Willie Frye & “What Goes Around Comes Around” in NC Quakerdom
It was a profound but uncredentialed and unknown theologian who came up with this telling proposition: “What Goes Around Comes Around.”
This thesis has been repeatedly confirmed in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM), but in very unhappy ways. Currently it has produced a proposal to “divide” the YM, in order to purge it of some meetings that some powerful groups regard as heretical.
Few have described this pattern of recurring religious pathology better than the late Willie Frye, a longtime NCYM pastor, in a 1994 presentation to the YM. Willie’s statement dealt with several distinct topics. For NCYM, and those who are observing its agony, one of the most important parts has to do with how NCYM has been influenced by the religious movement known as Wesleyanism. Many NCYM pastors have come to the yearly meeting from very similar backgrounds.
Willie knew Wesleyanism well; his own early career as a Quaker pastor embodied it, and traced an evolution out of it. His story is of present relevance because others with similar backgrounds and outlook are driving NCYM’s present divisive struggles.
Here we will only sample Willie’s description and “confession” (in the theological sense of that term); I hope this will induce you to read the complete text to gain the full import of his insights.
But first, his preamble. Willie said:
“It seems somehow odd to be on trial for heresy within the Society of Friends, when Quakerism itself was born amid charges of heresy. It is not surprising that, in Puritan England, a group that rejected creeds, depended on the guidance of the Spirit, believed in the Inner Light, taught the equality of all people, advocated a universal priesthood, and allowed for diversity of individual religious experience would be suspect. It seems almost bizarre now, however, to be put on trial for believing these very articles of faith on which the Society of Friends was founded and for which Fox and other suffered so much.”
It is indeed odd and bizarre for such de facto heresy proceedings to be taking place in a Quaker body. For that matter, it represents a major departure from John Wesley’s own views: as shown in this earlier post, Wesley himself preached tolerance to his followers, both within and between churches and religions. But some in his tradition have turned his legacy into a form of repressive fundamentalism.)
However, heresy proceedings are exactly what were demanded for Willie, and again this year by the Yadkin Quarter letter, quoted and included with a previous blog post, though it was aimed at purging whole meetings rather than an individual. Moreover, neither the current insurgency, nor the one Willie faced in 1992-1993, were the first of the kind in either NCYM, or in other American Quaker groups, as he pointed out from his own experience.
Nevertheless, Willie undertook to respond to the charges against him in an orderly, historically informed way. To do so, he described his own background and religious pilgrimage, from a fundamentalist Wesleyan background to something else. Let’s hear some of what he explained:
“As a child, I attended a Christian Church, a Pentecostal Church, a Baptist Church, and an independent Methodist church; but at the age of 14, I became a member of Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends, now known as Eastern Region Friends Church. It is important to note here that, since the days of [Quaker turned successful fundamentalist Wesleyan evangelist] David D. Updegraff over 100 years ago, Ohio Yearly Meeting has become generally Wesleyan both in doctrine and in practice.
“This is a factor which is very significant, not only in my own pilgrimage, but in current developments in our Yearly Meeting. If you want to review the influence of Wesleyanism on Quakerism, particularly in Ohio, Indiana, Western, Iowa, and Kansas Yearly Meetings, I refer you to Elbert Russell’s History of Quakerism, beginning on Page 421.
“While growing up, I attended my share of revival meetings and, as a teenager, I also attended John Wesley Camp meeting every summer. Three of my siblings attended Cleveland Bible College or Malone College and one is a graduate of Asbury College [all strongly conservative Wesleyan schools]. I myself am a graduate of John Wesley College [NOTE: Now called Laurel University, in High Point NC] and Guilford College. When I was recruited by Seth Hinshaw and accepted a pastorate at White Plains Meeting [in Mt. Airy NC] in 1953, I sensed immediately that this Yearly Meeting was different from the Wesleyan environment of Ohio Yearly Meeting. I was very doctrine oriented. Consequently, one of the first things I did was to read Faith and Practice very carefully for doctrinal content.
“I had no problem with sections such as the Richmond Declaration of Faith which was largely written from a Wesleyan perspective–“
[NOTE: The Richmond Declaration was drafted by a conference of Orthodox yearly Meetings in Richmond, Indiana in 1887. It has been very controversial among many Friends. The full text is here; a critical analysis of the Declaration is here.]
“– but I did have problems with some other passages. By reading Faith and Practice through the prism of my Wesleyanism, however, I was able to place an interpretation on it which I could accept.
“Of course, that did require me: either to ignore or to touch lightly upon certain passages which were uniquely Quaker, but I succeeded in forcing Faith and Practice into a mold conforming to Ohio Yearly Meeting Wesleyanism. I remember that Seth Hinshaw asked me if I thought I could fit into North Carolina Yearly Meeting. My response was rather arrogant as I look back on it now. I said, “Yes, I think I can, but North Carolina Yearly Meeting is not as spiritual as Ohio Yearly Meeting.
“Recently, a young man who knew that this was my background asked me in bewilderment: “How did you get where you are?” He was alluding to my present theological position. . . .”
NOTE: Willie then outlined how he came to reconsider his Wesleyan stance, and moved through a personal religious crisis to what he believed to be a more authentically Quaker conviction. Read the statement for this very cogent discussion.
Yet he was not finished. Willie also argued that these issues were being put to the service of other interests and agendas, mostly growing out of a fundamentalist Wesleyan base, and he rejected the entire underlying dynamic:
“Would it not be more proper to direct our energies toward dealing with issues than toward dealing in personalities? And if we are going to deal with the issues, what are those issues?
“Some seem to think that the issue is Willie Frye and that if he can be removed from office and expelled from the Yearly Meeting our problems will be resolved. Some say that the issue is Homosexuality and the New Age Movement and that if we could unite in condemning them we would have peace.
“I would like to suggest that there is a far more basic issue, one that places us at a crossroad as a Yearly Meeting, and that crucial issue is whether this Yearly Meeting will be a Quaker Yearly Meeting or a Wesleyan Church.
“There appear to be those among us who would like to adopt the beliefs, practices, and government of Eastern Region Friends Church. They appear to want a church with a creed, with the Scripture as the authority rather than the Spirit, with a ruling hierarchy, with sacraments, perhaps, and all the other trappings of a doctrinaire faith.
“As basic as that issue is, however, do we not have one that is even more basic? What about the issue of power, of control? Is there not a large measure of ego involved and in the final analysis, is not this entire conflict over who is going to control the Yearly Meeting? Is not our sin the sin of pride? Human as we are, we often resort to using issues only to inflame and polarize people and to gain their support.
“We do so much which we pretend is for the cause of Christ when, in fact, it is for our own cause. I cannot believe that the anger, the hatred, the accusations, the destruction of reputation that has been done is for the cause of Christ as we claim it is for it denies his very spirit. It appears that the real issue is power and if it is, then we are not engaged in spiritual warfare as some have claimed. We are engaged in a power struggle fueled by ego.
“This is not the first time I have seen an attempt to take control of the Yearly Meeting or to split it over supposed doctrinal issues. I had been in the Yearly Meeting only a short time when I was approached at Quaker Lake by another young minister with the proposition that we split the Yearly Meeting and pull out what he considered to be the doctrinally sound meetings.
“Although I was still a Wesleyan at that point and very much in sympathy with his theology, I quickly said, “No, I cannot do that. I cannot come into a Yearly Meeting, accept its benefits, share in its fellowship, and be disloyal to it, or do it harm.” If I had agreed to participate in such a movement as he suggested, the first casualty would have been my own integrity.
“I had only two choices: to stay in the Yearly Meeting and support it; or to leave it quietly without hurting it. To accept its hospitality, its benefits, its money, and do it harm would have been dishonest. So I stayed and supported the Yearly Meeting and learned to appreciate it and to feel that I had indeed found my spiritual home.
“Perhaps every minister that comes into this yearly meeting ought to be required to sign the Hippocratic Oath which Doctors take. It begins with the words, “First, do no harm.” We ministers have an obligation to heal rather than harm. To come into a Yearly Meeting and sow discord, distrust, and disunity is a grave matter; in fact, it is a sin.
“It is my hope that we can bring healing to the Yearly Meeting; that we can begin to discuss issues without attacking persons; that we can restore decorum to our meetings; that we can find once again the love of Christ which has been lost; that North Carolina Yearly Meeting can once again have a uniquely Quaker heritage that can be valued and appreciated; that we can return to a yearly meeting of wide diversity but with an overall respect and love for one another.
“Can we not live together in peace without having to coerce one another into accepting our belief? I realize that many conscientiously believe that homosexuality is a sin. I have no problem with that, but I am a person of conscience also. I am willing to allow you to follow your conscience but I ask you, do not ask me to violate mine.
“On matters of conscience, George Fox set the standard for all Friends when he said to William Penn concerning his sword, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Thus, we have a model for approaching any issue of conscience. The answer is not in coercion but in trusting each individual to arrive at his own leading through the guidance of the Spirit.
“This is the basis for our use of queries rather than dogmatic statements. Can we not allow one another the same freedom that Fox allowed Penn on this matter of conscience? And can we not trust God to speak to others inwardly rather than assume that we must speak for him? Can we not hold one another in the light and trust the wisdom and power of God’s Spirit? I appeal to you in the name of Christ that we commit ourselves to the Quaker process so that through listening to one another and to God’s Spirit we may find the way of peace.”
I hope these excerpts suggest how much keen insight can be gleaned from Willie’s 1994 statement into the plight of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, not only then but, unfortunately still today, 22 years later: “What Goes Around” here “comes around,” and Willie Frye prophetically shows that it has done so.
I commend his text to readers near and far who want to understand better what is convulsing the body. Willie diagnosed the dis-ease acutely. He also pointed toward remedies that were, and still are within reach, but which unfortunately have not yet been grasped.