Category Archives: Quaker History

Un-Happy Anniversary, Friends

Four years ago today, Eighth Month 5, 2017, some Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM) got their wish:

They got rid of the “liberals” in the body.

Out went New Garden Meeting in Greensboro; Jamestown just south of there; Greensboro First Friends; and even tiny Spring Meeting, in the pastures and woods of south Alamance County, where I attend (or used to, in the Good Old pre-Zoom Days); and a few others.

Of course, there was a price:  namely, they had to destroy the yearly meeting to “save” it.

It took awhile for them to realize this. Three years altogether. Beginning in the summer of 2014, they had tried to force the “liberals” out. “Surgery” they called it, regrettable, but necessary to stop the spread of a deadly disease. Anesthetics? Strictly optional. Continue reading Un-Happy Anniversary, Friends

Shaggy Locks & Birkenstocks: wandering through recent Quaker history

This small 2003 collection of essays, now alas out of print,  had its origins in two incidents, somewhat related, and which also turned out to be the start of something bigger, at least for me.

In the first, I proposed to the Publications Committee of   Friends General Conference (FGC), the “liberal” association of U. S. & Canadian Friends, in 1993 that it sponsor a centennial history of the body and the religious movement  it  represented, looking toward the centennial of FGC’s founding,  set for 2000. The proposal envisioned a team effort, like the one underway in New York Yearly Meeting, which was to produce their fine history, Quaker Cross-Currents (Syracuse University Press), two years later.

The proposal was not simply turned down flat; it was met with  general incomprehension: Why, I was asked, would we want to do that? Continue reading Shaggy Locks & Birkenstocks: wandering through recent Quaker history

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. Continue reading Broken Churches, Broken Nation (Again?)

Breaking! OMG — Friends David Zarembka & Wife Gladys Kamonya Dead of Covid

This is a developing story. Watch for Updates.

I’m stunned.

I just learned that David Zarembka, aged 77,  a very distinguished Friend from Baltimore Yearly meeting, who lived for more than a decade among Friends in Kenya, and his wife Gladys Kamonya, 73 have both succumbed to Covid. Both passed in Eldoret Kenya. Gladys Kamonya died on March  23, 2021;  David  died on April 1.

Below is his autobiographical sketch published in the book Passing The Torch. More to follow:

David Zarembka, in his own words: From Passing the Torch

I find the world an extremely interesting place and I participate in as many aspects of it that I can. Conversely, I don’t find myself very interesting at all and therefore don’t often write much about my life’s 76 year journey. This article therefore is a major exception.

In order to understand where I ended up, I have to explain where I came from. Although it might seem that my life has been unconventional, it really hasn’t been when one considers where I came from and how I grew up.

My paternal great-grandfather, Mathias Zarembka, came from then Russian-occupied Poland to the United States to work. Those were the good, ole days in the late 19th century when people could just come and go. He stayed in the US for seven years and then went back. He had seven children, six of whom immigrated to the US, while only one remained in Poland. My grandfather, Frank Zarembka, immigrated to the US in March/April 1914.

If he had waited a few months longer, the guns of August which started World War I would have begun, and he probably would have been drafted into the Russian army where the ill-equipped and untrained Polish soldiers were mowed down by the Germans. He left behind my grandmother, Lotti Wilant (notice the German name although she knew of no connection to Germany), and my one-year old father, Richard Zarembka. They were not able to immigrate to the US until 1921 when the family reunification act was passed in the United States. They lived in St. Louis in the Polish section of town. My grandfather worked for St. Louis Coal and Ice and pulled ice from the ground to be cut up in blocks to be put in iceboxes. Even when I knew him as a child, he was physically very strong.

My maternal grandfather was Ernest Elmer Colvin. He was a newspaper man. My Mom, Helen Jane Colvin Zarembka, was a great family storyteller so I have lots of old stories. My grandmother was so worried about my grandfather when the Associated Press in St. Louis assigned him to cover the 1919 so-called “race riots” in East St. Louis – it was actually just a massacre of what were then called Negroes. When he retired around 1954, he was copy editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. My maternal grandmother, Flora Scott Colvin, died even before my parents were married. She had grown up in Kansas City where my grandparents met. She and her sister, Fanny, started the first kindergarten in Kansas City. Each morning they would hitch up the horse and pick up the kids for school – something that women were not supposed in those old days. So, my roots run deep. Continue reading Breaking! OMG — Friends David Zarembka & Wife Gladys Kamonya Dead of Covid

Is This The End of the Separation Generation?

Is it over?

Has The Separation Generation finished dividing U. S. Quakers?

Yes and no.

Yes, in a publishing sense: Book Three, the last of The Separation Generation series, is now done and available: Shattered By the Light; or The Ruins and the Green.

In Shattered by the Light, parallel conflicts over sexuality, the Bible and church governance erupt in and tear apart two Quaker associations half a continent apart.

Their stories, of Northwest Yearly Meeting in  the Pacific Northwest and Wilmington Yearly Meeting in the southern Midwest, are part of a larger wave of divisions that echo and illumine recent struggles in numerous other churches, and in American culture at large.

The Separation Generation series brings together reports and related documents about five such conflicts, all distinct but related, that have disrupted U. S. Quaker groups since the beginning of this century. The other two titles will be described in future posts.

Has this wave of schism and institutional destruction, the broadest divisions since the “Great Separation” of 1827, now crested and receded? We think this particular set may have, but are very hesitant about predicting the future. Yet certainly struggles over related religious issues are not finished in contemporary U.S. culture. Far from it.

The conflicts recounted here were sparked by confrontations over acceptance of LGBT persons and same sex marriage. But they included differences about the place and interpretation of the Bible, the nature of Christ and salvation, church structure and governance, and more mundane matters of money, property and jobs. Some took years to reach their conclusion.

The authors in Shattered By The Light began the work which culminated in the book in 2014. It started as articles in the journal Quaker Theology, and blog posts on this site. It culminated in a unique synthesis (or as some say, a remix) of journalism, history and theology. This series is the only published record of these divisions so far; we see it not as a definitive account, more as the beginning of study, reconsideration, and learning .

What about the title?

“Shattered” was a “term of art” in the breakup of one of the yearly meetings in the book. As the drama played out, the word, like many such, took on more unexpected layers of nuance and irony. This evolution continues.

“The Ruins & the Grass,” was both suggested by the cover photo that appealed to the editor, and a once-famous poem by Carl Sandburg. The struggles in the third book, like all those in the series, left much of their Quaker environment in ruins. At the same time, around these there are at least patches of grass, green with growth. What these green patches may grow into and become — who can say? But there’s plenty of fodder here for study and creative reflection.

Coauthors:

Stephen Angell is the Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion, author of many studies in church and Quaker history.

Chuck Fager is Editor of Quaker Theology, and a longtime journalist with special interest in both current Quaker events and Friends history.

Jade Souza is a graduate student at Earlham School of Religion, and has years of varied experience as an organizer.

And for the record, these three produced this volume, and The Separation Generation series, independent of any institutional connections, and their work speaks for itself.

This book and the series offer both a unique historical record and a singular resource for those concerned with the course of contemporary religious evolution and controversy, which continues and reverberates far beyond the bounds of one small denomination.

This excerpt from the conclusion of Shattered By The Light offers a reflection on the sweep and impact of the struggles this series has followed:

On screen, the January 2021 presidential inauguration was all appropriate pomp and circumstance: high officials on every hand, soaring rhetoric, striking singing and poetry, prescribed oaths, and a multitude of flags. It went off without a hitch.

But if the cameras pulled back, or widened their lens-angles beyond the west Capitol steps, resplendent in the chilly morning sunshine, a very different scene appeared: an occupied city, with 25,000 carefully-vetted National Guard troops deployed, fully armed, watching every street corner. They formed an impenetrable cordon around what had been turned into a (hopefully temporary) equivalent of Baghdad’s Green Zone. This broader vista showed a city that looked like it had foiled an attempted coup, barely.

Oh, wait ― that’s exactly what it was.

Does this daunting political tableau have anything to do with Quaker strife in Wilmington or Northwest Yearly Meetings? Or any of the other Quaker stories in The Separation Generation series?

We think so. It was, in its larger public setting, a more ominous manifestation of many of the same conflicts that brought all the five divisions about. We will not delve into the present political context here, except to note that in general, evangelicals (and conservative Catholics) have clustered on one side, while “progressives” of numerous denominations (and none) are on the other. And that LGBTQ affirmation was a major, ongoing point of contention in both, plus struggles over biblical interpretation, other Christian doctrines, and forms of legitimate church governance.

These parallels are mirrored in other American denominations, much larger than the Religious Society of Friends: Episcopalians Methodists, Mennonites, Lutherans and Baptists have all faced schisms on similar issues in this century . . . .

The Separation Generation was compiled and published as a resource for Friends and others concerned with these issues, and their present and future import for our meetings, churches, and larger social order.

Indiana Trainwreck, here

Murder at Quaker Lake here

Shattered By The Light, here

Another Quiet Day at Spring Friends Meeting (not really)

If you drove west on the Chapel Hill-Greensboro Road through Snow Camp, North Carolina on Sunday, November 1, 2020, at about eleven AM, you would have passed a white chapel-looking building on your left. A few cars were parked outside, on the grass under the big old trees, which are shedding their wrinkled brown leaves after a hot green summer.

That was Spring Friends Meeting. From the outside, it looked quiet, secluded, and almost deserted. Easy to miss amid the wooded stretches and dairy farms of southern Alamance county.

But inside, it was none of those. Yes, just a handful of Quakers, or Friends, were sitting, widely-spaced and mostly masked, on its long benches. And they weren’t loud. But a lot was going on.

Pepper spray and guns will do that: liven up what’s meant to be a mostly silent meeting. As will being in national headlines. Continue reading Another Quiet Day at Spring Friends Meeting (not really)

Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

Today (August 19) is Frank McCourt’s birthday. McCourt was the great memoirist best known for his book, Angela’s Ashes, which won just about every prize it could get, sold boatloads, and kicked off the rush to write memoirs, which I confess I have even joined in myself a couple of times.

I was reminded of the date by Garrison Keillor, in his Writer’s Almanac, which I get by email.  But Garrison did not remind me of my favorite passage from McCourt’s masterwork; I found that myself some while ago, and have kept it handy for just such an occasion as this. Continue reading Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

“Quaking Over Gay Rights” — Kicked in The Head in Wichita

Intro:

Here’s a report written in 1977 (on a typewriter; imagine!), just after the Wichita Conference of Friends in the Americas in late June 1977. The gathering included all the branches, and it was when the issue of LG Friends (BT&Qs weren’t listed yet) burst onto the national Quaker agenda, where it has stayed ever since.

I didn’t go there to cover the event.  As a rookie attending his first ever national Quaker event, I wanted more to socialize than do journalistic work. I had saved up to pay the fees and busfare, to avoid work-related distractions.

I should have known better.

Anita Bryant with posters from her successful effort to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida. The repeal was a big success, passing by a large margin just days before the Wichita conference began. But despite the national notoriety it brought her, Bryant’s career soon went into a terminal decline.

1977 was the year for articles on gay rights controversies:  Miami-Dade County, Florida adopted a pioneering gay rights ordinance, which sparked a widely reported repeal crusade led by singer and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant.

None of this was on the official agenda at Wichita when I rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor of the gymnasium at Friends University, where we low-budget attenders did our best to sleep. (That’s  also where I got kicked in the head a couple times in the dark, presumably by accident.)

But the conference agenda was soon rewritten, and so was mine. Continue reading “Quaking Over Gay Rights” — Kicked in The Head in Wichita

Lucretia Mott’s Quaker Easter Message, Still Good the Day After

Some years ago, a Friend who was much taken with what she believed was Quakerism’s essential, and defining character as a kind of mysticism, approached me. Knowing of my admiration for Lucretia mott, she asked if she should add Lucretia to her list of the great Quaker mystics.

Nope. Quite the contrary, I told her. In truth, Lucretia would in fact all-but head the list of the great anti-mystics of Quaker history. And as Lucretia’s motto was, “Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth,” it would be untruthful say otherwise.

I don’t know what happened to that Friend’s list. But before all the folderol and sugar high of Easter weekend dissipates, it may be worth taking a few moments to consider Lucretia’s convictions on the seasonal fanfare. Continue reading Lucretia Mott’s Quaker Easter Message, Still Good the Day After

Quaker Theology: Weaponizing “Quaker Process”

What accounts for the wave of schisms we at Quaker Theology have been chronicling since 2010 & dubbed “The Separation Generation”? And what could be done about it? In our 20th Anniversary issue of Quaker Theology, we began to raise these questions in a survey of the carnage inflicted by these disruptions.

Doug Bennett, former president of Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana.

Doug Bennett, a former president of Earlham College and a savvy Friend, provides one of the key clues.

While at Earlham he was a member of an Indiana  meeting which went through the purge of 2011-12. Afterward,  he reflected delicately on what had happened in a blog post from  September 7, 2012:

“Schisms require some governance fiddle.

My earliest wondering about schisms was about how they could ever occur given Friends governance practices, our commitment to acting in unity through attending to our business in worship.  If we have to act in unity, how can we divide?

I think the answer must be that somewhere, somehow in each schism there has been some forcing, some deviation from our best governance practices. We have divided by not finding unity – or declaring  ‘unity’ when there was none.”

Our reporting on these recent crackups persuades me that Bennett is basically right, and his insight here is a very important one. Still, I have some quibbles.

My first quibble is that his post falls short of the Friends aspiration to “plain speaking.” That is, “Fiddle” is a woefully insufficient word to describe much of what happened. “Cheating” is plainer, thus more accurate. Chicanery, duplicity and treachery are apt corollaries. 

In some of these recent cases, particularly Indiana and Northwest yes, the fiddlers/cheaters got their way. In North Carolina, Western &  Wilmington YMs, they faced pushback, and the “fiddles” didn’t work out as planned. In our culture today, it’s a pushback world. 

So that’s another quibble with Bennett. Cheating,  if identified and faced, can be stopped, or at least blunted; but besides calling a treacherous spade a corrupt shovel, a meaningful response requires courage. Speaking truth to power, carrying the cross, and all that. Or, in pietist argot, “spiritual combat.”

Western Yearly Meeting was graced with a Clerk who spoke and was “valiant for the truth” about the body, which was that there was nothing close to the demanded “unity” to banish Phil Gulley, notwithstanding the scheming of a vocal pastoral faction. Hence Western got through its ordeal, though in a wounded, reduced state. Wilmington likewise.

On the other hand, Northwest’s powers, operating in a culture of extreme secrecy that could teach the CIA some lessons, struck like nighttime lightning. In North Carolina, the oldest of the five, the conflict was particularly ugly, and the only way the cheaters could succeed was by treachery and ultimately an act of utter, shocking self-destruction.

A final caveat, not really a quibble, is that Bennett’s trenchant observation calls for, but hasn’t received, more attention.

What is to be done about leadership and factional cheating and malpractice? About weaponizing “Quaker process”?

From the jump such malpractice requires the intentional undermining of the discipline more familiarly known as “Quaker process.” Many Quakers, especially convinced Friends escaped from openly authoritarian churches, can become quite sentimental about this. But such sentimentality can easily facilitate victimization. 

How do we identify and call out such maneuvers, not in histories composed long afterward, but as they unfold?

In conventional “Roberts Rules” proceedings, there are at least the beginning of such tools: motions to appeal from the ruling of the chair; motions to delay, etc. To be sure, such rules are also vulnerable; anyone watching the U.S. Congress can see that. But at the least, truth can usually be spoken, and find a place in the record. Friends do not seem to have much of a counterpart.

Another widespread weakness is what I call the Quaker Doormat Syndrome; others have named it the Curse of Quaker Niceness: a carefully-prepared faction makes strident demands; too many others then simply roll over and let themselves be trampled. This is part introversion wanting peace and quiet–Quaker Process seen as a warm fuzzy security blanket; part a conflict avoidance reflex by those who have faced abuse or major trauma; and part plain old fear, even panic. 

We don’t have a settled prescription for dealing with this disorder. But I contend that to start with, Friends need to follow Doug Bennett’s example, speak its name and begin to face up to it. Serious grappling, intellectual, historical, and spiritual, is called for.

So thanks again to Doug Bennett for surfacing this malady. Although it’s been rampant in The Separation Generation, it is nothing new, in Friends or Christian history.
And it’s not always successful. We can push back. And the first push is not to ignore it or accept it passively.