Quaker Theology #8 Spring-Summer 2003

Interviews on Quaker Theology

Editor痴 Introduction: In Tenth Month 2002, some very interesting people gathered at Swarthmore College for a Conference on George Fox痴 Legacy. Numerous papers were delivered, many of which will be published presently in Quaker History, the journal of the Friends Historical Association.

Both in the papers and in personal conversation, many intriguing historical-theological questions and issues were raised, more than the published version of the papers can hope to answer fully. Thus your Editor decided to follow up some of them with a tape recorder.

Here are three of these interviews, with persons both familiar and new to the Quaker historical and theological scene:

First is Thomas Hamm, Archivist at Earlham College and award-winning author of The Transformation of American Quakerism.

He is followed by Thomas Kennedy, professor of history at the University of Arkansas and author of the stunning new study British Quakerism: 1860-1920, which was reviewed in our Issue Number 6.

Finally we hear from Erin Bell, a doctoral graduate student from England痴 York University, whose dissertation takes up very challenging issues of how and why some important early Quaker writings were altered by later editors, and what we can learn about the evolution of Quaker conviction from this discovery.


Thomas Hamm. When interviewed, Hamm had recently completed a book on contemporary Quakerism, part of a series published by Columbia University Press.

QT: Congratulations on finishing your book on contemporary Quakerism. Tell us a little more about that project.

TH: Naturally, being a historian I had to start with a firm historical basis. I opened the book by describing my visits to four Yearly Meetings in the state of Ohio in 2001: Ohio Conservative, Eastern Region [Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region], Wilmington [FUM], and sessions of Lake Erie Yearly Meeting. I used these as an introduction to the diversity of contemporary American Quakerism.

Then I spent two chapters on historical foundations, then chapters on Quaker commonalities, ranging from ministry in the Spirit to simplicity, to education; then Quaker issues, ranging from univer-salism to sexuality to evangelism and declining numbers; then a chapter on evangelism and Quakerism in the world, which included treatments of Quakers in politics, the peace testimony, and the AFSC and FCNL. Then finally a chapter on contemporary Quaker women and the family.

QT: What痴 the title, and when will it actually be on the shelves?

TH: It will have the very imaginative title, The Quakers, and if all goes well, it will be out late 2003 or early 2004.

QT: When you went to the four Yearly Meetings, to get your sketch飽hio and North Carolina are the two places where you could find that much Quaker variety in a single state are there highlights of those gatherings that were strikingly different or strikingly similar that stuck out for you as you visited among them?

TH: There were some things that stood out. I didn稚 actually get to Lake Erie because of a last minute household emergency, so I had to rely on statements from people who were there, and the Yearly Meeting minutes.

What struck me most about Barnesville and Ohio Conservative was the sense of deliberateness, above all a desire not to do anything that was in human will or wisdom, not to act until Friends were clear that this really was the direction that the Lord wanted them to take. I found that quite moving, that sense of the absolute necessity of being led.

What was absolutely overwhelming about Eastern Region was just the sheer volume of it, the overwhelming sense of joy in salvation through Christ. One of the things I noted was that even a teenager there, apparently bored by the Superintendent痴 opening address, was doodling, and she was doodling an elaborate "Jesus Saves" design. It痴 just central to everything there.

What I noted about Wilmington is really in some ways sort of a combination of what I saw at the other two Yearly Meetings: certainly a strong sense of Christian mission, but more subdued卜ore of a desire to be grounded in Quaker tradition, more of a sense of distinctiveness than you find in Eastern Region, but not the same distinctiveness that you find in Barnesville. And as for Lake Erie, there was certainly more of an emphasis on social testimonies than you would find in any of the other three Yearly Meetings, but with an equally strong spiritual grounding for those. This is an accusation that Evangelical Friends often make against liberal and universalist Friends that their faith is simply a cover for their politics, and that痴 certainly not what you find there, the social testimonies grow out of that faith.

QT: You said your book will also deal with some Quaker "issues," what are some of the issues?

TH: I began with a long discussion of the question of whether Quakerism is necessarily Christian, because certainly Evangelical Friends would see that as a central issue, and certainly maybe the most notable development in Quaker theology in the last fifty years has been the rise of Quaker universalism. You would have found relative-ly few Friends before 1950 who would have said that Quakerism was not necessarily Christian, though they certainly would have differed on what it meant for Friends to have a "clear Christian identity."

Sexuality is another obvious issue, perhaps the most explosive of all in terms of the sheer emotion that it arouses among all varieties of Friends. This partly involves questions of heterosexual relations, should they be confined to marriage. And then the whole range of issues relating to gays and lesbians, and particularly same sex unions.

Then another issue that I think characterizes Friends of almost all persuasions today is that of authority. I looked at that in two ways, in terms of abstract authority, the leadings of the Spirit, "That of God Within," versus the authority of scripture, and the other sense in which I think you find authority is an issue, is the whole question of to what extent Yearly Meetings have authority over Monthly and Quarterly meetings, whether there really is still such a thing among Friends as subordination. I think that痴 a very live issue.

I sense that leadership痴 also an issue among Friends. Among pastoral Friends there is a constant worry over where their next generation of pastors is going to come from. And among unprogrammed Friends I also sense that worry, obviously not for pastors, but in terms of the myriad Quaker institutions that they have created. Where is the next generation of Meeting secretaries, Yearly Meeting superintendents, teachers in Quaker schools, staff for AFSC or FCNL, or whatever organization you want to talk about.

And then there痴 the question of relative stagnation and maybe even absolute decline in numbers among Friends. Depending on what statistics you look at, we池e about the same as we were a century ago, or maybe somewhat smaller, while the country has tripled in population. That痴 an obvious concern.

QT: The matter of the numbers, seems to be one that is very unevenly experienced. For instance, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, many liberal unprogrammed meetings in North Carolina seem to be flourishing. By contrast, the pastoral NCYM-FUM is down 25-30% in the last twenty-five years. The difference in atmosphere between groups like that is palpable. You can sense a chronic feeling of worry in the groups where the numbers are going down: how are they going to pay the bills, provide pensions for retired pastors, cope with health insurance costs, and so forth.

TH: Yes, well when you look at the statistics, the only unprogrammed YM that has shown a significant decline over the past thirty years has been Philadelphia.

QT: And even there the numbers have leveled off in the past few years. And they池e quite proud of that.

TH: Yes, but it痴 still a lot smaller than it was thirty years ago. That痴 not true of say, New England YM, or Baltimore, or especially some of the newer [unprogrammed] Yearly Meetings, which have grown. Part of that may reflect a kind of thinning or dispersal: as Friends have spread out across the country, some of the older yearly meetings have declined in membership, but that痴 because of Friends moving to places where Friends didn稚 exist before. Among EFI [Evangelical Friends International] Friends you see a kind of an unevenness. Mid-America and Rocky Mountain [YMs] have seen a significant decline in the past thirty years, Eastern Region has grown significantly, Southwest and Northwest have grown a bit, although not really a significant change.

QT: Isn稚 the growth within those EFI YMs, somewhat unevenly divided, between several large churches that have been burgeoning, and then a cluster of smaller ones that are just getting along?

TH: I think that痴 true, particularly in Southwest. And certainly if you look at a lot of the growth in Eastern Region, it痴 coming in a few super-churches like Canton First Friends, or the Jackson Friends Church in a suburb of Canton. Certainly Eastern Region has a lot of older rural meetings which aren稚 experiencing that kind of growth. Although they also have churches in relatively small towns, like Salem, which are large 穆ay five or six hundred for those towns.

The huge declines, of course, have come in the pastoral FUM meetings. Indiana YM was 20,000 members a century ago, now it痴 around 5000. That is the biggest percentage decline I know of, but as you pointed out there痴 been a decline in North Carolina, and there痴 been a decline in Western [Yearly Meeting, in Indiana]; there痴 been decline in Iowa. That痴 the biggest change.

QT: What about the thesis that many of those pastoral FUM meetings, along with some unprogrammed groups like Philadelphia, in a real sense hitched their wagon to the Mainline Protestant/National and World Council of Churches movement after World War II, and as that Mainline project has come upon very difficult days, that this is paralleled by the decline in the FUM and Philadelphia orbits. Does that connection seem at all relevant from your perspective?

TH: I really can稚 comment on Philadelphia, I don稚 know that well enough. But if you look at the decline in the FUM pastoral yearly meetings, I知 best qualified to talk about Western and Indiana, which were the two largest, there the decline in membership has been pretty much even. You have seen declines in meetings in, say, Richmond or Muncie where the worship is very much like that of the Mainline. But you致e also seen similar declines in a lot of Meetings or churches which always regarded Mainline Christianity with horror and would not have anything to do with it.

My own sense is that this trend probably more reflects processes of social change. For a couple generations after 1900, membership in the pastoral Yearly Meetings in the Midwest remained relatively stable, because you had Friends from rural areas moving into small cities, like Richmond or Muncie or Anderson, Indiana, Indianapolis, Kokomo, Marion, places like that. So while rural and small-town Meetings declined in numbers, that was balanced by growth in Meetings in the smaller or medium-sized cities.

But now Friends are no longer coming from the country into those cities; and in turn, as those cities have fallen on hard times, very often related to the decline of the automobile industry, there痴 nobody taking the place of the Friends who are moving on to other parts of the country.

QT: Your speaking of Indiana leads me to change the focus here. You池e a historian with special background in Indiana Quakerism. So let me put you on the spot: When are we going to get a Quaker historian to do a serious job on the story of Quakerism and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana during the Klan heyday there in the 1920s?

TH: (Chuckles) Well, that is a project I sort of see for myself someday. That is a project that somebody needs to do. In some ways it should have been done twenty or thirty years ago, when there were still a lot of people living who could have shared personal memories on that. I致e gathered some information on that, and the other thing we can hope for is that sources on that will keep turning up in unexpected places.

[For instance] about ten years ago all of the membership records for the Klan in Hamilton County, Indiana, which was a major Quaker center, were found in private hands. When we go through those, that will tell us a lot about to what extent Friends were joining [the Klan] and who the Friends were who were joining.

QT: It seems to me from reading that the Indiana Klan leadership managed to "package" the Klan in the 1920s as a kind of Rotary Club-All American sort of thing, even though all the evil stuff was still in their handbooks. I guess the Hoosiers really went for all that.

TH: Right. One study we致e had up till now was a general history of the Klan in Indiana which was done by an historian named Leonard Moore, published about ten years ago [Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. University of North Carolina Press, 1991胞d.]. And he focused in large part on Richmond and Wayne County Indiana, because we have actual Klan membership records from there. And his estimate was that somewhere between a quarter and a third of all the adult male Quakers in Richmond between 1920 and 1925 paid Klan membership fees at one time or another.

His speculation and I think he痴 probably right about this is that those people were drawn into the Klan largely by its commitment to "tradtional morality" and especially Prohibition. Because if there was any cause that ever united midwestern Friends generally in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was fighting "Demon Rum." And the Klan was the most vigorous political force you would have found in Indiana between 1920 and 1925 upholding the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment.

What I think Quaker membership says is how Friends testimonies to racial equality pretty much reached a nadir in the 1920s. And not just in Indiana; you would have seen it in a lot of other places as well. I don稚 think we can assume that the Friends who were not joining the Klan were necessarily more enlightened than the ones who did. I think it just shows generally how relatively few Friends were much concerned about this in the 1920s.

QT: We値l look forward to that account. It seems there is a lot to be learned from this episode.

TH: It痴 definitely not one of the bright points of Indiana Quaker history; no question about that. If anything, I think that the good that came out of it may have been that it made at least a few Friends, particularly at Earlham, realize just how weak Quaker commitments to racial equality had become, and so it may have energized them to start reexamining that, and take some action beginning in the late 1920s. Certainly I don稚 think it was a coincidence that Clarence Pickett, who was mainly responsible for moving the AFSC toward an interest in racial matters, was teaching at Earlham between 1923 and 1929, so he would have been there at the height of this.

QT: Tom, thank you for talking with us.

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