Quaker Theology and Today’s “Separation Generation”

The journal Quaker Theology was started to promote & participate in informed theological discussion & engagement. The need for such  engagement was made clear, at least to this editor, by what turned out to be a major, but unexpected theme of the two decades of publication, the rise of what is called in the 20th Anniversary issue, The Separation Generation. In this period, five U.S. yearly meetings have split; one of them disappeared entirely, after 320 years.

It’s not easy – in fact, impossible – to pick a starting date for this schismatic wave in American Quakerism. My personal preference is July 1977, when the first major interbranch conference in decades nearly blew apart in Wichita, Kansas, over the surfacing and demand for recognition by gay men. (See also my report on Wichita, “Quaking Over Gay Rights,” here.”)

That was surely a dramatic moment. Others might home in on the “Realignment” struggle of 1990-1991, with its undercurrents of panic over feminist Wicca and (nonexistent) Satanism. The goal of “Realignment” (not yet realized, but which some still hope for) was the ripping apart of the umbrella group, Friends United Meeting (FUM), which once straddled these lines. [Both these incidents are described in my book, Without Apology (1995)].

But others could leapfrog over that, to 1957 when much of Nebraska Yearly Meeting demanded to be “set off” as a separate, evangelical group, which became the evangelical Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting.  Or to the years 1926 to 1937, which saw secession from FUM’s predecessor, the Five Years Meeting, by the evangelically-oriented Oregon YM (1926).

That same year brought a fundamentalist schism in Western and Indiana YMs, from which came Central YM; and then, in 1937, the departure of Kansas YM, also evangelical, from Five Years Meeting.

Or even return to 1904, when North Carolina YM, an Orthodox group, saw an exodus by its monthly meetings which had rejected the YM’s shift to leadership by paid pastors, with programmed worship and the related new “Holiness” theologies.

The exiles named themselves North Carolina YM (Conservative). We published a sketch of this group on its centennial in Quaker Theology #11. In Iowa, a similar division in 1877 had produced Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), and planted the seeds of an independent Quakerism on the West Coast. 

That’s not to mention the earlier Conservative (or Wilburite) separations, beginning in 1854, or the contemporaneous Progressive Friends insurgency among Hicksites. And behind them all, dim now after nearly two centuries, remains the cataclysm of 1827-1828, when most YMs splintered into Orthodox and Hicksites.

I don’t want to go back that far, though; 1827 and the Wilburite separations have been chronicled extensively, and some of the best Quaker historians have tackled the “Holiness”/pastoral rise. Moreover, there were similar controversies within and among groups that stayed in the Five Years Meeting through most of the twentieth century. Besides, the profusion of initials and labels which sprouted amid the doctrinal and organizational weeds is dizzying; I’ve studied it for years, and am still only moderately confident I know what they all mean.

The giant corpse flower. When it blooms, the stink is like death ad it spreads widely. Have American Friends been living through a “Corpse Flower” blooming?

So here we’ll fast forward again, skip past Wichita and “Realignment,” to land in western Indiana, home of Western (Indiana) Yearly Meeting, in 2003. Then the spotlight was on a Friends pastor named Phil Gulley. His ordeal, marked the beginning of what we call The Separation Generation. Like the blooming of the Titan Arum, one of the largest, most acridly malodorous of blossoms, its vapors spread widely and rapidly.

Phil Gulley, 2016

There was an acrid premonitory whiff of this in 2003’s QT #9, in a review of Gulley’s book, If Grace is True. Phil Gulley was (and remains) a Quaker pastor living near Indianapolis. He had also built a successful side career as an author of homely, Lake-Wobegon-in-Indiana-like “Front Porch Tales.”

But both his “day job” as a pastor and his achievements as an author seemed to be in mortal peril when Grace appeared. In it he made an argument for a universalist Christian theology, and critiquing the orthodox theories of atonement and hellfire he had abandoned. Our review spoke of the resulting outcry by some hardline pastors to “unfrock” Gulley for his book’s “heresy” as if it were all over with. Our naïveté was soon obvious: the struggle continued for six more years; by the time it abated i Western YM, it had also migrated and expanded.

As a result, beginning in QT #18, in the fall of 2010, there began crowding into the pages  of Quaker Theology a procession of yearly meeting schisms and purges. Like a stubborn grassfire they raged from sea (in Atlantic-bordering North Carolina) to shining sea (Oregon-Washington at the Pacific’s edge), with outbreaks in flyover country too. Our overall impression at this point is that these years could mark as deep a rupture as that of the “Great” Separation of 1827, when Orthodox and Hicksite divided.

Theology was, at least rhetorically, central to all:

Who was Jesus? What is the Bible’s status? Do we need to be “saved”? From what? By whom, and how? Is there a Quaker creed (in fact, if not in name)? How (and again by whom) are allegedly holy books to be interpreted, and yearly meetings to be governed? Should LGBT persons be affirmed?

These and related issues recurred; answers are still in dispute, and the membership of many individuals, the legitimacy of monthly meetings, and even the existence of yearly meetings – all were at stake.

The Editors of Quaker Theology have had their opinions here, which have not been hidden; but we don’t pretend to have resolved these matters.

Instead, we worked as hard as we could just to keep up (barely) with the struggles, in a largely journalistic fashion. At first this was an opportunity; soon, it became a duty. That’s because coverage of these struggles by other Quaker publications has been so sparse as to be nearly nonexistent. 

Someday (we hope), serious Friends and scholars will review, extend and correct our reporting; in the meantime, Quaker Theology has by default become the “paper of record” for this decade-plus of upheaval.

As the 20th Anniversary issue took shape, it was our impression that the Separation Generation may be largely played out.

But then again, maybe not; perhaps it is only shifting shapes and venues: we note that some liberal yearly meetings have of late been tying themselves up in knots over identity issues, especially race. These too have theological dimensions, even though many liberals foolishly think they are “beyond” or “above” such stuff. Will these struggles be peaceably resolved, or will they lead to new divisions?

We hope not: a respite from the corpse flower stench of schism would be very welcome.

Yet just as we were finishing up this post, came the disconcerting news of the Methodist Church’s rejection of same sex marriage and LGBT affirmation, which could portend schism in that much larger denomination. We won’t make predictions about that, except to venture that it seems a sign this struggle is far from over, outside Friends as well as within our own ranks.

Further, it recalls the warning of Koheleth in the Book of Ecclesiastes (8:17), that humans will “never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they don’t.”

And neither, for that latter, do we.

UPDATE: Since this post, Quaker Theology has begun publishing a series of books based on its reports about the “Separation Generation” schisms. The first volume, Indiana Trainwreck, appeared in Spring 2020; the second volume, on the breakup of North Carolina YM (FUM), is expected to be out by the end of summer 2020.

If you find this post of interest, please pass it on.

3 thoughts on “Quaker Theology and Today’s “Separation Generation””

  1. As a liberal, lesbian, Episcopalian from Hicksite Quaker stock, I shuddered when I read of the decision by the Methodists. Such a shame for so many.
    The Episcopal Church, U.S. had many parishes leave as well as dioceses that refused to accept ordination of gay seminarians and same sex marriage which was approved by the majority at National Convention.

  2. Most of the voters, from what I read in the Washington Post, were from outside the USA. Africa and Russian Methodists voted for the current practice to be continued.

    Perhaps this is a story of why Evangelism may not be such a great idea. After all, isn’t religion something that develops inside a particular culture?

    1. Evangelism is commanded by Jesus. However, I don’t see why the African and Russian Methodists can’t have their own jurisdiction. As you inferred, religion develops inside a particular culture.

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