Beyond the Age of Amnesia: Charting the Course of 20th Century Liberal Quaker Theology

By Chuck Fager

Here’s some good news: there are signs that American Friends, at least in the largest unprogrammed branch, are beginning to awaken from a long sleep of unawareness of their recent history.

I call this period the Age of Amnesia, an unarticulated sense that Quakerism was effectively invented just a few weeks before thee and me started attending meeting (or, if birthright, began paying attention), and nothing that went before, beyond a few quaint stories about Fox, Woolman, Mott and the Underground Railroad, is worth bothering with.

This amnesia increases in density the closer one gets to the present; the twentieth century, except for early to middle Rufus Jones, seems pretty much a blank.

Which is a bit odd when you stop to think about it: after all, in most areas, from technology to politics and race relations, gender equality and war, to name only a few, the past century was, well, actually pretty busy, for better and certainly for worse. Ditto for intellectual endeavor, from splitting the atom to considering the implications of the Holocaust, and reconsidering the whole Judeo-Christian tradition from a perspective that included women. Amid all this, did Quakers really not have a thought worth remembering? Tush.

The most interesting sign that this fog of ignorance might be starting to dissipate came at last summer’s Centennial Gathering of Friends General Conference in Rochester, in the keynote lecture by J. William Frost. Frost took the opportunity to lament our general ignorance of theology, and the shaping of our own religious thought in particular. (His lecture was one part of a three part reflection on modern Quaker history and thought, now available online at:

http://fgcquaker.org/library/history/frost-frame.html)

It is too much to say that Frost’s talk was greeted with unanimous acclaim; but it left a mark. And the turnout for the various FGC Centennial events was also encouraging.

For that matter, over the next five years, there will be more such openings, because anniversaries just keep on coming:

        –2002 will mark 350 years since Fox and the Quaker message appeared on the scene.

        –2003 will be the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Exposition of Sentiments by the Progressive Friends of Longwood in Pennsylvania, in its own way almost an equally historic occasion, at least for one branch of American Friends.

The what? By whom?

More about this latter document and its authors in a moment.

        –In 2005, it will be 150 years since the publication of Leaves of Grass, and the implications of Walt Whitman’s Quaker origins, style, his homosexuality and his mystical outlook will all be worth attention.

If we make use of these opportunities, I am beginning to think that perhaps there will be some broadening interest in how this oddball faith community of ours made it through the tumultuous and richly fertile decades of the twentieth century. I hope so; it is past time to examine how we were shaped by and contributed to it.

My own efforts to promote this defogging began last year with spending two-plus weeks, several days at a time, in the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, tracking through old issues of the Friends Intelligencer, sheaves of dog-eared committee minutes and many old books of Faith and Practice. I wanted to get a sense of the basis and evolution of religious thinking within the FGC stream, for a workshop at the Centennial Gathering.

One outcome of that lengthy review was described in a Quaker History essay in the Fall, 2000 issue, recounting the discovery of a seminal but long-forgotten FGC Uniform Discipline adopted in 1926.

This remarkable document, it turned out, played a crucial role in FGC’s evolution, comparable to that of the New Testament scholars’ "Q" which appears to have decisively but invisibly shaped the Synoptic gospels: the Uniform Discipline formed an entire generation of FGC Disciplines in ways that are still with us; but then its role and even its existence were utterly forgotten.

The Uniform Discipline was certainly an exciting find; but after leafing through it and glimpsing its significance, I turned again to the Intelligencer and other documents in search of an understanding of its origins: how did it come about? What concerns and forces had shaped it? What was it supposed to accomplish? Who were the moving figures behind its composition?

For all but the last query, answers currently remain elusive; the available minutes are unusually terse and cryptic, revealing little and explaining nothing. Obviously we will need to find and understand letters and other unofficial sources to delve much below their opaque surface.

But as for persons, I did stumble across a list of the committee which drafted it; and on that list there was one important clue: the name of Jesse Herman Holmes.

Jesse Holmes (1864-1942) was a longtime professor of religion and philosophy at Swarthmore, a colorful character who raised many a ruckus in his day. This was fortunate, because it means he left more of a paper trail than any of his colleagues. And one of the main forks of this trail was a wide swath through the first four decades of Friends General Conference.

Holmes spoke at conference after conference, almost from the beginning in 1900 til his death. He was also active on many FGC committees, including the Uniform Discipline venture. A prolific writer, in 1927 he drafted a "Letter to the Scientifically Minded" which was published by the FGC Advancement Committee, over the signatures of several academic worthies, and became the most widely circulated FGC document of its time.

(Indeed, it seems evident to me that in FGC’s formative decades, Jesse Holmes’s influence was much more important than that of Rufus Jones. The marginality of Jones to FGC’s development is another striking finding of this research, one which runs contrary to the narrative of the existing histories. Here, though, we can only take note of this fact, and leave its exploration to a later time.)

All of this was interesting, but not as interesting as another fact which turned up: from 1927 to 1940, Holmes was also the Clerk of the Longwood Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, southwest of Philadelphia.

Like the Uniform Discipline itself, this connection was unexpected, with a number of important implications for the understanding of FGC’s theological evolution.

The first implication was that it was time for a reevaluation of the role and significance of the Progressive Friends movement. When they are noted at all, the Progressive Friends are seen as a minor, mid-nineteenth century separation out of some of the Hicksite yearly meetings, an ephemeral tendency which soon dissipated. Consider their treatment in some of the standard histories:

Elbert Russell’s History of Quakerism gives them one paragraph (370-71), as does Barbour and Frost’s The Quakers (181). Rufus Jones, in The Later Periods of Quakerism, Vol. II relegates them to a summary footnote (596), while neither Punshon’s Portrait in Grey nor Williams’s The Rich Heritage of Quakerism mentions them at all. Most surprisingly, Howard Brinton, whose ancestral Chester County turf includes Longwood, states flatly – and erroneously– in Friends for Three Hundred Years that, "no further separations occurred among [the Hicksites]."(191)

But why do the Uniform Discipline and the figure of Jesse Holmes lead to a call for a reexamination of Progressive-Congregational Friends? What is so important about this long-obscure movement?

For the student of modern liberal Quakerism, just about everything. To see why, let’s consider briefly where they came from, their platform and their impact.

The historians who have written of them always cite militant abolitionist sentiment as the Progressives’ raison d’etre. (Bradley, Thomas) This is true enough, but superficial. More significantly, the early Progressives’ antislavery activism became the vehicle and proxy for a parallel, and longer struggle over ecclesiology, specifically an understanding of the church which had shaped the personal and collective Quaker self-consciousness for 150 years. My own view, based on the studies that have unfolded since the Uniform Discipline turned up, is that this ecclesiological issue was in the end the more important. Long after slavery had been settled, the associated ecclesiological issues continued to roil the Quaker waters; indeed, they continue to do so today.

The view of the church that bothered the Progressives was one shared by both the Hicksite and their putative Orthodox rivals. This is shown by the fact that in Philadelphia, for more than fifty years after the 1827 Separation, both yearly meetings’ books of Discipline opened with an identical declaration, to wit:

As it hath pleased the Lord in these latter days, by his spirit and power, to gather a people to himself; and, releasing them from the impositions and teachings of men, to inspire them with degrees of the same universal love and good will by which the dispensation of the gospel was ushered in, these have been engaged to meet together for the worship of God in Spirit, according to the direction of the holy Law-giver; as also for the exercise of a tender care over each other, that all may be preserved in unity of faith and practice, answerable to the description which He the ever-blessed Shepherd gave of his flock "by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." John xiii. 35.

For this important end, and as an exterior hedge of preservation to us, against the many temptations and dangers, to which our situation in this world exposes us, the following rules have been occasionally adopted by the society, and now form our code of discipline.

This was the Quakerism of the Peculiar People, though I have come to feel that "Chosen People" is a more accurate term. (Fager, forthcoming) The separateness of Friends was not a mere "peculiarity"; it was a divine mandate. And there were two other dimensions to this vision worth noting. The first had to do with the subordination of meetings. To quote the traditional view, this time from the Hicksite Philadelphia Discipline of 1894:

These meetings, and their subordination to one another, are as follows: First Preparative Meetings; which consist of the members of a particular meeting for worship, and are accountable to the Monthly Meetings: Second, Monthly Meetings; each of which may consist of one or more Preparative Meetings, and is accountable to the Quarterly Meeting: Third, Quarterly and Half-Year Meetings; each of which consists of one or more Monthly Meetings, and is accountable to the Yearly Meeting; and Fourth, the Yearly Meeting; which comprises the whole. (Emphasis added.)

Then there was a parallel supervision of individuals. Again from the 1894 Hicksite Discipline:

MINISTERS AND ELDERS.

Ministers and elders are affectionately desired to exercise a watchful care over the membership for its preservation in the way of righteousness, always approving themselves by their good examples in conversation and conduct to be such as endeavor faithfully to maintain the testimonies of Truth.

OVERSEERS.

It is the duty of the overseers to exercise a vigilant and tender care over their fellow members; and if anything repugnant to the harmony and good order of the Society appears among them, it should be seasonably attended to.

No wonder the Hicksite abolitionists, who saw clearly enough that ending slavery would require the formation and labor of all sorts of worldly and unruly coalitions, butted heads with tradition-minded elders and ministers. Nor were their concerns limited to slavery. Lucretia Mott, one of the most prominent Hicksite insurgents, crusaded for a long list of causes, temperance and peace and better treatment for Native Americans, in addition to her signature issue of women’s suffrage and abolition.

In sum, the radicals embodied a democratizing trend which was at large in the culture, and which was in direct conflict with the tribal and hierarchical structure of the Religious Society of Friends of the day, and its two-tier membership, the rank and file of which was overseen by ministers and elders appointed for life.

The Quietist ministers and elders had six generations of precedent and tradition behind their view that the proper place for Friends was as a distinct part of "the quiet in the land," who were to leaven the loaf of the larger community by leading exemplary personal lives, generous but low-profile philanthropy, polite petitions against worldly evils and continuing prayer for divine intervention to end them.

It is easy to caricature the regime of these ministers and elders, and it has been done to great comic effect in Jessamyn West’s Friendly Persuasion. Still, there is much to be said for their approach, most of which can be summed up in two words: John Woolman.

Nevertheless, by 1840, Woolman had been dead for almost seventy years, and there was no turning back the clock. The time for "Quietism" was passing inexorably. And to Lucretia Mott’s long list of worldly reform issues was soon added an intra-Quaker concern as well: elimination of the "select meetings" of ministers and elders. Here is what she wrote about it in a recently discovered 1847 letter to a sympathetic cousin, after clashes with "Select Meetings" in New York:

Long years’ reflection and observation have convinced & confirmed me in the opinion that our Select body, as also the Hierarchy or ecclesiastical establishments, & privileged orders in all sects, are the main obstacles to progress–and until the true Freedom of Christ–the equality of the Brethren is better understood, we shall do little by organizing & re-organizing. So believing I visited ‘our Brethren’ & spake against Select Mtgs. & in favor of Women’s Rights, but producing no other effect on the powers that be than increased opposition." (Mott, 3)

In a typically elliptical rebuke to Mott and other challengers, the Friends Weekly Intelligencer the next year republished an address by John Comly, who had led the Hicksite party out of Philadelphia yearly Meeting in the Separation of 1827, and was highly esteemed in their circles. Comly noted sorrowfully that "It has been objected by some that the institution of a select meeting tends to create distinctions amongst brethren and to encourage a spirit of domination on the part of Ministers and Elders, which gives them undue influence in conducting the affairs of Society...." Admitting that such a spirit occasionally appeared, Comly nonetheless insisted that "...this abuse of a wise and excellent order, is no objection to its proper exercise..." and thus "...we can see no ground for the objections stated...."(Comly)

But such reproofs changed little. There were other Friends, from Ohio and Michigan to Pennsylvania and New York, who were similarly restive, and when the Quietist elders refused to budge, a break was all but inevitable.

Here, for reasons of space, we will look mainly at one of the later insurgencies, the Longwood Yearly Meeting of Congregational Friends in Pennsylvania. Its formation was precipitated by a most "untoward" incident in June 1852, when an abolitionist speaker and five Hicksite supporters were arrested for allegedly disrupting meeting for worship in Marlborough Meeting, southwest of Philadelphia, by attempting to speak about slavery and Friends’ reformist heritage. This was not an isolated outburst; more than thirty members had already been disowned by nearby Kennett Monthly Meeting for similar agitation. (Wahl, 410f)

The liberals appealed their disownments to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, predictably without success. Then by May of 1853 they had formed the nucleus of their own group, officially "the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends." (Barnard)

This founding meeting also produced as a manifesto the Exposition of Sentiments. This remarkable document (online in full text at: http://quakertheology.org/webtheology.htm) covers a wide range of topics, but here we will concentrate on its theological and ecclesiological theses. (Pennsylvania, 13ff)

First, it repudiates Quietism and affirms a religion of action for reform. The Exposition asserts that much of the opposition the Progressives faced in their former meetings was based on the conviction that the Christian’s task was to:

...passively ‘wait God’s time’ for the removal of the evils that afflict and curse our race; as if God had not revealed his purpose of doing this work by human instrumentality...and we were bound to wait in listless inactivity for some supernatural or miraculous manifestation of His authority and power!

Second, along with Quietism, the Progressives discarded peculiarity. There were to be no more chosen people, because all people were chosen for the work of reform. This was a key part of their rebellion and as such it merits extensive citation.

Driven thus to choose between our loyalty to sect and our allegiance to God...we were naturally led to investigate the whole subject of religious organization, its nature, uses and sphere, and the source and extent of its powers. The result of our inquiries is a clear conviction, that Churches, however high their pretensions of authority derived from God, are only human organizations, and the repositories of only such powers as may have been rightfully conferred upon them by the individuals of whom they are composed, or derived from the laws of our social nature. It is time that this truth, so long obscured by the sorcery of priestcraft, were clearly understood and boldly proclaimed....

It would be easy to show that this claim of supernatural power, on the part of the organized Church, is at war with the whole genius and spirit of Christianity as exhibited in the life and teachings of Jesus, and without warrant in the writings of the Apostles and primitive Christians, as well as subversive of individual rights and responsibilities. Jesus nowhere indicated an intention to organize a Church clothed with such power. Indeed, it does not appear from his recorded words that he even contemplated any organization whatever of those who should embrace his doctrines. He specified no such work as incumbent upon those whom He sent forth as witnesses of the truth, but left them to adopt such instrumentalities as might seem to them adapted to promote the object of their mission.

The Apostles did indeed organize Churches, but they did not pretend that they were framed after a Divinely prescribed pattern, still less that they were clothed with a supernatural power....

We have dwelt at some length on this point, because we deem it of fundamental importance. This claim of organic communion with God lies at the root of many evils in the Churches around us, and hence we desire to make our denial of its validity as emphatic as possible. We would impress upon the minds of all whom our voice may reach, the truth, that there is no mysterious alchemy whereby a company of men, mean and selfish as individuals, are transmuted into a holy body; no Divine afflatus vouchsafed to them in the mass, superseding the necessity of personal conformity to the will of God.

Such a claim is the acme of superstition and imposture. It is amazing that it should for so long a period have deceived and befouled the nations! When will the people learn that there is nothing Divine, nothing too sacred for investigation, in the artificial arrangements and prescribed formalities of sects?

Third, in place of this churchly "superstition," they advanced a desacralized, democratic and congregational view of church polity and hierarchy:

We cannot undertake to particularize all the errors of principle and practice in the popular Churches, which our investigations have revealed to us; but there is one more which we must not pass in silence. We allude to that vicious and despotic feature in the organization of most of them, which, beginning in the subordination of the individual to the local Church, or to Elders, Overseers, or other officers thereof; ends in the subjection of local bodies to some larger assembly or central power. There are, indeed, some Churches which have attempted to abolish this system, but they are still too much bound by usage to practices inconsistent with their theories.

Experience, as well as observation, has taught us that local organizations should in the first place be formed upon principles which will offer the best possible safeguard to the equal rights of the individual members, and discourage tyranny, whether of the many or the few; and, in the next place, that they should never allow any other body, however numerous or imposing, to exercise authority over them. The forms of Church organization, instead of being such as are suggested by the ideas of individual freedom and responsibility which pervade the teachings of Jesus, would seem to have been borrowed from anti-Christian and despotic systems of civil government, whereof force is the vital and controlling element. Under such forms religious tyranny, always difficult of repression is sure to spring up into a vigorous life.

It would be easy to illustrate this truth by a reference to the history of any of those Churches in which the affiliated and subordinating system of government prevails, but the experience of many of our number naturally leads us to point to the Society of Friends as a warning against this lamentable evil. The setting apart of ministers as a distinct order of persons, and for life; the appointment of Elders to sit in judgment upon the services of the Ministry, and to determine officially what is and what is not inspiration; the subjection of individual liberty to official dictation; the subordination of Preparative to Monthly, of Monthly to Quarterly, of Quarterly to Yearly Meetings; all this affords a covert for despotic authority. It is an arrangement whereby the few are enabled to control the many, and to carry into successful operation their plans for keeping the Church popular with the world, while she is trampling upon her own most vital principles, and obstinately refusing to do the work for which she was originally established. It aggravates, moreover, all the other evils which have crept into the body, and renders the work of reform extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Fourth, for the Progressives, the individual and her conscience were above all else the touchstones of religion and morality:

In forming The Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends, we have followed the instincts of our moral and social nature, and acted upon the settled conviction, that such an organization was necessary to our highest efficiency in the work which our Heavenly Father has given us to do. We seek not to diminish, but to intensify in ourselves the sense of individual responsibility –not to escape from duty, but to aid one another in its performance–to lift up before all who may be influenced by our words or actions a high standard of moral and religious excellence –to commit ourselves before the world as the friends of righteousness and truth, and as under the highest obligations to labor for the redemption of mankind from every form of error and sin.

It has been our honest endeavor to avoid, if possible, the mistakes into which previous organizations have so generally fallen, and especially those radical errors which are pointed out in this address. To this end we have made our association as simple as possible, having done little more than to provide for an annual assembly. We claim for this organization no other powers than such as we ourselves have conferred upon it in consistency with our own and others’ individual freedom....

Our meetings are at present conducted very much like those of the Society of Friends, except that they are not ruled by Elders, and that we have among us no privileged class called Ministers.

As a Yearly Meeting, we disclaim all disciplinary authority, whether over individual members or local Associations. We shall, from time to time, declare our sentiments on such subjects as may demand our attention; but they will be armed with no other force than that which our moral influence may impart, or which may belong to the nature of truth when earnestly and honestly spoken. It will be our aim to cherish freedom of thought and speech, on every subject relating to man’s highest welfare. In saying this, we have no mental reservations to mock the earnest seeker after truth. We have no thunderbolts to launch at those whose perceptions of truth lead them to different conclusions from those of the majority; no edicts of excommunication to scare the soul from its researches; no sanctimonious scowl to dart at him who carries the torch of free inquiry into the very holy of holies. We know of no question too sacred for examination nor in respect to which human reason should yield to human authority, however ancient or venerable.

Fifth and finally, "reform" was the Progressives’ creed, their battle cry, and their agenda all rolled into one. The Exposition admonishes that their associated groups:

...should do more than hold weekly meetings. They should regard it a sacred duty to provide for the visitation and help of the poor in their respective neighborhoods, to lend their sympathy and encouragement to such as are borne down under heavy trials, and to afford prompt and efficient aid in every right effort for the promotion of Temperance, Peace, Anti-Slavery, Education, the Equal Rights of Woman, &c.; that thus the public may be convinced that the Religion they seek to diffuse and establish is not an aggregation of mysteries, abstractions, and unmeaning forms, but a Religion for practical, every-day use, whose natural tendency is to fructify the conscience, intensify the sense of moral responsibility, purify and ennoble the aims of men, and thus to make society wiser, better, and happier.

These excerpts are lengthy and discursive, but it felt best first to let these Friends speak for themselves; so readers might hear the passion and eloquence of their declarations, before going on to analyze them.

But analysis is unavoidable, and here is a summary of the points on which the Progressives both departed from and challenged their Hicksite brethren:

        A. The individual conscience is supreme. The "chosen people" are gone, and the Quaker assertions of any such sacral status derided as superstition and priestcraft.

        B. In local groups, all formal hierarchy is banished, as are the roles of minister and elder used to enforce it.

        C. Likewise, all institutional subordination is eliminated; a strict congregationalism is to be observed among groups.

        D. The essence of religion is unrelated to "technical theology"; rather, it is action for reform–personal yes, but above all social.

        E. Mystery and the sacred are attenuated into invisibility.

        F. The doors of the fellowship are to be open to all, member and nonmember alike.

All these themes we shall see again. But one of the most important, in historical terms, was this last. The Progressive "Separation" was of a very different order than its storied predecessor of 1827, or the contemporaneous fissures within the Orthodox yearly meetings between Gurneyite and Wilburite. While there were some hard feelings, the Progressives did not wall themselves off from their former adversaries, or issue wholesale disownments against them.

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