The Authenticity of Liberal Quakerism
By Chuck Fager
In a Quaker theology discussion in which I took part, the following question was posed:
"How, in light of the divergence in practice and
belief between liberal and evangelical Quakers, can we both rightfully
claim to be Friends?"
Here I will consider the liberal side of that query.
In my observation, thoughtful and reasonably
well-informed liberal Friends stake their claim to Quaker authenticity
on four grounds:
- their understanding of the Quaker View of the Church;
- their understanding of the Bible;
- their understanding of Jesus;
- their understanding of the last two centuries of Quaker history.
Let me address each of these points briefly.
The Liberal Understanding of the Quaker View of the Church
It was Robert Barclay, in the Apology, who best laid
out the distinctive Quaker view of the true church: that it is
invisible and universal, not limited to any worldly institution, creed
or culture. Further, he asserted that "There may be members of this
catholic [that is, universal] Church not only among the several sorts
of Christians, but also among pagans, Turks [that is, Muslims] and
Jews." (Freiday edition, p. 173) I think it important to point out that
"Turks" and "Jews" were not at all ignorant of Christianity; in fact,
they had a special knowledge and intimacy with it, and rejected it.
Nevertheless, according to Barclay, they were still fully eligible for
membership in the true church.
This was a very controversial understanding of the
church in 1678; it remains controversial, even (or perhaps
particularly) among Friends more than 300 years later. Yet it was a
conviction often repeated by some of the most revered of founding
Friends, as well as later luminaries including John Woolman, and
contemporary Friends such as Jim Corbett, our own desert prophet. I
could fill several pages with quotes of such restatements, which are
far more eloquent than I will ever be.
Theologically, I define Liberal Quakerism as:
An ongoing effort to make visible a particular portion of
the true Church, by means of the specific traditions and disciplines of
the Religious Society of Friends. This very idea of manifesting the
True Church is, we believe, rooted in the early Quakers' unique and
inclusive understanding of the Society's Christian background and
origins. The key Quaker disciplines by which this part of the Church is
constituted are: silence-based, unprogrammed worship; a free ministry
led by the spirit; decision-making by the worshipful sense of the
meeting; church structures kept to a spartan, decentralized minimum;
cultivation of the inward life of both individual and the group; a
preference for unfolding experience of truth, or "continuing
revelation," over creeds and doctrinal systems; and devotion to the
historic but evolving Quaker testimonies, especially peace, simplicity
In tune with this definition, many liberal meetings
now express their understanding of the church's universality by not
requiring an explicit Christian profession as a requirement for
membership. That is, we no longer consider such profession to be a
defining characteristic of authentic religion in the Quaker mode.
Instead, when dealing, say, with an applicant for membership, we
attempt to delve beneath outward verbal or doctrinal statements to
discern a newcomer's status in this invisible, universal fellowship, as
well as their readiness to uphold our distinctive Quaker practices and
To be sure, this approach is fallible, and not
beyond criticism. I will address one common complaint, that as a result
of not requiring a Christian commitment liberal Quakerism lacks
identity and limits, in a few moments. This approach certainly does
result in faith communities which are theologically mixed, with some
members Christian and some not. But this is not seen among us as a
drawback; and my point here is that at its base is an idea that we
believe is neither new to nor subversive of foundational Quakerism.
Thus, acting on its implications in this way does not appear strange to
us, as it evidently does to some.
The Liberal Understanding of Scripture
Barclay quoted many scriptural passages in support
of this inclusive Quaker view of the true church, such as the famous
"Quaker text" in John 1:9 which describes Christ as the "true light
that enlightens every one who comes into the world." Or Titus 2:11,
which declares that "the grace of God which bringeth salvation hath
appeared to all men (and women)." Again, he cited numerous other
similar passages which I will not take time to repeat here. If there is
any truth in these passages, as many Friends and I agree with Barclay
that there is, can we really justify shutting our doors against those
who do not use the same words as we to express what we discern to be
their saving experience of this universally available grace? Some would
say yes, we can and must shut our doors. But Barclay, numerous passages
of scripture, and most liberal Friends say otherwise, and I agree.
The Liberal Understanding of Jesus
Again and again in the gospels, Jesus lifts up as
models people who, like the Good Samaritan, held theological notions
that were totally incorrect in the biblical framework, and mistaken
according to Jesus' own declared conviction in John 4:22 that
"salvation is from the Jews." (John 4:22). I believe this pattern of
focussing on "heretics" is not an accident. My conclusion is
strengthened by a reading of Jesus' own scenario of the last judgment,
in Matthew 25:31-46. In this crucial passage, where "all the nations"
are assembled before him, and the "sheep" are separated out from the
"goats," Jesus is very specific in explaining why some will fall into
one group and some the other: "I was hungry...thirsty...homeless...you
did it to the least of these...you did it to me." (25:35-40)
But wait. Read the passage again: Nowhere in it does
Jesus say to the "sheep" that they are saved because they accepted him
as their "personal savior" or affirmed any other doctrinal particular.
Nor are the "goats" condemned because they failed to make such
declarations. Did the requirement of doctrinal correctness, so
important to many today, somehow slip Jesus' mind here, in what is
undeniably a foundational discourse? I don't think so. Indeed, earlier
in Matthew (7:21-23), Jesus sharply challenged such requirements in
another comment on the judgment:
Not everyone who says to me "Lord, Lord," will enter the
kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, did we not prophesy in your
name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many
wonders?" and then I will declare to them, "I never knew you: Depart
from me, you who practice wickedness."
This is, incidentally, the same passage where Jesus
warns his followers to "judge a tree by its fruits," that is, not by
their words and affirmations of some doctrinal orthodoxy. (7:15-19).
The clear thrust of these and other passages seems to me to relativize
theology and denomination in just the same way Barclay does.
But how can this be?
For some Friends, accepting Christ is the sine qua non,
the acid test, the issue above all issues. And of course there are
other New Testament passages which do make exclusivist claims. I have
considered this issue in two Bible study texts, A Respondent Spark and
Wisdom and Your Spiritual Journey. I explore it further in my book on recent
liberal Quaker theology and history, Without Apology.
My argument, in sum, is that scripture contains many and often sharply
diverse views, and no theology I have seen has been able to reconcile
them all. Moreover, all Christian-based communities known to me have
used scriptural texts selectively to serve as their touchstones, or
"hermeneutical keys." Those who claim not to be scripturally selective
are, I believe, deceiving themselves, or being deceived. In light of
this history, those who argue for doctrinal Christian exclusivity can
indeed make a plausible case from their selected scriptures, employing
their hermeneutical keys. But Barclay and inclusive liberals can make a
plausible case from theirs as well; and I side with them.
The Liberal Understanding of the Last Two Centuries of Quaker History
Finally, the current mixed theological character of
liberal Quakerism is the outcome of a long process of communal
reflection and evolution on the shape and place of the Religious
Society of Friends, in the world and among the world's religions. The
history of this evolution has not yet been told in a detailed,
scholarly way. I understand that Earlham's Thomas Hamm is soon to turn
his formidable talents to a major portion of it, the history of the
Hicksite movement after the 1827 separation, and I look forward to the
results of his work. In the meantime, other students such as myself are
left to make the best impressionistic sense of this rich history that
We know, for instance, from George Fox's empathetic
treatment of Islam and the Koran, which he evidently knew quite well,
that a distinctive openness to other faiths was part of Quakerism even
at the beginning. To this one could add such classic anecdotes as those
about John Woolman's visits among Native Americans. More recently, many
Friends have worked, studied, worshipped with, and learned much from
other religious groups, such as devotees of Zen Buddhism.
These and other similar experiences clearly have had
an important impact on the faith of many liberal Quakers. Some decry
this impact as a dilution or adulteration. I can understand this
concern, but in my experience, it seems in most cases to be rather an
I would like to add to these examples a few which
have loomed large in my own studies. The first comes, not from a
strange far country, nor for that matter the even more trackless
wilderness of postmodern academia. It is rather from our own good grey
Quaker bard, John Greenleaf Whittier. Re-reading Whittier's religious
and Quaker-oriented poems, as I have been doing recently, it has seemed
obvious to me that they serve as the imaginative previsioning of the
path liberal Quakerism has trod since.
To see what I mean, let's consider a few stanzas, first from his long poem, "The Meeting":
I know how well the fathers taught,
What work the later schoolmen wrought;
I reverence old-time faith and men,
But God is near us now as then...
And still the measure of our needs
Outgrows the cramping bounds of creeds;
The manna gathered yesterday
Already savors of decay....
Or from "Miriam":
And I made answer: "Truth is one;
And in all lands beneath the sun,
Whoso hath eyes to see may see
The tokens of its unity.
No scroll of creed its fulness wraps,
We trace it not by school-boy maps,
Free as the sun and air it is
Of latitudes and boundaries.
In Vedic verse, in dull Koran,
Are messages of good to man...."
There are many other similar passages.
Of course, Whittier was about as loyally Christian
in his basic outlook as one could hope for; he was much impressed by
the preaching of Joseph John Gurney, the godfather of evangelical
Quakerism. Yet his mature faith, as glimpsed in these lines, is
simultaneously at one with the inclusive view of the Church which
Barclay expounded and which I am describing here.
Some have said such a combination is impossible or
self-contradictory. I believe they are mistaken, and call Friend
Greenleaf as Exhibit A. In their survey volume, The Quakers,
Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost, two leading Quaker historians,
rightly conclude that "Whittier's influence paved the way for the
emergence of liberalism among Gurneyite Quakers." (p. 376)
Evidence for this conclusion can easily be found in
sources beyond his poetry. Whittier was a great personal hero to three
other central figures in this history. One was Rufus Jones, a longtime
favorite target of Orthodox and evangelical Quaker critics. Rufus is
about due for a revival, I think, especially as the notion of Quakerism
as Puritanism in a broadbrim comes to be increasingly shown up as the
partisan myth which it is. The other two figures, who were arguably
even more important than Rufus, were Joel and Hannah Bean. In the mid-
to late nineteenth century, the Beans were internationally-known
ministers, and leading figures in pre-revival Iowa Yearly Meeting. They
ultimately settled in California. Their names remind me of the
unsuitability of the term "universalist" to describe modern liberal
Quakerism. The much more accurate, if uneuphonious appellation is
Geoffrey Kaiser's term, "Beanite" Quakers. A "Beanite," and not a
"universalist" Quaker is what I consider myself to be.
The story of the Beans' disgraceful treatment by the
revivalist insurgents who took over Iowa Yearly Meeting in the 1880s is
a modern Quaker epic. It molded history, with consequences that are by
no means played out. (Indeed, it now looks as if that revival's heirs
may be about to repeat this exercise by driving from their fold the
demons of Friends United Meeting and the various councils of churches.
What was it Marx said about the way in which history repeats itself?)
The Beans' story is also richly ironic, because they
began as solidly Orthodox, and even welcomed the early revivals. It was
only with reluctance, and against their will, that they ended up as the
founders of a vital new liberal Quaker stream.
The best existing account of the Beans is by the evangelical scholar David Le Shana,
in his very valuable book, Quakers In California.
Le Shana's rendition is necessarily sketchy, however; and every time I
walk into Swarthmore's Friends Historical Library, knowing that nine
boxes stuffed with Bean papers are sitting mostly unexplored on its
shelves, my fingers itch to dig into them and have a go at helping fill
out this crucial saga. I hope our best scholars will take up that task
The evolution of modern liberal Quakerism can also
be traced in the experience of some leading figures of the Quaker
missionary movement. One such was Henry Hodgkin, the founding Director
of Pendle Hill. Hodgkin spent twenty years at the turn of the century
as a missionary in China on behalf of London Yearly Meeting. Not long
before his death in 1933, Henry Hodgkin wrote to his brother about how
his once strongly exclusivist and evangelical convictions had been
changed by his engagement with the best of Asian religions. A striking
passage from this letter shows where this evolution was headed. It is
very apropos of our inquiry, and so affecting that it was incorporated
into London's book of Christian Faith and Practice, from which I am citing it
(Section 102, 1960 edition). It is worth our time to hear a bit of Hodgkin's testimony:
I suppose it is almost inevitable that during such a
[youthful] period one should be so sure of the genuineness and value of
one's own experience as to undervalue other types of experience. It is
this which makes people eager missionaries or propagandists and it was
as such that I went to China, still very sure of the "greatness of the
revelation" and but dimly aware that God, in His many-sided nature and
activity, was not one whit less manifest in ways and persons with which
or with whom I could have little sympathy. Of course in theory I
believed that God used many methods and that all truth was not with me.
[But] Down deep I wanted all to be "such as I," because I could not
help feeling that, broadly speaking, what meant so much to me must be
equally good for others.
By processes too numerous and diverse even to
summarize, I have reached a position which may be stated in a general
way somewhat like this: "I believe that God's best for another may be
so different from my experience and way of living as to be actually
impossible to me. I recognize a change to have taken place in myself,
from a certain assumption that mine was really the better way, to a
very complete recognition that there is no one better way, and that God
needs all kinds of people and ways of living through which to manifest
Himself in the world."
What a pregnant phrase that is: "By processes too
numerous and diverse to summarize...." Thereby hangs a very important
tale, I believe, one that can only be hinted at here.
In these Whittier verses, in the lives of Rufus
Jones, the Beans, Henry Hodgkin and others, I believe we can see the
wheel of liberal Quakerism pivoting in the direction of its present
course. Some continue to deplore this as a wrong turn onto a slippery
slope that is headed straight for perdition. As you might expect, I do
not share this view. Instead, I find in this evolution a logical,
coherent, entirely authentic, and vital development of Quaker faith. I
look forward to seeing its development explored in its full richness
and depth by our best scholars, and hope to take a small part in that
work as way opens. Based on this history and my own experience, I
welcome the fact that some liberal Friends meetings now include members
who are active homosexuals, or who also identify themselves as
atheists, Zen practitioners, or modern witches. All such persons can
(not must, but can) be good, authentic Quakers; and many are.
Further, those who insist that this doctrinally
mixed state means a liberal Quaker can "believe anything," or that
"anything goes" among us, or that our movement has no identity or
boundaries, are in my experience simply mistaken. Liberal Quakerism
gets along without a creed, yet it also maintains a definite character
and limits, which have been frequently applied in practice. For
instance, during nearly twenty years as part of Baltimore Yearly
Meeting, I have seen various persons try to reshape that body into such
things as a strict vegetarian sect, a fulltime peace lobby, an
evangelical enclave, or various types of pagan or New Age ashrams.
Eventually, though, I have also seen such persons either learn to
accept us as we are, or move on in search of more congenial groups.
That is, it is simply not the case that "anything goes" in this liberal
group, at least. In my view, this experience is testimony to the
reality of identity and limits in this liberal Quaker body, which is a
not untypical one.
To stand up for "Beanite" Quakerism as I have tried
to do here is not, of course, to suggest that it is flawless. Liberal
Quakers are as prone to sin as any other fallen humans; in particularly
we too often live down to some of the stereotypes and caricatures
others entertain about us. In Without Apology I list a catalog
of what I see as some of its numerous shortcomings. We surely stand in
need of grace and mercy every day, in many ways. Nevertheless, I will
close by repeating my conviction that the claim of liberal Quakerism to
authenticity in the Religious Society of Friends is well-grounded,
coherent, and productive of the fruits of the spirit in sufficient
measure that I am proud-humbly so, of course-to be part of it, and to
have the chance to bear witness on its behalf.
Copyright © by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.