Quaker Universalist Conversations

Ensuring the Future of Liberal Quakerism: Transmission or Transformation?

Scott Martin is a member of Centre Friends Meeting in Centreville, DE, a small, rural meeting established in the late 1600’s, where he recently served as clerk. In retirement, he teaches fall prevention to older adults and writes the blog The Jungian Quaker. See an earlier version of this article on that blog.

I have been greatly nurtured by liberal Quakerism. But, like many liberal, Protestant faiths, Quakerism appears to be in trouble. Our numbers have been dropping steadily. And, if we continue to lose members at the current rate, it is believed that liberal Quakerism could cease to exist in our lifetimes.

Even so, I am not particularly interested in transmitting traditional Quakerism to future generations. What does interest me is seeing Quakerism transform. Continued transformation is the only way to ensure a religion’s future.

I believe that all religions are a partial understanding of something bigger that is in itself ultimately unknowable. Each religion, like the blind men and the elephant, sees a part of the whole but none is sufficient in and of itself.


"Liberal Quaker Matrix," from 350 Years of the Society of Friends in North America: 1661-2011. Twentieth Edition. By Geoffrey Kaiser If one sees Quakerism as the one true faith, as the religion “once delivered to the saints,” then faithful transmission is essential. But if Quakerism, like all religions, is a partial but incomplete understanding, isn’t spirit-led change something to be desired and encouraged?

Quakerism, of course, has gone through several transformations already1. For example, there was the Quietist period, the evangelical transformation and most recently the modernist reformulation engineered by Rufus Jones2 and Howard Brinton3.

If the modern remaking of Quakerism has just about played itself out, as many people think, the question arises, “Where do we go from here?”

Religion is every bit as much a human as a divine construction and, as such, religions can be typed in some of the same ways as human personalities. Quakerism, for example, where we turn inward in our unadorned buildings to discern the promptings of spirit, life or truth is a particularly introverted and intuitive religion.

This contrasts sharply with much of the rest of American religion which tends to be more extroverted and sensate (appealing to the senses). For example, consider the typical Christian church adorned with symbols, focused on the pastor’s explication of the word or conducting of sacraments, hymns, choir anthems, etc. The focus is largely outward, except for brief moments of silent prayer. Consider also how Christian churches tend to appeal to the senses: lofty ceilings, stained glass, religious symbols, “smells and bells.”

We sometimes forget just how different our form of worship is and how relatively small a portion of the population it is likely to appeal to. It is estimated that only 30% of the population are introverts. Intuitives also make up 30% of the population, with sensors coming in at 70%. Is it any wonder that Quakerism has remained a marginal religion?

If there is any religion intentionally designed to evolve and transform, it is Quakerism. Earlier Friends rejected fixed creeds, hierarchy and extensive church infrastructure. Instead, they placed the emphasis on individual and group discernment, a continuing attention to the ever changing movement of the spirit or life. After nearly 400 years of prophetic Quakerism, I find it surprising that we haven’t evolved any more than we have?

Carl Jung once stated that “Religion is a defense against an experience of God.” What he meant, I think, is that we can become so attached to our Quaker ideas and concepts that we totally miss where life is calling us to now.

There is a problem when vocal ministry in Meeting for Worship becomes safe and predictable. Worship should not become a time for recycling old Quaker ideas over and over again. The spirit is always fresh and often speaks to us in new and surprising ways.

No, I will leave transmission of Quakerism to others. I will work for its transformation.

Notes & Image Source

1 Image at right, “The Liberal Quaker Matrix: FGC & the Independents,” from 350 Years of the Society of Friends in North America: 1661-2011 (20th Edition), by Geoffrey Kaiser. Reviewed by Chuck Fager in Quaker Theology, #22.

2 See “Rufus Jones : A Luminous Life,” a documentary on YouTube.

3 See “Howard Brinton as a Theologian and Apologist for ‘Real Quakerism’,” by Anthony Manousos, Quaker Religious Thought, Volume 115, Article 3, 1/1/2010.


My 10th great grandfather George Harlan was a member of Centre Friends Meeting. He emigrated from England, then Ireland to Penn’s Colony in 1687. His children then ran afoul from Quaker values and were shunned and kicked out of the faith. I’ve read some minutes from Centre meetings and they tell quite a story!
I agree! I encourage Friends to look at the Emerging Church Movement in the U.S., for a current example of religious transformation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emerging_church. Check out Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Webber, and Peter Rollins, inter alia.
Scott, Your transmission/transformation point is excellent. My current view is the transmission of transformation, particularly to children in the Meeting. What are specific examples of current and needed areas of transformation in your experience and clerking leadership?
As a recently convinced liberal Quaker, I think now more than ever is the time we should be transmitting our message at every opportunity not transforming into something we aren’t. In a world that is bombarded with sensory images on a 24/7 basis, a place to turn inward is not only a welcome relief, but an absolute necessity. If anything, I feel liberal Quakers must be more outspoken than ever before – the world is searching for answers and liberal Quakerism provides the most powerful, yet subtle answers. Showy and sensory are fleeting. It’s the peace and understanding that comes from within that society seeks…and truly needs. Namaste!
Larry, you ask a very challenging question. My first is thought is that Quakerism needs to transform from a one-sided focus on good and brightness to an image of spirit and ethics that includes darkness and evil. After all, George Fox saw vast oceans of light AND dark. The spirit must contain both just as we as humans are both light and dark. The Quaker idea of perfectionism is a particularly outmoded idea. There is a Quaker veil we wear from time to time that is unrealistically bright and excluding of the reality of evil. Many of us are just too damn nice!
Scott, Niceness is a killer poison that infects much of religion, but is particularly nasty for Quakers. See a forthcoming QUF blog on how Meetings might face the growing darkness in supporting immigration justice as a step in that discernment.
Lately I’ve been calling up my grandmother’s Quaker heritage to respond to a world that is becoming darker, more like the world she faced during and after world war I. The point seems to me to be resisting evil of the most subtle forms without overreacting in ways that would force “designer” change crafted out of ideals that we never quite master… The best countersign of faith is a person who is willing to “live transformed” in the midst of the old order. This is not easy, nor something that will happen automatically even for a Quaker gathering. .. nor is it something that only introverts can achieve. The transformation of stillness is for me all the more welcome, never easy. I think for me the promise of Quakerism is this unlikely rescue in times of dire need… when most religions have long since flattened out into hypocrisy.
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