Broken Churches, Broken Nation (Again?)

“History doesn’t repeat,” Mark Twain supposedly said, “but sometimes it rhymes.”

Are the conflicts within so many American churches over LGBTQ and associated issues part of some cruel karmic sonnet?

The Separation Generation’s three volumes approach this question in prose, by chronicling disruptions among five American Yearly Meetings extending roughly from 2011 to 2018 (along with sketches of some precursor struggles). This wave of division was likely the most damaging to Quakerism since the “Great Separation” of 1827.

In a larger cultural/political context, this period roughly parallels the era of the Religious Right, the Tea Party ascendancy among Congressional Republicans, and then a successful insurgent presidential campaign followed by a highly disruptive administration, culminating in a violent insurrection at the Capitol in January 2021.

Also in the background is the 2015 landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-gender marriage nationwide, but did not end the conflicts over that or related issues.

It’s hard to draw direct connections from these notable outside events to the specific disagreements among Quakers. In Quaker worship, Quaker business process and other contexts, we’re supposed to be listening to God speaking through the Light of Christ in each of us. Thus one would (in theory) not necessarily expect to find direct influences from the broader culture, as Quakers seek to commune with and to learn from a God that presumably transcends culture.

That’s the theory. In practice, as we gain more distance from these momentous events, evidence of such broader influences becomes clearer. We eagerly await further insight from Quaker memoirs, scholarly research and blog posts from those who have been most involved in this often difficult and Quaker-world-changing series of events.

Many other, larger U.S. denominations are experiencing parallel conflicts. It was beyond our scope in The Separation Generation to examine these other conflicts in any detail.

But one set of historical parallels we think demands attention, namely with 19th Century churches and the long slide of the United states into civil war. The comparison was set forth by church historian C.C. Goen, in his 1985 book, Broken Churches, Broken Nation (Mercer University Press). In it, Goen argues that …

… it seems plausible to hypothesize that when Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches divided along North-South lines (in the decades before 1861), they severed an important bond of national union; that the forebodings of their leaders and of contemporary observers regarding the probability of disastrous political consequences were well founded; and that the denominational schisms, as irreversible steps along the nation’s tortuous course to violence, were both portent and catalyst of the imminent national tragedy. (p. 6)

C. C. Goen, longtime professor of church history at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC.

It’s worth noting that antebellum American Quakers were partly an exception to this trend. They were unified in their abhorrence of slavery and did not divide on a sectional basis.

However, while all Friends deplored slavery’s existence, they differed sharply, and often divided over what to do about it.

Isaac Hopper, a Faithful New York Friend from the mid-1800s; disowned for being an abolitionist.

Further, in those years, the Society of Friends, contrary to the comforting myths that many today believe,  was by no means an internally equalitarian body. Yearly meetings, through elders and ministers, had authority over “inferior” local meetings and Friends, and they were not afraid to use it. When it came to slavery, these “superior bodies” were against it — but they were also vigorously against abolitionism.

Many individual Friends were disowned or badgered into resigning for abolitionist statements or activism. (One very distinguished Friend thus victimized was Isaac Hopper; his biography is online here.) Several local meetings, and at least two quarterly meetings were laid down (aka, abolished) for such sympathies, and one entire yearly meeting, Indiana Orthodox,  split in two for about a decade over it. (A fuller picture of this lengthy internal conflict,  which I call The Great Purge, is in my book,  Remaking Friends.)

The “Establishment” view among most “weighty” Friends, was that the work of ending slavery should be left “in God’s hands.” They deplored abolitionist activism as promoting lawbreaking (helping escaping enslaved persons via the Underground Railroad was illegal in most states). They also said the movement was nurturing the seeds of war (a judgment, seen in retrospect,  not entirely mistaken). In these intra-Quaker conflicts over what (or what not) to do can be discerned the roots of much of the movement’s modern diversity.)

A long, urgent epistle issued in 1842 by the Elders of Baltimore Yearly Meeting (Hicksite” –the “liberal Friends” of that day) is typical, and sums up this Establishment outlook very well (The full text is in Angels of Progress, pp. 58-64):

A deep solicitude was also felt that may all [Friends], in an especial manner, avoid involving ourselves with the associations that have sprung up around us, for the avowed purpose of promoting the Abolition of Slavery in our country, by political or other means of a coercive nature, devised in the wisdom and contrivance of man. . . .

In extending this caution to our members, this Meeting feels no abatement of its concern for the advancement and prosperity of our well known testimony against slavery. . . .

The Society of Friends, in thus taking up a testimony against slavery, publicly and openly, did not desire to invade the privileges of their neighbors, nor in any way improperly to interfere with them.

With us it was purely a religious concern, unconnected with any political or temporal consideration; and valuing above all earthly privileges the inestimable blessing, of liberty to act freely, according to the dictates of DIVINE LIGHT, the Society felt no disposition to invade the sacred right of others to the same enjoyment. . . .

“May we therefore, beloved Friends, retire to the Divine Gift within ourselves . . . . May we study to be quiet, and mind our own business; and may we carefully avoid putting forth our hands to a work, to which we have not been divinely called, least like one formerly, we bring death upon ourselves, and be the means of bringing destruction upon others.” (Emphasis added.)

To be sure, there are big differences between then and now: our current conflicts cannot all be subsumed into one overarching issue such as chattel slavery; nor are the dividing lines clearly regional, North vs. South, though these categories are still somewhat meaningful.

Moreover, the churches Goen named are much less influential in society today, than they at least thought themselves to be then. Further, many scholars and pundits have insisted that despite current turmoil, the U.S. is not nearing a new civil war. (E.g., “Americans hate each other. But we aren’t headed for civil war.” Richard Hanania, in The Washington Post.)

But Hanania wrote  before January 6, 2021. It was also before the new president vowed to find some way to end an “uncivil war” which he spoke of as already well underway. These and other shocks, have not ended this debate, but have sobered it considerably. A prominent Mississippi pastor, Rick Joyner, expressed a different view on a widely-reported March 2021 TV appearance:

“It will be a civil war and it’s going to be increasingly worse with the increasing time it takes for Americans to stand up and push back against this evil that has taken over our land,” Joyner said on . . .  The Jim Bakker Show. “You know, there’s a time for peace and a time for war it says in [the Biblical Book of] Ecclesiastes, well, we’re not headed towards peace right now, we’re headed towards conflict of war. And we need to prepare for it. We need to put out the word that people need to be prepared.”

Fortunately, 2020’s presidential election was a major shock to most rightwing self-described “Christian prophets.” Yet the question remains: are the conflicts examined in The Separation Generation a microscopic part of, or contributing to, prospects for “disastrous political consequences” in our society at large?

In The Separation Generation series, we avoided prognosticating, deferring to the renowned baseball seer Yogi Berra’s maxim that “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” That’s not least because we don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else, that is to say, essentially nothing. Besides which, it is hard enough to make sense of what has already happened in the five beleaguered and often battered Quaker groups we have looked at.

But Goen’s book (which is usefully summarized in this online article) offers another sobering observation here:

The significant point here, with enormous implications for the secession crisis of 1860-1861, is that it was in the churches that Southerners first acted to free themselves from “the oppressive jurisdiction of the majority of the North” by the simple expedient of seceding.  As the crisis grew, there was a striking congruency between earlier arguments for splitting the churches and those for breaking the federal Union. (Goen, p. 113)

In our first volume, Indiana Trainwreck, we noted the lament of Allen Jay, a 19th-early 20thCentury Friend (a biographical sketch is here) who had the unhappy opportunity to observe numerous earlier schisms and their aftermath. It’s worth repeating some of what he wrote, after visiting Nantucket Island, where rampant divisions among Friends hastened the collapse of a once thriving and prosperous Quaker hub:

The old meeting-house where I preached many years before is now occupied by the Nantucket Historical Association, and there you can sit and study the history of Friends when they held control of the island and there was no other denomination there. . . . You sit down and wonder if their descendants have learned wisdom from their fathers. Have they learned the great truth that, “Separation is no cure for the evils of Church or State?”. …

Now, as I hold my pen and look around my desk, I need only to reach out and turn over the pages of some of our church periodicals and see that the controversy is still going on. The fire of persecution is still burning. If someone is proclaimed a heretic, there are those who are ready to throw the wood on the fire, and all in the name of the meek and lowly Jesus.

Then comes the question: “How long shall these things continue?” The answer from those who judge is “Until everybody believes as we do. We are right. God has chosen us to stand for the faith once delivered to the saints.” Such are their actions, though they do not dare to put them into words.

But I have said enough to give my views on separation. … On the other hand, some of us who have been connected with families in which husbands and wives, brothers and sisters have been arrayed against each other, know something of the bitterness that it engenders which lasts to this day. Someone says: “We must come out and be separate from sinners.” “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.”  

One could argue The Separation Generation documents and confirms the relevance of Allen Jay’s views. As Jay also noted,

During that separation in Nantucket, a dear Friend who passed through it said sadly: “I have seen men of natural kindness and tenderness become hard-hearted and severe. I have seen justice turned back and mercy led aside.”

Allen Jay and C. C. Goen seemed to look over our shoulder as we compiled and edited these books. They provide the first detailed report on this period.  They are a unique record which makes clear that, like it or not, American Friends, like so many others, are affected by larger currents of cultural and political polarization.

How do Quakers understand what has happened? Is our history “rhyming” with those of earlier, turbulent eras? How do we bear fruitful witness in this swirl? How to navigate and survive it? Can we?

The Separation Generation:

Indiana Trainwreck, here
Murder at Quaker Lake here
Shattered By The Light, here

One thought on “Broken Churches, Broken Nation (Again?)”

  1. Thanks, this is very interesting history which I was largely unaware of.

    Someone from whom I’ve learned quite a bit about energy politics as a major cause of modern wars raised the question (about four years ago) about where civil rights might be today if the civil war had not been fought.
    It’s not easy to argue today for postponing abolition, but 19th century Friends “weren’t entirely mistaken”

    Less pressing than slavery or marriage equalilty – I just read that Faith and Practice of Brittain Yearly Meeting is for sale through Amazon and now I see Amazon links on this page. Could Friends perhaps seek to support less preditory business models than that of Amazon?

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