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 Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 15, 2015 at 11:19am

Howard, I think your observation about striking a balance between the individual conscience and communal commitments is a good one.  From that perspective I can see more of a continuity from the period of Quietism to today's Friends because I can see it more as a spectrum and where a group, or Meeting, places its emphasis.  And you are right; it is beautiful.

Olivia: I think of time as a field rather than as a series of moments.  The past is, using this analogy, that clump of oaks in the distance.  The future is that creek over the hill.  And the present is where I am standing, looking at it all.  From this perspective the past and future are present on the field of time in the same way as the future.  Just a metaphor, but one I have found helpful.  It helps me to overcome the idea of progress.  If I move on the field from the oaks to the creek, I have changed scenes, but one scene is not superior to the next.  There is no progress; just a change of scenery.

It is helpful to me that you brought up timelessness.  Ultimately, I think of the Quaker tradition as a vehicle for participants to enter into, and become acquainted with, the timeless dimension of existence.  I think of the inner light as the presence of eternity in the ephemeral individual.  Becoming aware of this dimension of existence changes one's view of the present, and of one's life.  One begins to comprehend things from the perspective of eternity.  It is like one of my favorite Catholic Saints, Claire of Assisi, who said, "Place your mind before the mirror of eternity."  My feeling is that the experience of the inner light is that same kind of experience.  What I am getting at is that I see the Quaker journey as a way of living in two worlds: the world of the present, the world of one's unfolding biography, and the second world, the world of that which always exists, the presence of eternity.  One foot is in the world of change and the cycles of existence, and the other foot is in the world of the timeless and transcendent.  We can enter into the timeless on a bridge of light that takes us from the world of constant change to the world which lies beyond and is our true home.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 16, 2015 at 11:40am

I want to take a moment to respond to Chuck Fager's thoughtful response to my post.  I posted the link to Fager's response above.

If I understand Fager's response, his central point is that Quaker's began questioning the peace testimony long before W.W. I. and that, therefore, the loss of a communal commitment to the peace testimony cannot be primarily attributed to the Progressives.  Fager sites those Quakers who participated in the Civil War as a primary example.  In my defense, I did note in my post that the Civil War was a starting point for this kind of questioning among Quakers.

After giving Fager's response a lot of thought, I would like to suggest that the Progressive Quaker support of W.W. I. is qualitatively different from Quaker involvement in the Civil War and W.W. II.  In the Civil War the argument for participation was that though war was a great evil, slavery was in some ways an even greater evil and that therefore participation, though unfortunate, was justified.  In this case, the moral dilemma of the situation was central.

The same can be said for W.W. II.  The U.S. was attacked, so participation in W.W. II. could be construed as self-defense.  Self-defense is one of those gray areas that even committed pacifists disagree over.  For this reason I can follow the logic of those Quakers who decided to actively participate in W.W. II.

Though personally I would have been among Quakers who would have opposed active participation in these conflicts, I can empathize with the moral dilemma and sympathize with those who opted for active participation. 

In the case of W.W. I., however, it is difficult for me to empathize with the Progressives who supported Quaker involvement.  The U.S. was not attacked.  It was not threatened.  The U.S. had no vested interests or allies who were threatened.  It really made no difference to the U.S. which side won.  And the reasons for the launching of W.W. I. (unlike the Civil War and its anti-slavery roots) were arbitrary tiffs among elites.  No great moral issue was on the table.  Both sides behaved execrably.  Yet the Progressive Quakers failed to see through the pro-war propaganda pushing for U.S. involvement.  It is really painful to read what they had to say about it.  It is both painful and shameful.  And, I believe, it has left a problematic legacy among modern Quakers today. 

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the start of W.W. I.  Ceremonies were held, books published, conferences held.  The pointlessness of the conflict was often highighted.  Perhaps the time has come for Quakers, particularly those who identify with the Progressive Quaker legacy, to re-examine their involvement in this conflict and the Progressive legacy as a whole.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 16, 2015 at 4:47pm

Each war, at the time, is held up as a great moral effort. On closer examination you can make a pretty good case that each and every one has turned out suspect in its motives, morally corrupting in the way it was carried out and in the new evils it introduced and rendered customary.

It looks to me that there are "necessary evils" in this sense: 'sufferings that God has needed to impose on people to save us from greater harm, and for our long term greater good.' The human idea that we are obligated to do and promote certain "necessary evils" is based on mistaken views of what it's possible for us to know or do: That is, we don't in fact know the actual effect of us doing or not doing anything except in retrospect; and even then we can't know what would have happened had we thought or done differently. The example of Jesus implies that it is never necessary to do evil.

Comment by Olivia on 4th mo. 18, 2015 at 10:59am

Thank you for sharing this thought, Forrest.   This is a very humble, compelling comment "The example of Jesus implies that it is never necessary to do evil."

Jim, thank you for the further thoughts on the field of timelessness or whatever we are calling that.   It's easy for that to look like a step backward to people -- the fact that we are not leading with "what progress we've made!" -- but this field/timelessness may be easily underestimated as a "less than" thing when it truly feels magical and spiritually grounded.

I realize I may be starting to sound really dumb here (and may in fact BE really dumb here) but I don't associate this view about "rah! rah! progress!" with progressivism at all.  I actually see progressives being people who feel that society has a lot of ills, same as it ever was, and change is needed to bring us to a better place.  AND/OR  people who have found very counter-cultural ways to go ahead and live in that divine joy. 

To me these are very "progressive" people and scenarios -- they include people who are doing healing work with the Divine, people who are living simply and "fighting for" peace, people who are into goofy, wonderful, ways of right-living like Permaculture.   This is why I experiencing your initial rejection of progressives as a non sequitur.  To me all of Quakerism is filled with these wonderful progressives.  ha

Comment by Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 20, 2015 at 12:30pm

Good Morning Olivia:

You may be right about how contemporary self-identified progressives understand their own view.  But the context of my post was Fager's two books.  In the 'Introduction' to Fager's 'Angels of Progress' Fager defends what I call a chronocentric view of progress (what you referred to as 'rah! rah! progress').  Here is a quote from page 2:

"I'ts something of an axiom in mainstream American history texts that the idea of 'Progress,' the conviction that tomrrow-will-be-better, flourished in the mid to late nineteenth century, but then crashed and burned in the flames of World War One.  And, the story continues, if any such dewy-eyed optimists survived the trenches, the Great Depression and then World War Two finished them off for good."

Fager defends the late nineteenth century view of progress and considers modern historians to be cynics.  Fager continues:

"But I'm here to deny the axiom: in the non-textbook United States, the idea of Progress did not go down with the Lusitania; it wasn't bankrupted by the Crash (either one), and not even the opening of Nazi death camps, traumatic as that was, managed to bury it."

Fager then references a variety of sources to back this up, including politicians and advertising.  And then Fager concludes:

"So maybe the idea of Progress is not a complete irrelevance today.  Maybe its 'narrative' is even residually 'grand' enough to illuminate the evolution of a tiny religious group on the margins of the American scene, and indeed the edges of its religious landscape.  I think so." (Page 3)

What I'm getting at is that Fager's books on Progressive Quakers are also a defence, or 'apology' for this nineteenth century idea.  I find myself unable to align with Fager's view of this idea and how it has shaped the American consciousness.  I find it painful reading Fager's sources.  For example, here is Lucretia Mott talking about the Peace Testimony in 1848, "Do we not see the progress that these principles have made?  Was there ever a period in history when nations were so prolific of events as at the present moment, giving promise of being consummated by the ultimate realization of the higher principles of 'peace on earth, and good will to man,' calling into action the high moral sentiments of the people and tending to arrest the sword of the destroyer?  Truly this law of progress is worthy of our admiration." (Page 11)

So there she is writing in 1848 as if humanity had reached a pinnacle of peace, as if this is self-evident, as if there is some kind of historical 'law of progress' that guarantees humanity will march ever forward into a grand future.  When I read this my reaction is one of embarassment that someone could be so deluded, so out of touch with human nature. 

Contemporary progressives may be redefining what 'progressive' means.  I suspect that is the case.  But for me what Fager has accomplished is a sense that the Progressive Quakers where deeply misguided, deeply misunderstood the historical moment they were living in.  And if that is the case, if they were so misguided about the peace of their time, and if they were, as a group, so gung-ho about World War One, doesn't that lead one to suspect that they may have been equally misguided about their other platforms.  I am thinking, for example, of the move to hyper-individualism, which Fager documents as a triumph.  Or their abolishing of communal commitments.  Isn't it all a single, tightly-woven, fabric?  From my perspective, the fabric has completely unravelled.


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