Some Liberal Thoughts About Conservative Quakerism

Some Liberal Thoughts About Conservative Quakerism

For as long as I’ve been among Friends, closing in on 50 years, there’s been a certain cachet to the Wilburite/Conservative (WC) strain, which

The view east from the Olney Friends School campus, summer 2014. Wilburite Mecca.

 seems to increase in romantic/sentimental appeal even as the actual presence of solidly WC practitioners & meetings continues to decline.

It is bolstered for many by the fact that Conservative Quakerism has a “Mecca,” in and around the Olney Friends School & the Stillwater Meetinghouse in Barnesville, Ohio. This pilgrimage spot breathes an atmosphere and, especially in summer, a plain kind of beauty that is compelling for many.

That many includes me; I have visited there every year for more than a quarter-century, not for conferences or the like, but just to bask in the “vibes.” I look forward to doing that again this summer, as way opens.

So I once shared much of this rosy view. However, Exposure to what remains of Actual Ohio Wilburism, deepened by reading of much material about it, soon cured me of the romantic illusions. There are good internal reasons why Wilburism has all but vanished as a real factor in American Quakerism, and in my view is unlikely to persist as much more than a literary construction and some associated modes of practice.

I won’t try to rehearse all the religious and cultural history involved. Two books do it much better, and are worth the effort for those who want more than a superficial understanding.

The first is “The Eye of Faith,” a history of Ohio YM and its Wilburism, by the late William Taber, who with his wife Fran were likely the finest flower of that tradition of the past century. Taber is friendly to this world, from which he emerged, but tells the key sad truths about it, including its drive for self-destruction, Tho these are more many aficionados are comfortable with hearing. In sum, it shows that the impulse of Wilburite Quaker Orthodoxy, the need to be, and enforce, The Truth, leads over time to disintegration and a dead end.

The other book is a memoir, ” Growing Up Plain,” by the late Wilmer Cooper, longtime Dean of the Earlham School of Religion. Cooper was raised in a strict Ohio  Wilburite setting almost a century ago, and tells this story here. I also heard him talk about this upbringing. He had reached closure with it, and could even make jokes about it


But the story told in Cooper’s book is one of being trapped in an enclosed, stultifying isolation that was for him increasingly stifling, til he had to leave it to pursue the education his intelligence and spirit could not live without.

And despite my admiration for his Retrospective good humor about the experience, the book describes numerous aspects of this culture which many of us today would consider downright abusive. And the quiet verdict of history jibes with this sense: almost all of Cooper’s peers joined his exodus, leaving empty meeting houses and some dusty archives as its monuments.

Still A Viable Path For Friends? The overgrown walk from the Olney School to the Stillwater Meetinghouse, which once packed in more than a thousand attenders for Ohio Yearly Meeting -Conservative.

The stories and information in these books were corroborated for me by exposure to the actual remains of Wilburism. My conclusion: it has left Friends some good things, but is more a part of our past rather than our future.

There is a kind of “Neo-Conservatism” abroad in some Quaker circles today, which has drawn some elements from the WC tradition, and mixed them with the “spiritual direction” movement that comes out of Catholic and Anglican churches. Despite claims to the contrary, I regard this combination as a new invention, something Friends are entitled to do to reclaim and renew their spirituality; but personally Does not appeal much to me.

As this “Spiritual Direction Neo-Conservatism” seems a different creature, further treatment of it will go in another post, as way opens.



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