Indiana Trainwreck: Trauma in Midwestern Quakerdom


It didn’t look or feel like lighting the fuse to a load of dynamite.

But that’s what West Richmond Friends Meeting in Indiana did in June 2008 when they added a minute to their website.

They placed the post without fanfare.  But the fuse, once lit, sputtered and flashed for several years, and the ultimate explosion blew up a yearly meeting that was nearing its 200th anniversary.

A new book, Indiana Trainwreck, is the first to tell the story. West Richmond’s 2008 minute announced that the group had “reached unity” on supporting full inclusion of LGBT persons, concluding to do so was in harmony with their best understanding of the Bible, the thrust of Quaker/Christian history & witness, and the will of God.

News of West Richmond’s minute soon reached the leadership of Indiana Yeatly Meeting, the regional association of which West Richmond was a member. And they soon sent word to the group that they wanted the minute removed from West Richmond’s website.

The meeting pondered this demand, prayed over it, and declined to comply; the minute stayed.

Indiana Yearly Meeting authorities said this was unacceptable.

Beyond the perimeter of Indiana Yearly Meeting, two other Quakers were watching as this standoff took shape: Stephen Angell, Professor of Quakers Studies at the Earlham School of Religion, part of nearby Earlham College; and Chuck Fager in North Carolina, several hundred miles east. Angell and Fager were editors of Quaker Theology, an independent journal founded in 1999.

While news reporting was not the journal’s forte, both Friends saw the unfolding encounter as potentially important, perhaps even historic. It blended news and theology with issues hotly contested in the wider society. And, they noted, no other Quaker publication seemed equipped to, or interested in, covering it. So they started taking notes, and collecting documents.

Over the next five years, what started as a dispute between one meeting and a few officials steadily ballooned into a confrontation that engulfed the entire yearly meeting. Beginning with Quaker Theology’s Issue #18,  Angell and Fager’s work produced a series of reports that are the basis of Indiana Trainwreck, The book is a unique hybrid of preliminary history, provisional theology, and searching investigative reporting.

Indiana Trainwreck should be of value to active Quakers, scholars of religion, and anyone concerned with the fierce cultural/religious conflicts that have so dominated American culture and politics.

Although intensely local, the fuse West Richmond lit set off the first of several explosions across the American Quaker landscape, which echoed in settings far beyond this small denomination.

The issues engaged here included the nature & proper exercise of church authority; What is the  place of the Bible and who is properly charged to interpret it? Which views of the nature and role of Jesus in Christianity are permissible among Friends—and who gets to answer this question? And how important is it to respect distnctive Quaker polity when the place of LGBT persons in the community is at stake?

All these and more questions were debated, and answered (but perhaps not resolved) in Indiana Yearly Meeting, with concrete, traumatic and lasting consequences.

Indiana Trainwreck stands alone in showing how this extended clash changed the religious landscape for Indiana Quakers, and its reverberations continue far beyond its borders, The book is now available in both paperback and Kindle editions.

18 thoughts on “Indiana Trainwreck: Trauma in Midwestern Quakerdom”

  1. It is interesting to me that in the late 60’s when IYM went from Quarterly Meetings to “Regional Meetings” and I was the Clerk of Miami Quarterly Meeting when the QM was “laid down”, I read a statement that was later published in “Quaker Life” as “The Myth of Midwestern Quakerism.” It seemed to me that the “trainwreck” of IYM was developing then. I will be interested to see if some of the impact of the 60’s “movements” within IYM are referenced here.

    1. Glad that the story will be told. This issue causes division in all denominations and the Society with it’s different factions is no exception. It also brought to the surface the long, buried tensions between the factions. My own Meeting in NC left our Yearly Meeting over this issue, and later that YM, that was over 400 years, old dissolved over the issue. One of the beauties of Quakerism is our ability to let love triumph. Blessings to the Meetings who rise up and speak truth to power.

  2. I lived in Muncie and attended the Friends Church there from time to time during the later part of these events (2012-14). I remain gobsmacked that people who call themselves Quakers were in conflict over the membership of LGBTQ people. Membership, not marriage. Astonishing to me to this day.

  3. I am thankful that western Friends (at least in Boulder, Colorado) are more accepting. The MM there reached unity in the 80’s that we would marry a same-sex couple under the care of the meeting (before we were in the area).
    Interesting that it took until we requested a clearness committee in 2008, for an actual wedding took place (we had been together for 24+ years at the time…)

  4. Fantastic!

    Because this trainwreck gets at the heart of Quakerism.

    Are we doctrine-led, or spirit-led?

    Does spirit-led necessarily mean “in the here and now” or can it mean “for all time”?

    Related: is spirit alive or immobile?

    Related: If spirit is alive, is Christocentric Quakerism not a contradiction in terms? Not at the personal level, as spirit leads where spirit leads, but at the spiritual community level.

    1. I consider myself Christocentric and I fully embrace the LGBTQ community and helped write my Meeting’s Minute stating such. It is not an either or issue. We are called to love everyone as Jesus requested. Simple as that.

      1. Sometimes Christocentric and Evangelical/scriptural literalist are confused or conflated. I know many Christocentric Friends who are as influenced by continuing revelation as they are scripture. It’s also worth noting that those who find homo- or alternative sexuality offensive rely on Old Testament passages, not the word(s) of Christ.

      2. Hi Sheila,

        At the personal level, we are led as we are led and it’s all good.

        At the Spiritual Community level, how can we put limits on where Spirit leads? A Christocentric Spiritual Community is a contradiction in terms, if Spirit is to lead where Spirit leads.

  5. Yes, there have been numerous train-wrecks in Quakerism.
    Those would include the recent separation among Quakers in Northwest Yearly Meeting.

    And don’t forget California Yearly Meeting when at the conference most of the Quaker leaders strongly supported nuclear weapons. And our local meeting they hired a fighter pilot!

    That’s when my wife and I left membership for a while.

    And, of course, Chuck, your own article on how some leaders in Indiana were members of the KKK!

  6. We have a similar experience in the NWYM. Several Meetings made similar statements, including Camas Friends Church in Camas, WA. Five Meetings were expelled from NWYM and formed Sierra Cascade Yearly Meeting of Friends.
    Our Quarterly and Yearly Meetings are events of “Joy” not contention and judgment.
    I see it as a matter of Spirit rather then Law.

  7. How can Quakers be sincere but “not Spirit-led”? Friends’ whole MO from the beginning was based on individual leadings, channeled into group consensus. I cannot see how a doctrinal dispute could be otherwise resolved and still be a “Quaker” decision.

  8. Y’all might find it interesting to read about how NCYM – Conservative — which was formed as a result of an earlier dispute regarding where spiritual authority resides — handled the same-sex marriage issue in the early 1990’s. Gwen Gosney Erickson, who currently serves as clerk of NCYM-C, wrote about this in Issue 7 of the Journal of the yearly meeting a few years ago:

    1. Thanks, I didn’t mean to hurry, and I do appreciate all the effort you and Chuck have put into this work.

  9. Wilmington Yearly Meeting is not too far behind what little I know about this tale – I just ran across the book tonight thanks to Chuck. We have lost several meetings in the past year and are now trying to determine what if any role we have to play in the future. I look forward to reading the book and presume I’ll have more to say then.

  10. Where “spiritual authority resides” is a serious issue. It seems to me that very conservative Friends favor an authoritarian model of top-down leadership. Hence the demand that the meeting remove it’s minute from its website, or in the current case in California that the larger church body has the authority to fire the pastor of a constituent church.

    My understanding from reading and practice (I clerked a quarterly meeting of PYM in the mid 90s) is that the monthly meeting, as loving community of faith, is the bedrock source of any such authority.

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