U.S. Quakers: Hybrid Corn?

Years ago I heard our gifted Quaker economist-philosopher-poet Kenneth Boulding compare U.S. Quakers to hybrid corn. His interesting observation was that, just as highly productive hybrid corn can be created by cross-fertilizing two less productive strains, so has much of the leadership in U.S. Quakerism come from the cross-fertilization of the theologically conservative, Bible-oriented, Christ-centered, programmed meetings of the Midwest, Far West, and South with the more traditional unprogrammed meetings of the
eastern United States.

Among all the different strains in the cornfields of U.S. Quakerism, none can produce an entirely satisfactory crop by itself. The strengths of the evangelical, programmed, pastoral meetings are their ability to give the next generation a good solid preparation for life, with a stable family environment, often in a rural setting; a fairly thorough acquaintance with the Bible; and a sturdy set of values to live by. Their weakness is their tendency to lose sight of their distinctively Quaker heritage and become a kind of homogenized Protestant. The strengths of the liberal unprogrammed meetings are their intellectual vitality and their social concern; their weaknesses are their occasional lack of spiritual depth, their difficulty in holding their children within the Religious Society of Friends, and frequently—and most serious of all—their loss of contact with the Christian roots of Quakerism. The extremes in this religious spectrum tend at one end toward Billy Graham and fundamentalists, and at the other toward a type of Unitarian humanism that some wisecracker has called "the belief that there is at most one God!"

After growing up in a pastoral meeting in North Carolina and then spending more than half my life in various nonpastoral meetings, I have sympathy and appreciation for both, and a sense of distress that we no sooner make progress in healing old divisions in Quakerism than we find new ones appearing. My first acquaintance with an unprogrammed Friends meeting came in 1934, right after graduation from Guilford College in North Carolina. I spent a year working for an M.A. at Haverford College and went every Sunday with Douglas and Dorothy Steere to Radnor (Pa.) Meeting, which they were in process of resurrecting after many years, during which that fine old meetinghouse had stood empty. I remember coming home full of enthusiasm for this new experience and talking about it with my aunt Annie Edgerton Williams, who was a recorded minister and had spent seven years in India as the first Quaker missionary from North Carolina Yearly Meeting. She put my new enthusiasm into historical perspective with an account of her own rebellion against unprogrammed meetings in the 1880s and 1890s because so many of them were lifeless. She said she was one of the young radicals who had helped to introduce such things as prepared sermons, music, and systematic Bible study into North Carolina Friends meetings in an effort to keep them from dying out entirely.

Even after this history lesson from my aunt it took me some time to realize that the most important thing in the Religious Society of Friends is neither the programmed, pastoral type of meeting, against which I had rebelled, nor the unprogrammed meeting based on silence, in which I have since felt so comfortable. Both of these forms of worship are nothing more than that—outward forms. They have value not in themselves but only to the extent of their usefulness in helping human beings discover spiritual reality.

Neither unprogrammed nor programmed worship should pose a threat to the other. In the same way, religion need not be threatened by science. Jesus said: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). When the Italian astronomer Galileo in 1632 refuted the old belief that the sun revolved around the earth and proved that the earth revolved around the sun, this filled the leaders of the Church with alarm. Galileo was arrested by the Inquisition, threatened with torture, forced to recant, and sentenced to prison. This controversy did not shake the followers of George Fox and Robert Barclay, because their religious convictions were rooted in vital personal experience. As Barclay said: "The scriptures . . . are not to be considered the principal foundation of all truth and knowledge. . . . We know them only by the inward testimony of the Spirit. . . . The Spirit is the primary and principal rule of faith." I find it interesting to imagine how reassuring Barclay would be if he had been born in our time, when some of our fellow Christians are still as disturbed by what we know now of evolution as others were in the 17th century by the discovery that the sun does not revolve around the earth. I can imagine the 21st-century Barclay expressing his awe before God’s creative power and meditating in wonder about the further, spiritual evolution that God undoubtedly has in store for each of us after the end of our physical existence on this earth. The Quaker proceeds on faith that beyond the physical reality of the universe is a greater reality that is spiritual, and that all human beings have the possibility of growing spiritually and knowing the will of God through meditation and prayer, which are a kind of mystical equivalent to the experimental methods of the scientist.

This comparison with science leads naturally to what is distinctive in our Quaker heritage. There are three great sources of authority in religion: the authority of the group, the authority of a sacred book, and the authority of individual experience through direct communion with God. In general, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches emphasize the authority of the group. Islam and most branches of Protestantism—especially such denominations as the Baptists—emphasize the authority of a sacred book. Quakerism emphasizes the authority of direct religious experience, coming from "the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world," as we read in John 1:9. Of course, it would be a serious oversimplification to assume that these three kinds of authority are separate pigeonholes, and that you have to put all your faith into only one of them. For most religious groups it is a matter not of choosing between the three but of relative emphasis of each of the three.

There can be little doubt, however, that what gives Quakerism its only real claim to distinction is the doctrine of the Inner Light. If there is a spark of God in every single human being on earth, the implications of that are breathtaking. It implies the equality of all races and nationalities. It implies the equality of men and women. It implies that God’s revelation to human beings has existed as long as the human race has existed, and that it is continuous and never-ending. Under the guidance of the Light Within, we discover new evidence of the greatness of God in everything that history and science reveal to us about the universe. When the astronomers’ telescopes show us that our earth is only one tiny speck in a universe so vast that the light from some of the more distant stars has traveled 186,000 miles every second for more than 10 billion years in order to reach our eyes, and it had already traveled more than half of that distance before our earth was even created four and a half billion years ago, we can joyfully proclaim with the Psalmist: "The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork." Our Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light frees us from any conflict between religion and science. In fact, Quakerism and science can be seen as parallel ways of seeking truth.

With such a strong foundation in finding multiple pathways towards truth, as well as a reputation as peacemakers, how is it that Quakerism has become fractured from within? Today, 174 years after that first great split between the Orthodox and the Hicksites, the lack of real understanding and even of a common language between pastoral, programmed meetings and nonpastoral, unprogrammed meetings is serious enough to justify embarrassment when we hear praise about Quaker peacemaking from outsiders who do not know us well enough.

Today the variety of beliefs and practices among U.S. Quakers is so bewildering that we might wonder whether the Religious Society of Friends in our country has ever been more fractured, more divided than it is right now. And yet there are signs of hope in the midst of all this disagreement. First of all, there has been no trace of the actual physical violence that marked the conflicts between Hicksites and Orthodox Quakers in New York and Ohio Yearly Meetings after the split in 1827. And second, there are numerous efforts today to maintain a meaningful dialogue across the differences that separate Friends from one another.

The Inner Light is the one thing in Quakerism that is distinctive enough to justify our separate existence as a Religious Society of Friends. It is also the one thing that offers us any real hope of eventually overcoming the divisions that separate Friends from one another. If we mind the Light Within, we shall follow cheerfully in George Fox’s footsteps, answering that of God in everyone—even in fellow Quakers. If we faithfully follow the leadings of the Inner Light, we shall not only transform our personal lives; we shall transform the whole Religious Society of Friends. Our present differences in outward forms of worship may very well begin to reflect this transformation, leading to new combinations of the best elements in both the programmed and unprogrammed patterns of worship. Pastoral, programmed meetings will no longer drift toward a kind of watered-down Protestantism; and non-pastoral, unprogrammed meetings will no longer drift toward a sort of Unitarian humanism. Under the guidance of the Inner Light—which is only another term for the Holy Spirit and the Christ Within—Quakers of all varieties will be able to join together as explorers of the spiritual reality that underlies our physical universe. United in what is essential, we shall recognize that the tension between liberalism and conservatism is as important for the health of the Religious Society of Friends as it is for the health of American politics.

Experienced Quaker farmers may be quick to point our that hybrid corn cannot reproduce itself. I think Kenneth Boulding might have answered that this is just the point. The greatest contribution all of us can make to the spiritual health and vigor of Quakerism is through vigorous and constant spiritual cross-fertilization among all the crops of Quakerism—Conservative, Evangelical Friends International, Friends United Meeting, and Friends General Conference. Here are a few Friends out of many who have done this: Clarence Pickett, who grew up in Midwestern Quakerism and was a Quaker pastor before he became the first executive secretary of American Friends Service Committee; Thomas Kelly, a Quaker farm boy from Ohio whose Testament of Devotion has a unique place in international Quaker literature; Leonard Kenworthy, whose roots were deep in Midwestern Quakerism and who lived most of his adult life in unprogrammed Eastern meetings while working through his writings to bridge the gaps of misunderstanding among Friends; Kara Newell, who grew up among Evangelical Quakers in Oregon, ably served for eight years as field secretary of Friends United Meeting, and then became executive secretary of American Friends Service Committee; and Cilde Grover, executive secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, who attended George Fox College in Oregon and Earlham School of Religion in Indiana and has her membership in Northwest Yearly Meeting, which is a part of Evangelical Friends International.

Thanks to the wisdom of our spiritual forbears we have in place right now the very organization we need to carry on this process: Friends World Committee for Consultation. Let us vigorously support it and make use of it.

William Edgerton

William Edgerton is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. Gratefully dedicated to the memory of Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993), Quaker economist, philosopher, poet, and spiritual leader.