Re-Re-Re-Inventing The Wheel: 170 Years of “Convergent” Quakerism
With a few exceptions, many of the most important pieces of American Quaker history since before the Civil War have not yet been well-studied or written up.
One of the biggest pieces that’s missing, in my view, is a close look at the long, occasionally successful, but very often tortured record of intra-Quaker ecumenical efforts.
This big hole in our history books has come into special focus as I pondered the seeming rise of the “Convergent Friends” phenomenon, which has been hailed by its chronicler as “the emergence of a new Quakerism that transgresses the boundaries of any one Quaker group.” Hearing and reading about it, especially in the book A Convergent Model of Renewal, by C. Wess Daniels, I repeatedly had a sense of deja vu, having seen and heard most of this before. But where? When?
Lots of places, actually. Turns out that its footprints are widely scattered across the records. But “scattered” is the key word. There’s plenty of this history to fill a sizable book; maybe several. But no such books have yet surfaced, and it’s too bad.
Anyway, producing more books isn’t the point: learning from all this unknown history is what counts.
Is it possible to do a thumbnail that might give some hints? Let’s give it a shot.
Where to start? How about 1844, 169 years ago.
(By the way, we’re going to skip the background of the first big Quaker schism, Orthodox vs. Hicksite in 1827; also the numerous others among the Orthodox between Wilburite/ Conservatives vs. Gurneyites /Evangelicals over the next century-plus; and among the Hicksites with the Progressive insurgencies. If all this talk of “ites” is Greek, the confused reader will need to look them up.)
Anyway, in 1844 Samuel Janney, a Hicksite Friend from Virginia, traveled to Ohio to see if he could mediate a division in Indiana Yearly Meeting. The very traditionalist Hicksite leadership there was faced with a Progressive Quaker rebellion.
Janney’s efforts failed; but good try, Sam.
And he didn’t give up. He also visited with numerous weighty Orthodox Friends, working to build cross-branch goodwill and understanding. In the 1850s, when he wrote biographies of Fox and Penn, he solicited Orthodox feedback, to make the books broadly acceptable. (The reviews at the time were pretty good.) Yet he came to feel that, while a re-union of the two feuding branches might be possible, it probably wouldn’t happen in his lifetime. (Janney died in 1880, and he was right about that.)
Sixteen years later, in 1896, another freelance mediator waded in. This was John W. Graham, and he had to wade all the way across the Atlantic: Graham was a British Friend. Thus he came from the “mother church” of Quakerdom, which had not been neutral or even-handed in the great Split that rent American Friends in 1827.
Not at all. London Yearly Meeting came down squarely in favor of the Orthodox side. It issued ponderous fatwas against Hicksism. And when the Hicksite-Progressive Lucretia Mott came to England for the World Anti-Slavery Congress in 1840, she was snubbed and slighted by all the Anglo-Quaker establishment there because of her “heresy.”
(Alert to those in Feminism 101: Mott did not pout. Instead, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and began the momentous friendship which launched the Seneca Falls Womens Rights Convention eight years later. But — that’s another story.)
London was still stonewalling the Hicksite upstarts almost six decades later in 1896, when they had formed their own Friends General Conference. But that year, John W. Graham, a budding liberal, decided it was time to cross the great water. So he arrived in Philadelphia, where the General Conference was gathered at Swarthmore College.
Graham received a hero’s welcome at FGC, even though he came strictly as an individual concerned Friend. And he headed home resolved to break down the wall of separation between London and the Hicksites.
It took him three more trans-Atlantic voyages and sixteen more years to do it: the second time he came to FGC bearing a minute from his local Meeting. For his third trip, he managed to wangle a greeting from the elders. Finally in 1912, he triumphantly delivered a formal greeting from London Yearly Meeting itself.
This was a big deal. London had no formal power over the Americans; but its blessing, even just its greeting, was the Quaker kiss of life and legitimacy.
Graham no doubt had plans for more such efforts, but the 1914 unpleasantness in Sarajevo that became World War One got in the way.
Yet the ecumenical impulses were not stifled by the call to arms (or resistance thereto). In fact World War One saw the two most substantial such efforts thus far. First was the creation of the American Friends Service Committee (a joint Orthodox-Hicksite effort from the jump).
Then, not long after the smoke had cleared, the British organized a Conference of All Friends, in London itself. This unprecedented assembly included delegates from the full available spectrum, from the American Evangelicals on one end to the diehard remnant of the Progressive Quaker radicals on the other.
There was much talk about peace witness at the gathering, understandable given the times. Some of the minutes agreed to there were brought home and soon found their way into Books of Discipline and Faith and Practice across the spectrum, where traces of them can still be found in many.
In fact, the London conference was such a success, that AFSC undertook to hold a successor All-Friends event in the U.S. It took place in Iowa in 1929 — and we’ll say more about it in a few moments.
Besides these big conferences, another current was gathering strength in the east: a significant cohort of young Friends, who had been raised to disdain the “Other Branch,” be they Hicksite or Orthodox — couldn’t quite remember what the point was. Then when they met some of their peers from beyond the invisible wall, they all hit it off, started doing things jointly, and were soon muttering the 1920s equivalent of “WTF??” about the whole schismatic paraphernalia.
Soon they were pestering their parents about getting over themselves and talking to “Them.” And by 1928, in New York, several monthly meetings jumped the track entirely and founded “All Friends Quarter,” for which they insisted, and got, recognition from both the New York Yearly Meetings. Soon “united meetings” were spreading across the east.
By 1937, there was another international all-branch gathering, this one called a World Conference, in Philadelphia. Its delegates resolved to keep the big conference process rolling (resurfacing every 17 years, like certain varieties of locusts), and created the Friends World Committee for Consultation to tend the work.
Hereafter the chronology comes thick and fast. By 1945, two yearly meetings and several independent Meetings came together into a renewed — and new– New England Yearly Meeting. And over the next thirty years, the rest of the surviving YMs that had been divided since 1827 by the Hicksite-Orthodox controversy came back together.
This wave of reunification was the culmination and high water mark of Quaker ecumenical efforts going back to Samuel Janney and others, a century earlier. It’s the successful “Quaker convergence” which thus far has no real rival. Considering that it’s now three generations past, though, it’s no wonder that many today who were raised or convinced under its capacious umbrella now tend to take it for granted, and even find much of it stodgy, stuffy and stale. (Which shows again that no good deed goes unpunished.)
In any case, the Hicksite-Orthodox re-unions, important as they were, still left a big swath of the American Quaker landscape essentially unchanged, marked by divided and restive groups, with the ecumenical task both unfinished and, in case after case, hotly contested.
In fact, there is another major current of Quaker interbranch encounter besides the reunification campaign. It is also almost a century old now, but with a very different record, namely that having repeatedly foiled and frustrated ecumenical efforts . That story is another important book as yet unwritten.
The list of these efforts is too long for this blog post; but it might just as well start with the Iowa All-Friends Conference of 1929, the one AFSC organized as a U.S. followup to the London gathering.
I’m sure AFSC did its best. But the very evangelical Superintendent of Oregon Yearly Meeting, one Edward Mott, arrived at the event with a very different agenda in mind. As he wrote in his memoir, his goal was “to thwart the very purpose for which the conference was held, the promotion of fellowship among such groups.”
Why? He insisted that “The attempt to fellowship and work with unbelievers [which is what he considered the other groups of Friends to be–CF.] spells death. Any conclusion to the contrary is ruinous to all concerned.”
His demolition work was quite effective. In those years several evangelical yearly meetings seceded from what is now Friends United Meeting, the mostly Orthodox association. And except for the 1937 World Conference, there was not another such “All-Friends” meeting in the U.S. for nearly forty years.
For that matter, when New England Friends were on the verge of their “convergence” in 1945, Mott loosed another cannonade: “Orthodoxy and heterodoxy cannot coexist in one and the same person or organization,” he thundered. “It has been, and is being attempted, but the result is always the same, namely failure. All such interminglings should be canceled in the interest of truth and vital influence for Christ and His Church.”
Mott’s voice was not alone in this opposition, but his declarations were especially clear and their import unmistakable. (They are also useful in hindsight, as the New England experiment is now seventy years old, and continues to elude his prophesied failure.)
Thereafter, we can only mention a few highlights: in 1977, after Mott was gone and following almost a decade of preparative work, another “All-Friends” effort was set, in Wichita for 1977, to include Friends from Latin America as well as the U.S.
But that event, which was also the first national Quaker gathering this writer attended, essentially exploded in the organizers’ faces when a committee of gay Friends from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting surfaced and insisted on the recognition accorded other Quaker bodies. (That story is told in my book, Without Apology; suffice to say Wichita was an earthquake, with aftershocks that lasted for years.)
Through the 1980s, hot skirmishes recurred over both social issues like gay rights, and associated theological differences about the Bible, the place and work of Jesus, church authority, and freedom of expression.
By 1990, the stage was set for a full-blown crisis. It was set off that summer when some midwestern evangelicals visiting New York Yearly Meeting encountered a group of vocal feminist Friends who affirmed connection with Wicca.
The result was a major drive to undo the reunification of the Orthodox/Hicksite Yearly Meetings, or at the least to push them out of what was called with ever-less truth, “Friends United Meeting.” (Also recounted in detail in Without Apology.)
This purge attempt failed, at least at the time. But since then, two similar purge campaigns have been made in Indiana. Both were aimed against individuals or groups that were, to paraphrase Wess Daniels, surfacing a “new Quakerism” that “transgressed the boundaries” that some with power were determined to enforce. One failed, but the other succeeded in forcing a schism. A similar effort is underway in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM) as this is written. (Update: the North Carolina purge ended in the complete dissolution of the yearly meeting, after 320 years. And by the end of 2018, five YMs in North America have split since 1990.)
What accounts for this ongoing set of anti-convergent struggles?
At bottom, the issues are fairly simple: most of Evangelical Protestantism in the U.S. regards both their liberal counterparts, and those “moderate” evangelicals who are willing to parlay with the liberals, as not only wrong but dangerous. They (we) are like carriers of a dread disease, which is often contagious.
So the strict evangelicals reject the basic Convergent agenda, of bringing the various groups together, usually based on the premise that each group has a part of “authentic” Quakerism but is also incomplete. From the dominant Evangelical perspective, such “convergence” by whatever name is not just mistaken or inauthentic, it is treachery, and — according to some selected Bible quotes — demonic, satanic, and the work of the Anti-Christ. Yielding to it, to repeat Edward Mott’s dictum, “spells death.”
Some among earlier generations of proto-Convergents viewed outbursts like Mott’s with a philosophical attitude:
“These setbacks to the movements toward unity are apparently only temporary,” wrote Elbert Russell, in his widely-read book, The History of Quakerism. “There were large and influential elements and leaders [In Mott’s Oregon] . . . opposed to secession . . . . These elements are, judging from the course of events in yearly meetings further east, likely to grow in influence.”
He ended on an optimistic note: “They comprise the young Friends, the educational leaders and those most interested in the revival of the historic Friends ideals.”
A nice sentiment. But Russell, who wrote that in 1942, was dead wrong. Mott’s call to resist “convergence” has been passed down four more generations, with apparently undiminished vigor.
In fact, forty-plus years after Russell, another Quaker chronicler admitted that he too had once written “optimistically that the spirit of divisiveness seems definitely on the wane among Friends, substantially replaced by that of ecumenical dialogue and cooperation.” But, he regretfully acknowledged, “in the past year [1984-85], it has become clear that a struggle between these conflicting attitudes is continuing and may well be intensifying, and that its outcome is by no means clear.”
That sadder-but-wiser chronicler was me.
Unfortunately, thirty years after that admission, the final forecast, of marginal efforts amid continuing broader conflicts, still holds.
One of the saddest episodes (to me) was the unhappy fate of YouthQuake, a triennial gathering for high school and college age Friends, which was organized by several evangelical yearly meetings, in the late 1980s, but then in the 1990s began permitting some youth from the liberal yearly meetings to attend.
Many of these liberal young Friends, after some initial shocks, found the vigorous encounters about the Bible and Jesus stimulating, quite different from the bland Theological Whatever-ism of their home meetings. So the number of such attenders increased, as did the enthusiasm of ecumenical-minded liberal yearly meeting planners.
But then shortly after the 2003 YouthQuake, which seemed to liberal participants a big ecumenical/convergent success, the evangelical groups abruptly pulled the plug: no more; YouthQuake was done. The contagion had to be repelled.
Despite this near solid wall of evangelical resistance over almost a hundred years, the “convergent” efforts continue to spring up. As Robin Mohr, the younger Friend who coined the “Convergent” label put it, the idea appeals to “Friends from the politically liberal end of the evangelical branch, the Christian end of the unprogrammed branch, and the more outgoing end of the Conservative branch.”
But what has also happened repeatedly is that the “politically (and theologically) liberal end of the evangelical branch” gets lopped off, and those involved either hunker down, or join an exodus.
The Convergent chronicler Wess Daniels is the latest to join the exodus. A year ago he was teaching at the evangelical Quaker seminary in Oregon, and serving as pastor of a nearby Friends church that is part of the evangelical Northwest Yearly Meeting.
But since then, he was fired from his teaching job, apparently for being too “liberal”, especially in welcoming LGBT persons. And he has now taken a post at Guilford College, a liberal Quaker bastion in North Carolina. Meanwhile, his church is one of several at risk of being expelled from that yearly meeting for being too welcoming to gays. (UPDATE: Daniels’s former meeting, along with several others has since been expelled from Northwest YM.)
So while a scattering of individuals in the evangelical bodies will no doubt be, or become, open to this latest Convergent boomlet (or the next one), the institutionalized resistance to these efforts in the very large evangelical wing, shows little sign of softening. And while that continues, the concrete potential for such movements will likely be sharply circumscribed.
Elbert Russell thought he saw a different future for them in 1942, and he was mistaken. So was I, in 1981.
No wonder this history hasn’t been written. Too depressing.
I wonder what Samuel Janney would think.