I am a life-long Quaker and a product of ten years of formal Quaker education as well as nine years of Young Friends experience in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. In high school, I was not only an avid attendee of Young Friends but also a strong Quaker leader, the co-founder, and co-clerk of an all-school student-led business meeting system. After graduating from a Quaker high school I attended Guilford College and its Quaker Leadership Scholars Program (QLSP), from both of which I am a graduate.
This introduction, in the feminist practice of first proclaiming one’s own condition, is by way of establishing my supposed strong foundation in Quakerism. I use the word “supposed” because this essay is intended first to disillusion the reader of any such notion and then to prove that my condition was not only representative but also preventable.
By way of illustration, let me begin with a story. In my first year at Guilford I took a class in Quakerism by Mel Keiser. The class was an even split of QLSPers (all with Quaker backgrounds as enthusiastic and comprehensive as my own) and non-Quaker students who had been raised in strict religious traditions so that they had strong foundations in the Bible and Protestant theory. Needless to say, the non-Quakers all assumed that we QLSPers already knew most of the material being covered. However, we did not. Despite strong backgrounds in Quaker experience we had skimpy backgrounds in Quaker history and theology.
I remember distinctly one day that a group of us stood outside after class as the non-Quakers, who were struggling over a particularly confusing bit of history, begged us Quakers to explain it to them. My memories are all visceral. First the desperation from the non-Quakers as they tried to get us to explain things, then frustration from the Quakers as we found it increasingly difficult to convince them we knew no more then they, then shame from us and bewilderment from them as the truth set in.
This helpless confusion about one’s religion should never happen, and not just at the college level. It is our responsibility to make sure that all Quakers of all ages who have been with us longer than a few years can answer simple questions about Quaker practice and history. Those who have been with us for ten or more years (as had all of us present that day) should be able to speak with authority about these topics, just as would anyone who had gone through Hebrew school or Catholic CCD.
I can hear the potential critic responding to that last suggestion with concern, “But FGC Quakers are not doctrinal like the Jews or the Catholics,” she might say. “How can we possibly provide a similar level of background?” One of the definitions of theology, as given by Wikipedia is “the study of religious faith, practice, and experience”. I think that it is possible to teach Quaker faith, practice, and experience without indoctrination to a creed which we don’t have, or suggesting that everyone believe what the teacher believes. I further believe that we can agree, in principle, that understanding the grounding of Quaker faith and practice is a valuable thing to teach. The difficulty will come in the actual execution of this teaching.
It was in that same class with Mel Keiser that I first really met George Fox. Up until that time I knew him only as the “the founder of Quakerism”. I knew the George Fox song, that he had been married to Margaret Fell Fox, and that many people described him as “sweet” when they stood up in meeting to speak about him.
This is to say, I knew nothing about him.
When, at age 19, as an already avowed Quaker, I finally learned that much of that information was outright false I felt deeply betrayed. In Fox’s Journal I was confronted with a man who was probably manic depressive, definitely not sweet, often cruel, a zealot who was comfortable routinely being rude to those he disagreed with, and a man who was only one of many founders.
I seriously considered leaving Quakerism because I wondered what else might have been hidden from me. My crisis of faith ended in my staying a Quaker because it happened in a safe environment surrounded by professors who had ushered others through the same experience and knew how to get me to the other side. I was lucky in a way, but the whole thing makes me angry because it was so unnecessary.
Despite intensive Quaker experience at the monthly and yearly meeting levels as well as through Friends General Conference, I was failed by the Quaker adults in charge of my religious education. The word “failed” here seems strong so I want to qualify it. I do not believe that these adults even knew that they were letting me down.
It could be construed that since I mentioned Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Young Friends so prominently I am criticizing the program or staff there. Let me be clear that this essay is not an indictment of Cookie Caldwell, who has led Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Young Friends for about 30 years, and that I think highly of him and his work. Cookie runs a sacred community and also covers religious education as much as the program allows, but I suspect his hands were partially tied when it came to theology as I defined it above. All folks in charge of FGC-oriented Quaker religious education are embedded in an entrenched culture of ignorance and white-washing they probably aren’t even aware of. It is now time for us to fight against the legacy of avoidance and move into a new era of theological exploration.
I refuse to be a part of failing future generations. My training in Quakerism (pre-QLSP) consisted of Quaker process, cooperative games, conditioning against violent tendencies, how to sit still for an hour without letting people see you fidget, worship sharing, and a tuning in to issues of social justice. All these are important, but they are also safe, non-controversial topics. We need to be brave.
At present we are sending young Friends out into the world unable to answer even the simplest questions about Quaker theology and history. This is unconscionable. It is not only possible but imperative that we provide all Quaker children with an age appropriate understanding of Quaker history and theology. For example, a five year-old can understand that George Fox was rebelling against a cruel church; a seven year-old can understand that his leather breeches were to protect his legs; a ten year-old can understand his legs were being protected from rocks, sticks and kicks… and so on.
All Young Friends can be taught the existence of the multiple branches of Quakerism, with respectful examination of similarities and differences Exchange trips among the disparate branches should be encouraged at the high school level.
Many concepts, like the aversion to outward sacraments, are compatible with almost any mystical tradition and can be taught without fear of indoctrination into a creed.
One might argue that many adult convinced Friends have taught themselves everything I describe here and that our children have access to the library, to Faith and Practice and to adults willing to answer any question asked. However, the point missing is that they would never know to ask, to look, to read. I, and many others, believed that we were getting everything we needed and it never occurred to us that some information remained for us to find on our own.
We didn’t know what we didn’t know. When a person goes through what they believe to be an intensive program they expect that they need not look elsewhere. We must therefore make our programs more intensive in the areas of Quaker theology and history.
Never again should a Quaker youth first confronted with the stark reality of George Fox consider leaving the religion. I should have been prepared. It should have been explained to me that prophets are often abrasive, crazy characters because they have to be, and why, and that Quakerism is defined not by Fox’s bad characteristics but by his good ones. I should have been prepared for meeting not only historical figures like him and Nayler and Woolman but also the modern day Quaker rabble rousers – so important to our moral compass – with love and the ability to see that of the divine in tempestuous, opinionated people.
Together we can do this. Very few things worth doing are easy.
Queries for Meetings
- What is Quaker theology? If we think of the testimonies as expressions of our theology, how can we articulate the theology itself?
- How can we adapt the concept of “theological training” to the needs of a non-creedal and non-doctrinal tradition?
- What do we envision well-informed Young Friends of the future being like? How do we help them get there?
- Who are the Quaker women and men of the past who have most inspired us? How do we present them in ways that are both engaging and truthful for children and YFs?
- How do the following concepts combine to create modern day FGC Quakerism:
- The testimonies
- “God does not dwell in temples build with hands”
- Corporate decision making
- Aversion to outward sacraments
- A belief in the personal experience with the divine as paramount
- Aversion to “hireling ministers”
- How can we build a curriculum around these and related phenomena?
- How can we use “The George Fox Song” as a theology teaching tool?
- How can our Religious Education Committees support our First Day School teachers in the effort to provide a comprehensive program?
- What can we do to encourage more interaction between seasoned theologically-oriented members and those newer to the community (both old and young)?
- How many contemporary Quakers with an active ministry can we name? How do we expose children and YFs to them?
- What can modern day Friends learn from historical Quaker rabble rousers about effective implementation of the principle of speaking truth to power?
Queries for YFs
- What have I learned about Quakerism that speaks to my condition?
- How can I discover what I still need to learn about Quakerism? How can I encourage my teachers to give me this information and form a curriculum around these topics?
- When planning Young Friends gatherings, do we allow ourselves to go over the same topics repeatedly? How can we balance the need to bring new members up to speed with the need for continuing education of existing members?
- Have I sought out a seasoned Friend outside my family circle to serve as a Quaker mentor? Would this be useful for me?