A Review: Among Friends, A Consultation with Friends about the Condition of Quakers in the U.S. Today. An Earlham School of Religion Report. 294 pp., paperback, 1999.

Reviewed by Chuck Fager.

There are many true and important statements in this report. One of the truest and most important, however, is regrettably buried on page 244. Let’s begin there, because its content is foundational:

“This profile provides information about the Friends who were selected to participate….They cannot be presumed to represent the Religious Society of Friends as a whole.”

This major caveat is key to putting Among Friends in its proper context as a piece of survey research: it is what marketers call a “qualitative” rather than a “quantitative” study.

Here’s an example to illustrate this distinction. In a long list of complaints about the state of the Society, one unnamed respondent said about my own branch:

“Quaker culture rules in the eastern unprogrammed tradition, and it’s a silly, pedantic, uninspired, rather marginal culture that determines everything about how you behave as a Quaker – including the color of the car you drive and the type of clothes you wear.”(p. 24)

What this statement actually tells us is that one person, somewhere, possibly but not necessarily in the eastern half of the country, is very unhappy about what he or she thinks goes on there. What it does not tell us is:

1. How many other persons, who are actually familiar with or situated among eastern Quakers, feel similarly, or

2. Whether these subjective feelings correspond in any way with actual conditions in the branch.

Unfortunately, the report’s Foreword, by Douglas Bennett, President of Earlham College, ESR’s parent institution, is far too sweeping–and undiscriminating–in its estimate of the volume. “We believe,” he writes, “the study is the most comprehensive look at Quakers in the United States ever conducted.”

Would that it were indeed fully comprehensive; but it is not, as we shall see.

The report is based on 24 focus groups, conducted in 12 states in the latter half of 1999, plus some additional individual interviews and a dozen or so letters submitted by persons responding to ads in two Quaker publications. In all, some 255 people took part in one way or another.

At first blush, these figures do sound wide-ranging. But a closer look at the participant breakdown on pages 244-246 reveals a much narrower and highly skewed sample: Geographically, it turns out that nearly half of the focus groups were conducted in just three states: Indiana, North Carolina and Iowa, and participants were drawn principally from the pastoral yearly meetings located there.

Further, the educational breakdown shows that over 60 percent of the participants were connected with ESR.

Finally, three-quarters of the participants identified themselves with predominantly pastoral or evangelical bodies of Friends.

These facts do not invalidate the survey; but calling it “comprehensive” leaves the impression that it provides a reliable portrait of American Quakerism; and this, by definition, it does not and cannot do.

Why not? I took this report to an acquaintance of mine, a highly successful professional marketing consultant, who does such research all the time, for handsome fees. This person, who for professional reasons wishes to be unnamed, pointed out that the value of such “qualitative” research is to surface issues and concerns which, in a truly “comprehensive” study, are then explored and tested by “quantitative” measurements; in a word, carefully randomized surveys. It is from this meticulous bean-counting part of the process that we can learn what is most important to know.

What such careful quantitative studies can produce is brought into sharp relief by a look over the fence at the Unitarians. Several times in the last century, the denomination undertook wide-ranging surveys, employing professional quantitative methods, covering the nation and involving thousands in their samples, as part of its corporate self-examination and planning processes.

Such surveys provide results that can be cited with confidence and usefully compared over time. For instance, they show that between the 1967 and 1979 surveys, “God” made something of a comeback among Unitarians, who had earlier been overwhelmingly agnostic-humanist in their outlook. The trend of a return to actual “religion” and spirituality makes for intriguing reading, and offers substantive grist for the mills of Unitarian church planners and strategists.1 (Unitarians, by the way, are a growing church.)

By contrast, when viewed alone, without the needed ballast of quantitative study, Among Friends perpetuates several unfortunate misconceptions.

Take, for instance the impression of low morale left by this report. Overall, it amounts to one of the purest expressions yet of what I have dubbed “Handbasket Theology.” It is the view that American Quakerism generally, and especially the liberal unprogrammed branch, is going to hell in a handbasket, and fast. This is a thesis repeated often–too often, in my view–by prominent ESR alumni.2 The indictment is laid out in detail here between pages 13 and 25, in which participants identify the strengths and weaknesses of their faith community.

The list of strengths–mainly our past, our Testimonies, and our Quaker ways–takes up about one page.

The catalogue of weaknesses, by contrast, goes on for more than ten pages, and ranges from, “We don’t know who we are,” and “We’re not what we used to be,” to “We’re not going anywhere.” These comments are repeated in variations over and over through most of the rest of the book.

That’s the nub of it. From the Handbasket perspective, to mix up the metaphors, our Quaker glass is not merely half empty–it is more like the rim of a religious black hole, sucking spiritual life and energy into some bottomless pit.

My friend the market researcher, after examining the report, told me this is a common phenomenon: people in focus groups will often spend more time complaining about something than praising it. Does that mean they really dislike it so much?

Not necessarily, and that’s where careful quantitative research is crucial, to find a reliable answer to such a question.

This professional qualification of the results was very reassuring to me; but you will find no hint of any such cautionary counsel in the text of the report, except for that brief note in an Appendix we noted at the outset. Hence, when non-social scientist Friends pick it up, they could easily get a very misleading impression; I have already seen it happen. Worse yet, any sane inquirer who paged through it at a meetinghouse book table would likely run screaming for the exits.

I mean, let us speak plainly: how many of us would stay in a church where the negatives and the problems outweighed the good parts by a ratio of ten to one? Myself, I’d be out the door last week. Heck, if my job had so little going for it, I’d quit at the first chance; and I’d move out of any neighborhood that was so depressed. For that matter, if I were running a seminary connected to such a dying denomination, I’d be looking for a new one to hook up with.

One can only hope that experienced Friends will read this report with discrimination and care. Take, for instance the comment about the stifling eastern Quaker culture: I don’t doubt that this person felt as described; but in thirty-plus years of living and traveling “among Friends,” mainly in the East, I have yet to see the color of our automobiles and clothes be a matter of Quaker advice, formal or informal. (Just to make sure, I tested this observation last First Day in our meetinghouse parking lot; yep, in it were cars of many colors.)

As for clothes, the typical Quaker tee shirt collection is a veritable rainbow coalition–though many of us are admittedly a bit stuffy about 100% cotton.

Perhaps these reactions only show my uninspired marginality and pedantic silliness. Yet our nameless Friend was not content to go over the top only once:

“But more importantly,” the speaker continued, “[Quaker culture] precludes us from doing some of the most important things like evangelism or outreach…. We’ve gotten that badly wrong and as a result, we’re disappearing.”

Except, of course, that we’re not. This person is entitled to his/her gloomy feelings; but that’s all that’s being described here. The empirical reality among eastern Quakers is sharply different: a really “comprehensive” study of American Quakerism would put such statements into quantitative perspective: It would tell us how many persons there feel similarly; and it could check such attitudes against, say, membership statistics, which in fact are generally increasing in the East. True, liberal Friends are weak on organized “evangelism”; but they must be doing something right.

The limited character of the portrait in Among Friends is also clear in comparison with previous studies. In 1970, for instance, Friends Journal published excerpts from a national survey by Martha Deed Niss, as part of her doctoral dissertation, which took the methodological challenges of such a quantitative effort very seriously.3 Deed also cited an earlier quantitative study in a dissertation by Jack Cole Ross. There have since been other surveys, involving as many or more persons as this one, which drew on different samples and produced much more positive feedback. For instance, in 1979 Friends General Conference conducted a survey of almost 300 new members of its meetings. The results gave these unprogrammed groups high marks; no Handbaskets there.

Ditto in the mid-1990s, when I conducted a nationwide survey for Pendle Hill, and likewise found much optimism and vitality.4

None of this earlier research is mentioned or reviewed here. Of course, none of those surveys claimed to be “comprehensive,” either. FGC, after all, talked to persons who came to meetings and stayed, so one would expect that they mostly liked what they had found; and Pendle Hill’s poll was aimed at people who presumably had some interest in that institution.

These slices of Quakerdom are just as legitimate as that gathered for Among Friends. Their results can be interpreted to support the views of the rare dissenter quoted on page 102:

“When it comes to unprogrammed Quakerism in the Unites States, I am an optimist. I believe this group is vital and growing, both spiritually and materially. Not everywhere and always, of course, and not unambiguously, but overall.”

That is to say, sure we have “issues,” including many items harped on so endlessly in these pages. But for me, as for others, the positives outweigh the negatives, and not by just a little. Our cup of Quakerism is (at least) half full, and often enough it runneth over. Is such an experience so hard to imagine? It would be, if your principal source were Among Friends.

Here’s another modest, but persistent and tellingly empirical example: A few weeks after writing this review, the author expects to attend the annual Gathering of Friends General Conference. This event, he confidently predicts, will be noisy, full of kids, music, worship, love, fun and social concern. It will also pay its own way, run mainly on volunteer labor, and be regarded by most participants as a spiritual and communal high point of their year. For that matter, it will also be celebrating its parent body’s centennial. And not least, at 2000 participants, it will be by far the largest Quaker assembly in the United States.

Why can this be predicted with such assurance? Because that’s the record of these gatherings going back one hundred years. The implication of so much of the ESR report, that a faith community which can regularly mount such vital, exciting gatherings is actually a desiccated and dying relic, is–well, it’s just balderdash.

Among Friends will be of the greatest value, I suspect, as a feasibility study for ESR’s fundraisers. After all, it is largely drawn from the school’s core supporters, echoes their views, and provides the rationale for shaping appeals to their wallets. There is nothing unseemly about this, except for the fact that such studies are usually, and properly, kept in-house.

In the best case, though, I cherish the stubborn hope that Among Friends could be more. Many pages are given over to ruminations about ESR’s possible contributions to Quakerism’s future. One of the best contributions, in my view, would be a searching reexamination of the dispiriting Handbasket Theology that breathes through it, and why it is so endemic in its constituency. The relation to reality is questionable at best; and its association with the school is becoming emblematic.

So what gives here? Is there something in the water out there in Richmond? Or maybe in their curriculum? Whatever its sources, the continual repetition makes the ESR crowd sound like a society of whiners, rather than the builders of the future of Friends. Neither the school nor Quakerism is well-served by wallowing in it.

In the meantime, there is as yet no “comprehensive” report on the condition of the Religious Society of Friends in the United States, from any quarter. The Unitarians’ surveys show us how it could be done better, and more usefully. If such a major quantitative study were to be undertaken, Among Friends could be useful in helping shape the issues and concerns it would explore. By itself, though, it should be stamped, in large bold letters, “Caution: Handle With Care.” The fewer attenders who see it, the better.


1. For a recap of the Unitarians’ surveys, see The Devotional Heart, John Morgan, Boston: Skinner Books, 1995; and The Unitarians and the Universalists, by David F. Robinson, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

2. For more examples of Handbasket Theology, read the lectures by Thom Jeavons, Marty Grundy and Sam Caldwell posted on the Pendle Hill website: www.pendlehill.org; and John Punshon’s Pendle Hill pamphlet, “Letter to a Universalist.”

3. The Deed-Niss survey is summarized in a three-part Friends Journal series: 6/1/1970, pp. 318f; 7/1-15/1970, pp. 384-386; and 8/1-15/1970, p. 415f.

4. A report on my 1994 survey for Pendle Hill is also available at its website. Ten years earlier, in A Friendly Letter, I conducted yet another national survey, which is reported in Issues #42 and #47.

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