The Trouble With "Ministers" --continued -- 2

A more detailed critique of the recorded ministry, and the division it produced, can be found in the very eloquent 1853 manifesto of Pennsylvania Progressive Friends, the Exposition of Sentiments, which is now available in full text on the Web.  This manifesto and its implications are discussed further in my essay, "Beyond the Age of Amnesia: Charting the Course of 20th Century Liberal Quaker Theology," in Quaker Theology #3.

As organizations, the Progressive Friends soon faded away. But as one researcher noted in the journal Quaker History (Autumn 1963, Vol. 52 No.2, p.103), "most of the reforms for which the Progressive Friends pressed were eventually adopted" by the Hicksite YMs, above all, the abolition of the offices of ministers and elders. The newer FGC YMs, along with the unaffiliated YMs of the West, never had them.

That this history is little-known is not only due to ignorance; there has yet been very little scholarly attention to it, as is true of modern liberal Quaker history in general.

The traditional two-tier structure these Friends protested against was not part of the Quaker movement in its earliest, wilder days. It largely grew out of the work of Fox over several years to "settle" the meetings in England – "settle" meaning, in large part, to "settle down." This process is thought by many historians to have been a key to the survival of the Society during a time of often intense persecution.

In the short term, the strategy worked; the Society survived. Once the period of persecution ended, however, the two tiers remained, and the power of the ministers and elders became, if anything, even more entrenched; some would say ossified, and it lasted for another two centuries.

I want to underline the fact that the elimination of this system from the FGC and Unaffiliated groups was not an accident, or the result of a fit of corporate absentmindedness. Those who abolished the offices of minister and elder knew what they were doing, and meant to do it.


They had concluded, based on long and painful experience, that the offices did more harm than good to the Society. These Friends were saying, loud and clear, that the Testimony of Equality was meant to apply within the Society as well as outside it.

They were also making a theological statement: The work of Spirit-led "ministry" belongs to all Friends, according to their/our varied gifts and callings. It is not to be the preserve of some select group, especially a largely self-selected group. And let me state plainly that I believe they were largely right in these assertions.

Back to the Future

But if the two-tier system is gone from the predominantly liberal unprogrammed branch of Friends, that doesn’t mean it is forgotten. Over the past several years I have heard a number of voices raised, calling repeatedly for the resurrection of this system, or some equivalent. I’m not sure if they realize it, but these advocates, it appears to me, are seeking much the same goal as those who first established it: to "settle down" a Society that some feel has gotten too loose and "unsound."

Most of these calls are examples of what I call "Handbasket Theology": FGC-Unaffiliated type Quakerism, it contends, is going to hell in a handbasket; we’re the hapless victims of what one of the main exponents of this view derides as an "amorphous definition of a Quakerism in which anything goes."(Marty Grundy, Pendle Hill Lecture, 10/12/1998) We desperately need, among other things, ministers and elders to snatch us from the jaws of spiritual destruction.

For the record, I happen to think this "Handbasket Theology" is mostly a lot of baloney; but a detailed critique is for another time. (To see some samples of this "Handbasket Theology," I suggest a visit to the Pendle Hill website – and then a review of some of the Monday Night Lectures posted there, particularly those by Jeavons, Drayton, Caldwell and Grundy. For another critical response, see my review of the study, Among Friends, in Quaker Theology #2) The question before us is the effort to revive the practice, the uneasiness that has dogged it, and how this history relates to both.

I believe it relates directly.

The idea is presented as a chance to return to the good old days when ministers provided "spiritual leadership" among Friends, and kept the Society together, bringing news, good preaching, and spiritual nurture, resolving problems and enriching the spiritual life of meetings and individuals.

There is truth in this view, of course, and the regularly cited archetype of such ministry is John Woolman, as gentle and nurturing a spirit as one could hope for.

For a Quaker, there is an inescapable kind of romance to the stories of his journeys among the natives, and his long quiet labor against slavery. Further, a little time spent browsing among the shelves of many a meeting library will turn up the journals of many another such minister, less gifted in style than Woolman perhaps, but as dedicated and intrepid.

Who could be against reviving an institution that produced such personal devotion and contributed so much to the Society at large?

Well I could be, for one

Why? Because Woolman’s saintliness is not the whole story, not by a long shot. And when I hear constant references to Woolman, with never a mention of some of the others who tore the Society in pieces, who tried to hound Lucretia Mott from the ranks, and who spoke of ordinary Friends as no more than rabble, then I am put on my guard, and I begin to wonder what other agendas are afoot that we are not being apprized of.

The rumblings associated with this attempted revival of the recorded ministry have me more than a little worried. I believe others are worried as well, and that this unease has and will come back to haunt the liberal branches of the Society, unless it is dealt with.

How could it be dealt with?

For starters, we could take off our historical blinders and candidly examine the broader history of the two-tier Society, and weigh the costs, as well as the benefits of that system. (In doing so, let me hasten to add, books of Faith and Practice and yearly meeting minutes are of very little value as sources; when they deal with difficulties and conflicts among Friends, virtually all such official records are euphemized to the point of de facto falsehood. Those who would know the truth must look elsewhere, among less official documents, including letters.)

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