"Convincement" or "Uncertainment" - A Liberal Friend's Dilemma

While I could never be mistaken for a fundamentalist, I have a childish yearning for a completely literal burning bush-type experience, or perhaps one day, while driving to New York, (Damascus not being handy), I suddenly find myself being yanked from my car and cast down upon the side of the interstate and a voice tells me in no uncertain terms that this is Jesus speaking and you, Patricia, had better take heed! Now that's the sort of experience that leaves no room for doubt. Why is it that we live in an age when God seems to favor the "still small voice" over the Cecil B. DeMille announcement? Quakers are particularly fond of this method of revelation and even eschew the word "conversion" in favor of  "convincement," as if conversion is way too melodramatic for a peculiar people who appear to be too pig-headed to be anything other than talked into belief once all the pros and cons have been carefully weighed. Of course, this is a very 21st century definition of the verb "to convince." Even a cursory study of the convincement accounts of early Friends offers ample evidence that it was an entirely dramatic experience. Here's a sample from Francis Howgill:

My eyes were opened, and all the things that I had ever done were brought to remembrance and the ark of the testament was opened, and there was thunder and lightning and great hail. And then the trumpet of the Lord was sounded, and then nothing but war and rumor of war, and the dreadful power of the Lord fell on me: plague, and pestilence, and famine, and earthquake, and fear and terror, for the sights I saw with my eyes: and that which I heard with my ears, sorrow and pain...And all that ever I had done was judged and condemned, all things were accursed...And as I bore the indignation of the Lord, something rejoiced, the serpent's head began to be bruised...And as I did give up all to judgement, the captive came forth out of prison and rejoiced, and my heart was filled with joy...Then I saw the cross of Christ, and stood in it, and the enmity slain on it. And the new man was made...the holy law of God was revealed unto me and written on my heart.

Now, here's the kind of experience that made things happen! By 1662, a decade after George Fox and the early Seekers were "gathered" as a people, about 80,000 had been "convinced" - close to 1% of the population of Britain at that time. Three hundred and forty-nine years later, that number has dwindled to about 12,000 Friends in the UK, with around 180,000 in the Americas and 380,000 worldwide. For purposes of comparison, I offer the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints which has been around for 200 years less. In 1862, there were about 69,000 Mormons. Today, there are more than 14 million. Are they more convinced than we are? Looking at the numbers, they certainly seem to be.

Actually, going out and telling people that you have found something spectacularly wonderful seems to work for Quakers, too. Of the 380,000 Friends worldwide, a whopping 84% are affiliated with or reflect more evangelical branches of Quakerism. A paltry 15.7% make up the liberal, unprogrammed universe, with Conservative Friends flickering away valiantly at 0.4%. As one liberal Friend once said, "We don't just hide our light under a bushel basket. We hide the bushel basket under another bushel basket!" This is, after all, our little secret.

Which brings me to the question: what is it that we in the liberal branch of Quakerism are "convinced" of? And if we are so "convinced," why are we so shy about telling other people about it? Perhaps in the spirit of "let your yay be yay and your nay be nay," we should more truthfully call it "uncertainment" rather than "convincement." Recently, in my meeting the Friend on facing bench invited visitors to sign the guest book, adding impulsively and with the best of intentions, "And, don't worry, we won't try to contact you." I guess to "silent worship" we need to add "silent outreach." Mention the word "proselytize" to a liberal Friend and you get about the same reaction as "Beelzebub" or "Harry Potter" elicits in some other faith traditions. Yet I can't help feeling that we have perhaps retreated a little too far in the direction of modesty when expressing our liberal Quaker beliefs. We love the phrase "let your life speak" partly because it lets us off the hook in terms of verbally sharing something that many of us consider central to our lives. If we practice our faith in our daily lives, we don't actually need to share what motivates us because we'll "convince" people by some vague process of osmosis. Or maybe not. And do we care? Quaker Quest was started in Britain in large part because of the realization that unless something was done and done soon, the Religious Society of Friends was on the road to extinction in the country of its birth (some predictions have it at about 2037). Surely if we are convinced of something we should practice articulating it so that we can share it with others. For many liberal meetings outreach is done almost by default; if you happen to cross our threshold we'll do our best not to scare you off. Perhaps we need to have a small sign on each pew: Only the most determined need apply. I know from experience that many liberal Friends are people who are thoroughly "convinced," although frequently we transmit uncertainty. Surely in this troubled world we need to find a way to joyfully articulate what we are convinced about, what inspires us about the Quaker way and what excites us about the journey.

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Comment by Chris Mohr on 12th mo. 13, 2011 at 7:50pm

Thanks for the post, Patricia, and to others for their comments. I think there have been glimpses of a deeper level of convincement, and willingness to pull off the bushel baskets, among unprogrammed Friends in the last few years, but it's a cultural shift that hasn't swung very far yet. 

Liz Opp wrote about Pink Dandelion's talk at the 2009 FGC Gathering on this topic and had this to say: "Today's Quaker message [from Liberal Friends] is that we arecertain that we are a little uncertain of our belief. An "absolute perhaps," if you will."


My good friend Robin M. also wrote a review of Carole Spencer's book "Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism," and went so far as to say, "What is missing from this book is the growing holiness movement among unprogrammed Friends in the last ten to twenty years."

The presence of Quakers in interfaith tents or chaplaincy roles at the various Occupations was one way the message has been getting out to a wider public, without apology. ("Without Apology" was the title of Chuck Fager's book about liberal Quakerism.)

Comment by Lauren Smith on 12th mo. 13, 2011 at 8:58pm


Having grown-up in more conventional churches... sitting in the pews of Baptist, Berean, Evangelical, and Calvary churches... then later during my teens, Pentacostal churches where everything was about fall-to-the-floor experience, and rallies where they teach you how to go door-to-door, witness at work and school, and win souls for Christ... I can say for all of the hoopla, there is a great spiritual deficit. And it's not that people don't have the right intentions. But most of those faiths have accomodated secular society enough to make it easier to follow: substitute rock concerts with Christian rock concerts. Substitute romance novels with Christian romance novels. Substitute gossip with prayer chains. Substitute bigotry with "Bible-sanctioned" bigotry. And so on.

But Quakerism seems founded upon a lifestyle of simplicity, pacifism, and social justice. I don't know whether the strength and expression of these ideals varies amonf the different types of Quakers, but this has seemed fairly consistent to me. And no matter how loudly you shout it from the rooftops - telling people to shun violence and materialism is not a popular message, because those things are central to many cultures and without those driving forces, many people, even religious people, discover that their lives are empty.

What attracted me to Quakerism, though, was that it seemed to address problems that others gloss over. Other churches may focus on saving souls, but I always think of the scriptures about the people who say "bless you" to the starving, homeless, and ill, then pass by. Saving a soul without working to eliminate the problems that oppress the soul & body is a little like this. Many Quakers seem to like to get to the root causes of suffering with their social justice work. So even if liberal Quakers are not great at reaching out for new members, they are still doing good work that is not being done in other churches. And I am not so certain whether the lack of growing membership has to do with not enough outreach... or believing in a worldview that is not popular. Other churches tell you how exclusively special you are and how prosperous you can be if you follow God or join their church. If you attend prayer study, Sunday service, buy the right t-shirts, send your children to the right camps, and watch the right entertainment and news, you are "good". You don't have to think deeply about what you buy, the violence you support, the lives you shut out or trod over. You have the comforting structure of the appearance of goodness while experiencing minimal sacrifice or direct responsibility.

But the people who are open to messages of simplicity, pacifism, and social justice... of private experience with God and self-directed spiritual expoloration... many of these people have been so wounded by or disgusted with Christianity that they automatically have prejudices against Quakerism, I speculate. To convince a large group of people to change their worldview is one thing - to convince a group that already holds a peaceful, humble worldview that Christ won't hurt them and they could use a little Light in their lives is another thing. I think this is where we have to have faith that the Light really is at work in people's lives. I talk openly with people about Quakerism... and for those who embrace Christ, it is the liberalism of pacifism and social justice that turns them off. And for many liberals, it is religious tradition that turns them off. Religion has hurt so many. So all we can really do is keep speaking, keep sharing, and hope that hearts begin to open, because no matter what, we have a peculiar message.

Those are my thoughts. Unless Quakers want to begin marketing and branding themselves more, as the Mormons have done... there is nothing to do except grassroots work. The Internet is definitely a good tool for spreading any message. I think Quakerism is a wonderful fa

Comment by Lauren Smith on 12th mo. 13, 2011 at 9:00pm

P.S. I was not intending to suggest that rock concerts or romance novels are wrong... only that for everything that is considered "worldly", there is a "cleaned-up, Christianized" version, so that a Christian never has to change lifestyle, only slightly modify it.

Comment by Lauren Smith on 12th mo. 13, 2011 at 9:09pm

Oh, I meant to say (at the end where it is cut off) that Quakerism is a wonderful faith - it does not sanction hypocrisy, it is transparent, democratic, progressive in every century - it may be just what many cynics would hardly believe but are secretly longing for. Lifestyle is indeed a very important component to spiritual experience - you can't have good health without a healthy lifestyle, and spiritual health is similar. Quaker prayer may not be a superior experience to generic Protestant prayer (for instance) but the experience of the practice - the lifestyle - is superior, at least for me. I feel and believe that it is a practice more consistent with the Gospels.

Comment by Patricia Barber on 12th mo. 13, 2011 at 9:13pm

Lauren, you should read Shane Claiborne's book "The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical." He writes hilariously and compellingly about growing up "born again" and pokes fun at all of these things that you mention. He is still very much a Christian but he and a growing number of young evangelicals are fed up with their parents' brand of Christianity and are now on the cutting edge of social justice work and "living" the gospel as opposed to just preaching about it. I feel great hope when I look at young people across faith traditions - they are all tired of stuffy grown ups and their various religious hang ups and are reaching out to each other to create a new dynamic ecumenical movement very much more concerned with social justice and much less concerned with hot-button political topics that serve to divide rather than unite us. A lot of it is going on under the radar as we "grown ups" continue our culture wars but it's definitely there.

Comment by Patricia Barber on 12th mo. 13, 2011 at 9:18pm

I absolutely agree with you, Lauren. I just wish we could be a little less diffident in sharing our faith. We are so worried about offending other folks and being accused of proselytizing that we behave almost as if our Quakerism is some sort of closely held secret. I am guilty of this myself.

Comment by Mackenzie on 12th mo. 14, 2011 at 12:01pm

I think it's out of a respect for the beliefs others already have that the non-Evangelical branches of Friends don't evangelize. I think of all the harm caused by missionaries over the centuries, the loss of so many other spiritual traditions, and the inherent "I'm right and you're wrong, so NYAH" of trying to convert someone...and it just doesn't seem like an activity of mutual respect. This goes doubly for any time a white person is trying to "fix" a person of color.

For those religions concerned with "saving" others, I suppose it makes sense to them to go around telling everyone else they're wrong, because they think they're like a parent scolding a child or something. But for someone who thinks all paths are valid? Why bother telling someone they're wrong? They might be right! If they like the religion they've got, good, and if not, they'll take the quiz on BeliefNet and find one that suits them better.  

I particularly don't understand attempts to evangelize in the US. Christianity is so dominant here, we all know what it's about, especially with all the Christmas & Easter specials on the TV, you've got the highlights:  God had a kid in a stable, when he grew up he was crucified and came back from the dead.  Either you believe that (and you're a Christian) or you think it's hogwash (and you're not), but either way, it's not like evangelizing in the US is making anyone aware of anything they didn't already know and either already accept or already reject.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 14, 2011 at 4:38pm

I agree with what I found in Ursula Jane O'Shea's Living the Way:

that a lot of people are living in a spirituality of despair, and could well use what Quakers have to offer-- if we could only bring ourselves to readiness to offer it. (Including asking for the direct leading and inspiration it takes to give spiritual substance, not just propagandize for "beliefs").

She quotes the 'Parable of the Talents'-- and the implication that anyone who has so little spirituality that he hides it away in fear of losing it-- is diminishing what little he has available.

That may well explain the 'dryness' of so many Meetings!

There are a lot of people I can respect-- without thinking they're finding their way through life in the best way available!

Comment by William F Rushby on 12th mo. 15, 2011 at 12:05pm

Reading these comments makes me recall an interesting account by a liberal British Friend.  He wrote that the Friends Meeting was just up the street from the Foursquare Gospel Church.  The Friends were a group of ten or so elderly people, and their meetings seemed lifeless.  The Foursquare church was packed with young adults, and their meetings overflowed with spiritual energy.

I won't attempt any "moral of the story", but do suggest that we think about it!!

Comment by William F Rushby on 12th mo. 28, 2011 at 3:16pm

Well put, Karen, well put!


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