Reviewed by Chuck Fager
Want to see all US Quaker history in a single page? With attitude? Here it is. Well, one very large page: thirty by forty inches. It’s actually a chart, meant to hang on your wall, not nestle among the pamphlets on a bookshelf. Friend Kaiser sells these charts for $13 postpaid; the attitude is included at no extra charge.
He began work on it in his college days in the 1960s, over the past several decades, earlier editions have turned up in the corners of Meeting libraries and the occasional Quaker history buff’s backroom wall, where when spotted they were a reliable source for conversation, disputation, and cricks in the neck from craning to see all the small print.
The main graphic on the chart resembles a cross between a tree that went seriously awry, and a giant’s surrealistic dinner fork emerging from a plate of spaghetti, or maybe a huge can of worms. And if the image is not weirdly intriguing enough, its various twists, turns, clusterings and re-clusterings are accompanied or surrounded by columns and boxes of text, plus mini-charts adding more data and offering Kaiser’s sharp, often acerbic interpretations of the history thus visualized. If the current format is not confusing enough, he declares that “After the next set of schisms (which he fully expects), it might take a hologram to chart the results.”
Kaiser says his guiding theological perspective is that of a strict fan of Robert Barclay and his 1676 classic Apology for the True Christian Divinity. He is especially devoted to the section of Barclay’s tome which deals with the nature of the “true (or small “c” catholic) church, and who can be part of it.
As Kaiser puts it in one of his text boxes:
Barclay’s Apology has 15 propositions, which outline: how the Inward Light works and what it’s been doing since “the foundation of the world.” It was the theological centerpiece (Orthodoxy) for all of Quakerism up until the 1800’s. It is often the un-noticed underpinnings for that wing of Friends who did not adopt 19th century evangelicalism.
The Apology’s uniqueness is that it is about the Light and how it works within people everywhere – whether they know it or not . . . . People can and have come to very different conclusions about its Christology, but about the universality of the Light, there can be no question. Barclay is quite clear about this.
Kaiser expands on this theme in another text box:
Exactly how much is necessary for an individual to believe of what is usually understood to be basic Christianity in order to be a “real Christian” is a major bone of contention among pastoral Friends. Barclay says, none of it: “the mere outward declaration of the gospel is sometimes considered to be the gospel.” The gospel is the inward power “that has been preached to every creature under heaven. . . . There may be members of this catholic [universal true] Church not only among the several sorts of Christians, but also pagans, Turks, and Jews. The Church invisible has existed in all generations, and has never lacked faithful witnesses.” Read: Barclay’s Apology, Props 2, 3, 5 and 6. Is it any wonder traditional Quakerism and 19th century Evangelicalism collided so disastrously?
Although Barclay affirms his own belief in the divinity of Jesus, etc., he points out that the scriptures say Jesus died for “all people in all times,” whether they knew about him or not. When once asked by a Presbyterian if that meant the true church also included cannibals, Barclay is said to have answered, “And some Presbyterians too.” What ever branch of “Friends”(sic.) you belong to, it may be a spiritual challenge to be as liberal as Barclay, and include members of the other branch.
As radical then as it is now, Barclayan Quakerism gives us a description of how the Universal Light works and how it changes us when we engage it favorably in our lives whether we believe it or not. Early Quakerism – like Humpty Dumpty – sat on the wall between orthodox Christianity and universalism. It was shattered in the 19th century. Like Humpty, it doesn’t appear likely anyone will put it back together again.
That’s Kaiser’s manifesto, which he wears openly on his sleeve–err, chart. And if the “true (Barclayan Quaker) church” can include even, well, Presbyterians, why not gays and lesbians too? Kaiser was a founding member in the 1970s of what is now called the Friends for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & Queer concerns (though he preferred its earlier, briefer acronym of FLGC), and worked for many years for greater acceptance of gays and lesbians among Friends.
But as the chart shows, the tensions among Friends go much deeper than the controversies of the moment. Despite his advocacy of same sex marriage, Kaiser derides the idea that this issue is the root of current conflicts: “Gimme a break. Anyone who really believes it’s the issue of marriage equality needs to take a closer look.”
A closer look, that is, at his chart. You just about have to lean into it if you’re going to examine it at all, to follow the thin lines representing yearly meetings, or read the many boxed sections of text on topics ranging from “A Quaker Police State,” to “Cleveland MM disowned . . .” The timeline runs from lower to higher: at the bottom, the roots and trunk represent the beginnings of Quakerism in England, and the nearly two centuries of relative organizational calm that followed in the so-called Quietist era. The sketch here is relatively straightforward.
But several inches up, one comes to the fateful year of 1827, and it all goes haywire.
Kaiser also notes that once the “trunk” splits into the Orthodox-
evolving-into-evangelical wing vs. the Hicksite-evolving-into-Liberal
wing, a very distinct group character difference emerges: the Hicksite
Liberals hardly have any further splits, while among the Orthodox and
Evangelicals, he notes on the chart, there have now been “over 40”
schisms among their various groups and subgroups. Indeed, he speaks
directly of the “Quaker 100 years war,” which has erupted in open
conflict and schism in every generation since 1827, with precursors
Small wonder that on the chart, when he gets to the present on the Evangelical/pastoral side, he leaves some blank space designated for future schisms he expects among them between 2011 and 2020. (And as reported elsewhere in this and preceding issues, Indiana Yearly Meeting is splitting, or as they put it, “reconfiguring,” as if on cue.)
Why are there so many splits on the evangelical
side, and so few on the Hicksite-“Beanite” side? Kaiser’s take: “While
surface issues in each separation reflect the times, basic issues
remain the same: the place of the Bible, doctrinal uniformity, and a
What about the liberals? “Theological uniformity, a hallmark of early Quakerism, is not viewed with favor by these Friends,” he says. Yet “Barclayan theology, though almost unknown to them, shapes their outlook.” Their Barclay unfolds a broad umbrella under which a greater variety seems to subsist (so far) with less division.
Are there any groups in the “middle”? Kaiser wishes there were. His heart is really with the archetypal “Conservative” Friend John Wilbur of 19th century Rhode Island, who opposed the evangelical trend that spread across the Orthodox wing after the Great Separation of 1827 – only to be disowned for his trouble in what became another round of schisms. The “Wilburite” groups clung the longest to Barclay, a non-pastoral worship, and the old customs of plain dress and speech; but their three remaining yearly meetings are mere fading shadows of their early strength, and two of them (North Carolina and Iowa) seem to be evolving steadily in a liberal direction.
Are schisms good for “church growth”? The record here suggests otherwise: The pastoral groups overall lost half their total members in the twentieth century, while the liberals have doubled in numbers.
The programmed groups are still more numerous overall, as a result of missionary work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; but given their steady decline, one wonders how long that will remain true. In our time, one has regularly heard fevered announcements of the imminent breaking out of a “new great awakening”; but it has yet to arrive, and in the meantime, the membership slide continues.
Or at least, that’s how it seems. In the course of preparing the chart and its updates, Kaiser has learned a thing or two about Quaker statistics, above all that, in recent times at least, they are considerably less than rigorous, or reliable.
So can Kaiser’s chart, its wealth of information, and not least its plethora of debatable interpretations, serve as a kind of ouija board for predicting the future of American Quakerdom?
Maybe. Looking over the convolutions on the chart’s left (Orthodox/Evangelical) side, foreseeing more evangelical schisms seems a safe bet. After all, a close look at the record shows that when dogmas are not directly in contention, there are always personality conflicts and power struggles to fill in til doctrinal debates make their next comeback.
The prospects for the liberals seem to leave Kaiser more upbeat, but still guarded and not less astringent. “As with the evangelicals of the 1800’s, these 1970s [liberal] Friends were ‘captured’ by current ideas & causes and also sometimes called ‘The Society of Trends.’” Further, “FGC is still riding the liberal/civil rights antiwar wave of the 1970’s, but those folks are aging. Without a draft to protest, their young people seem to lack the drive of their parents.”
All of which leaves him posing questions rather than making predictions:
“But what of [the liberals’] future? If the oceans rise, will their faith in science and the Light be eclipsed by civilization’s impending collapse? As the Book perishes and the steeples fall, will they still believe the Light will be shining at the end of it all?”
One thing, at least, he’s sure of: “Barclay would, regardless of how dark the ages may become.”
And one thing we can be sure of, is that there is nothing quite like Kaiser’s provocative portrayal of Quaker history.
*350 Years of the Society of Friends in North America:
1661-2011. Twentieth Edition. By Geoffrey Kaiser