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.



Views: 1421

Comment by Jim Wilson on 2nd mo. 21, 2015 at 10:28am

Good Morning:

Chuck Fager has written an insightful response to my post here, over at his blog.  I think it is well worth reading.  You can find it here:



Comment by Mackenzie on 4th mo. 3, 2015 at 5:40pm

Quoting Laura: 

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!  

I know where I got that impression. It was from seeing an image of the inside of an Evangelical Friends Church. There was a US flag up front. National flags are flown by armies in battle to show their sides. It was having such militaristic symbology that gave me the impression that militarism wasn't regarded as anathema to Evangelical Friends.

Comment by William F Rushby on 4th mo. 4, 2015 at 7:36pm

I know of an FGC meeting in the Midwest that had an organ and an American flag in its meeting room when friends and I visited in the 1970s. 

Comment by Olivia on 4th mo. 6, 2015 at 8:33am

Hello Jim,

I was initially at a loss for words at your joining together of a pro-war mentality and liberal /progressive friends.  I have not met those Quakers.  I met one so far -- at a meeting of about 650 people! -- who would go as far as enjoying the idea of a "band of brothers" as relayed to us through old war movies which were also the movies of his childhood.  But even this one out of 650 was not saying he was for Just War theory, etc.   Of course my experience is limited to only maybe 3 or 4 meetings, none of which had a flag flying up front either.

From other people's comments and your own clarification, I think I am pieces together that my lack of "getting" your meaning may have something to do with

- different uses of conservatism,

- an assumption that being progressive is being against tradition (which I would have previously seen but at the moment feels a wrong assumption to make).

I think these two areas I'm naming above may be the same thing...   

- I see Quakers as being profoundly against the mainstream traditions on the whole... and profoundly or pretty much universally interested in Peace and living simply and nonviolently with one another.  

- I see some as having "lost their way" such as George Fox University...though they may have never been actually been in line with Quaker peace testimony in the first place.   In this way, I see the evangelical influence in our society (not "evangelical" quakers, mind you) as being an influence on them:  those are the folks I see being most likely to support Just War.

- I have the impression so far that all branches within Quakerism (at this moment in America) are progressive, countercultural, peace-loving communities in an authentic -- if flawed -- way.  We are also simultaneously DEEPLY ABOUT Quaker tradition.

This is the view I see from where I stand anyway.  Am still puzzling a little over how you seem to be seeing things but I thought perhaps by articulating what my view looks like you could help me to understand better why you are putting progressive+tradition on opposite sides of the equation when it comes to Quakers.

(I completely agree with the notion that in mainstream society those are opposing forces, but that's not how we do things, right?)

Comment by Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 6, 2015 at 12:09pm

Good Morning Olivia:

Thanks for taking the time to make thy observations. 

I think it is difficult to generalize about the Quaker presence in the world at this time.  I get the impression that each Meeting has its own personality and emphases.  That's not a bad thing; in fact I find it attractive.  I only mention it because I don't really have numbers, or data, to back up a generalization about Quakers at this time.  In addition, I have almost zero knowledge about Quakers in Africa and South America who are, after all, the majority of Quakers in the world today.

Having said that, I want to say that I came to my observations about Progressive Quakers reluctantly, and only after interaction and reading.  I was, at first, genuinely surprised when I met Progressive Quakers (in person and online) who viewed the Peace Testimony as optional and not a defining commitment of Quaker Faith and Practice.  Sometimes I like to joke that a Quaker who has this attitude towards the Peace Testimony resembles people who call themselves 'vegetarian', but now and then eat chicken and fish.  That is a joke, btw.

I was genuinely puzzled when I encountered such Quakers and went on a search as to how this view arose.  This led me, eventually, to Fager's books which I found illuminating on this point.  It was the Progressives who were the most ardently supportive of W. W. I. and it was the Progressives who did so in a way that is really an embarassing read today; full of the kind of propagandistic slogans that are routine in wartime. 

In a way, it shouldn't be a surprise that it was the Progressive Quakers who undermined the Peace Testimony during W.W. I (and thereby left a pro-war legacy among modern Quakers today).  The Progressive Movement as a whole in the U.S. was strongly pro-war; the Progressive Movement was not a Peace Movement.  The pivotal person here is Woodrow Wilson because Progressives generally think of Wilson as a stellar example of progressivism.  It is only with the Vietnam War that American Progressives began to become, as a group, anti-war; but it is not a strong part of their heritage.  My sense is that Progressive Quakers identified with the Progressive Movement as a whole and absorbed the pro-war rhetoric, and the idea of American Exceptionalism, from that association. 

Within the Quaker community as a whole, I find the legacy of the Progressives to be profoundly corrosive.  This legacy exalts the individual over communal commitments, it exalts political activism over contemplation, and it exalts a chronocentric view of history which I am uneasy with.

And yet I do see what you are getting at regarding Quakers being 'pretty much universally interested in Peace and living simply and non-violently with one another.'  But I think there is a tension here between such a direction and the Progressive heritage.  I have come to feel that if we want to live lives of peace and simplicity, we have to overcome our Progressive heritage, or at least begin to examine its drawbacks.

Again, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Comment by Olivia on 4th mo. 10, 2015 at 7:25am

"Sometimes I like to joke that a Quaker who has this attitude towards the Peace Testimony resembles people who call themselves 'vegetarian', but now and then eat chicken and fish.  That is a joke, btw."

We'll said.  I would agree.

"In a way, it shouldn't be a surprise that it was the Progressive Quakers who undermined the Peace Testimony during W.W."
These points you make... make me think of democrats on the whole.  I have noticed that democrats have been disappointingly open to war and drone strikes and the like.   I don't associate this with Quakers though and find that odd that you do have this experience.  Is this observation actually about something else that those individuals are identifying as too, such as "small town republican" for example?  (nothing against those folks, but just referencing a pro-military stance)

"Within the Quaker community as a whole, I find the legacy of the Progressives to be profoundly corrosive.  This legacy exalts the individual over communal commitments, it exalts political activism over contemplation, and it exalts a chronocentric view of history which I am uneasy with."

I would be glad to hear what you mean about exalting of a chronocentric view of history.  

...and wouldn't you also find that the opposite of "corrosive" would hold of Progressives if the topic was women's rights, slavery, Native Americans rights (and other native peoples), inclusion of gay and transgender people, or other social justice matters, often achieved by people of great and progressive faith?  That progressives were God's grace in action too, and that SOMETIMES society's "conservatives" were stuck in a rut,  emblematic of a people who wanted to say they believed and listened to God but clearly weren't bothering to be touched by God in important ways ("the least of these" etc.)? 

I guess the thing is that I just can't imagine making the case that these values or positive social change for so many disenfranchised people should be dismissed as corrosive, lest one is on the wrong side of....history or whatever orientation you'd like to apply here. 

I am a strong believer in the Quietism you have spoken of in the past...but always with the adamant conviction that one must be quiet and still and waiting on God to fuel what God wants to fuel and fund what God wants to fund...and wait and wait until that happens or we finally give our concern over.    But none of that is to say that God doesn't then fuel or fund things.  The most radical changes may in fact be attributed to God, right?  The most effective ones, right?    Which must surely include progressives, by our definition of them.

I haven't heard someone I respect take such a broad swipe at liberals/progressives before -- and I DO respect you very much, Jim.  So I'm still trying to understand.  I hope this all comes down to different definitions for the words we are using...but I'm not sure yet that that's true.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 10, 2015 at 10:49am

Greetings Olivia:

This is a good discussion.  I find your observations articulate and they give me an occasion to rethink my views.

First, your comment about the Democratic party.  Historically the Democratic party has been a pro-war party.  Though it seems strange to say it today, it is actually Republicans in the past who questioned U.S. engagements and wars.  Lincoln, for example, spoke against the Mexican-American War when he was in the House of Representatives.  And it was Eisenhower who concluded the active phase of the Korean War.  Truman, a Democrat, was the one who launched the U.S. into that Asian conflict.  What I am pointing to is that there is no clear history of a commitment to peace, or to an anti-war stance, among Democrats or Republicans.  To be anti-war is to place oneself outside of that dichotomy.

You raise a good point regarding social justice issues.  Tentatively I would suggest that in the case of the anti-slavery views that became so prevalent in the RSoF, it was the traditional Quakers who were responsible for the cultivation of that view.  The transformation of the RSoF into an anti-slavery bulwark happened because owning slaves, or using slaves, became an offense for which one could be ejected from one's Meeting.  This was the Quaker equivalent of excommunication.  Recalcitrant Quakers, who continued to own or deal in slaves, were pressured to reform and to conform to the Discipline of the Meeting.

What I am thinking here is that it was precisely the disciplined structure of Quaker Faith and Practice during the period of Quietism that allowed for this reform.  Yet Progressive Quakers today  bemoan this structure and consider it in some sense oppressive and rigid (one friend who is a Friend, and a self-identified Progressive, actually referred to this structure as 'fascist').  Yet without that structure there would have been no mechanism for reform and transformation.  So, in a sense, I am suggesting that it was actually the traditional (I prefer the term 'traditional' to the term 'conservative' because the term 'conservative' has political implications today which, I think, don't really fit the group we are talking about) Quakers who generated the context which allowed for radical egalitarian ideas to take root.  From this perspective, I see a continuity between traditional Quaker Faith and Practice and Quakers today.  But from what I have read, Progressive Quakers today tend to dismiss the traditional Quakers as 'hierarchical' and inflexible; and I think that is not warranted.

'Chronocentrism' is a word I invented to describe those who view the current time as in some way inherently superior to the past; it is a view that morally privileges the present.  This kind of view cuts us off from our own past because we conceptually regard it as backward, ignorant, and in most ways unworthy.  Fager talks about this in one of his books about Progressive Friends.  The idea of progress is central to an American view of the world, but it is one that I do not share.  For example, when I look at the 20th century I do not see a century of progress; rather I see an almost continuous series of slaughters, tyrannies, and destructions.  It depends, of course, on one's focus; I admit to the subjectivity of my view.  Nevertheless, it does not seem to me that people have become in any significant way 'better'.

If one does not view history chronocentrically then the past becomes a repository of experience from which one can learn, rather than a bleak backwardness.  One of the consequences of Progressive Friends is a kind of severing ourselves from our past.  I have said this before, but I think it is worth repeating here, I don't know of any other religious tradition that has so thoroughly rejected its past.  Both Liberals and Evangelicals regard the period of Quietism as deficient, as having little or nothing to offer, and as something that we are happy to have left behind and overcome. 

When I first became aware of Quaker Quietist thought I found myself deeply attracted to it.  It is in that period where I find the greatest nourishment for my journey.  Perhaps this is to a significant extent simply a matter of personality.  I'm an introvert; I prefer solitude and silence.  And it is in the period of Quaker Quietism that I find such an inclination to be supported.

Right now I have to go to work; I might have more to say about this later.


Comment by Howard Brod on 4th mo. 11, 2015 at 11:58am

"Individual conscience" has become the idol that modern people worship, including all of us who so eagerly express our opinions here without receiving "clearness" from our faith communities.  For early Friends and modern religious cults, the idol worshipped was(is) mindless group think hoisted on the faithful by elders or priests by using the threat of disownment at best and hell at worst.

I think all branches of modern Friends: liberal, evangelical, conservative, and pastoral (orthodox) have tried to strike a balance between these two idols.  Good for them! Unless we go back to disowning, what other choice do we have?  I for one think all of these Quaker branches have worked hard to reach the "sweet spot" in their balancing act as they seek truth and the Light.

Modern Quaker meetings/churches are organic spiritual communities where the members/participants are at various stages of spiritual awareness and development.  People come and people go - as is true with all that is modern.  It is only in the religious cults where people are kept "captive" to testimonies or doctrines by threats of shunning or public humiliation.  If that ever becomes the norm for Quakers (again), you won't see me ever again in a meetinghouse.  I would venture to say, you all feel similarly.

Even with the freedom of conscience that is present in most Quaker meetings/churches, you overwhelmingly see traditional Quaker values (testimonies) emphasized in all branches of Friends.  The liberal Quaker meetings in these parts all respect and support the Peace testimony - even if individual members waver from it.  I think that says a lot for a group that allows and respects individual conscience.  Maybe the Light of Christ is present within these communities after all, and is manifesting within those Friends' consciences as they grow in the Light.

How beautiful!

Comment by Olivia on 4th mo. 11, 2015 at 5:45pm

Hi Howard!

Thank you for pointing out these "two idols" -- that so easily our basis for divine connection may itself be an icon... (our traditions, or our conscience)

"It is only in the religious cults where people are kept "captive" to testimonies or doctrines by threats of shunning or public humiliation.  If that ever becomes the norm for Quakers (again), you won't see me ever again in a meetinghouse.  I would venture to say, you all feel similarly."

I have to smile at the thought you've evoked because I think at this point in my life I couldn't be satisfied anywhere else so I'd likely be with the Quakers until I got shunned myself (and on my good days, I hope I'd be up for that journey).  From what you've shared online in the past, and Jim as well, I wouldn't put it past you two to get yourself booted out as well, if "letting your light shine" brought that about. 

Howard, Thank you for your profound spirit -- and your respect for all our beautiful branches of faith. 

Comment by Olivia on 4th mo. 11, 2015 at 5:49pm

Hi Jim, 

You said:

"This is a good discussion.  I find your observations articulate and they give me an occasion to rethink my views."

Thank you very much for your thoughtful reconsiderations re: social justice and your observations about our political parties.  I agree that being anti-war is typically not a dominant perspective among either democrats OR republicans and represents a counter-cultural stance.  However I never thought to separate it from "Democrats" before so I've been hanging out at "disappointed in them".

You said:  "'Chronocentrism' is a word I invented to describe those who view the current time as in some way inherently superior to the past; it is a view that morally privileges the present.  This kind of view cuts us off from our own past because we conceptually regard it as backward, ignorant, and in most ways unworthy."

Well THAT was well worth defining!   Certainly enriches the conversation.

The Gospel or otherwise the Christ-centered prayer time always seems to me to lead one toward a sense of timelessness, a taste of infinity (and I expect the Holy Spirit that works through other faith traditions than my own conveys this there too).  To me, our humanity, power, righteousness, and also our corruption was just as present at that time as this time.   There were miracles then, there are miracles now, there was oppression then and there's oppression now; there's always been and always will be the eternal, unpopular need to shine one's divine light in the darkness of some form of tyranny or other (and it will always feel better to be filled with Light in the midst of darkness... than it would to never be challenged with darkness at all...for only then do your experience that all that darkness has no power over you).  

But all that said, for any single person   it IS better for their faith to be lived in the present than in the past.  If the Gospel feels like something "old" and "past" it doesn't have much to offer that person.  It is only if it is a present resonance within them, fresh and alive, that it gives them so much Light about what has come before ("the past").   It may be that getting ourselves into the present moment (within us) actually leads to this opening about "the past".  I don't know.

I see possible a joyful journey and challenge that is both timeless (traditional, in a sense, not making the assumptions of the present being better than the past) and timeless (mystical, mysterious, and new...progressive in a sense).   I think I was seeing "progressivism" as always turning toward the new, embracing the needed changes.   So while for me that's a powerful and necessary faith perspective...I can certainly recognize that there's an external version of it that's more about "getting stuck not getting ourselves timeless".   

Am I hearing you more clearly, now...your original inner movement that led to this post?


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