Lets do an experiment.  Pick a Meeting, any Meeting.  Find a Monthly Meeting that dares to list its recorded members as a matter of public record, with or without other contact information.  Have you found one yet?  Take your time.

Time was, being public about one's membership was an act of courage.  You might go to prison for it.  The English church considered Quakers too subversive to be allowed to spread.  Many left for the New World as a result of these persecutions, although it wasn't long before Quakers inter-bred with high society types and rose in stature, even inside their homeland.  By 1790, being "Quaker" was consistent with being "well to do".  Quakers did a lot to galvanize the so-called Industrial Revolution, even if their model, of a benign company town, friendly to workers, never caught on among more rapacious brands of capitalist.

In the US especially, a bellicose nation defined by its growing empire, questioning the prevailing code of conduct might get one in hot water somehow.  Now that we only "register" for the draft, public declarations of one's Quakerism seem even less necessary than before.  Better to play it safe then, and "come out" as Quaker mostly to one another, in the safe confines of some social hall.

Imagine a form a Quakerism in which "becoming a member" meant consenting to having one's name publicly listed on the Internet as such?  That might require mentioning the Internet by name in Faith and Practice however, and introducing any technologies beyond the telephone is what many Meetings are loathe to do.  Ours mentions the Yellow Pages ad our Meeting supposedly places each year.  Oversight is in charge.  Isn't that charming?  I find it alarming.

We've recently started to hammer out some language that will mention post 1980s technologies, in the form of an Annex or Addendum to NPYM's Faith & Practice.  It's a top-down process, more prescriptive than descriptive.  Instead of polling the meetings about their own experiences, the document tends to lecture on why conference calls will trump more deliberative archived listserv discussions.  Those most comfortable with the phone want to retain their role as "discerners".  When it comes to "discernment", lets stick to the old ways.  I'm skeptical of this position, but do welcome the debate.

Back to membership... We have a regional directory that's like pulling teeth to produce, with Meetings reluctantly sending their information, some refusing to do so by any electronic means.  Fear and suspicion of the Internet runs high.  In no way do "members" want their identities divulged in any "world readable" format.  The directory goes out privately, with warnings to not spread the contents irresponsibly.  Does anyone see the irony here?

I'd say no wonder the whole institution of membership is in question.  What could it possibly mean if it's not a matter of public record and isn't the Web how we share with the public in this day and age?  I'm for starting a new regional directory that's specifically geared to Friends who wish their affiliation to be made known.  We'll make sure it's opt in, allowing the secretive to continue in their slinking around.  I'd expect many who are not yet formal members to want their names broadcast in this way, perhaps with the caveat "not a member".  Maybe non-members will outnumber members on some web pages?  That'd be OK.  At least they're willing to come forward.  Takes guts.

Views: 541

Comment by Jim Wilson on 3rd mo. 3, 2016 at 12:59pm

Kirby, this is an interesting post for me because I have been thinking a lot about how traditional Quaker Faith and Practice worked before modernity severed the Quaker distinctives from Quakers.  During the period of Quietism to be a Quaker was to be publicly a Quaker.  This could not be avoided because Quakers practiced plain dress and plain speech, along with other customs which made them stand out in public contexts.  You could spot a Quaker walking down the street due to their distinctive clothing.  You could hear that a person was a Quaker due to their distinctive speaking.  In other words, it was not possible to hide one's identity and affiliation as a Quaker.  In some ways I think that was a good thing in the sense that it made the commitment to the Quaker Way a more considered decision.  Modern Quakers are indistinguishable in appearance and in speech from the surrounding culture and I believe that has led to Quakers being indistinguishable from the surrounding culture in many other respects; for example what I consider to be an overemphasis on the political.

Comment by Kirby Urner on 3rd mo. 7, 2016 at 8:32pm

Isn't it ironic that in their effort to be "plain" the early Quakers drew attention to themselves?  But in a stratified class-oriented society such as England's in those times, where dress was so much an indicator of social station, what Quakers were really trying to do is liberate themselves from all that typecasting.  

They wanted to be equals to one another, not as Lord to Servant or Boss to Minion.  Quakers have a hard time being good sycophants.  That's also a reason many schools introduce uniforms:  to level the playing field, dress-wise.  

Fast forward and Quakers got a lot of what they prayed for:  a world in which dress and speech are somewhat less indicative of differences in social rank or privilege.  Human rights are less based on caste (England and India had a lot in common as highly stratified societies, whereas in the New World we hoped to make a fresh start).

We still have a long way to go though, in terms of treating one another as equals.  

In the video at the end of this blog post (link), a homeless gentlemen speaks of how differently he's treated depending on how he dresses:  http://controlroom.blogspot.com/2016/02/stranger-than-fiction-movie...   (video at the end of the movie review).

Comment by Jim Wilson on 3rd mo. 8, 2016 at 9:34am

Good Morning Kirby:

The tendency of modern Quakers is to interpret everything about our history in political terms.  I think that is a misreading of what Quakers were trying to accomplish.  My feeling is that the motivation for Quaker distinctives was not primarily political; it was primarily religious/spiritual.  

This tendency to evaluate our past through a modern ideological lens can be seen in the way modern activists use John Woolman.  Woolman's anti-slavery activity was not based on an ideology or a theory of rights.  It was Woolman's view that slavery was contrary to Christianity and that was why Woolman opposed it.

In a similar way, Quaker distinctives were not primarily ideological commitments, nor did they emerge from some kind of sociological analysis.  The distinctives were rooted in their understanding of what it means to live a Christian life, and then insisting on following through on that no matter what the cost.

Best wishes,


Comment by Kirby Urner on 3rd mo. 8, 2016 at 11:40am

Good morning Jim --

I think you're quite correct in the sense that in the 1640s, academia as we know it was a far different place.  The notion that religious movements could be seen through the lens of "religious studies" such as my friend Lindsey is studying at Oregon State (scholarship from Rotary Club), or "sociology" is quite modern. 

Many Friends today are professors of what-not, have a different mental makeup vs. Christians of the distant past.  It's not easy, may be impossible, for them to think themselves into the George Fox or John Woolman mindset.  I don't claim to be doing that either.  I'm a product of my own time or maybe the near future.

Indeed, at Princeton I took a course called History of Mentalities looking at this whole question of mindsets and whether it was possible for contemporary scholars to really get into them. 

Anthropologists ask themselves the same question (I took courses in that too). 

In the case of shamanistic cultures there may be a kool-aid [tm] of some kind, i.e. pharmaceuticals, such that getting into the target mindset might require taking drugs (e.g. peyote).  A lot of good professors understandably take a pass, many concluding it wouldn't have helped anyway, as the target culture (the one under study) is just too alien, drugs or no drugs.

What say thee about early Quakers?  Is it possible to think as they did about the world?

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 3rd mo. 8, 2016 at 12:38pm

If one's identity is a function of the surrounding culture, it won't be "possible to think as they did about the world." This statement would have been as true for the seventeenth-century English as it is for twenty-first-century Americans. Reason being this: what the first Friends were about was not a culturally derived belief system; it was instead existential and had a direct effect upon their individual souls: it was the kind of occurrence that cultures, even civilizations, are built upon. Yes, Christianity is functionally cultural in most places and times and has been off-and-on since its beginning. But when the seventeenth-century Quakers started to preach, when the first-century apostles started to preach, these primitive Christian movements were not cultural. Yet they both had the same foundation, and because of that, Fox and the others could grasp the meaning of the apostles and Jesus's words, though first-century culture was further removed from their seventeenth-century culture than is their culture removed from our own. Yes, we may participate in their understanding of the world, for one who has the key to that understanding is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Eternal, outside of time and how it passes.

Comment by Kirby Urner on 3rd mo. 8, 2016 at 6:39pm

Yes, Patricia, and I think many great religions would make similar claims, as to their ability to transcend any cultural matrix owing to having Eternal Truths at their core.  Certainly mathematicians like to think their Platonic Polyhedrons transcend any specific Greek tradition with which Plato the historical figure might have been involved, i.e. no "cult" (not even Pythagoreans) own this Set of Five (or is it six -- depends if the Tetrahedron is counted twice as self-dual).

Some would say returning to primitive Jesus (however spelled in Aramaic) means relinquishing Christianity as Jesus himself never laid claim to founding a new religion.  He was putting finishing touches on what he grew up with and Christianity per se did not start in earnest until quite a bit later.  So if a radical Quaker group were to say "we're not Christian" yet embrace Jesus as their savior, I'd be understanding.  However as recently as Descartes' day saying as much would be deemed heresy.  Those committed to branding as "Christians" have been known to overreact in the face of harmless observations (such as that Jesus was not a Christian).

Comment by Jim Wilson on 3rd mo. 9, 2016 at 12:53pm

Friend Patricia speaks my mind

Kirby, one of the difficulties faced by us modern today is the rejection of the transcendental -- that is almost the definition of what it means to be secular.  The early Quakers thought of the inner light as descending from a transcendental source.  Later Quakers redefined the inner light as 'individual conscience'.  (For a history of this transformation see Chuck Fager's books on the progressive Quakers.)  This shift from the transcendent to the individual effectively cut Quakers off from the source which gave rise to the Quaker tradition in the first place.  And it has had significant effects on Faith and Practice.  My favorite example is how the Peace Testimony has been redefined from a communal commitment to an individual leading, thereby undermining the commitment to Peace as a whole. 

Can we recover the transcendental ground which is the foundation of Quaker Faith and Practice?  I don't know; but I place my trust in the infinite love of that source.  In other words, through the grace of the inner light I do think it is possible; not by my own doing, but by surrendering to its guidance.

Comment by Kirby Urner on 3rd mo. 9, 2016 at 3:08pm

Greetings Jim. 

I was unaware of Chuck Fager's cogent distinction, between "transcendentalist Quakers" and a more modern conscience-based sort. 

That's convenient for me, as I count myself a transcendentalist in the literary sense, as in "New England transcendentalist" lineage, with representative writers Emerson and Thoreau (among others -- Dial Magazine an early vector for their writings, Margaret Fuller the editor). 

However, in my thinking "transcendentalist" is not in opposition to "secularist" which I'd claim to be also. 

To me, "secularism" involves giving priority to no one religion within the justice system, and keeping the space open for new religions to arise.  "The best religions are yet to come" is one of my advertising taglines. 

Secularism also entails upholding the right of others to engage in negative advertising vis-a-vis my religion, or against religion in general.  I defend the right of the general public to spoof, mock, disparage religions, cults, belief systems of whatever nature.  Dissent is permitted and protected as "free speech".

For example:  I recall doing a survey of Youtubes on Quakers for NPYM some ten years ago and encountering a number of damning ones; they were saying quite literally that Quakers were either going to hell or of the devil or both. 

As a secularist, I defend the rights of groups and individuals to make such offensive-to-Quakers videos (I was more amused than offended -- an ostensibly pro-Quaker Youtube could be far more offensive to my tastes).  I've embedded the compilation I came up with at that time:

Comment by Forrest Curo on 3rd mo. 10, 2016 at 12:32am

So far as 'individual consciences' are attuned to something which is actually transcendent, actually independent-of and beyond their individuality -- then they aren't "merely individual consciences" even when they seem, on the surface, to be embodying that transcendent foundation in diverse ways.

Comment by Kirby Urner on 3rd mo. 10, 2016 at 2:03am

I would agree, and also point out many Friends are easy with the notion of a shared transcendent collective unconscious in the Jungian sense.


That a mindset or bias transcends the individual is not proof of its Godliness, as wars start this same way, as a collective surge, a mob psychology, oft amplified by politicians. 

However, deep listening to a small voice within, practiced discernment, will help a Friend stay grounded in the transcendent Ocean of Light, rather than lost to an Ocean of Darkness.  '

Quakerism teaches about "expectant waiting" and not suckering for all the latest, apparently most fashionable, belief systems.


You need to be a member of QuakerQuaker to add comments!

Join QuakerQuaker

Support Us

Did you know that QuakerQuaker is 100% reader supported? If you think this kind of outreach and conversation is important, please support it with a monthly subscription or one-time gift.

You can also make a one-time donation.

Latest Activity

Keith Saylor posted a blog post

Drawn outside the reflective nature to guide human relations.

There are people who testify to the witness of how the Holy Spirit leads them to minister (guide…See More
10th month 5
Ginny left a comment for William F Rushby
"Thanks William. Unfortunately, I don't live in Western Australia but it is good to know there…"
9th month 28
William F Rushby left a comment for Ginny
"There are some Conservative and Conservative-leaning Friends in the Perth area."
9th month 28
Robert Ketron updated their profile
9th month 28
Ginny updated their profile
9th month 28
John Michael Wine liked Kirby Urner's discussion Thumbnail History
9th month 27
John Michael Wine liked Kirby Urner's discussion Thumbnail History
9th month 27
John Michael Wine liked William F Rushby's blog post Wisdom from an Old German Bpitst Brethren website
9th month 27

© 2021   Created by QuakerQuaker.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service