Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Why I’m Not a Progressive Quaker
In 2014 Chuck Fager, a dedicated activist, peaceworker, and Quaker historian, as well as the publisher of the thoughtful journal ‘Quaker Theology’, published two books on the history of Progressive Friends. One is called Angels of Progress; it is a documentary history of Progressive Friends. In Angels Fager recovers many significant episodes in the history of the Progressives and the writings wherein they defined themselves and contrasted themselves with more traditional Quakers. It is a treasure of historical information.
The second work is Remaking Friends; the focus of this second work is how the Progressive Friends altered Quaker Faith and Practice and formed a foundation for what is now the Liberal Quaker tradition. I am not enough of a historian to know if all of Fager’s claims regarding the influence of the Progressive Friends hold up; but I have found my reading of these works to be informative and fascinating. These works have helped me to understand the current situation of Quakers, particularly Liberal Quakers.
The books have also clarified for me why I find Progressive thought to be problematic. The reasons are many but if I were to pick a single item from a very long list it would be the way Progressives have undermined, weakened, and just about abolished, the Quaker Peace Testimony. It is depressing to me to read how easily the Progressives put aside the Peace Testimony to support, get ready for it, W.W. I. And they did so in the most jingoistic way. Here, from Remaking Friends is an example of what I mean:
“Believing that it is not enough at this time to be neutral and that the views of the Society of Friends have not been adequately represented by the official statements of its executives nor by the utterances of many of its public speakers we . . . have realized that there are unusual and extra-ordinary circumstances of infrequent occurrence which cannot be rigidly or fully met by any man-made Church Discipline. We therefore deem it consistent with our Quaker faith to act according to the dictates of our own consciences and proclaim a unity with teachings of Jesus Christ and the messages of the President of our country . . .
“Therefore while the writer does not wish to see any Friend violate his conscientious scruples as to bearing arms, he still thinks that all Friend should do their utmost to support the Government in all ways short of this – so that the world shall be made ‘safe for democracy,’ and a ‘safe place for the little nations.’” (Pages 160 & 161.)
This statement was published widely and signed by more than 200 prominent Friends. It is a melancholy example of what happens when Friends lose their footing in the basics of their Faith and Practice.
Notice how the statement equates Jesus with the President of the United States. Either that apotheosizes the President or it secularizes Jesus; either way this is a merging of Church and State that Constantine would have been proud of.
Notice also how the statement replaces the light within with individual conscience. Among early Quakers the distinction between the two was clear; the light within was not an aspect of the individual personality; the light has a transcendental source. The shift from the transcendental to the individual is what allowed the Progressives to dodge the traditional Peace Witness; so that instead of the Peace Witness being a defining commitment it is transformed into an individual inclination; kind of like a fashion statement.
Fager notes the significance of this shift in Angels of Progress. This shift began during the Civil War, “ . . . the testimony against war as evil and unchristian remained. But a crucial qualification was added, first in fact, eventually as policy: adherence to this standard was shifted from a group-enforced norm to a matter of individual judgment.
“The move from group to personal conscience was, in fact, a key plank in the Progressive Friends platform, and I contend that its acceptance by Hicksites (and more slowly, by the Orthodox) could be counted as the movement’s first important achievement.” (Page 237.)
In contrast, I see it as the first blast at the foundation of Quaker Faith and Practice, a blast which left only wreckage behind. It is precisely this hyper-individualism which has led to the fragmentation of the Quaker tradition.
A friend of mine once described W.W. I was an ‘apocalypse’. The U.S. entry into W.W. I was utterly unwarranted. The U.S. had no interest in the outcome. The U.S. was not threatened. In fact, Wilson ran on a platform to keep us out of ‘that European war’, and then did everything he could to drag the U.S. into it. Wilson was, unfortunately, successful.
The legacy of this failure to comprehend the scope and foundation of the Peace Testimony on the part of the Progressives has left a lasting mark on Liberal Quakers, but not only Liberals. What I have observed is that Liberal Quakers, almost without exception, base their limited commitments to the Peace Testimony on the Just War Theory. That is what the Progressives bequeathed to modern Quakers. The example of Progressives supporting entry into W.W. I informs Liberal Quakers today and leads some of them to support, for example, Obama’s attack on Libya, or intervention in Syria. More significantly, the idea that the Peace Testimony is a matter of individual taste (or, ‘conscience’), rather than a defining commitment, has become widespread in Quaker thought, both Liberal and Evangelical.
I think this is a problematic legacy. I think it constitutes a great loss.