"It has been our cherished purpose to restore the union between religion and life, and to place works of goodness and mercy far above theological speculations and scholastic subtleties of doctrine." Exposition of Sentiments Adopted by the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends, 1853.
In the 1850s, some Quakers began to dramatically shift their religious orientation from a heavenly to an earthly perspective. The Progressive Friends movement was made up of both disowned and dissident Quakers who through involvement in the abolitionist movement had come to regard overthrowing slavery, and other injustices, as their central calling. While it would not be accurate to characterize Progressive Friends as humanists or atheists, yet they are essential precursors to the emergence of theological diversity with Quakerism. Notice the contrast in the above quote: Religion in union with Life elevates works of goodness and mercy. Religion disunited from life is mere theological speculation and scholastic subtlety.
In many respects, Quakerism has become a diverse and ethically-focused religious community.The Progressive Friends movement came to an end in the early 20th Century not because its mission had failed, but because it succeeded in changing the shape of Quakerism, primarily in the Hicksite tradition. Throughout the 20th Century, Quakers have placed themselves directly into the struggle to create a better world for all humankind and, increasingly, into the struggle for our ecological future.
The impulse within Quakerism to emphasize practical living and a universal religious capacity, rather than dogma lies near the origin of Quaker society. In 1678 Robert Barclay wrote in his Apology for True Christian Divinity, "There may be members therefore of this catholic Church both among Heathen, Turks, Jews, and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart...." Barclay's view was extraordinary in the context of the English religious scene.
In the years just before the Society of Friends was formed, Gerrard Winstanley's True Leveller movement advocated a worldwide common treasury that would eliminate poverty. Winstanley wrote powerful tracts which criticized Church and State in terms which were just slightly more emphatic than were the Quakers a few years later. It is considered likely to some historians that Winstanley's ideas had more than a little influence on Quaker views and their tendency to emphasize ethical convictions over theological ideas.
Winstanley has seemed to many to have been in fact wholly naturalistic in his religious convictions. He spoke of God as the voice of "Sweet Reason" and insisted that God was not up in heaven but in our own souls. Quakerism's emphasis on the "Inward Light," which it found in the Bible, shifts the center of religious authority away from a "God Out There" and the words of the Bible towards a universal capacity within each person.
To be a religious naturalist within the Society of Friends is still something of a rarity. Quakers are still part of the religious culture of our world, which is still predominantly supernaturalist and theistic. I have never been attracted to a purely secular religious group, though I understand that they, too, are an important expression of progress in religion. I have also resisted calling myself an atheist, as I do not find theism threatening, in and of itself. It is what people do with their theism that matters, practice before doctrine.
So, what is the practice that matters? Quakers have a long tradition of seeking to end war. We also have a tradition of gender equality, which found one of its greatest exponents in Lucretia Mott, a sympathizer of the Progressive Friends movement. We emphasize participatory governance and order rather than traditional clerical offices. Our historical work in abolishing slavery, once so controversial, today serves to call us to oppose racism in all its dimensions. Quakers have worked to include gay, lesbian, and other sexual minorities. We also have projects that aim to address poverty, ecological degradation, and religious prejudice.
Quakers aren't perfect, but what religious tradition is? As a lifelong seeker for the truth and justice, Quakerism is that community where I find kindred souls and continuing challenges to grow.