Monday, 4 December 2017

What Happened to Quaker Missionary Zeal?

Against a dark background, a hand reaches out away from the viewer, holding a glowing ball. The hand is barely illuminated, aside from the light from the ball.
How do we, how should we, share our gift of Light?
In the early years of the Society of Friends, there was a strong focus on evangelism, of proselytising with a missionary zeal. While this is still found in parts of the pastoral and evangelical branches of the world family of Friends, over here in the liberal branch it has died away, pretty much completely. What happened, and should we be concerned? I shall attempt to answer this, for myself at least, with something of a whistle-stop tour of some relevant Quaker history. This will, by necessity, be somewhat light on detail, and will generally avoid making caveats around the different interpretations and versions of events that different factions hold to. This should not be taken as my version of events, or my preferred interpretation, just what I have managed as a fairly quick summary, covering the key points without attempting to make sure every little detail is included. Please do not use this as a source in your own learning about Quaker history – but the names and summaries may work as a jumping off point for your own reading.
Like many liberal Quakers, the lack of proselytisation is associated in my mind with some of the characteristics of liberal Quakerism that I most value: uncertainty about traditional religious “big questions”, universalism, theological liberalism. The idea that there is no “one true way”, that we can all find the spiritual path that is suited to us, and that this might be found in any number of different faiths. Of course, these are also factors that would seem pretty strange to many Friends in the earliest days of the Society; they were absolutely and definitely Christian, even if that Christianity was fairly orthodox. Universalist sentiments arose not too long after, from Friends such as William Penn and Mary Fisher, but they weren't about integrating different theological backgrounds into the community of Friends; rather, they were about respecting and valuing other faiths, rather than dismissing them – but they remained entirely separate and other, if not entirely “other”.
Now, it happens that a lot of behaviour we associate with proselytisation is contradictory to these modern liberal Quaker ideals. However, the behaviour, or lack of behaviour, as regards active attempts to convince others, changed long before any Quakers were theologically so liberal, never mind universalist. For whatever reason – and those who study the matter have several theories, it seems – as these early Quakers entered the 18th century, they turned inward. In what is known as the quietist period, active efforts to convince outsiders ceased, though those who found their own way in to Meetings were not turned away. Marrying out, that is the marriage of a member to one not in membership, was forbidden and became cause for expulsion. Then the largely transatlantic Religious Society of Friends had a crisis – a schism.
This was driven by several forces. In America, Elias Hicks espoused the seeds of liberal Quaker theology, asserting the primacy of the direct experience of the Light over scripture; early Friends certainly believed in such a primacy, but viewed it as allowing the right understanding of scripture, not superseding it. While Hicks was still – to judge by his writing – utterly Christian, he was departing from Christian and Quaker orthodoxy as it stood, particularly regarding Quaker orthodoxy's adoption of many elements of mainstream protestantism. The separation was seen as Hicksite versus Orthodox, with Orthodox Friends alleging even greater divergence in the teachings of Hicks than can be supported from his writings. Of course, Hicksites considered themselves the Orthodox ones, but the weight of opinion in the Society was against them.
In England, the Beaconites – centred on Isaac Crewdson of Manchester and his work A Beacon to the Society of Friends – argued that the doctrines of the inner light and of salvation by atonement were incompatible, and thus rejecting the authority of that inward teacher. This was, at least in part, a reaction to the influence of Hicksite thought. The Beaconites were utterly run out of the Society, not managing to create a parallel structure like the Hicksites. It is understood that many ended up with the Plymouth Brethren. This should not be taken, however, as a British Quaker endorsement of the Hicksite position, as shall shortly become clear.
A key figure in resolving this controversy – or at least putting it out of view – was Joseph John Gurney, brother of Elizabeth Fry and a leading figure among those Friends influenced by the growing revivalist movement. At this time, Gurney strongly rejected the Hicksite view, as did Crewdson, but also strongly asserted the propriety of silent Quaker worship, that all ministry therein should flow from the spirit at that time.
Meanwhile, discord among Friends in America continued, caught up in relation to the revival movement and the “second great awakening”. Gurney came to America, and while there promoted a more strongly evangelical and mainstream-protestant approach to faith. An American Friend became the core of resistance to this movement among Orthodox Quakers in America, by the name of John Wilbur. Again, factions formed, Friends were cast out en masse, and like the Hicksites, the cast-out Wilburites formed their own parallel structures. These Wilburites maintained a relatively strict interpretation of theology, relatively orthodox in their Christianity, but they also maintained their belief in the use of the inner light to interpret and supplement scripture. The Gurneyites veered further into the patterns of the revivalists, with religious gatherings growing more to resemble the services in revivalist churches.
With a final split happening among the Gurneyites as to how much they should take on from the growing evangelical Christian tradition, Friends in America eventually found themselves in more or less four groups, with various smaller offshoots grouping around these four primary splits. Broadly speaking, the Hicksites became what is now the liberal branch, under Friends General Conference (FGC), the Gurneyites became the pastoral and evangelical branches, under Friends United Meeting (FUM) and Evangelical Friends International (EFI, at least until recently – now EFCI, with the addition of the word “church”) respectively, and the Wilburites being part of the collection of Friends and Meetings that have come to be known as Conservative Friends (at least some of which are also affiliated under FGC, or so I am told). Then, of course, there are the Meetings that are dual-affiliated or unaffiliated, but the general pattern is as described.
Meanwhile in Britain, splits didn't really happen, barring some small offshoots, new Meetings formed or old Meetings breaking away due to disagreement with changes as they happened. Initially, 19th century British Friends followed along the Gurneyite path, and while silent Meetings for Worship were maintained, additional “home mission meetings” eventually took place in evenings, with hymns and sermons. This is often referred to as the “evangelical period” of British Quakerism. The main pushback against this, in terms of tangible results, was the separation of Fritchley Meeting, which became Fritchley General Meeting and independent of London Yearly Meeting for about 100 years, rejoining in 1968. This was on much the same basis as the Wilburites in America – rejections of the creeping homogenisation with the broader range of evangelical Christian churches.
The Gurneyite branch of American Quakerism took an interesting turn in 1887. Joseph Bevan Braithwaite proposed to Five Years Meeting (the predecessor of FUM) a fairly verbose document as the definition of what they considered true Quaker faith – the Richmond Declaration of Faith. This remarkable document was adopted in full unity by the 95 representatives of 12 Yearly Meetings, set out a great many positions, and is still considered of great doctrinal importance by many pastoral and evangelical Friends. While presented as being something other than a creed, in my opinion its usage bears many comparisons to a creed, though it is far longer than Christian creeds tend to be. Perhaps its better comparison is with catechism. It sets out a Trinitarian orthodoxy, understandings of the nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit, asserts the absolute authority of scripture – the leadings of the Spirit serving only to clarify or supplement, and then only with caution – in all matters of religion, and sets out the conventional mainstream Christian idea of the fallen state of man and need for redemption, with the typical evangelical protestant emphases. It sets out the doctrine of justification by faith alone, a position on final judgement and resurrection – all so far, so evangelical.
It begins to differ somewhat from evangelical orthodoxy in matters of liturgy, such as baptism and communion. Baptism with water is rejected, as is any baptism by outward ritual, in keeping with Quaker teaching. Likewise, the instructions of Christ at the Last Supper are not to be taken as physical instructions for the faithful, establishing a ritual, but as purely spiritual instructions. It also, in what I consider impressive mental judo, justifies the idea of named, and potentially paid, pastors:
“While the church cannot confer spiritual gifts, it is its duty to recognize and foster them, and to promote their efficiency by all the means in its power. And while, on the one hand, the Gospel should never be preached for money, (Acts 8:20, 20:33-35) on the other, it is the duty of the church to make such provision that it shall never be hindered for want of it.”
It goes on to set out fairly reasonable views on marriage, peace, conscience, and the swearing of oaths, ones that will largely not jar with most Friends today – the marriage section does not even explicitly set out that marriage must be between a man and a woman, though it could be taken to imply it. There's some odd bits about submission to government except in matters of religious conscience, though that may be included for political reasons as much as anything else. The remaining matter that would be controversial to many Friends today is the assertion that the Sabbath should be kept, in almost puritan fashion.
It will be no surprise to my regular readers that I take a rather dim view of the Richmond Declaration, feeling it to be inconsistent with many of those religious teachings that are specific to Quakers. Of course, my views are inconsistent with many of the beliefs universal among early Quakers, and so I respect the choice of these Friends to faithfully follow their leadings as they understood them, as I hope they would respect the same choice on my part. Whether or not they would do so is beside the point. It is not the emphasis on evangelical Christian theological orthodoxy in general that bothers me, in terms of the Quaker tradition, but rather the selective abandonment of particularly Quaker teachings; times and seasons are abandoned for an orthodox attitude to the Sabbath, and “hireling priests”, subject of some of George Fox's most vociferous declamations, justified by logical gymnastics. Oh, the pastors of pastoral and evangelical Friends are not clergy, they are not deemed to have special spiritual power or authority, and yet it is impossible for the organisational construction they find themselves in to fail to give them effective spiritual authority over their Meetings. My criticisms of the Richmond Declaration are something of a tangent here and now, however, so I shall return to the point.
The Richmond Declaration also endorses the idea of spreading of the Gospel, in line with the practices already developed among the Gurneyite Quakers. Unlike Fox and his contemporaries, however, they had no interest in converting those already faithful to any suitable Christian church. Those who paid lip service only were a target of missionary zeal, of course, as were those who were in no wise Christian – especially the natives of various colonies and far-flung empires, popular targets of western missionaries. This was not an area of such interest to Hicksite and Wilburite Friends, though they were not necessarily entirely absent from that arena.
London Yearly Meeting did consider adopting the Richmond Declaration, but a vocal minority opposing it was sufficient to prevent the YM coming to unity on the matter, and so it was left aside. This may have been a significant impetus towards what some call the “Quaker renaissance”. Certainly the Friends at the heart of this new movement included some of those who opposed the Richmond Declaration. These Friends promoted liberal Christian theology, biblical criticism rather than inerrancy, and the acceptance of science that contradicted scripture, such as the theory of evolution. The shift of Quaker thought in Britain, while not instantaneous, was actually remarkably rapid – especially given how far it was shifting. This brought London Yearly Meeting largely in line, in terms of theology and practice, with the general trend of Hicksite Yearly Meetings, despite the almost negligible impact – in comparison with America – of the teachings of Hicks on British Quakers back when they were new.
Now we find ourselves with liberal Quakers engaging in no proselytisation, and pastoral and evangelical Friends engaging in significant work, though largely overseas, resulting in large numbers of programmed Meetings and Quakers in the global economic south. This missionary work is, however, largely aimed at non-Christians, or those who profess Christianity but do not practice it with sufficient fervour. The zeal of Fox and his contemporaries to draw faithful Christians away from what they considered the false church, with its hireling priests, seems entirely absent, and largely unmourned. Liberal Quakers engage in “outreach”, to greater or lesser extents – seemingly largely about increasing our visibility, letting more people know who we are and what we do, often with the hope that some will decide that it's for them, but very rarely done in any way that seems to be trying to “sell” our faith.
That is, in short, what happened. Now the question is… should we be concerned?
The knee-jerk response of liberal Friends tends to be “no”, comfortable with the fact that, as far as they are concerned in any practical sense, we have never proselytised. Indeed, I have often heard the claim that those who are suited to the Quaker way will somehow, mysteriously, find their way to us, and that outreach is also unnecessary. As a Friend convinced in adulthood, and knowing how slim the chances were that I found the Religious Society of Friends when I did, I find this troubling. Of course, you could point to me as evidence that this works, but I personally cannot doubt that there are considerable numbers of people much like me, who would find a happy home among Friends, spiritual nourishment and enrichment, and the joy of service in our community – and that this considerable number never learn enough to find their way to us. For me, effective outreach is the minimum we can do, in good conscience.
There is no difficulty seeing why programmed Friends are more likely to support missionary work, at home or abroad; if you believe in the idea of salvation, and justification by faith, there is a clear ethical imperative to ensuring the salvation of the maximum number of people. My own faith does not cause me to wish to save people, and makes be uncomfortable about the idea of people from economically dominant cultures going to areas of the world of less economic strength and trying to change the beliefs of people there; I consider this deeply problematic, ethically, especially where missionary work is tied to aid efforts.
My ethical impulse to helping people find their place among Friends, if it suits them, is more practical and less metaphysical. It is the well-being of people in this life that concerns me. I don't doubt that the vast majority of us, if not every single liberal Friend alive, have felt the solace and uplifting that can come from contact with the Divine. Have known the (admittedly uncertain) comfort of the guidance of the Light. It does not guarantee us strength to overcome all obstacles, it does not remove pain and discomfort, but it makes us stronger and better. Our faith will bring us internal struggles, and draw us into external struggles as we do the work set out for us. Yet I cannot see it as anything but a positive. For there to be those who could enjoy this, for whom it would be this positive, who do not have the opportunity out of ignorance remains an ethically unjustifiable position. We need not berate anyone, tell them their own faith position is wrong and ours is right – but we should let them know our position exists, what it is, and give them some cause to think that it may be something good.
There are other reasons to think that we are missing a trick. There is concern about diversity in many liberal Yearly Meetings, Britain Yearly Meeting absolutely among them, with the closing minute of BYM in 2017 calling for enhanced diversity and Meeting for Sufferings seeking input on how to go about it. An American Friend of my acquaintance makes a convincing point that our outreach reaching further might mean reaching people who aren't middle class, middle aged (at least) and white, and that we certainly have a positive and straightforward religious message to share. While proselytising is associated with unpleasant tactics and forceful messaging, evangelism means sharing good news; while this is traditionally associated with the “good news” of the gospels, even as not-specifically-Christian we liberal Quakers have good news of our own, that there is a source of religious truth (call it God if you like) that is directly accessible to all of us, here and now.
Our theological liberalism and diversity of belief also give us a near-unique opportunity when speaking to those of other faiths. We can say that you do not have to abandon or betray your faith to experience the Quaker way and participate in Quaker worship; Wiccans and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, and so many others, are demonstrably able to be part of the Quaker community without compromising that other religious identity and belief. If we suggest to people that they might like to try Quaker worship, we are not necessarily telling them that their current beliefs are wrong. We are saying “here is this treasure we wish to share with you, and we do not ask you to abandon any of your existing spiritual life”. Why can we not be bold in doing this?
It will take experimentation to find out the effective ways to do it, but let us try to be proactive in our outreach, and not fall into the trap of being self-effacing. Let us say, we have found this treasure, and we wish to share it. Perhaps it is not for you, but perhaps it is. We welcome your different beliefs, and your different spiritual experience. We welcome your different life experience. We welcome you.
Of course, we can't stop with saying that. We have to make it real. So let us make our Meetings welcoming places for people of diverse backgrounds, and then test that by inviting people of different backgrounds in. We will not stand on street corners calling for people to “repent, for the end is nigh”. We will not tell people they are wrong in their beliefs. We will say “we are here, we have this message, we have this treasure, and we would love to share it with you”.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Did you enjoy this post, or find it interesting, informative or stimulating? Do you want to keep seeing more of these posts? Please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information is available in the post announcing my use of Patreon.
If you enjoy this blog, or otherwise find it worthwhile, please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information about this, and the chance to comment, can be found in the post announcing the launch of my Patreon.