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An Open Letter from Quaker Youth, Part 2

This is the second letter in this series. Click here for a description of this project. Thank you for joining in the conversation!


Dear Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends:

In our current Yearly Meeting, we need to consider the evolution that Quakerism has endured to see what has changed and ultimately judge whether we are going in the right direction or not.

The early Quakers centralized their faith on the leading of the Holy Spirit. They were so much endowed with the vision of the second coming of Christ, they believed themselves to be the true church of God; and that only through them could salvation be attained. Quakers were extensively focused on open worship; in fact it was their only form of worship. The first Quakers had no pastors or churches; instead they held spiritual meetings at the houses of members.

The early friends, as we know, wore simple clothing; spoke in an obviously different manner than was normal to the time. They were a counter culture of their era. Nowadays, Friends have been modernized. We sing, we dance, we meet in big brick buildings, we have pastors, we wear colors, and we give very little time to open worship. Many of these things are good changes because they make our faith more acceptable and relevant. It is unwise to hold on to archaic beliefs when there is no cultural basis. But, some of these concepts are still very relevant, but we don’t give them much thought, one being the idea of simple, plain dress. Not that modern Quakers should be made to only wear grays and browns, but the idea of putting importance in simplicity, and trying not to be materialistic. It would be a good sign of faith to follow the teachings of Jesus and be clothed in the spirit, and allow us to not worry about appearances. We seem to have no stake in this idea, or we don’t make it prevalent.

Before we move forward, we should look back to see the changes we have made. And then ponder these changes and decide if we are becoming something that is more or less Quaker and more or less Christ-like.

We should not allow modernization to jeopardize what makes us Quakers. Today, Evangelical Quakers are Christians that happen to have Quaker tendencies, not Quakers that happen to be part of the Christian community. In other words we have sacrificed that which makes us distinct to be more like other faiths. The original Quaker church barely resembles what Evangelic Quakers are today.

In order to maintain our identity we must harken back to the original Quaker missions, of social justice and peace. We should find modern equivalents of old Quaker practices. What can we do now, that represents ideas like early Quakers freeing slaves, standing up to oppressive authorities. The first Quakers were willing to go to prison or their faith, what are we willing to do for ours? The first Quakers broke social barriers. They weren’t worried about political repercussions. How can we be like them? How can we be progressive and Christ-like in our day? The first Quakers allowed women to preach and be equals. How can we replicate this type of doctrine? How can we live into the Quaker tradition? I believe we can be more than the original. That we can fight for the oppressed, stand up to the corrupt authorities and bring up social change.

  1. Zeke
    January 24, 2013 at 5:30 PM

    In reply to an article by David Johns which included the quoted opening line, I wrote something that I believe bears directly on this:

    ““What the world most deeply needs is more men and women who bear a family resemblance to Jesus.”

    I believe we have this same goal. Where you and I depart is whether the act of “being Quakers” satisfies that goal. I have always argued that Quaker beliefs are important and need to be preserved. Preserved against what? And why? And what are those beliefs?

    Taking the last first, those beliefs are not the wearing of plain clothing, or the use of “Thee” and “Thou”. That seems to be the root of much confusion. Those who rail against “all that Quaker stuff” invariably seem to be caught up in the idea of belief as tradition, habit, and pageantry. To me, Quaker beliefs are embodied in the ideas behind those visible expressions of belief, both the outdated ones and the current ones. Wearing plain clothes was the historical expression of concern for people coerced into health destroying employment in the textile dying industry. It made sense in the day and age of toxic dyes and slave labor. It would make no sense in a society where dyes were not toxic and people were not forced into slave labor. To that extent, the criticism is valid. But the belief from which that outward expression arose exists today and is still valid. And while wearing un-dyed clothing today is considered an affectation with no practical meaning, wearing something other than $200 sneakers made with under paid child labor in Southeast Asia does make a valid statement. A simple test of this validity is to consider whether the act itself addresses an injustice, or whether the intent is to make an impression that enhances the moral status of the actor.

    Thus, the preservation of the Quaker values behind these various forms of perceivable expression of belief is important. “Ah”, you say, “but what is important about Quaker beliefs and values versus other beliefs and values?” The answer must directly address the idea of preservation and answer the question, “Preservation against what?”.

    To find this answer we must return to that most fundamental of Quaker discoveries and beliefs expressed most famously by George Fox, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”. By this he meant Christ could speak directly to his condition and ours. This radical idea, that the priests and scholars of the day, and their interpretations of the Bible, did not speak for Christ and were unnecessary to one’s working out of his or her own salvation, is the foundational idea of Quakerism. It is the reason that Quakers eschew priests and consider the Bible as a secondary authority.

    Which brings us to the final question, “Preservation against what?”. The truth that Fox recognized, after consulting with all manner of scholars and priests, and listening to their ideas and interpretations of the Bible, was that these men, be they priests, scholars, or scribes invariably perverted the teachings of Christ, and could not address the condition of others. The impetus for them was always simplification and standardization, calling for outward appearances of piety, rituals, and customs that would prove to other men and women the admirable piety of those under public scrutiny. Their aim was the consolidation of power, so that the “correct” behavior could be forced upon every prospective believer. Out of this came baptism in water, physical communion, and other rituals in which the believer must participate in order to be accepted by other men and women as saved. Quakers recognized the futility of the symbol of belief taking the place of the actual belief, and for whom such symbols were meant. And therein lies the conflict over the preservation of Quaker beliefs.

    There is today a great body of accumulated “Christian” belief to which the generic Christian is generally obligated to subscribe. That body is composed largely of the power preserving, self-agrandizing, self-serving doctrine of 2000 years of human and church corruption. It has justified torture, genocide, war, rape, pillage, and murder. And yet, also today, there is great pressure for Quakers to gain acceptance by what we call “mainstream Christians”. Quakers without sufficient understanding of the foundations of Quakerism don’t understand why Quakers are different, peculiar, and even persecuted. They wish for a peaceful co-existence with other Christians, a harmony that the basic differences in belief cannot allow. And so the pressure increases in some quarters for Quakers to abandon their “outmoded” and “quirky” ways and join the comfortable ranks of modern day Christians who believe in just wars, ritual, and the supremacy and literal inerrancy of the Bible (as interpreted by the “authorities”), and the church as entertainment and validation of their comfortable consumerist lifestyles. Those Quakers who understand the basic beliefs that fueled the outward expressions of faith by early Quakers strongly oppose that pressure. That is the root of the present conflict in many Quaker yearly meetings. Whether it manifests as an argument over the acceptance of homosexuals or the top down authority of the yearly meeting over it member monthly meetings, that is the root of the conflict.

    In the end, the issue boils down to how we define the term “Quaker”. If we define it as wearing plain dress and using plain speech, or any of the other specific historical manifestations of Quaker belief then we are talking about something very different from the underlying beliefs as taught by Jesus Christ, and I suspect we will never reach an understanding. That being the case, we are faced with a choice of either educating ourselves about the basics of Quakerism and accepting those ideas as necessary to our belief system, or we really probably should go our own ways.”

  2. January 26, 2013 at 6:49 PM

    I enjoyed the letter and the comment above by Zeke.

    The church in general and Quakers in particular are ever part of a cycling pattern of generations and an ever present mix of different personality types. This mix of personality types in any given geenration is ever biased toward those whose who are stabilizers, preferring to look back at the past, form tight chains of command, developers of ritual, and formers of rules to guide how life is to be lived. It is true now and has always been true.

    A generation is now coming of age in which the dominant “personality” of the generation is one of being a stabilizing generation. This so called “Hero generation” must rise up and bring order to the cosmos of culture. For, surely, the previous two genrations of Prophets and Nomads, from the perspective of the new generation coming of age, have presented them with a messy situation.

    We will be witnessing a situation where the dominant modal personality type will be in congruence with the generational type. The results will be incredible change. They will most likely be stabilizing changes in response to the mess all around us. This will be good and it too will run its course, to be replaced by its shadow in the next generation to come along in another 10-15 years or so. It must be this way.

    There may be some cool possibilities here. Today in Sunset Magazine I read an article about a “technology shabbat”, about families unplugging from technology to enjoy something simpler, with closer family relationships and time to be creative.

    Perhaps a new generation will move “outside” and find a new connection to the land. We seem to have nearly lost all connection to the land now that most of us live in cities. The land and the earth are suffering. How will we change this?

    We are now able to communicate at the speed of light but we seem to be no better off. We have hundreds of choices in enetertaiment but we sit and become fat. We are surrounded by food in excess, yet we cannot fast. We play games of killing while we profess to be pacifists. We seem unaware of our own libido, and the creative energy God put within us, His own image.

    If my son’s recent experience is generally the case, and as I understand it is, we are now a people addicted to pornmography in vast numbers, beginning perhaps first in the years of high school but extending rapidly into college dormitories. And, do we have any understanding of the appetities that grow such tacit acceptance of the victimization and slavery of women?

    Do we accept an economic sytem that enslaves people with debt and fluctuating houses prices in ways designed to enrich the elite while everyone else suffers under crushing burdens? Has anything changed in six millenia?

    There is much to do. There are many ways to listen to the call of God. But how will you do it. How will you hear God.

  3. February 5, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    May I suggest an older(as far as youth is concerned) book by John Sykes entitled “The Quakers: A New Look At Their Place In Society”(1959,J.B. Lippincott Co.,Phila.&N.Y.) as an honest, even fearless, starting point for the future of Quakerism. Holding your concern in the Light. Blessings and mazel tov.

  1. January 24, 2013 at 11:11 AM
  2. January 25, 2013 at 4:23 PM
  3. January 29, 2013 at 5:11 PM

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