Making Sense of “The Separation Generation” Among Quakers

How can we understand the wave of schisms and breakups described in The Separation Generation three-volume set? How did it come about? Where will it lead?

Phil Gulley

Looking back, we could say it all started with Phil Gulley, the pastor of Fairfield Friends near Indianapolis. In 2003, he published a book, If Grace Is True, which espoused a Universalist theology of salvation. In response, some theologically very conservative pastors tried to get him run out of his church and the Quaker community. This theological witchhunt dragged on and on.

In those days, I (Chuck Fager) was publishing a twice-yearly journal called Quaker Theology, and in its Issue #9 I reviewed Gulley’s book. I liked it well enough, though at times his universalist image of a crowded heaven put me in mind of Mark Twain’s wry comment that he preferred: “Heaven for the climate; hell for the company.”

By the time the review got into print, Gulley’s situation was more than theological. It was also news, at least in the Quaker world: some yearly meetings were banning his titles from their book tables, and an Indiana pastors committee was still breathing down his neck.

The controversy seesawed back and forth. Finally, the witchhunt pastors lost; Gulley stayed put. (He’s still at Fairfield in 2021, last I heard, and still publishing.)

But that wasn’t really the end. When Gulley was vindicated, several of the dissident pastors got their churches to quit Western Yearly Meeting and move over to Indiana Yearly Meeting next door; and they brought their heresy-sniffing bloodhounds with them.

Soon enough they had another target: not a universalist pastor, but a whole meeting, West Richmond (near Earlham College) which in 2008 announced to the world that a long spell of Bible study and prayerful discernment had led then to affirm and welcome LGBTQ folks.

Chuck Fager, at work.

So Bang! At Quaker Theology, we had another theological issue that was also news. And shortly, there was another, and then another. I needed help to keep up, which is where Steve Angell and Jade Souza (now Jade Rockwell) came in.

The rest is, if not yet settled history, after almost 18 years of intermittent labor, a unique blend of careful reporting, on-the-fly theologizing, and now The Separation Generation, the only published record of the biggest wave of Quaker splits in almost 200 years.

(You can see the three coauthors live and ask questions on Thursday, November 11 at 4 PM EST: in person at Earlham School of Religion, or by Zoom, and later on the ESR website. To get the Zoom link, register at this link:   bit.ly/3k6eDBZ )

To whet your appetites, let’s hear a bit from the other coauthors:

Steve Angell, Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at ESR, with another theological work.

Steve Angell: How can these events best be characterized? A few of the metaphors found their way into our three titles: trainwreck; murder; shattering. Given the events we described, the books sometimes go further:  in Shattered by the Light, I  recalled being asked in 2016 to lead the Board of Advisors of Earlham School of Religion to consider  the ongoing “decline or dissolution” of major parts of the Society of Friends.

Of the new Yearly Meetings that have come out these splits, some are unlike any that have preceded them. For example, the New Association of Friends [in Indiana] and the Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends [Oregon, Washington & Idaho] either implicitly or explicitly are welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ Friends.

This is a first for yearly meetings and associations of pastoral Friends in North America, or really, anywhere in the world. The New Association of Friends quotes Isaiah 43:19 on its home page: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Whether these new green shoots, these new things, will thrive, it is too soon to say.

Jade Rockwell

Jade Rockwell (neé Souza) adds:

I believe these conflicts contain tremendous potential for harm, even the risk of ending the Quaker experiment. I also believe they could bring that fire of the Holy Spirit, the change and renewal we know we need, that many of us often envy about the Early Friends movement, or primitive Christianity.
Whether these conflicts are fruitful will depend — partly on having strong analysis of these events, even knowing about them to begin with.

Then, whether we can develop resiliency worthy of our calling. Can we be humble enough to tell the truth, tough enough to resist dehumanizing each other, courageous enough to stay in the game, and faithful enough to let God lead?

These conflicts may be the Refiner’s Fire for us. They do not have to end in splits, even as we go on, in different directions.

I don’t know the future or claim to have the answers. But I participated in this project to do the best I could to help get the truth out  in the Light, where there is some hope for us
Often we don’t want these stories out there because we see ourselves as “patterns and examples”, but I believe we are only as sick as our secrets. 
I hope this project will be useful and illuminating for Friends in thinking about these conflicts and how we are called to move into the next chapters, in whatever shape we are now in.

To repeat: both the live presentation and the Zoom stream are FREE and PUBLIC. For more details and to receive the Zoom link, please register by clicking this link:  bit.ly/3k6eDBZ

To order:
Vol. 1 – Indiana Trainwreck:

Vol. 2 – Murder at Quaker Lake:

Vol. 3 – Shattered By the Light:

3 thoughts on “Making Sense of “The Separation Generation” Among Quakers”

  1. The tragedy of it all is that rather too many Quakers feel called to speak to the condition of others, and rather too few hold to the notion that there is one that can speak to their condition.

    Matthew 7:3

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