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.



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Comment by Mackenzie on 2nd mo. 11, 2015 at 12:34pm

O_O I'm generally in the "Liberal Friends" category, but the Just War theory? I've never heard that from another Quaker. Catholics, sure. I was making disgusted noises flipping through a Catholic newsletter when visiting my family's parish shortly after I'd started attending Meeting, but I tend to think of the Peace Witness as being the defining thing about Liberal Friends. You can be an atheist, you can disregard every other testimony Friends have ever held, but you must be a pacifist. That's just freaky to me to think that there are non-pacifist Liberal Friends!

On the other hand, I did get the impression (somewhere, not sure where) that it was less of a thing for the Evangelical branch, maybe just because jingoism and Evangelical Christians seem to go together. 

Comment by Ramona on 2nd mo. 11, 2015 at 5:40pm

Mackenzie: I'm probably in the Liberal Friends category...and I am not a pacifist. Not every Quaker is...

Comment by Laura Scattergood on 2nd mo. 14, 2015 at 10:46pm

Hi McKenzie,  I am a member of the Evangelical Branch of Friends, although I have not participated for some time because of geography and perhaps I might now more properly be though of as on The "Q Continuum" (as Describe by Peggy Sengar, spelling of surname?)  However, I can tell thee that "pacifism" was quite, quite, quite a big thing! It was an important part of First Day school, it was an important part of discussions, it was just plain important!  Although I would say, more strongly the word used was not "Pacifism" as that is sort of a political term, and what we were talking about was  living in the way that takes away the occasion for all war.  Some kind person Quaker, a Conservative Friend, once said that he felt Evangelical Quakers were often misunderstood, and that is so true.  There is a kind of Universal Quaker culture I will say, and there are certain tacit understandings and cultural behaviors that might be noticed across the Q continuum.  And there are these tiny Quaker subcultures too  I noticed that Evangelical Quakers may hold views that politically and culturally set them apart radically from the views held by what might be known, just for the sake of this discussion, as "The Religious Right".  However Evangelical Quakers tend to be pretty non-confrontational, meek in manner and highly tolerant.  In fact I will say that I have experienced greater inclusivity and tolerance among Evangelical Friends, than in other circles, Quakers and other "broad minded" related groups.   I also might add that when the terms "Conservative Friends" and "Evangelical Friends" are used, it is my opinion that those categories are not at all parallel with what the terms Conservative and Evangelical mean in other contexts.  I think most people are clear that "Conservative Friends" does not refer to Conservative Politics or Conservative Theology framed by the doctrines of mainstream Steeple House Folks, but asserts  the Conservation of things Essentially Quaker.   While Evangelical Friends may have been influenced by Protestant denominations, the term "Evangelical" predates the connotations acquired in recent decades and has a distinctive meaning within Quaker contexts. 

I have met many Evangelical Quakers who are far more radical than Liberal Quakers I have met, and I have met Liberal Quakers who assert that war is necessary.  Anywhoo, let's stop dividing each other, as much as we are able.   .  We cannot define ourselves easily,  but neither can we divide ourselves easily.   

Comment by Jim Wilson on 2nd mo. 15, 2015 at 10:02am

Thanks, Friends, for the thoughtful comments.  I think I need to clarify what I wrote.  I am not saying that all Liberal Friends are pro-war, or that Liberal Friends, on the individual level, do not have an honorable history of opposition to participation in war.  Chuck Fager is himself a good example of a Liberal Friend who has dedicated much of his life to such opposition.

What I wanted to highlight was the shift from a defining, and communal, commitment to the individual inclination, or 'conscience'.  This shift opened the door for those who do not consider the peace witness as central and defining, that is to say binding.  I see that as significant.  My view is that the Quaker Peace Witness can only be consistently maintained if it has a transcendental basis; otherwise what happens is a return to the cultural default of the Just War Theory.  I know this sounds abstract, but it has practical effects.  I was very puzzled when I met Liberal Quakers who quite easily supported Obama's military interventions; it seemed weird to me.  Fager's books have helped clarify why that is possible in a Liberal Quaker context.

Regarding Evangelical Friends, with whom I have no direct experience, I nevertheless believe that the significance of the Richmond Declaration inclines Evangelicals to a stronger commitment to the Peace Witness.  The Declaration contains a strong, and well-worded, commitment to this.  For this reason, I tend to think that many Evangelicals are more 'radical' in their commitments to the Peace Witness.

I confess that I do not have numbers to back up these observations, so keep that in mind.  My observations are impressionistic and based on my admittedly limited interactions.  I suspect, therefore, that with more experience more nuance would be added.

NOTE: I am in a situation where I have computer access intermittently for the next week.  So if I do not approve comments quickly, that is the reason.

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 2nd mo. 15, 2015 at 11:25am

The undermining of the peace witness is a consequence of the larger problem, as I think you agree, Jim. Much more  than the peace witness was lost with the shift of our Society's basis in the transcendent power to the different basis in individual conscience. But the peace witness is a high profile example of the problem. Some years ago I put together an outline of the changing reasons given by yearly meetings through the centuries as to why we have a peace witness. I'll post that separately, as it's too long to be a comment here. But I'd like to focus on the shift in the Society from the traditional understanding that was based in the light within to a basis in individual conscience.  

That shift gives rise to a question. Is it better for people to maintain our Society's tradition, even when its tenets are no longer understood; or is it better for people to turn to the highest arbiter of right action that seems real? Neither option is best, which would be individual realization of the transcendent power that unites in faith. Prophets preach Christ the Word that reaches to the witness of God within. But the question is, what context is most conducive for receiving the Word, both now and in future generations: one in which the tradition is honored, or one in which it is not?

Keeping to the tradition is preferable, I think, because  spiritual formation entails a realization that we aren't in the space that we need to be; the tradition doesn't allow for ignoring this humbling fact, yet also points beyond it: 

 "...in the midst of its administering death and condemnation, it pointed to him who was the justification and the life; insomuch as the law was kind to them in slaying them, and serviceable to the life of such souls as kindly received the stroke thereof, and fled to the hope set before them (Works of Penington, 2:274).

It's a hard sell, given the false freedom that accompanies the neglect of the tradition's humbling process of dying to the self.    

Comment by James C Schultz on 2nd mo. 15, 2015 at 5:56pm

I think that it is an important point to differentiate between the Conscience and the Light.  Quaker terminology can confuse things that if left to biblical terminology would not be so confusing.  While the conscience starts out as a product of our religious and secular culture, it is capable of being transformed by the "Light" (Christ to this Quaker Christian) to a purified state in which it can be trusted to hear from and follow Jesus (The Light to many Quakers) without an intermediary.  It is this purified conscience that frees us from needing a creed and blind observance of any specific Thou Shalt Not(s).  Community discernment or a clearness committee is a definite plus in making such decisions.  I would even say it was a necessity if I could assure myself that enough qualified members for such a committee could be found in a local body.

Comment by Laura Scattergood on 2nd mo. 16, 2015 at 9:28am

Ahhhh yes the, the central theme of the essay.  I would have failed that question on the SAT, as I frequently do on this website.  Thanks for pulling us back to the theme.  The emergence of individual conscience as the compass and source of instruction amongst the People Called Quakers

Comment by Daniel Wilcox on 2nd mo. 17, 2015 at 11:44am

Intriguing to hear about Fager's two new histories. I look forward to reading them.

However, I'm not to surprised about how Quakers moved away from the Peace testimony, based on the various histories I've read of the 19th century and 20th century.

Even though my own experience is limited, of course, I can think of quite a few cases in both the "liberal" and "evangelical" branches (to which I've both belonged) where the testimony was more of a "just" war and personal inclination, rather than a transcendent truth.

Jim, you wrote, "Regarding Evangelical Friends, with whom I have no direct experience, I nevertheless believe that the significance of the Richmond Declaration inclines Evangelicals to a stronger commitment to the Peace Witness."

In my experience as a Quaker teacher, representative at yearly meeting among, etc., I think the Richmond Declaration had very little impact. Yes, members gave, lip service to it, but emphasized, like so many Christians that the way to peace was through war. Our yearly meeting even supported nuclear weapons, to ensure peace of course.

The only evangelical Quakers that I know of who support the peace testimony as a transcendent truth are some members in Northwest Yearly Meeting (the yearly meeting which, allegedly, in the past had the highest number of conscientious objectors, many more than the "liberal" meetings).

And even in NWYM, it seems that the testimony is one of individual conscienc, not the truth. There are many, it is my understanding, (though I don't have stats on it), if not most, who now support just war and even nationalistic war.

Comment by James C Schultz on 2nd mo. 18, 2015 at 1:25pm

support for war has increased due to switching from an omnipotent God who we can't understand or control and a recognition that war brings out the worst in us  to a "democratic" style of government that we think we can control and understand based on an intellectual assessment that we are basically a good people who would not harm anyone unless it was absolutely necessary.

Comment by James C Schultz on 2nd mo. 19, 2015 at 11:04am

I am a convinced Quaker and have no allegiance to the "Peace" Testimony.  I am a Quaker because I believe the Quaker Process is the way to determine the will of God for any particular situation.  Having said that my understanding of war is based on one scripture:

Mat 26:52 Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.

I would point out that David was not allowed by God to build a temple for God because God saw David as a "man of blood".   We have to be careful to base our conclusions about anything on isolated scriptures but we should always be very careful not to ignore them completely or to take the consequence lightly. 


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