Way back I took one of those online quizzes that matched you up with your "ideal" belief system. Not suprisingly, Secular Humanism, UUism, and Liberal Quakerism were my top matches. As I noted then, and had mentioned the other night in a discussion about religion, I still identify myself with Friends because it's my birthright and it fits so neatly with my overall perspective of the world--obviously that was influenced by my upbringing and other philosophical inputs such as tikkun olam and satyagraha.
I've been reading about the history of Quakerism of late because Ericka expressed an interest and, quite frankly, I never really knew much beyond the immediate practices of my original Meeting and my ongoing life experience. Sure, I've known stories about Thomas Ellwood, Mary Dyer and others, but I had no real notion of the evolution of Quakerism since the days of George Fox. For me it's been a fascinating journey into the past--hopefully it has been for Ericka, too, since I read a lot of stuff out loud when I'm struck by something.
The current book is An Introduction to Quakerism. I have found the sect's history to be full of interesting paradoxes, including early perceptions of Friends by "the world":
Quakers were highly popular and therefore deemed especially dangerous: 'These vipers are crept into the bowels of your Commonwealth, and the governement, too', explained one; 'They grow numerous, and swarm all the nation over; every county, every parish'. They preached perfection, minimised the historic Christ, gave revelation authority over Scripture, and rejected ideas about heaven and hell...They were rude and politically suspect...
There was also popular hostility. Quakers were accused of being Catholics in disguise, of incest, buggery, witchcraft, and child sacrifice. They were stoned, mobbed, urinated on, and spat at. Most people in England in that period travelled less than 10 miles from their home in their lifetime so these preachers coming with their strange accents from elsewhere played into the xenophobia of the time. The trembling and shaking of the Quakers only made them appear more unusual...[T]he physical aspects of particularly women's ministry brought a strong reaction.
Women Friends, in particular, were viciously punished for their 'transgressive' Quaker behavior. They were incarcerated, pelted, stoned, kicked, spat upon, verbally harassed, and locked behind a 'scold's bridle,' a twenty-pound headcage used to punish any seventeenth-century Englishwoman for 'having too much tongue.' In the first two decades of Quakerism, literally thousands of these quaking women's bodies were put under control of the British state, who then systematically abused, tortured, and reinscribed their marks of power on these radical, subversive living texts of Christianity.
Interestingly, Quaker pacifism (I will use that term grudgingly for now) almost earned the movement more tolerance early on:
Margaret Fell met with Charless II early in his reign and wrote to him of Friends' peaceability:
This wee declare, That it is our principle, life & practice to live peaceably with all men, And not to act any thing against the King nor the peace of the Nation, by any plots, contrivances, insurrections, or carnall weapons to hurt or destroy either him or the Nation thereby, but to be obedient unto all just and lawfull Commands.
Left to Charles' own devices, Quakers might have been afforded freedom of worship. But the Court advisers wanted a return to a strong Anglican church and the outlawing of all heretical sects which had ascended during Cromwell's rule.
I also wonder if Quaker peaceability was deemed a threat to the restored State, as it often is. While Friends did not openly try to replace the government by establishing parallel institutions, they did engage in non-standard behaviors (e.g., plain speech, not doffing hats, which could be considered a rude gesture) to separate themselves from "the world".
Gay Pilgrim has analysed the style of early Friends in terms of the Foucauldian concept of heterotopia, the alternate ordering of everyday reality, i.e. the deliberate subvention of order through unexpected juxtaposition. She cites...the use of the courtroom and the prison.
Their court trials serve to illustrate the ways Friends created heteroptopic sites. Far from feeling intimidated, marginalized, and properly subordinated (let alone silenced) as the judicial system intended, Friends used this arena as a space in which to evangelize and inspire: as a platform from which they could preach. They treated a courtroom as a 'church', which was incongruous, unexpected and confusing...A space designed to impost a proper social order was used instead to challenge the prevailing power relations, encourage resistance to the prevailing culture and witness to an alternate ordering. It become a heterotopic site.
This was not a polite Quakerism, nor was it an ecumenical one. 'The world', that pejorative term to refer to the apostate, those who had fallen from the faith, was for early Friends everyone not Quaker. Quakers were co-agents with God over and against the world, 'Trampling all that is contrary under'.
Quakers saw themselves as that peculiar people, purified unto Christ. Peculiarity is a positive term, found in Scripture (e.g. Exod 19:5, Deut 14:1-2) and today the practices of these Friends are still referred to as 'the peculiarities'. In the nineteenth century...the value and nature of the 'hedge' of these peculiarities set up between Friends and the world became highly contested. However, in the eighteenth century, they were...a crucial means of helping this true church remain faithful.
This passage struck me not only because of the "hedge" but because of the particular use of 'peculiar' in this context. I immediately thought of the South's peculiar institution of slavery and wonder now if that word was specifically chosen for its Biblical meaning to further cement the bond between their euphemism and the Divine. Not sure if it counts as irony but the peculiar people, notably John Woolman, were the first abolitionists in the United States.
While I've never viewed Quakerism as monolithic or doctrinaire, there were debates about how to keep the true church true and schisms developed. For example:
The 'Shaking Quakers', later Shakers, or more formally the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, are a group who began as a breakaway from the Quaker Meeting in Bolton, England, in 1747. Led initially by the Wardleys, and later by 'Mother' Anne Lee (1736-84), the group moved to America in 1774 and became communitarian and celibate, establishing communities as far west as Kentucky. Their worship was ecstatic. They are also well known for their seed business, cooking, music, and furniture. A small group of Shakers continue to live in Maine.
I always like to remind people that Quakers, like certain NY Governors, are most assuredly NOT celibate. People also seem to assume that Quakers are humorless but I certainly appreciate humor, particularly the self-deprecating kind.
And that's part of the problem with trying to pigeonhole Quakerism, particularly Liberal Quakerism:
As early as the 1930s, Rufus Jones was apparently asked whether you had to be a Christian to be a Quaker. His answer is not known for certain, but the question itself is more interesting. In 1966 at London Yearly Meeting, British Friends rejected draft membership regulations as too doctrinally Christian. One Friend 'appealed for a place in the Society for those who, like himself, were reluctant to define their attitude in terms only of Christian belief'...Jane Scott's 1980 Swarthmore Lecture What canst thou say? Towards a Quaker Theology [is] symbolic of this shift. When faced with the question as to whether Quakers need to be Christian or not, Scott answers that it does not matter: 'what matters to Quakers is not the label by which we are called or call ourselves, but the life'.
The set of four characteristics of Liberal Quakers...(experience as primary; faith relevant to the age; open to new Light; progressivism), underpinned by a rationalist modernist approach that could accomodate higher criticism and Darwiniansm, meant that it was not tied to any text or tradition. That set of characteristics, so rooted in experience and its interpretation in changing times, each new revelation with more authority than the last, allowed and then encouraged Liberal Quakerism to be a religious enterprise always on the move.
Part of what has always attracted me to Quakerism, liberal or otherwise, has been the focus on peace testimony and following through in active works:
Those who sought appeasement before both World Wars may now be seen as naive but were attempting to live out their testimony against war and their modernist optimism in human nature. Rufus Jones was part of a mission to Germany in 1938 to try to secure the safe passage of Jews to Switzerland. The small group achieved the agreement of the Gestapo but the Second World War broke out before the plans could be carried through.
In 1917, a coalition of Friends formed the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to help co-ordinate Quaker relief work in war-torn Europe. Post-war relief, co-ordinated by the American Friends Service Committee and the Friends Relief Service in Britain, was widespread, with the AFSC being given (by the Quaker future President Herbert Hoover) the task of co-ordinating hunger relief on behalf of the American Government. Feeding programmes were established in France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Russia. Similar work was undertaken in the Spanish Civil War and after the Second World War. This led to the AFSC and London Yearly Meeting becoming joint recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. British Friends were not sure as to whether to accept but in the end the Harvard scholar Henry J Cadbury and Margaret Backhouse jointly collected the Prize from the Norwegian King.
AFSC is carrying on the tradition in Iraq and really is part of what drove me to consider my own passivity in the face of moral calamity. Rather than waiting for Gandhi, just as early Friends I decided to try acting "in the meantime," which can mean different things to different people:
Richard Nixon, whilst a President who appeared to do little to end his country's involvement in a number of wars, also pioneered new approaches to Russia and China during the Cold War period, moves that his obituarists linked to his Quaker upbringing. Nixon himself describes a strong Quaker upbringing in a tight-knit Quaker community...He called himself a Quaker but also claimed that he felt the peace testimony could only work if facing a 'civilised compassionate enemy'. 'In the face of Hitler and Tojo, pacifism not only failed to stop violence - it actually played into the hands of a barbarous foe and weakened home-front morale'.
After the events in the USA of September 11, 2001, Friends were divided over their support for the Bush administration and its moves to launch a military campaign in Afghanistan. Some, as has always been the case in national wars, felt the need to be patriotic or that these were exceptional circumstances in which the peace testimony was no longer appropriate...Scott Simon, a Quaker National Public Radio journalist, shocked other Quakers by publicly urging war. In his defence, he cited exceptional circumstances and, like the Free Quakers two centuries earlier, asked for ideological freedom within the Society.
I think Simon and Nixon misunderstand nonviolence and conflate it with pacifism, but at least they realized that inaction and impotence are useless and not really in line with Quaker, let alone Gandhian, ideals.
If you've made it to the end, congratulations. I don't really have any far-reaching conclusion except to say I hope this helps people understand a little bit better the peculiar people and philosophies I associate myself with.
PS--The title of today's post is taken from Richard Farnworth's directive of 1666.