The Long Read:
The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel. The story below is not. It is true, and it happened in 1990, but its reverberations are still being felt, and are maybe stronger and deeper now than when they burst into view. Margaret Atwood’s fictional vision was directly relevant to it — as well as that of another novel which became its mirror image. Read on to understand why.
It begins with a showdown at Silver Bay, involving witches versus demons.
I. Gilead Meets the Goddess
New York Yearly Meeting gathers at Silver Bay, a resort complex on Lake George, north of Albany. Silver Bay is a lovely and peaceful setting, to which many New York Quakers return as pilgrims each summer seeking rest and renewal among Friends.
When the yearly meeting gathered in July of 1990, rest and renewal seemed in short supply. The 1980s had not been easy for New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM).
While many other unprogrammed yearly meetings were growing, New York’s membership declined by about ten per cent; the body struggled to meet its budget; and worst of all, its annual sessions were wracked by chronic wrangling, over doctrine and morals. An effort to rewrite its Faith and Practice, pending since 1977, dragged on abrasively throughout the decade; by 1990, this process had become so acrimonious that the Yearly Meeting put it on hold for a year.
In its travail, New York had become a kind of field laboratory for an ongoing experiment in institutional Quaker ecumenism. Unfortunately, in the latter years of the 1980s, many of the results of this test had not been promising, and never more so than at its 1990 session.
New York is one of the reunited yearly meetings, knit together in 1955 from Hicksite and Orthodox groups which had separated in 1828. The Orthodox YM brought into the union several pastoral meetings, and some members who were strongly evangelical, even fundamentalist in their views. The Hicksites’ religious outlooks ranged from liberal to humanist, atheist and beyond.
The Faith and Practice sticking points were, on one side, what a Friend called the “pelvic issues” – abortion, homosexuality, and sex family issue in general. On the other side were questions of doctrine and ecclesiology, which should be familiar by now:
What are the limits of Quaker faith and fellowship?
How Christian is or should Quakerism be?
What, and who, defines “Christian”?
And behind them all, though few would ask it openly —
Had NYYM’s experiment failed, as evangelical Quaker critics predicted? Was reunification a mistake?
Discussion on these topics grew so heated in 1987 that the minutes, straining to maintain their accustomed tone of calm understatement, noted that “The meeting finally agreed that we need to wait longer and reflect further to avoid hurting one another.” An Ad Hoc Committee on Love, Discernment and Community, representing most of the conflicting viewpoints, had worked through 1989-90 to find a peaceful way forward. Despite continuing differences, as the 1990 annual sessions approached, the committee members were upbeat; they planned to report that they had maintained a Friendly spirit, and this at least seemed reason for optimism.
But on July 24, the Tuesday night of the 1990 Yearly Meeting, all hopes for a restful session on Lake George suddenly went aglimmering when a minute was read from Clintondale Meeting, a small pastoral Friends church in the Hudson Valley. The minute was short and stern:
“Clintondale Friends Meeting rejects the teachings of Goddess worship and their correlates of paganism and witchcraft, and calls on New York Yearly Meeting to do the same. Paganism and witchcraft have no place in the life and teachings of the Religious Society of Friends.”’
II. “God has ALREADY Decided . . .”
The minute, although it came as a surprise to many Friends, had considerable history behind it. It began with an announcement the previous fall of a women’s weekend workshop at Powell House, NYYM’s conference center in the Hudson Valley. The topic was “The Quaker Experience of the Goddess,” and in the announcement for it the workshop leader, Carolyn Mallison., described herself as, among other things, “a student of Wicca,” the name for certain forms of modern witchcraft.
This was not the first such workshop Mallison had led at Powell House; she had also led interest groups on Goddess spirituality at NYYM. for several years. But a few Clintondale Friends, seeing the reference to Wicca, felt strongly such a session should not be held on NYYM property.
These Friends took their concern to Clintondale’s business meeting. After much labor, and not without dissent, the meeting agreed and protests were sent, first to Powell House, then to the YM Ministry and Counsel Committee, and finally to the YM representative Meeting, all unsuccessfully.
The workshop was held as scheduled; but in hopes of easing their concerns, Mallison invited Clintondale women to attend. Two did, but they were horrified by the opening session, which included chanting the names of various ancient goddesses.
During the chanting, the Clintondale women huddled in a comer, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Then they packed hurriedly and went home. After hearing their report, Clintondale Meeting soon resolved to take its protest to the full Yearly Meeting.
Once their minute was read on the YM floor, there was division about what to do with it A move was made to refer it to the Ministry and Counsel Committee for consideration and guidance. Many approved of this.
But the Clintondale Friends present emphatically did not. They wanted to be heard, and they wanted to be heard now. This was not a time for procedural finagling; to them it was a matter of life and death.
Walter Eichler was one of the Clintondale Friends. He had not been to Yearly Meeting before, and had driven for several hours specifically to attend this session and voice this concern. He tried repeatedly to speak, but the Clerk did not recognize him. Finally his pastor, Dan Whitley, intervened and he was given the floor.
As he recalled it, Eichler told the group, in sum, that it didn’t really matter what they thought about this minute, because God had akeady decided the issue:
“You can’t be a Christian and believe in. things like witchcraft and Goddess worship, as evidently many here do. Some things in the Bible are complicated, but some things in it are clear, and this is one of them: the Bible condemns sorcery, witchcraft, and the worship of goddesses. It’s not mysterious; it’s a matter of the First Commandment.”
Eichler was a big man with a gruff voice, and he spoke brusquely about these things.. Both his words and his tone were offensive and frightening to many of his listeners. As he spoke, one after another began to stand, in silent, angry, fearful protest. Carolyn Mallison was one of them.
This confrontation crystallized more than a theological disagreement. At one level, it offered an ideal test case of my contention that the nature of the church as the crucial issue for Friends. But at another, to describe this moment in terms of divergent ecclesiologies would be to diminish, almost trivialize it. Friends like Eichler and Mallison inhabit different cultures, almost different universes. We will not understand the predicament of American Liberal Quakerism then (or now) without a closer look at this moment and what is revealed in it.
III. Where Universes Collide
People in these two cultures both appear to speak English, but in fact they lack a common language on the ultimate matters which were confronted that night. These parallel cultures lack visible landmarks at their borders, like the French signs in Quebec to the north of Silver Bay; so their boundaries are easy to miss, and stumble over. But they exist nonetheless, both inside and outside our Society.
That night, these two cultures clashed like half-submerged icebergs colliding in a murky sea. The depth of the differences between these two Friends can be seen in the wildly different and yet eerily parallel accounts of their perceptions at that moment:
Walter Eichler sensed the presence and work of demons, minions of Satan, all around him, a presence that cried out to be named, rebuked and banished in the name of Jesus Christ.
Carolyn Mallison, on the other hand, heard frightening echoes of the Inquisition; she later said she could almost smell the smoke of the fires that consumed tens of thousands (or was it millions, as some say?) of suspected witches, most of them women. Women like herself.
The atmosphere of the business session abruptly thickened with hostility. To one shocked Friend, what followed was a total disintegration of Quaker process. Another saw “fear, anger, pain enter center stage uproariously…we were brought to our knees.”
A third said it seemed the Yearly Meeting was suddenly, astonishingly facing schism. Joshua Brown, then the respected pastor of Adirondack Meeting, was so upset that he walked out of the session and began packing his bags.
After that night, Friends struggled to salvage the week. Ministry and Counsel did end up with the Clintondale minute, and made plans to meet with partisans on both sides in the coming months. As one Friend put it, the Committee told the body, “We can’t fix it for you. We can’t do it in a week.”
Then at Thursday’s business session, another blow fell: A letter from Joshua Brown. Brown was no fanatic; he had lived and worked among both programmed and unprogrammed Friends. His letter noted that he had tried to play a bridging role among New York Friends. But Goddess worship and witchcraft were things he could not stretch to cover. Thus he was resigning his Yearly Meeting appointments forthwith, and had already left for home.
There were gasps when this letter was read, and business was brought to a halt; several Friends were in tears. (Not long thereafter, Brown left New York for a pastorate in Indiana)
What produced such a sharp conflict?
To approach an answer, let’s look at the cultures involved:
IV. “Prayer Cover” & The World of Frank Peretti
Walter Eichler is a citizen of America’s evangelical subculture.
He told me he listened only to Christian radio stations, and besides worship at Clintondale, he attended a midweek charismatic service as well.
He also read evangelical Christian books, and in particular a novel called This Present Darkness. (Crossway Books, 1986) by Frank Peretti.
Darkness demands our attention here, because it has shaped much of the concerns of people like Eichler. Dan Whitley, and millions of others. If you have never heard of it, that shows your distance from the subculture it speaks for, because Darkness has sold millions of copies in the U.S. since 1986.
It has been very widely discussed, and translated into 11 foreign languages. Each of its several sequels has likewise been a big seller; and it has spawned a whole subbgenre of apocalyptic Christian fiction. (It was soon followed and eclipsed by the mega-bestselling “Left Behind” series, whose authors credited Peretti for “opening the door” to their series.
In the novel, which unfolds like thriller, a small town in the American heartland– not unlike Clintondale, NewYork– is targeted by a vast horde of Satan’s demons. They plan to capture it and make it the nerve center of a plot to take over the United States and turn it into the keystone of a New World Order.
In this Order, every human will be part of a Universal Consciousness, all controlled by a super-demon, who once ruled ancient Babylon.
Is this ex-Babylonian demon-prince the Antichrist? Satan himself? The novel is tantalizingly coy about this, but his human vehicle, a man named Kaseph, is portrayed as “a perfect cross between the ultimate guru, and Adolf Hitler [who] makes Al Capone look like a Boy Scout. Even the Mafia is afraid of him.” (Peretti, P. 206)
To gain their ends, these invading demons are not above murder and mayhem. But usually they use subtler devices, above all “New Age” psychic seduction. A character explains that this term covers, besides Jungian psychology and its archetypes:
‘”Eastern meditation, witchcraft, divination, Science of Mind, psychic healing, holistic education– oh, the list goes on and on– it’s all the same thing, nothing but a ruse to take over people’s minds and spirits, even their bodies.” (Ibid., 314)
The book is full of people seduced by New Age techniques, as taught by a beautiful woman psychology professor at a nearby college. Once under her influence, they are then possessed by hideous, vividly-described demons, who sink long claws invisibly into them, like giant predatory insects fastened on their prey.
But the hapless victims of this vast supernatural conspiracy are not, fortunately, alone.
In the town there is also a little evangelical church– not unlike Clintondale Friends Meeting– whose pastor is a young but brave and true Christian. And hovering above him and his beleaguered congregation is a platoon of watching angels. They see the demonic plot taking shape and rally their own forces for a decisive battle on behalf of the believers and their heavenly Master.
Despite the fact that the reader soon figures out that the good guys will win in the end, the tale is quite suspensefully told. More important, or many evangelical readers, Darkness is only half fictional. The characters and the town are made up; but their predicament is accepted as real, and common to all believers:
After all, the New Age, witchcraft, etc., are really out there in today’s world. In the pre-September 11, 2001 period, before “terrorism” and fear of Islam displaced it, many evangelicals were convinced that satanic beings behind the “New Age,” were in fact the greatest imminent threat, seizing possession of more and more people every day. Testimonies to this conviction are not hard to find, if one knows where to look.
For instance, “why,” asked the Superintendent of Friends Church-Southwest Yearly Meeting in a 1996 bulletin sent to all members,
“does the Bible teach God’s servants to help people ‘escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will,’ if Satan had no traps and no captives? (2Tim. 2:24-26)…Why does the Spirit clearly say ‘that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons’ if demons do not teach people today? (lTim. 4:1)…God’ s Word about Satan and his evil forces is true, no matter how distorted our popular culture!” (FCSW, in The Encourager, 1/5/1996, pp. 1,2)
Most ominous of all, in Peretti’s novel, and in the minds of many readers, is the contention that the demons’ most prized conquests are true Christians and their churches. The demons must subvert them because these are the only real bulwarks against the demonic battalions; they are the source of the “prayer cover” the angelic legions must have to throw the demons back. Further. it is these believers who must, and can, drive demons from their victims in Christ’s name, as they do repeatedly in Darkness’s pages.
This Present Darkness provides a key to the fervor of the Clintondale delegation at Silver Bay. They were not being mindlessly judgmental and intolerant; they felt they were fighting Satan for the very soul of New York Yearly Meeting-fighting and, they greatly feared, losing.
If you doubt this interpretation, then move on from Darkness to another widely-read book from the same publisher, and based on the same theology, Dark Secrets of the New Age, (Crossway, 1988), by Texe Marrs. This book is presented as a nonfiction exposé, and went through ten printings in its first year of publication; yet its depictions of the perils facing believers, and the infernal schemes of the New Age conspirators, are more lurid and bizarre than any of Peretti’s inventions.
V. It Gets Worse: The Seedbeds of Fear
“Documented” with hundreds of footnotes, Marrs warns that “a multi-headed, invincible, conspiratorial network is the goal of the “New Age.” (p.53) This plot centers on what he calls “The Plan.” (p. 58). And:
“Once New Agers ascend to world power, they will undoubtedly consent to the plans of the Antichrist to rid the world of the inferior ‘rabble’ that prevents universal Cosmic Consciousness (p.153) .. .The New Age war on Jesus and the Bible is vile and vicious.” (p.206) He makes frequent references to Hitler and the Holocaust (e.g., p. 153) as New Age prototypes.
“The Plan most definitely includes ominous provisions for Christians,” Marrs declares, and the very lack of evidence for this is itself evidence: “even if they exist, it would be difficult– perhaps impossible–for us to gain access to the actual documents that reveal outright a hideous. hidden intent to persecute Bible-believing Christians…” (p. 137)
Is it any wonder that Walter Eichler and Dan Whitley pressed their case with urgency? The paranoia level about everything dubbed “New Age” (or “liberal”), among 1990s evangelicals influenced by this literature and its themes–and most were to some degree–is difficult to overestimate. And the angry reaction to Eichler’s testimony that Tuesday night in New York seemed like proof, solid evidence they were in enemy-occupied territory. As Marrs insists: “There is definitely a conspiracy.” (p. 54; emphasis in original)
Texe Marrs’ ideas may sound completely ridiculous; but he has been, for instance a frequent interview guest on the Alex Jones conspiracy-oriented radio program, widely heard in what are today called white nationalist circles.
VI: Balm in Gilead: A Feminist Parallel Universe?
But what of Carolyn Mallison, who was among those who stood in silent challenge to Walter Eichler, and whose leadership of the disputed Goddess workshop thrust her into the eye of the storm over Clintondale’s minute, as the most visible spokeswoman for witchcraft in NYYM?
What shaped her similarly fearful reaction?
Ignorance, for one thing. Mallison had not been to Clintondale; she said she avoided pastoral meetings. A retired librarian, she came to Friends in Pennsylvania, at a mainline unprogrammed meeting. Later, moving to Richmond, Indiana, she was appalled by the pastoral Quakerism she found there.
After settling in New York, she was slow to transfer her membership from Philadelphia YM, because of the presence of programmed meetings in New York. She preferred to stay within the liberal, feminist subculture, and had only vaguely heard about This Present Darkness. “I guess I’ve been hiding out from all that,” she acknowledged.
But she had images of such people; and there is another novel which helped shape them: it is The Handmaid’s Tale (Fawcett paperback, 1985) by Margaret Atwood. This tale likewise was an international bestseller (the paperback alone had been through more than twenty printings by 1990), and was made into a major motion picture. (and in 2017 a new TV series version.) Even then, it was regarded by many readers as only half-fictional, and getting closer to actuality.
In Atwood’s story, a fundamentalist conspiracy has overthrown the American government and established the Republic of Gilead, a regime which combines South African apartheid and Nazi anti-semitism with a high-tech puritanical, misogynist theocracy.
Women in Gilead have no real status outside patriarchal families, and many, like the novel’s protagonist are forced into slavelike concubinage for breeding purposes. This practice is based on a passage in Genesis 16, where Abraham’s childless wife Sarah offers him her “handmaid,” Hagar, in order that he might have a male heir.
Abortion and feminism are, of course, capital crimes in Gilead, and executions for these and other offenses are frequent, the mangled results left hanging for public viewing. Yet there is, it turns out, a dangerous “Underground Femaleroad” helping women escape to Canada. Naturally, many of these quiet resisters are Quakers, even though the sect is subjected to frequent police roundups as heretics and subversives.
The Handmaid’s Tale and This Present Darkness are in many ways mirror images of each other. When Walter Eichler and Carolyn Mallison stood in confrontation at that NYYM business session, it was almost a case of duelling potboilers.
But how accurate are the portraits each has drawn of the “other side”?
It is easy to take aim at Peretti and Texe Marrs, especially when comparing their work to a book like Margot Adler’s first-rate survey of modem Neo-Paganism, Drawing Down the Moon , (Beacon Press, 1986).
Adler, who some readers may recognize as a longtime correspondent for National Public Radio, visited literally hundreds of Wicca and neo-pagan groups in the U.S. and Britain over a 15-year period, and until her death in 2014 was thoroughly familiar with the best scholarship on its history and sociology. Where Marrs was churning out patent trash, her book is an exemplary piece of serious reporting; it is also one, unfortunately, which Walter Eichler and Dan Whitley had not read.
The same outlook that Marrs passed off as fact (“Alternative” facts?) informs the plot of This Present Darkness: An awestruck angel voices it, when the apocalyptic nature of the plot at last becomes clear: “Universal Consciousness, the world religion, the doctrine of demons is spreading among all the nations. Babylon revived right before the end of the age.”
This works better as acknowledged fiction, where Babylon’s resurgent Prince can be decked out in the latest apocalyptic fashions. In sum, whatever “New Age-ism’” might have been, it was hardly the monster Marrs and Peretti thought they saw. And now (in 2017) it is all but lost in the enveloping haze of anti-Latino & Syrian immigrant frenzy, panic about Islam, “terrorism” and bathrooms. Yet the pattern of present-day paranoia is quite similar.
Evangelical journalists of greater integrity have pointed out this foolishness, more than once. For instance, Christianity Today magazine ran a major article on witchcraft as long ago as (10/21/1983) It was judicious, well-informed and definitely non-hysterical. And a 1989 book, Another Gospel: Alternative Religions and the New Age Movement, by evangelical author Ruth A. Tucker (Zondervan, 1989) also refuted the grand conspiracy nonsense.
But Darkness and its sequels seem to have drowned out these evangelical voices of reason, at least for now. And the “journalism” of Marrs was echoed in a 1996 book co-authored by Charles Mylander, the same Evangelical Friends Superintendent quoted earlier. The book, Setting Your Church Free (Anderson,1994) faithfully reflects the Peretti-Marrs worldview:
“The primary battle is between Christ and Antichrist (p.17) . .. If you are a Christian., you are the target. If you are a pastor, you and your family are the bull’s eye! It is the strategy of Satan to render the Church inoperative and to obliterate the truth (p.24) …Satan may target a church with a fallen angel (p.233) … Satanists are becoming more bold. We know of one church…where people from a satanic cult took children out of the nursery during worship,, abused them and brought the little kids back before worship was over. (p.256) …Testimonies of some former satanists and cult members would indicate that certain deceived or wicked people are deliberately out to destroy effective Christian ministries. Sometimes blood sacrifices are made… At other times, curses or satanic assignments are placed upon God’s people or their leaders.” (p.318)
The book includes detailed instructions for “cleansing” one’s home or church of objects, books, ideas, or people that could be considered tainted by “satanic” or “demonic” forces. It sets forth a detailed series of rituals and prayers to be said over persons, rooms, buildings, and lists activities to protect them from “satanic attacks.” The Superintendent and his co-author conduct week-long conferences for churches wishing thus to be “set free.”
Mylander does express concern at one point that “colleagues might think I am someone who sees demons as the cause of everything…” (p.232) He also prudently notes that numerous churches have been successfully sued for slander, libel, invasion of privacy or economic damages after attempting such “cleansings”, especially against individuals targeted as agents of malign supernatural forces; so he includes a number of helpful guidelines for minimizing legal challenges. (pp.275-77)
VII. Far From Gilead: Clintondale In Real Life, 1990
But not all evangelicals so fully exhibit the Peretti-Marrs mindset. What about Clintondale Meeting as the spearhead of Gileadite fascism as portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale?
The best antidote to such caricatures, I thought, would be to visit the century-old clapboard church in its bucolic setting of apple groves, so I did. Behind it is the little original 1811 meetinghouse, and beyond that a hillside leveled and ready for construction of a baseball field. (If you build it, I couldn’t help thinking, will they come?)
I attended worship there in the autumn of 1990. That First Day morning the sanctuary was well-filled, the service programmed but a little haphazard too, the children numerous and occasionally noisy, the singing heartfelt. The group was also mindful of its silent heritage, devoting a full fifteen minutes to “open worship”.
After meeting, talk with Clintondalers made plain that their primary concerns centered, not on state-wide witchhunts, but on their own spiritual and personal struggles and achievements. For instance, the most prominent literature in the fellowship room was not some anti-New Age screed, but brochures for Alcoholics Anonymous. Their next big program plan was, not a purge of liberals, but a fellowship dinner for Jamaican apple pickers. Here, it was abundantly clear, was a real church, made up of real people, with plenty of home-grown problems to worry about. Most of the “demons” with which they had to contend appeared to be of the home-grown, domestic varieties.
No wonder then that pastor Dan Whitley’s sermon that morning focussed on their now-notorious minute, but not to call them to the barricades for more Gileadite combat. Rather, he exhorted the handful of activists who had pushed it (including himself) to lighten up, to leave it in God’s hands, and turn their attention back to their own community and its many physical and spiritual needs.
Overall, despite my confirmed preference for silent worship, I found Clintondale Meeting in 1990 very congenial, much more so than other evangelical Friends churches I had visited. I wished other Friends, especially some of New York’s liberal zealots, would visit there; if they were to have pastoral groups in NYYM, they wouldn’t done much better than this. Sure, you could find fear and prejudice there, but no more than in some liberal unprogrammed meetings I’ve seen.
VIII. Old Religion, New Myth
On the other side, I doubt if some Clintondalers would be pleased to hear it, but my exposure to Wiccans among Friends, once I pushed past the fears the term evoked, aroused many similar sympathetic responses. Most Wiccan-oriented Friends come to it the way described by a woman Friend in a letter to me, via concerns “about sexism: in society as a whole, in the church, and among Friends.” She speaks of “alternative religious activities that Quaker women are using to express our experience… when god is male, male is god – and this is what I see.”
As Carolyn Mallison said, “when it comes to women, the organized church has much to answer for;” which is true enough. Some women (and men) find more adequate symbols outside it, in Wicca. The most interesting and detailed accounts of these symbols and their appeal came in Adler’s book and in Dreaming the Dark (Beacon, 1988), by Starhawk, a leading contemporary witch.
Most Wiccans believe they are exploring something older than Judaism or Christianity. They often refer to their “Craft” as the “Old Religion”, which preceded Christianity in Europe and particularly England.
Yet Adler shows that this “Old Religion” idea is almost entirely a myth, a modem invention which makes imaginative use of ancient symbols.(Adler, p. 45ff) But she adds that not many Wiccans are literalists:
“Traditionally, religions with indefensible .histories and dogmas cling to them tenaciously,” she writes. “The Craft avoided this through the realization, often unconscious, that its real sources lie in the mind, in art, in creative work.” (p. 92)
For many adherents, “belief” in these symbols as actual gods, or their rituals as invoking objective forces is not necessary: old or new, Wicca is meaningful for Wiccans, Adler says, because it works for them internally.
(Parenthetically, and for the record, both Starhawk and Adler firmly reject, both in practice and in principle, Satanism and all the terrifying violence and child molesting/sacrifice stuff that Marrs and others accuse these movements of. [Adler, pp. 103, 132, 366, 453; Starhawk, p. 21] A wave of hysteria about “satanic ritual abuse” spread internationally in the 1980s and even ensnared a few hapless Friends. [Cf. Chuck Fager, A Friendly Letter (AFL) #121, archived on this website.] But it retreated in the early 1990s as many of its most celebrated accusations were discredited in the courts; but such beliefs are by no means gone from the evangelical subculture, however.
Yet in all her years of travel land research, Adler never ran into a Wiccan group involved in either ritualistic molestation or human sacrifice [Adler, p. 508]. She argues that Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans are no more likely to be pedophiles or killers than are Christians or Jews, and those who do such things are as aberrant in the one tradition as in the others.
IX. Starhawk (left) & Liberal Quakers: They Could Be Cousins
It would be easy, reading accounts of Wiccan rituals, to dwell entirely on (and be dismayed by) their pagan features, such as the use of various ancient god and goddess figures, oracular tools like Tarot cards, and the habit some have of performing certain rituals in the nude. Despite such features, as I worked my way through their books, familiar phrases and ideas kept leaping out at me.
The relevant quotes could fill several pages; among them are an emphasis on seeking the divine within; continuing revelation and aversion to creeds; improvisation in ritual which often amounts to an “unprogrammed” worship; women in equal or leading roles; decision-making by consensus. with minimal organization and no hierarchy; and for Starhawk at least, commitments to peace and nonviolence.
How much closer to Liberal Quakerism can you get?
In Starhawk’s case, pretty darn close. She recommends Quaker dialogue techniques she learned from Friends in jail during an antinuclear protest that Quakers helped organize; most of her activist colleagues, she says, are not witches: “they are as likely to be Quakers, Buddhists, radical Catholics, or atheists.” (Starhawk, p. xvvii) (Note who gets first billing.) She even comments that the Quaker “doctrine of the ‘Inner Light’ reflects a Christian conception of immanence” (p, 110) and this is the highest compliment she pays to any Christian-based group.
Given these many Quaker/Wicca affinities, it is no wonder that some evangelical Friends consider Liberal Quakerism little more than paganism in a bonnet. The parallels have also been noticed in Friends General Conference: When FGC’s plenary planning committee met to pick speakers for the 1991 FGC Gathering, Starhawk was their first, unanimous choice. (She was unable to accept, but it’s the thought that counts.)
Even the criticisms of the new “Old Religion” that come to mind also apply rather well to Liberal Quakers generally:
Their complaints about the Judeo-Christian tradition, while containing much truth, typically reflect a narrow and stereotyped view of it; in fact, there is more of immanence in Christianity, and more of a divine feminine, than they think – indeed they are much of what made possible Quakerism’s emergence from the very Christian culture of 1650s England. And there is often a tendency to attack Christianity, as more than a few Friends, including this one, can attest.
Also, Wiccans do not take evil seriously enough, in my view. Where liberal Friends tend to ignore it, Wiccans prefer to see it as an illusion or a manipulative tool of patriarchal religions; neither view is adequate, in my experience and observation.
Carolyn Mallison surprised me by agreeing with this. “Many of these ‘New Age’ witches are just blissing out and don’t know the dangers involved,” she said. “But there are people in occult circles who want to use power for selfish purposes.” She compared magic to prayer, and believes both can be used either for God’s work or against it.
Mention of God brings up another point. Despite their affirmation of Wicca’s pagan roots, Adler and Starhawk mention numerous instances where this identity has been diluted. Adler tells of witches who joined synagogues or became Catholics. Even Starhawk, in the revised edition of her book, tells of reaffirming her own Jewish identity: “I am comfortable being both a Jew and a Pagan… “
For her part, Carolyn Mallison insisted that, notwithstanding her Wiccan studies, she was still a Christian, albeit an unorthodox one. She said she did not like to read the writings of anti-Christian, anti-male radical feminists. “Everybody’s involved in the problems we have,” she maintained. And she saw in Wiccan symbols a partnership of Goddess and God.
Such mixing of traditions is an ancient phenomenon, condemned by many theologians as syncretism and heresy, but persistent for all that. It also shows that the Judeo-Christian traditions may not be as easily shed as some neo-Pagans would wish.
Mallison even thought George Fox must have been something of a magician or wizard, for instance, by the way he shook many people up just by looking at them.
(She may be right, too; Fox compiled a Book of Miracles detailing many amazing and terrible things that had happened during his career, mainly to his adversaries. The book was suppressed by embarrassed elders, who were by then seeking favor with new royal rulers. The book was lost for more than 250 years, until the late Henry Cadbury, in a major scholarly feat, recovered much of it.)
X. Carrying Our Baggage, Cultural & Personal
Such talk of parallels and affinities hardly reassures more evangelical Quakers, however; in fact, it makes them nervous. As Stephen Main put it,
“…the exploration in New Age religious experiences are perceived as practicing something that is clearly forbidden within the Scriptures.. . The more evangelical persuasion finds the tolerance of sin totally unacceptable if they are faithful to the Scriptures as they know them.” (Pendle Hill, Realignment, 1992, p. 12)
Not that I blame Evangelicals entirely here. They aren’t the only ones who carry psychological baggage where witchcraft is concerned. As Adler herself says, “The mere words witch and witchcraft unlock a set of explosive associations that inspire unease if not fear.” ( Adler , p. 10)
Indeed, while attempting to learn enough about witchcraft among Friends to write about it intelligently, I found I had to deal not only with others’ fears, but my own as well: it gave me nightmares and other physical symptoms. It made me ill.
This response was both cultural and personal. I may scoff at Texe Marrs’ paranoia; but I have my own the unconscious deposit of centuries of conditioning abut the dark evils of witchcraft. These echo from as far back as the book of Exodus, which coldly commands that “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (22:18) Just the word for the resulting terror campaigns, which now has a generic meaning, still strikes a chill into me: witchhunt.
And then there is the personal side of it. It was well into this study when I was reminded of something I had “forgotten”: my own encounter with a kind of witchcraft, in 1968.
The details are for another place; suffice it to say that it did not involve anyone connected with this essay, and much of what happened is still mysterious; but in the end, I was left with a family member nearly killed, and myself shaken to the roots.
I mention these autobiographical items because reporters have their personal and cultural histories, and their fears, which not be wholly disconnected from their work. And in many ways this project came down to a story about fear: Fear of witchcraft, fear of witchhunts, fear of the unknown, fear of each other, fear of ourselves.
As the New York YM experience showed, our Society, and the larger society, are terribly vulnerable to being driven by fear, especially fear of each other, or of what we imagine each other to be. New York YM’s travail and its consequences were freighted with implications that spread widely and – as our recent history shows, are still reverberating.
XI. Putting Out The Fire–Or Lighting The Fuse?
Also present at Silver Bay for the turbulent Tuesday night session were observers from Friends United Meeting (FUM) in Indiana, including Stephen Main, who was then FUM’s General Secretary.
New York is a member of FUM, and was scheduled to host its 1993 international Triennial session. Main was an evangelical, who shared with other leaders like Charles Mylander many of the fears articulated by Frank Peretti and Texe Marrs. The evening’s events confirmed their worst apprehensions.
Stories of witchcraft in eastern Quakerism were soon circulating through FUM’s pastoral grapevine, with fateful results. Add to this the disclosure that FGC had invited a witch as a major speaker to its 1991 Gathering, and there was plenty of fuel for the fires of fear and divisiveness among Friends at large.
When I first reported on this confrontation in 1990, I ended up with many questions: Could New York Friends recover their balance and handle the issues entangled with Wicca in a Friendly spirit? Could they work through the many levels of fear involved? Could they learn enough of the realities that lie behind their images of each other to make judgments based on reality and not on fearful stereotypes?
It didn’t look like it would be easy. Despite my scorn for fundamentalist pop demonology, I am not a skeptic about spiritual combat: There are forces out there which won’t fit in a test tube but which can wreak broad havoc. To speak of them as “spirits,” entities and forces with a kind of autonomy, is at least a serviceable metaphor, one George Fox often used.
Here, ironically, evangelicals and Wiccans are in substantial agreement, more than they realize, though they differ sharply on which spirits are which and how to deal with them: change only a few key terms, for instance, and an evangelical book like Setting Your Church Free could be mistaken for a coven’s cookbook of spells.
The spirit of fear is surely one of these spirits, as we have seen here only too vividly. The spirit of division, as should soon be clear, is another.
Personally, I found little in Quake-ish Wiccan spirituality that would really threaten Christian Friends, once they (we) got over their fright. One scholar told Adler that “‘The Craft is really the Yoga of the West’” (Adler, p. 106). If that’s so, then Wicca should now be in decline, as yoga has become practically universal among au courant Americans. Indeed, yoga has been practiced among liberal Friends since the days of Tagore’s ashram almost a century ago, without causing any great calamity.
Yet it would not be unthinkable if some in New York YM, after informed, empathetic consideration of all the implications of this new “Old Religion” among Friends, decided they were called to be separate from it. In that case, the groups could part amicably and in right ordering, still able to cooperate where appropriate.
Indeed, that’s about what Clintondale Friends church did. In early 1995, it left New York Yearly Meeting, quietly and without fanfare. Clintondale wanted and deserved an unambiguously evangelical affiliation, and New York, which is now mainly liberal, simply was not that, and was not going to become it.
[Since 1990, Dan Whitley has retired, the Meeting’s name was changed to Clintondale Friends Christian Church, and its journey into the worldview of This Present Darkness has continued. Its new pastor is an alumni of Elim Bible Institute in western New York; Elim maintains a fundamentalist creed, which affirms a literalist, infallibility perspective on the Bible, which includes explicitly homophobic & anti-transgender teachings. (Elim Student Handbook, pp. 9-10) Elim has also applied for a Title IX waiver from the federal government, which permits it to legally discriminate against LGBTs, while retaining the power to distribute federal college loan funds.]
In the meantime, most remaining New York Friends seem reconciled to the yearly meeting’s mixed but mainly liberal identity. Amazingly, they worked their way through the aftermath of the Clintondale minute. The 1993 FUM Triennial took place in New York with no trouble. By early 1995, Herbert Lape, a loyal New York Friend of a conservative theological bent, wrote that,
“Maybe I am being naive. but I really believe that in NYYM we have gone through our long ordeal over revising our Faith and Practice in order that we might be humbled enough to-give up our own wills and trust in the group to discern God’s will. I think NYYM is in a unique position because of our diversity and the experience we have been through. NYYM could become the first yearly meeting really to have an open, civil discourse aimed at discerning God’s will on sexual issues.” (Lape, p. 16.)
The Yearly Meeting reached unity on a new Faith and Practice in 1995.
As the twentieth century moved toward its close, New York’s experiment in Quaker ecumenism seemed set to continue indefinitely. Typically, new York’s conclusion was not well-articulated, but it seemed to be an affirmation of the liberal ecclesiological model, the conviction that Friends of various – but sadly, not all – theological backgrounds could find common ground in commitment to their community and its disciplines. (However, relative calm in yearly meeting sessions is not the only measure; NYYM membership statistics have continued their steady decline, from 5124 in 1984, to 3194 in 2015, a quiet drop of almost forty per cent.)
XII. The Darkness Still Present: “Realignment” & Continued Trouble
If the witchcraft controversy blew over in New York, the same could not be said for the rest of Friends United Meeting (FUM), the association with roots in the Orthodox Quaker stream. FUM’s response to the 1990 confrontation forms the sequel to this 1990 story. This next chapter began on the night of the New York confrontation. It has not yet finished, and as it still unfolds, both Margaret Atwood’s grim vision and the ever-evolving paranoias of Peretti, Marrs and their ilk are yet compelling to many readers and viewers.
After watching the chaotic session at Silver Bay, FUM’s General Secretary Steve Main went home to Indiana convinced that the time had come to do something about the kind of religion which had produced and permitted the New York Goddess workshop. As he put it later,
“The strong movement within the Quaker family to move into outward expressions these [Evangelical] Friends find intolerable, raises the question. Is it time to consider some other type of configuration for the institutions within the Quaker family?” (PH, Realignment, p.15)
Specifically, he turned to an idea he and some other evangelically-oriented Quakers, particularly in the California-based Friends Church- Southwest YM, had long talked about: “realignment.”
By “realignment” was meant a division of the Society of Friends into two sharply-defined groups: on the one hand, those who accepted Main’s understanding of Christianity – which would have nothing to do with feminist spirituality, Wicca, homosexuality, or for that matter, most modern biblical scholarship – and on the other, those who did not.
Use of the term went back at least to 1970 and a Conference in St. Louis which included representatives of several branches of Friends. A major speaker was Everett Cattell, Superintendent of the Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region.
Cattell is remembered by some as a Quaker statesman with an inclusive vision. Yet at the gathering he declared in his major address that no one had a right to the name Quaker unless they were “Christ-centered” as he understood it. In the same address Cattell had suggested, without giving any details, that Quakerism be “realigned” institutionally on the basis of his “Christ-centeredness” criterion.
Main knew of Cattell’s address. In the fall of 1990, Main produced a memo, “Question of Realignment” which he planned to propose to the FUM General Board.
But only a yearly meetings can add such proposals to the Board agenda, so Main went to California, campaigned among Southwest YM leaders for a formal minute to take to the Board, and with its Superintendent, Charles Mylander in the lead, got one. It read in part:
[Southwest] Yearly Meeting recognizes that (he time has arrived for a realignment among Friends. We believe that Friends who share a Christ-centered faith and acknowledge the authority of Scripture should join together in a new organization that can become an effective witness for our Lord Jesus Christ in this world.
We call upon the General Board of Friends United Me ting to appoint a committee to approach Evangelical Friends International to begin joint planning toward this goal… We also call upon other Yearly Meetings within Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International to take appropriate action to promote and expedite the process of realignment among Friends. Our hope and prayer is that this process will be peaceful and positive. (Fager, AFL# l l9)
The last phrase of this minute, about this process being peaceful and positive, was the height of naivete and wishful thinking. Reaction to the proposal was sharp, and summed up by some tartly cynical slogans that appeared on lapel buttons at the next FUM board meetings:
More Christ-Centered than Thou. And More Humble, Too.
“Realignment”: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. In 1827.
For God So Loved the World, that He Sent ME to Decide If YOU are Truly Christ-Centered.
Behind the jibes were serious unanswered questions:
Just who was going to determine which meetings, and which Friends in these meetings, fell into which category?
By what standards would these judgments be made?
And what would happen if some of those thus divided did not agree to the judgment?
The answers to these queries that could be found in American Quaker history – or that of many other denominations– were ominously clear: Such judges would be self-appointed; their standards would be subject to endless, acrimonious debate; and their decisions would likely be accompanied by schisms, lawsuits, divided families, and bitterness that could last for generations.
The yearly meetings most important to FUM (e.g., Indiana, Western, and North Carolina) were the most likely to be torn apart by such a winnowing. In each there were strong moderate and evangelical wings, which had enough trouble coexisting in the best of times. It is thus not surprising that few ideas in recent Quaker history have met with less initial success. Over the next eighteen months, one FUM yearly meeting after another turned thumbs down on “realignment.” Only Iowa made any sympathetic noise. By mid-1992, the FUM General Board formally rejected the idea.
Steve Main soon resigned, and took a pastorate in Southwest Yearly Meeting’s territory. A year later, as FUM was preparing for its triennial meeting in New York, Southwest “realigned” itself by leaving FUM.
XIII. The Past We Can’t Yet Get Past
This was not, however, the end of the struggle over who was to define and establish what was authentic Quakerism, and the meaning of Christianity within it. In March, 1992, about the time Main’s resignation became known, FUM held a retreat on “clearness” to prepare a post-“realignment” mission statement for itself. This session was made unforgettable for those who attended by an outburst in the final session.
A pastor from North Carolina, Hugh Spaulding, suddenly rose and announced to the group that he had a message for them direct from the Lord (Fager, AFL #133). The bulk of this purported oracle was as follows:
“God … does not lie.” (Titus 1:2)…
There are two lies that have been proclaimed in the Society of Friends for over 175 years. Those two lies have poisoned the Society of Friends and greatly weakened its power…
The two lies that have poisoned the Society of Friends for over 175 years are these:
One, that you can be a Quaker without believing in Jesus Christ.
Two, that you can be a Quaker without believing in the holy truths delivered by his Spirit in the scriptures.
These two lies have poisoned nearly every yearly meeting in the Society of Friends. These two lies are a major part of the problem that has weakened the power of the Society of Friends including Friends United Meeting.
It is not a matter of interpretation. it is a matter of believing in two lies. The only solution is to break the power of those two lies that have weakened us.
We have to stand up as a Society to those two lies and say to them in the name of Jesus you no longer have power over us…
As a part of the Society of Friends we have permitted these two lies to be proclaimed among us. We must as a Society repent of that sin. Repentance means that not only are we sorry about that sin but we must be committed to not committing that sin any longer…
Although some will feel uncomfortable with this and some will even experience pain we must be obedient to the authentic voice of God.
Will you do it? Will you do it? Will you do it?
In the name of Jesus do you believe it? In the name of Jesus do you believe it? In the name of Jesus do you believe it? (Richmond, Indiana, 3/15/1992.)
When Spaulding reached his rhythmic peroration, many in the room rose and cheered, while others, from the more liberal FUM members bodies, sat in stunned silence or in tears.
This was an important moment. It is significant that there was no eldering or criticism of Spaulding or his statement by the FUM leadership in the session. And its ethos has since become increasingly entrenched in FUM’s once dominant yearly meetings. A cataclysm may have been avoided in 1991; but the pressures for “realignment” would continue into the new century and by 2017 , they were bearing their advocates’ long sought-after fruit: four YMs dividing, shrinking and collapsing.
For the record, not all evangelical discourse on this topic sinks to such displays. But some of the most civil of its spokesmen have expressed sentiments all too similar.
Take for instance, the late Arthur Roberts of George Fox University (in the photo below). Roberts was the dean of evangelical Quaker scholars, and very much a Christian gentleman, who would not descend to the level of a Spaulding.
Nevertheless, a year earlier, in a lengthy article on “Quaker Universalism”, he reached essentially the same conclusions as Spaulding, though he stated them much more politely, almost plaintively:
“Let us not mute the Word God has spoken… In short, don’t start a new religion to encompass all religions and call it Quaker. So I ask persons holding religious universalist doctrines to remain in the worshiping fellowship as seekers, but not as members or leaders.” (Roberts, Quaker Religious Thought #71,1989, p. 16)
Not as members or leaders?
Let us not mute the words Roberts wrote, or pass by their implications. He would thrust most liberal Friends outside the Quaker pale; for that matter, they would also delegitimize their yearly meetings, since clear “universalist” views are enshrined in their books of Faith and Practice (supported, they would contend, by early Quaker documents, a claim Roberts would have spurned).
So the fact is that Roberts’ statement, while different in tone, is of a piece in content with those of Spaulding, Main, Everett Cattell, and hardcore Oregon evangelical Quaker leaders in whose shadow Roberts grew up. Each asserts the exclusive validity of the evangelical model of the church and the illegitimacy of the entire Liberal Quaker project, and has pressed for its exclusion on many occasions.
For those who spearheaded the ongoing breakup of American yearly meetings, these views do not seem to have changed since that troubled summer of 1990; if anything they have hardened, as they also have hardened outside Friends. Thus, I believe, are laid out the essential terms of engagement for Liberal Quakerism, considered as a part of what is sometimes called “the Church Militant.” We are not only living out our own leadings, individually and collectively. It is also up to us to defend the authenticity of our Quaker community, the validity of its traditions and practices, and the value of maintaining it as a distinct witness.
But it would be an exaggeration to leave the impression that “You are heretics and impostors; convert, keep quiet, or get lost,” said sometimes gently and sometimes not, is the only message Christian and evangelical Friends have to say to the rest.
Not at all. There are many such Friends who have views which are much more nuanced, and in some respects even – though they might chafe at the term – liberal.
Francis Hall, a Forgotten Prophet
Francis Hall, a firmly Christian Friend, is an important, but unfortunately forgotten example. In a brave 1973 essay, he turned to the matter of what to do about the increasing acceptance of non-Christians by liberal yearly meetings. He wrote about this for the Faith and Life Movement, the study project that followed the 1970 St. Louis Conference where “realignment” was first floated.
While affirming his own steadfastly Christian faith, Hall lists several aspects of modern history and scholarship which have challenged orthodox confidence and credibility, and concludes,
“I am convinced that these twentieth century developments are just as powerful as barriers to faith in Christ as was the lack of knowledge of the story of Christ in the time of Barclay. I can therefore believe that the universal, saving Light can be working salvation among these modern people who know the history but do not accept it because of one or more of these barriers… If there are Quakers who cannot believe that Jesus is the Christ and yet who show that they have faith in the Divine Light, have experienced, and follow it as fully as they can in their lives, who is to say that they are not truly Quakers?” (Hall, in Quaker Understanding of Christ & Authority, 1973, p.42ff)
Of course, we have seen that there is no shortage of persons who are quite ready to say this, some politely, others not. But Hall, the staunch Christian Quaker, has put the hopeful version of my entire argument in a nutshell.
And in that obscure if elegant nutshell, alas, it seems to be stuck. Surveying our plight now, 27 years later, that upbeat case seem more difficult to make. In the American Quaker world, four yearly meetings have been through internal division over the last decade-plus; the “Realignment” diehards, having bided their time, have now managed in three of the four to get much of what they were after in 1990-1991:
In Indiana, a liberal pastoral meeting was targeted for expulsion over its public welcome to LGBT persons; but when the Indiana leadership made push come to shove, seventeen other meetings joined the exodus. In Northwest, an evangelical YM not part of FUM, several meetings that were either openly welcoming or unwilling to accept an enforced homophobic stance were expelled earlier this year.
In North Carolina, the yearly meeting has been essentially divided in two subgroups, barely linked to a shell of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, which is now to be reduced to little more than a sanctified ATM machine. Its one remaining function will be to dole out payments from the body’s endowment.
And it’s no coincidence that the convenor and spokesman for the North Carolina evangelical putsch is none other than Hugh Spaulding, who seems to have finally attained the objectives he trumpeted in 1973. (In the Name of –Who Was It? – Do You Believe It??)
Only in Western Yearly Meeting, also in Indiana, was a somewhat different outcome managed: there a gang of evangelical hardliners tried for several years to “defrock” and banish pastor Phil Gulley, a popular evangelical writer who publicly turned liberal & universalist in 2003 with his book If Grace Is True. Their purge effort failed (as of this writing, Gulley is still pastor of Fairfield Meeting near Indianapolis, and still liberal & universalist). But several of the rebuffed pastors then took their meetings out of Western and into Indiana YM, where they helped mount the successful putsch there.
In all of these groups, the internal turmoil has had a fearful cost. North Carolina’s membership has dropped more than thirty percent; the “purified” Indiana YM lost eighteen meetings, and retained less than 2000. (For comparison, at its peak, during World War One, Indiana had 20,000 members; down 90 per cent.)
These latest struggles have been chronicled in this blog (search for posts with the keyword “hard-core Quaker”; and in the last ten issues of the journal, Quaker Theology.)
Moreover, among the focal points in these troubles have been the right-wing standbys of anything to do with LGBT, a crusade against abortion, and for a hardline version of the Bible. Amid their manifestoes and mandates, it’s all too easy to detect how much of the agenda involves a rollback of rights and liberties gained by women and others outside the received gender/sexual paradigms — the central achievements of the 20-21st century feminist struggles. The qualifications and protests of Francis Hall and others have unmistakably been sidelined and ignored. Is it any wonder that many women Friends today are feeling a renewed resonance with an ominous tale from the 1980s built around the suppression of women?
In 2017, of course, this actual past has become prologue: outside and surrounding the Society of Friends, all these trends (and many related others) have been supercharged by the earthquakes of November and January. In the thickening swirl of reaction, in this deepening, very present darkness, the specter of Gilead seems ever more visible, and more plausible, if still hazy.
So the producers of the new TV series version of The Handmaid’s Tale could hardly have had better timing; I expect they will gather a large audience. (They’ve already put the book back at #1 on Amazon’s Fiction & Literature Bestseller list.) But while Quakers are sympathetically portrayed as brave resisters in Margaret Atwood’s telling of this story (that’s her above), the reality of our condition is by no means nearly as straightforward, or comforting.
[Much of this post was adapted (& updated) from the book, Without Apology: the Heroes, the Heritage & the Hope of Liberal Quakerism, 1996. And the original 1990 report is online here.]