Liberal Quaker History and The Present Crisis

A few of my fifty-plus Quaker tee shirts.Liberal Quaker History and The Present Crisis

(This post is based on a Presentation to Green Pastures Midwinter Quarterly Meeting, Ann Arbor Michigan Third Month 15, 2013)

A small sample of my failure to achieve simplicity . . .

When I was getting ready to retire last year, I came face to face with the Quaker value of simplicity.

No question — that’s always been the most complicated and difficult testimony for me. I mean, on some of the others, I’m at least on the charts — peace? I stayed out of the military, and went to lots of protests. Equality? I worked in the civil rights movement, and raised my three daughters on tales of Lucretia Mott and Harriet Tubman.

Community? Well, I’ve sat through hundreds of committee meetings. Even the testimony we don’t ever talk about anymore, Temperance: I’m still a teetotaler, and my hero Lucretia would be proud.

But Simplicity — now that is a tough one. And especially as I was packing up to move, and looked around my old bedroom, at all the stuff on the shelves, jammed in the drawers and overfilling the closet, knew I had to face up to simplifying.

And as I took a kind of inventory of all the stuff, one discovery was particularly shocking to me: I haven’t thought of myself as much of a clothes horse, but somehow I had accumulated over fifty tee shirts. Actually, more like seventy-five of them. Fifty or so were Quaker-themed tee shirts. When they were all folded and stacked, I felt like the Imelda Marcos of cotton and polyester.

In the end, I managed to unload a bunch of them, but I still have a bunch. And I mention this here because one of the ones that was hardest to part with was a deep red one, which was my cherished souvenir of my last visit to Ann Arbor

That time it was summer, 2001 I’m pretty sure, and I was here for a regional union conference. I was teaching adjunct courses at Penn State at the time, and we were trying to organize us and the teaching assistants. Ann Arbor seemed like the mecca for teaching assistant unionism. There were organizers from several campuses there, and we exchanged tee shirts with various logos on them.

The red tee shirt I brought home was imprinted with a distinctive message. Anybody recognize this logo? On the back it said at the top:

“I joined the union, and all I got was this lousy tee shirt.”

But under that was a long litany of union benefits.

It was great. So much so that when the great Simplicity winnowing was done, and I’d unloaded more than fifty of the heap of tee shirts, I couldn’t let go of that one. Not just because it brought back memories of a pleasant visit to Ann Arbor, but also as a marker of what I often think of as the Good Old Days. By that I mean not only the days before Sept. 11 of that same year, but before the great crash, and before the worst of the even greater Long Slide that preceded it.

My GEO Union Tee Shirt - A classic of the Good Old Days
A True Classic, of the Good Old Days . . .

Can anybody tell me how many union jobs Michigan has lost since 2001? Rough idea? How about non-union jobs? And how many Michigan cities are now under — what do they call it — emergency financial managers?

Yeah. I’m mentioning all this because it’s one key piece of background to what I have to share with you about my assigned topic this evening. That piece is the shrinking, and even collapse of the American middle class, not just here in Michigan but generally. It’s been really bad in North Carolina too, and there we had almost no unions to cushion the blows.

Another key aspect of this plight grows out of the work I retired from a few months ago, running a Quaker peace project next door to Fort Bragg, one of the largest US military bases, where I watched the American war machine up close through the last eleven years, what I call the Desolate Decade. There I saw, as have others, the rise of an American police and torture state, which is in place, unaccountable, and as corrosive of human rights inside our borders as it was indifferent to them overseas.

By and large, comfortable folks like us have not so far been targeted by this police state, except perhaps by having to take our clothes off, literally or photographically, to get on an airplane, as I did this morning. But the consolidation of this American police state, which took off during the previous administration in Washington, has been continued and strengthened under the current one, and it looks as if it’s here to stay.

I could also say something about the steady deterioration of the environment, but there I have no special expertise, other than breathing the air and drinking the water. But there is one thing: on August 23, 2011, I did feel the earthquake that rattled across the southeast and Mid-Atlantic, likely triggered by fracking, which is about to start in Carolina too. I remember it clearly, even though where I was sitting, it was no more than a mild shaking for a minute or so, with no damage. I shook a lot more afterwards, though, considering the implications.

Anyway, against this gloomy backdrop, what’s liberal Quakerism got to do with anything?

Well, in my view, as I watch the space for free expression, free thinking and real dissent steadily shrinking under all these pressures, it’s my judgment that churches will be one of the last shelters for these diminished liberties. Churches will be among the last institutions ground under by the new Leviathan. I can say more about why I think that later, if anyone has questions. But given that proposition, I also believe that if there is any hope for finding ways out of our increasingly dire predicament, churches are where much of the hope, the creativity, the courage and the resistance will be nurtured, especially for those of us who are involved with them.

And for most of us here, the seat of that hope means the spaces that we’re calling liberal Quakerism. They will need to be developed, protected, and passed on.

This would be true even in normal times; it’s even more so now. And this thing called “Liberal Quakerism” didn’t drop out of the sky. Nor is it exactly what George Fox put together in his amazing career, despite what some Friends imagine. It developed, and how it developed makes a difference to how we think about it today, and how it can be preserved and passed on to the next generations.

By the way, Michigan Quakers played an important role in this development. We’ll get to that in a few minutes. First I need to say something about what theologians call “ecclesiology,” which has to do with the model of the church, its structure and governance and the beliefs or doctrines that shape it.

There are many kinds of church structures and ecclesiologies. At one end of a hypothetical spectrum there’s the Catholic Church, which is on everybody’s minds this week, or at least our TV screens, which manifests an imperial ecclesiology, headed by an infallible Pope in the Vatican, supported by a top-down worldwide hierarchy. At the other end, we can put the congregational ecclesiology of independent Baptists: there each church governs itself, and associates with other churches in a cooperative relationship of equals; there’s no hierarchy above the local church. And there are lots of other models in between.

One in-between model is of more than passing interest here, that of the Presbyterian church, which has a kind of two-tier structure: it has no pope or bishops, but local churches belong to regional groups called “presbyteries,” which are governed by councils of elders and ministers; it’s hierarchical in that local churches are accountable to the presbyteries, but has more input from below, and no single ruler at the top.

I mention this presbyterian model because early in Quaker history, by the time Fox died, a very similar model was taking hold. You can find it in the old Disciplines, which were first printed in about 1806. They speak very clearly of the Society of Friends as a hierarchical body: local preparative meetings were “subordinate” to Monthly Meetings, which were “subordinate” to Quarters, and all were “subordinate to the Yearly Meeting. If a “superior” meeting directed an “inferior” meeting (these terms are in all the Disciplines, by the way) to do something or stop doing something, the “inferior” meeting was obliged to obey, or it could be disciplined or even laid down.

Something similar was in place within meetings as well. If you’ve ever visited an old-style meetinghouse, a standard feature is a set of “facing benches” at the front of the meeting room. On these benches sat the elders, ministers, and overseers. They were expected to do most of the preaching (and in many there was a lot of preaching, compared to our silence-centered worship style of today.) And the facing benches were elevated, so this group could see over, that is, oversee, the meeting as a whole.

Facing benches in a
Facing Benches

Also, the folks on the facing benches held their own “Select Meetings”: they were a “meeting within the meeting,” and they pretty much determined how things would go in the meeting at large. I don’t know where the nearest such “classic” meetinghouse with facing benches is from here; there’s a fine example in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, about 4 hours southeast, and another nearby in Barnesville.

This architectural and governance style was not arbitrary; it embodied an ecclesiology, a set of beliefs about what Quakerism was, and I need to say a little about that, because it’s much different from what we see today. The Society of Friends in the beginning and for two hundred-plus years defined itself as a chosen people, brought into being by direct action of the Spirit and call of God, to live in a distinctive way, separate from the rest of society, and to pursue a definite mission in the world.

This self-definition is set out in the introductory statement at the beginning of the earliest printed Disciplines, and it stayed there in later editions, both among Hicksites and Orthodox, until the late 19th century. Here is the key part of it:

As it hath pleased the Lord in these latter days, by his spirit and power, to gather a people to himself; and, releasing them from the impositions and teachings of men . . . these have been engaged to meet together for the worship of God in Spirit, according to the direction of the holy Law-giver; as also for the exercise of a tender care over each other, that all may be preserved in unity of faith and practice . . . .

For this important end, and as an exterior hedge of preservation to us, against the many temptations and dangers, to which our situation in this world exposes us, the following rules have been occasionally adopted by the society, and now form our code of discipline. . . .”

So. Quakerism exists because God gathered a people to himself — that’s us, Friends. God’s special chosen people. (I’ve found that the phrase “chosen people” makes some folks uncomfortable, but I still use it, because it speaks the truth about this Quaker self-definition.) And we’re gathered to worship God in God’s way — and worship includes not just meetings, but witness in and to the world.

But even so, we’re also called to keep separate from the world, and we’re in danger from the world — so we need an “exterior hedge” around us to protect, not merely the individuals — thee and me — but even more the gathered ( i.e., “chosen) People, the group. The group, the “people,” is the constituting entity here, not individuals like you or me: we come and go: the group is what lasts. (This is, by the way, hardly a new idea in western christian religion.) And to protect the group, meetings have been arranged in this particular hierarchical order, and some members have been set apart to “oversee” the whole.

And these “overseers,” by all reports, did just that. They oversaw the lives and habits of Friends, to protect and preserve what came to be called “The Reputation of Truth,” or what might be called to day the Image of Friends, or the Quaker “brand.” In theory at least, this role wasn’t a “power trip.” For the overseers, it was their part of the group’s divinely-defined mission. And they were appointed to their offices for life.

So let’s call that quasi-presbyterian structure the “traditional” Quaker ecclesiology, or model of church structure and governance. It seemed to work well enough for a long time.

But by the end of the 1700s there were isolated rumblings and grumblings about how these circles of power were increasingly getting ingrown and oppressive. One early challenger was a woman minister from New York state named Hannah Barnard. She traveled to England and Ireland in 1799-1800, where she preached, among other things, that maybe some of the divinely-ordered genocide stories in the Bible were more tribal legends than the acts of a just and loving God. The elders and overseers in London Yearly Meeting called this heresy, and they got her disowned. Then there was in many places a heavy-handed strictness about all sorts of details of the Discipline’s rules, particularly those aimed at enforcing separation from “the world,” which got more and more people disowned for lesser and lesser offenses.

The major Separation in 1827 between what came to be called the orthodox and the Hicksites was in part about oppression by this elite. But not entirely, and the Hicksite leadership retained the “traditional” ecclesiological model after the split. The “gathered people” language stayed in the Hicksite Disciplines for several decades more.But with the evolution of Friends anti-slavery witness into increasing support for the abolition movement, these tensions ratcheted up several notches. Abolition from the beginning was an interdenominational crusade, in which activists from many churches cooperated. The Hicksite elders and overseers were against slavery, but they wanted Friends to stay away from these new reformist groups of the “world’s people,” or outsiders.

By the early 1840s, tensions over working with other groups, and discontent with the “traditional” model of “Oversight,” had reached a boiling point in many Hicksite groups. Among the Hicksite dissenters, none was more eloquent or visible than my hero, Lucretia Mott. Although she was a recorded minister herself, and thus part of the “Select Meeting,” she came to despise the structure and its restrictions on the cooperative social reform efforts she put so much energy into. And she was not quiet about it.

Lucretia Mott, My Progressive Quaker Hero
Lucretia Mott, My Progressive Quaker Hero

Lucretia was based in Philadelphia. But the first actual major insurrection against the traditional Quaker ecclesiological structure happened, of all places — here in Michigan. Not Ann Arbor, alas, but in Battle Creek. As historian Brian Wilson of Western Michigan University recently wrote, “The Battle Creek Monthly Meeting was officially established in 1836, and the first of several Quaker meeting houses in Battle Creek was built in 1843. One early observer remarked, “The town came very near being a Quaker colony, as a large number came among the early settlers.” Soon there were Hicksite meetings in Livonia, Adrian and Parma, and these made up Michigan Quarter of Genesee Yearly Meeting, which was centered around Rochester, New York.

Many Michigan Friends soon became active in the Underground Railroad and abolition. And the same tensions about this as elsewhere emerged, with the “facing bench” establishment insisting on separatism and quietism, and the activists wanting to join only with others to end slavery and promote other reforms. In response, in 1841 Michigan Quarter Friends took a radical step: they abolished the Select Meetings of Ministers and Elders. No more two-tier, quasi-Presbyterian ecclesiology for them; no more overseers telling them to keep quiet, stay away from abolitionist outsiders, and stick to the old ways.

Monument to the Underground Railroad, Battle Creek, Michigan
The Underground Railroad Monument in Battle Creek, Michigan. One thing I especially like about it is that it properly has the freedom-seekers in the lead; while some Quakers helped, the Railroad was an African-American freedom movement.

How they pulled off this coup I don’t know, and I would love for a journal or some letters to turn up, giving some of the juicy details. Maybe all the elders and overseers dozed off on the facing benches after a big lunch in the summer heat. Or maybe the rebels quietly shifted the location of the meeting, and wrote the minutes before the elders could find them.

After this coup, the reformed Michigan Quarter sent a minute up to its “superior body,” Genesee Yearly Meeting, urging that body to follow their lead and lay down their Select meeting as well. But the weighties on Genesee’s facing benches were not having it. After several years of back and forth, with the Michiganders standing firm, in 1848 Genesee exercised its authority under the traditional structure and laid down, abolished, the entire Michigan Quarter for “insubordination.” Bang, you’re dead, Friends.

This dramatic action had two effects: the battle Creek Meeting went off on its own, and in Genesee Yearly Meeting, at least 200 members and attenders walked out and formed another independent yearly meeting, which they called Congregational, or Progressive Friends.

That word Congregational is crucial: it meant an end to the quasi-presbyterian hierarchical structure, making monthly meetings autonomous, and the yearly meeting a strictly cooperative body. It also did away with separate status for ministers and elders. It was a giant step toward equality within the Society.

The term “Progressive” was important as well. It summarized the group’s agenda: forward-looking, focused on the positive future promised by “progress” in the world, on a variety of fronts, with ending slavery at the top of the list. Further, it reflected their identification with the burgeoning spirit of their time: the U.S. was awash in material progress — railroads, factories, telegrams, breakthroughs in many fields. Onward and upward! And the Progressives were confident that the same spirit and energy could solve social problems too, in much the same way that scientific challenges were met.

Progressives were also individualistic. The spirit of discovery was not something that worked by being submerged in a group, but by forging ahead in laboratory or through wilderness. Or by going outside the usual channels to work for abolition with new allies from other churches. Theologically, Progressives insisted that my individual leading from the Light could override the group’s dictates and customs. I can’t overstate how complete a reversal of basic outlook this shift represented.

The Michigan outcasts soon formed an association called the Michigan Yearly Meeting of the Friends of Universal Progress, or Progressive Friends for short. The battle Creek Friends Meeting soon changed its name to “The Progressionists.”

This looser, more scattered organization, however, also produced a rather casual attitude about record-keeping, and no minutes of either the Progressionists or their yearly Meeting have been found. And the Michigan Yearly Meeting seems to have dissipated within a few years.

But the Progressive/Congregational spirit was spreading fast from Michigan into New York and other areas where there were Hicksite Friends meetings. Soon Progressive Friends groups sprang up in several places — and the group in Longwood, Pennsylvania lasted the longest, and even built a meetinghouse which is still standing today.

Longwood Progressives 1865Longwood PA Progressive Friends, at their meetinghouse, 1865

As the Progressive/Congregational Friends insurgency tore through the Hicksite world, the spread of its ideas was spurred by its peculiar decentralized character. In the earlier Orthodox-Hicksite split, there were mutual mass disownments, and walls of separation went up between the rival groups that lasted for a century and more. But the Progressives didn’t really believe in separate membership: if you showed up, you were in.

This meant for instance, that Lucretia Mott, who was very active with the Pennsylvania Progressives, didn’t have to quit her Hicksite Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to do so; the Progressives didn’t make her “join” in any official way. And although there were some Hicksite leaders who wanted to see her disowned, she was always a few steps ahead of them, and they never succeeded. So she served as a kind of double agent, working both sides of the Hicksite-Progressive street for years.

This fuzzy status was a big advantage for her: she traveled and preached widely among Hicksites, drawing large crowds, and as she did so she intentionally spread the Congregational virus –umm, I mean gospel – among her audiences. In fact, I regard Lucretia as a central figure in the long-term spread and impact of the congregational reform.

The Pennsylvania Progressives also wrote and issued a substantial manifesto in 1853, called the “Exposition of Sentiments. I put it online, and if the origins of modern liberal Quakerism are of interest to you, I urge you to look it up and read it. I found it amazing and electric when I came across it, almost 150 years later. In it there was laid out an agenda for internal reform of Quakerism that in essence described what you now find across the country in the FGC and independent yearly meetings. (And what you see struggling to be born in some of the pastoral YMs too.)

I’ve already suggested the elements of this reform: abolition of the “Select meetings-within-the meetings” of ministers and elders; laying down of those offices, especially as lifetime appointments; a congregational polity in which all Meetings were equal, and yearly meetings became cooperative service groups, not overlords. It put an individualistic theology in place of the group-centered “unity of belief and practice.” And an emphasis on reform and social progress as the essence of what Lucretia Mott often called “practical Christianity.”

As organizations, though, a similar fate came to almost all the Progressive bodies: by the time the Civil War ended, they were mostly gone, some with only wisps of a paper trail left to historians to piece together. The Pennsylvania group was a partial exception; but it too soon evolved into an annual gathering for lectures and what we would now call workshops, attended by interested individuals, much like a Chatauqua (or the FGC summer Gathering), with essentially nothing in between.

But if the Progressive meetings were gone, the driving impulses of the movement did not disappear. To the contrary, they kept spreading. Many Progressives returned to their Hicksite meetings — or had never left. Over time, they pressed for the internal changes that the Michigan Quarter and missionaries like Lucretia Mott had championed. And over time, the agenda of the Exposition of Sentiments was adopted. And as it was, step by step, American Liberal Quakerism in its recognizably modern form came into being.

This process took a bit more than seventy years, but when in 1926 Friends General Conference approved a Uniform Discipline (full text  here) for its seven member yearly meetings, this unique document codified in print the reality that the Progressive/Congregational ethos had become the liberal Quaker DNA:

>There was no more talk of being a chosen, separate people;

> The Inner Light in each individual was the religious focal point.

> Gone were recorded ministers; the monthly meeting was now the central institution, subordinate to nobody;

> Yearly meetings were service groups;

> The theology, if such it could be called, was minimalist and lightly held; and

> A strong emphasis on “doing good” in the world was heard throughout.

The Uniform Discipline even endorsed what it delicately called, “social mingling,” in a veiled rebuke to the previous centuries of cultural isolation.

This FGC Uniform Discipline is also a landmark document, Progressive/Congregational through and through. Once it was adopted in 1926, all seven of FGC’s member yearly meetings rewrote their own books of Discipline within a couple of years, and all of them followed the Uniform Discipline text very very closely.

I have argued that the Progressive movement, far more than the mysticism of Rufus Jones, has shaped what liberal Quakerism has become. I stand by this, even though until now, the Progressives have hardly been mentioned in the standard histories of Quakerism. There are interesting reasons for this, but not time to go into them right now. (Those who want to know can get more in the two books I wrote about the Progressives: Remaking Friends, a narrative history; and Angels of Progress, a compilation of long-forgotten documents filling in the background.)


So here we are. Liberal Quakerism today is the spiritual and organizational descendant of the Progressive Friends insurgency. And while few liberal Friends in the U.S. today know much if anything about this history, they –we — have pretty much absorbed the Progressive organizational DNA, and in my judgment there’s no going back. I’ve heard some murmurs about how we need to return to having elders, and more authority in our meetings. But I don’t see it happening in any large way, and I can’t say I favor trying to resurrect the traditional forms.

Still, the Progressive model has weaknesses as well as strengths. One weakness is that of fragmentation and disappearance into the vague liberal miasma; that’s evident in how quickly the movement vanished as a separate group. Today Liberal Quakerism lives a paradox: a bunch of fiercely indivudalistic spiritual seekers, who nonetheless as a body show a remarkable cultural uniformity It’s what, in the FGC and independent liberal Quaker yearly meetings, I call NPR and Downton Abbey Quakerism, and Geoff Kaiser refers to as The Society of Trends.

Another shortcoming is that with the minimalism of structure and worship has come a corporate culture of minimalist thinking about the basis of the religious community, its issues and complexities. It’s counter-intuitive, considering the generally high level of formal education, but the “corporate culture” of liberal Quakerism in my experience is resolutely anti-intellectual when it comes to religion, especially its own.

Very few of us know much of our own history, or theology; episodes of “Quaker Culture Shock” are common and traumatic, when liberals discover that there are pastoral, evangelical, antigay Republican Quakers who prefer Fox News to Fox, George, and would really rather not explore the affinities between Quakerism and Buddhism, thank thee very much.

Yet as this alone suggests, and our larger plight in a collapsing culture makes imperative, Liberal Quakers have a lot to think about as a community. We are, in my view, way behind on our church homework. And there will be a test, but not on paper for a grade.

Yet another, more perilous weakness to my mind flows from this minimalism of thought: we generally do a poor job of telling our story and passing along our religious culture to our own children. But I’m convinced such transmission is absolutely critical. Groups which fail at that are living on the brink of extinction, even without external persecution.

That’s part of what happened to the Progressive yearly Meetings after the 1860s. But I also know this from my own experience: I was raised in pre-Vatican Two Catholicism, a very intricate, ancient, and encompassing tradition. But I left it, and raised my four children outside it. And now, within my adult lifetime, neither they nor my five grandchildren have any idea what the rosary is, what is done with it, how many sacraments there are, or what an indulgence is — that’s all gone. I’m not sorry about that; but the quick and total disappearance of that culture from much of my life is still remarkable.

And it was all so easy: I didn’t have to lift a finger, or spend any money – yet, poof, 1200 years of tradition vanished. But notice:  Quaker kids who become adults without knowing much more about our founding tradition than the George Fox song are not really much better off.

One additional major loss from this cultural amnesia is that there are many great examples in previous Quaker generations, and even in our own, of creative witness and resistance in situations not so different from the one we face today. We have a very rich — and potentially useful– heritage to draw on. But overall we do very little with it, I’m afraid, and the liberal Quaker ethos, which is tilted toward “Progress” and puts its faith in the future, abets that.

Moreover, the loss of independent memory is one of the most insidious of the effects of our current cultural pathology. It is one of the key tools of oppression, to make alternative traditions and stories and ways of life disappear. For us in the U.S. today, this doesn’t usually require overt repression (although in situations like Occupy Wall Street, the authorities will make exceptions); usually though, alternatives just get drowned out amid the general noise and distraction.

And overall, I see much of liberal Quakerism playing right along. But what do we do when the “Progress” that’s been our group’s polestar turns against us, putting drones above and plunging our graduates into a a peonage of debt? When the future is more ominous than promising? Quakers have been in this situation before; but if we can’t or won’t remember what earlier Quakers did, we’re crippling ourselves in figuring out how to cope.

The “Art Scene” in today’s new order – in this impromptu performance piece, a homeless man sleeps in the University of Michigan art gallery, under a sumptuous Tiffany chandelier, and shielded by huge Tiffany doors from a New York mansion, temporarily safe from the freezing winter outside.

Despite these weaknesses, which are serious, I’m not inclined to give up on Liberal Friends. That’s mainly a statement of faith: grace happens. God is not done with us, even in our inadequacy.

Or let me put it this way: I joined liberal Quakers 47 years ago, and all I got was 75 tee shirts. And a tradition that didn’t let me get comfortable with that, or the world that produced them, and lots of ideas and examples of how to deal with our messed up world, if only I’ll look and learn. In fact, if I pay some more attention, maybe I’ll even learn something about Simplicity. I hope you get the idea.

Copyright © by Chuck Fager 2013. All rights reserved.

Ann Arbor MI Friends Meeting
Ann Arbor Michigan Friends Meeting

4 thoughts on “Liberal Quaker History and The Present Crisis”

  1. Thanks for this post. I just came across it and it made my day! I designed that t-shirt when I was in the UM Graduate Employees Union in the late 90s! Now I appreciate what I really got from joining the union–attention to what is going on in my workplace and community, the confidence to organize others and make positive change, the ability to balance personal life and public action. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. So lovely to find this GEO t-shirt online, was looking for it to show a member. The CGEU wiki didn’t get that page archived. Also, so awesome to see Michelle’s comment from 10 years ago!! She was instrumental in this path I am on in life.

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