me that “Quaker”, stripped free of all religiosity and doctrine and instruction, still exists. It was a great error, I believe, to relax the prohibiting customs against marrying out. I myself am the product of 7 (+?) generations of marrying in between Quaker families that long ago became “Jack-Quakers” – zero instruction in the religion and ideologies of Churches. Yet the inner light remains. It is clear to me that Quakers are born Quakers – it’s a breeding experiment in shaping character. It’s genetic. That’s a treasure from God.

    I say clearly, return to marrying in. Do not squander. Have babies. Of course the meeting and instruction is valuable as well, and where else should the young people meet one another?

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