Quaker Universalist Conversations

“Are Quakers Christian, not Christian—or both?”

“Are Quakers Christian, not Christian—or both—in the historical perspective of 400 years? What has been your experience of Christianity?  How have your experiences of Christianity influenced your spiritual journey?  Have they strengthened you?  Hurt you?”

These are questions that are going to be explored at a workshop titled “ Quakers and Christianity Personal Spiritual Experience vs Religious Affiliation,” which will take place at Pima Meeting (Tucson,AZ) at the end of this month.

 Since I have been asked to speak at this gathering, I’d to share these questions with you and would appreciate your thoughts.

 My initial response to these questions is colored by the fact that I am both a Universalist and a Christian, and I see elements of both in the history of Quakerism. There is no doubt that early Quakers saw themselves as Christian—in fact, they saw themselves as the only real Christians, and argued vociferously in pamphlet wars and in tracts like Barclay’s Apology that their approach to Christianity was the most valid one. On the other hand, some Quakers embraced a tolerant view of other forms of Christianity, and even of other religions, as is evident in the writings of William Penn, Isaac Penington, and John Woolman.

 “There is a Principle which is pure, placed in the human Mind, which in different Places and Ages hath had different Names; it is, however, pure, and proceeds from God. It is deep, and inward, confined to no Forms of Religion, nor excluded from any, where the Heart stands in perfect Sincerity. In whomsoever this takes Root and grows, of what Nation soever, they become Brethren.”—John Woolman.

 “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the liveries they wear here make them strangers.”—WilliamPenn.

 Until the 1960s or so (I don’t have any data to prove this, but this is my impression), most Quakers identified with being Christian. Over the past twenty or thirty years, many have come to unprogrammed meetings who are “refugees” from Christian denominations where they didn’t feel comfortable, or where they felt spiritually abused. Others have come from other faiths, such as Judaism and Buddhism. And a growing number are non-theists.  Among the 50 thousand or so unprogrammed Friends in Britain and the United States, I would guess that probably a minority identify with being Christian. Most espouse a theology closer to Unitarian Universalism.

 Nationally, the majority of Quakers are Christian since one third belong to Friends United Meeting and another third are Evangelicals.  Worldwide, the vast majority of Friends living in Africa andLatin America are Evangelicals. This is a fact I am being obliged to take more seriously and personally since I plan to attend the World Conference of Friends in Kenya, where Friends are almost all Evangelical.

 But these labels can be misleading.  They beg the question: What is a Christian? And who is truly a follower of Christ? Is Christianity about correct belief (orthodoxy) or about correct action (orthopraxis)?

 I consider myself a Matthew 25 Christian because I believe that Christianity is about orthopraxis. In Matthew 25 Jesus says that nations will be judged on the basis on whether they care for the sick, help the poor, and visit the prisoner. “As you do for the least of these, you do for me.” According to Jesus, many who do not profess to be his followers will pass the divine “final exam” because they do the will of God and help those in need. Those who profess to be followers of Christ and don’t help the needy will flunk this exam because they have been hearers, not doers of the Word.

 I also resonate with the epistle of James (a favorite text of early Quakers), because it makes a similar point: “True religion means caring for the widow and orphan (i.e. the poor and marginalized), and remaining unspotted by the world.”

 Christians who live their faith in the way described by James and Jesus have inspired me in countless ways, and I feel deep gratitude to people like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Jim Wallis, etc.

 Those who make a mockery of Christianity by siding with the rich, or espousing war, seem to me hurtful. I wonder why people professing to be Christian seem to totally misunderstand Jesus’ core teachings: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Forgive your enemies. As you do to the least of these, you do for me. Treat others as you wish to be treated.”  Recently, Ron Paul was loudly booed at a Republican debate in North Carolina when he said, “I believe we ought to apply the Golden Rule to our foreign policy. Let’s not treat other nations the way we would not want to be treated.” Certainly, the Golden Rule might be hard to apply to foreign policy, but why boo someone for suggesting that Jesus’ teachings might actually be worth trying? Respect for other nations might well produce far better results than our current arrogance and belligerence.

 What do you think it means to be Christian? Or a Quaker? These are larger questions worth exploring.


I think your post touches on most of the relevant issues here. You don't really answer your own question, "Are Quakers Christian, not Christian–or both?", which I think is wise. My answer might be "both," but my first thought would be something like, "the question is not put rightly." I want to ask, is "Quakers" in this question intended as the plural of "Quaker?" If it is, then the reader has to decide whether the question refers to many Quakers, most Quakers, or all Quakers. If it means all or many Quakers, then the answer to the question is clearly yes, but then the question should be worded more clearly. If it refers to all Quakers--and that's the way that sort of sentence is generally understood--then the answer is clearly no. Many Quakers--as you suggest, mostly within liberal, unprogrammed meetings in the U.K. and North America--are pretty clear and open about not being Christian. I'm not sure I'd agree with your guess that these are a majority, but they are at least a large minority. If "Quakers" in the question is not meant as the plural of Quaker, but rather as the Religious Society of Friends distinct from its members...well, that's a hard question, too. I'm not sure a religion distinct from its members is a coherent concept. Beyond that, I think there's a point where the variety of beliefs within a religious group has grown so great, that characterizing that group by such beliefs just doesn't make sense. I think liberal Quakerism reached that point quite some time ago. I will acknowledge, happily and proudly, that Quakerism belongs to the best part of the Christian tradition. But it has also absorbed some of the best non-Christian religious, philosophical, political, and intellectual influences over the past 350 years as well. Some think that's what's wrong with liberal Quakerism nowadays. I think it's a fair part of what's right with liberal Quakerism nowadays. In any case it's reality.
I generally do not see myself as a Christian, because I am a non-theist who views Jesus as a profound teacher rather than as a divine being. Like the author, I class myself as one with Matthew 25. This leads me to a second reason I do not see myself as Christian: far too many of today's Christians live by an orthodoxy which makes a mockery of Matthew 25. I suspect that many of those who booed Ron Paul's application of the Golden Rule to relationships between nations class themselves as Christian; I do not want to be identified with them! Unfortunately some modern unprogrammed Quakers have strayed from the maxims in James and Matthew. My own dear meeting has some who profess Christian principles but actively oppose most Meeting actions or minutes to help the homeless, oppressed minorities, and victims. They place their comfort, their residence in gated communities, and protection of their assets above their responsibilities to those who need help. These same members proclaim their Christianity. So, when asked if Quakers are Christians, my response involves some equivocation. I answer that we have Christian origins and that most Quakers consider themselves Christian, but our respect for all seekers includes no creed or test. And I say with pride that we not only tolerate but welcome diversity among our members and attenders
The Christianity of Christ is, I agree, about orthopraxy. But Quakerism, historically, and until relatively recently, has been about faithfulness to the particular Voice in our hearts and consciences from which the orthopraxy of Christ originates. And just as the orthopraxy is Christ is different in significant ways from other orthopraxies — which is why Christ did not simply agree with the Pharisees about how to practice religion — so that Voice is different from other things that other religions, and even other faith communities that call themselves Christian, teach their adherents to listen to. George Fox wrote of that Voice that it is that which “shows you sin, and shows you evil ... which lets you see lying is sin, theft, drunkenness and uncleanness....” Penington, similarly, wrote that “The first way of meeting with the Spirit of God, is as a convincer of sin. Here is the true entrance; this is the key....” Barclay described the Voice as “somewhat in [a person’s] heart reproving him for some things evil which he hath done, threatening a certain horror if he continued in them, as also promising and communicating a certain peace and sweetness, as he has given way to it, and not resisted it. ... ...That little small thing that reproves them..., however they have despised and neglected it, is nothing less than the gospel preached in them: Christ, the wisdom and power of God, being in and by that seed seeking to save their souls.” Historically, it has been this Voice, speaking within Friends’ consciences, condemning them when they hurt a fellow feeling creature, or fail to give aid to the poor and vulnerable, that has led Friends to take James’s doctrine as binding, and to unite with Martin Luther King’s message and the Golden Rule. This Voice, exactly as Fox and Penington and Barclay described it, convicting us of our sins in our own consciences, is also the Principle to which Woolman referred in the passage you have quoted in your essay. If we read that passage as referring to some other Principle, we mistake what Woolman was saying. I think it is easy to see how, insofar as modern Friends continue to be faithful to that Voice, they can be identified as Christian even if they do not choose to describe themselves as such. On the other hand, there are definitely Quakers nowadays, particularly in the liberal-unprogrammed wing of our Society, who do not listen to the particular Voice that Fox and Penington and Barclay described. They listen to something inside, indeed, and some of them identify it as God while others do not. But what they turn to is something different from the Voice in the conscience that convicts them of sin when they depart from the teachings of Jesus, and many of them find no teaching of sin whatsoever in what the thing they listen to says. Some of these newer sorts of Friends do believe that there are such things as “sin” and “salvation”, but define them according to the Bible or according to their philosophy, rather than according to that alarming voice in their conscience; they call themselves Christian, and they are indeed Christian in the dictionary sense, but they are not Christian as Fox and early Friends understood the term. Others of these newer sorts of Friends say they do not believe there is such a thing as “sin” or such a thing as “salvation”, and many (though not all) of these do not regard themselves as Christian. If people of these latter sorts give aid to the marginalized, and a great many of them do, it is for good and happy reasons, but it is not because the Voice that Fox &c. describes has convicted them of sin when they have failed to do so. They are official members of our Society, and so are Quakers in the dictionary sense, but they have not received the central teaching of Quakerism, the teaching of faithfulness to that particular Voice, into their own lives and practice. And so they do not practice the historic orthopraxy of Friends; they are heteropractitioners. Many such Quakers believe and argue that Quakerism is not inextricably bound to the Voice that Fox &c. described: that it can be validly called Quakerism even if it does not listen to that particular Voice, but instead chooses to practice outward devotions and good works, or breath-awareness, or Buddhistic mindfulness, or something else. And it is in that context that they say there are many Quakers who are not Christians. The question is really, what defines Quakerism? Is it the orthopraxy of the first Friends? Or is it simple membership in a Society long since gone wildly diverse? If we cannot unite on the answer to that, we will never be able to unite on the answer to whether there are truly non-Christian Quakers or not.
Dear Friends: I consider myself to be both Universalist and conservative Christian (maybe not as others define it...I mean one who stirives to keep the commandments of Christ). Would you consider starting a post of Universalists who are also self-identified as disciples of Christ?
I also put much more emphasis on orthopraxis (which to me is living in loving obedience to the commands of Christ).
Thank you Marshall for your reply. I am very much in unity with it. You have pointed to the primary praxis of listening to the voice of Christ, the voice that Fox and Woolman listened to. Oddly enough, while I am moved to practice this Listening to this Voice of Christ..............I also practice traditional (Tibetan) Buddhism, which to me is a different type of mind training, altogether.
Everyone wants to be free of whatever habits of thought, feeling, or behavior lead them to harming themselves and others. Jesus specifically told us to give up all such ways of doing or seeing-- but you don't need to be "Christian" to yearn for that. So I have to disagree with the picture of Early Friends identifying "Christ" as primarily that internal 'voice' that berates people for sin. Sometimes Jesus might have needed to appear to them in such mode: but what they generally said was that He was the Light that made sins visible and enabled people to prevail against them. This is what Buddhists mean by meditating to remove "afflictions", that is, anything that blocks people from a clear sight of the whole "What-Is" and our relation to it. Buddhist doctrine seems somewhat analogous to our "testimonies": things that certain authoritative Buddhists have been come to believe and teach-- but Buddhist practice & its underlying rationale is more like: ~'Silence the mental habits that get in your way, and the Truth, Goodness, etc underneath all that will naturally manifest.' Since Buddhism started with a Hindu world-view, addressed questions and took up doctrinal positions from that stance-- much as various Christian movements have taken up positions against each other and their interpretations of Judaism.... Many of our various "beliefs" are discordant on the surface, where the basic intention still seems to be: allowing the Spirit embodied in us all to guide us into a state from which Right Action naturally follows. (Avoiding our various wrong actions, meanwhile, so far as we're currently able, remains a valued element of the practices...)
Thank you Treegestalt for your sharing. I do think at core the function and results are same (between Quaker and Buddhist training), maybe not to the same degree.......reduction of afflictive emotions, increase in genuine Love, Compassion, altruism. I feel I have a living direct relationship with Jesus (as King and Friend) and Buddha (as Guru and Friend). The Buddhist mind training I feel, help to remove the impediments to a clear intimate reception of the Loving Voice of Jesus Christ. And receiving the warmth of the Christ Light, helps me in the engaged practice of Bodhicitta (mind of awakening, love , compassion)....to put it into immediate action in the world here and now. Thus my view of what I consider True Christianity it is simultaneously Universal. Love and Light..............Gospel and Dharma! Yeshe
“Treegestalt” writes: “I have to disagree with the picture of Early Friends identifying “Christ” as primarily that internal ‘voice’ that berates people for sin. Sometimes Jesus might have needed to appear to them in such mode: but what they generally said was that He was the Light that made sins visible and enabled people to prevail against them.” I don’t recall saying anything about “berating”. The term that early Friends preferred to used was “convicting” or “convincing”, two alternate forms of the same verb in seventeenth century English. This term spanned the full range of meaning from a judge convicting a person of a crime (something that judges generally do without berating), to a teacher convincing a person of the truth of something that the person thereafter holds as an internal conviction (again, something that teachers generally do without berating). The root Biblical text is John 16:8, in which (in the King James Version) Jesus tells the disciples that, when the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, comes, “he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” The text of the King James gives “convince” as a synonym for “reprove” in a footnote. Penington, in the quote I shared above, uses the verb “convince”. Barclay uses the term “reprove”. Fox uses the term “show”. “Treegestalt”, however, uses the term “berate”. That is his substitution, and I cannot prevent him from making it, but it seems to me to be a carrying-in of emotionally loaded baggage from outside. The early Friends did indeed often say that Christ was the Light, and that Christ enables us to prevail against sin. I don’t dispute that. But the idea of Light was usually reserved for theological discussions about how the scriptures connected to direct experience, and.the question of how to prevail against sin, for occasions when a new convert felt her- or himself struggling. My point, in my original comment, was that when Friends were not theologizing or offering advanced counsel, but simply describing the way to salvation, as for example when preaching their Gospel to outsiders, they customarily boiled it down to a message that there is somewhat within us that convinces us of sin, and this is our Teacher, the gateway to our salvation. I can cheerfully cite instances of this from the writings not only of Fox, Penington and Barclay, but also Nayler, Dewsbury, Ellwood, Gratton, Bangs, Banks, and others. I see no doubt but that this was the core of their preaching.
Thanks Marshall for your reply! My experience of this convicting Spirit, is one of Tenderness, and penetrating warmth. The conviction can lead to gentle sweet tears and supplications. It is a very loving transformative, cleasing, process that results in a more loving disposition to all and a tenderized conscience towards the sufferings of others, even the least of these our brethren.
p.s. Marshall...if you have a link to a forum or online fellowship with Iowa YM (C)....I would much appreciate it!
thanks Marshall! I personally believe that Conservative Quakerism and online forums/social media are possibly compatible! I have found a few such forum for Friends moving toward "primitive Quakerism".
I suspect that it also depends on what the meaning of "is" is -- well, in this case, "are." Does "are" mean simply "are," or does it mean "should ... be"? If the former, then the answer would seem to be the obvious "yes and no" -- without getting into the endless and irresolvable argument about what a Christian is or should be. If the latter, then the question is unanswerable: to what authority would we appeal -- not only for a decree about what our identity is to be, but also for one about what "Christian" means? But, as Anthony noted, there are various branches of Quakerism, and branches other than the liberal tend to be self-defined as Christian -- which in my view means that that's exactly what they are, even if they decide to deny that status to each other (as Christians seem to like to do). Liberal Quakerism, though, is a different kind of phenomenon. My observation is that liberal Quakerism has no identity other than "liberal Quakerism," and the content of that identity has changed and will change again. Just this morning after meeting we read from a talk by Gerry Frost, about the founding of FGC, in which he spoke of the Modernist "revolutionary reinterpretation of Quakerism" in the early 20th century. We then went on to discuss Howard Brinton's further redefinition of Quakerism as "group [Neoplatonic] mysticism." That, as fanciful as it is, has had a long run, but how long can it remain before it gives way to another -- or others? With the growing number of nontheists among us, its days are numbered. And indeed, some of us are already at work on alternatives. So, are we Christian? Some branches clearly are (not to say that they have no dissenters, of course). But as for us liberals, how would we know?
Any discussions on equivalency betweens X and Y, e.g. Christians and Quakers, soon dissolves into definitional issues of each category and eventually the usefulness of the categories themselves, given the intra-category variations. I would like to add another distinction. There is reference above to “disciples of Christ”. However the disciples followed Jesus of Nazareth and ‘Christ’ was a later Hellenistic concept. The book “From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ” by Paula Fredriksen, explores this further. Some Quakers are quite happy to describe themselves as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, even if they avoid the category Christian on the tick-box forms that we are obliged to complete so regularly.
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