Quaker Religious Education for Adults

Adult Quaker religious education can be problematic. For such a well-educated group it is odd that we would disdain organized classes, but we seem to.

Part of this is inherent in our tradition. George Fox was looking for someone who could answer his questions until, after exhausting the resources seemingly available and in despair, he "heard a voice which said, ‘there is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.’" He went on to preach to others that the Lord has come to teach his people himself. Today we expect to be taught directly, forgetting all the preparation that came before his opening.

This great opening had immediately followed another: that a college education did not qualify one to be a minister. "As I was walking in a field on a First-day morning, the Lord opened unto me that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ; and I wondered at it, be-cause it was the common belief of people."

We expect new Friends to just get it, but get what? What is it to be a Quaker? We don’t have a creed but we do have a system of beliefs and behaviors that characterize us and make us a peculiar people. When seekers come to us in hopes of be-coming one of us, how do we enable this process? And how do we continue the seasoning process after that? What is to be the content of Quaker religious education?

Theology has been defined as "faith reflected upon." For Friends, theology (or what takes the place of theology) is experience reflected upon. We begin with our own experience, but as members of the Religious Society of Friends we are engaged in a corporate endeavor. Ours is not a do-it-yourself religion but a do-it-together religion. The individualism that dominates our secular life has also undermined our sense of communal seeking, but if we do not seek together we may not realize what we are missing. In our search we must be edified by the more seasoned members of our meetings—not just our monthly meeting (particularly if it is small and young), but also by our yearly meeting and the entire Religious Society.

We should start with the book of discipline (Faith and Practice) of our yearly meeting. This is the corporate statement of what it is to be a Quaker in each yearly meeting. We should ask everyone applying for membership to read it. Where other denominations are concerned with orthodoxy (right belief), Quakers are said to be concerned with orthopraxis (right practice, often seen as the testimonies). Faith and Practice includes queries where we examine our own faith (experience) and practice, and that of our meeting. These queries are a distinctly Quaker approach to self-examination and, in the meeting, to seeking and examining unity.

A God’s-eye view of our Religious Society would include Friends past and future. We can’t know what the future will bring but do have access to the past. It is found in our journals and our history. The journals are to Friends what books of theology are to other denominations. The journals of George Fox and John Woolman are classics, but also of great value are those of Levi Coffin, David Ferris, and the volume Wilt Thou Go on My Errand? Three 18th-Century Journals of Quaker Women. While journals are accounts of individual Friends, histories describe the development of the movement, they describe God working in the world through the Religious Society of Friends (or, Friends’ efforts to bring the world into conformity with the divine plan, rightly ordered).

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting supports four traveling courses. The first is "Quakerism 101," or basic Quakerism. In six weekly two-hour classes it covers early Quaker history, Quaker beliefs, worship and vocal ministry, community and meeting for business, testimonies, and structure. A second course, sometimes called Quakerism 201, is Faith and Witness, which focuses on the testimonies. Bible and Prayer round out the course offerings.

The Bible must be a part of our religious education. It has always been an inspiration to Friends and for this reason alone it is important. It is also the starting point for our continuing revelation—I should say "starting points," as it contains a progressive understanding of God’s will and work in history. It is hard to read the writings of early Friends without an understanding of the Scriptures. Without that understanding one misses so much of what is being said without even realizing it. Continuing revelation supposes a continuity, and we must come to terms with that book which has been so important to Friends for the past 350 years. The FGC bookstore carries Bible curricula, and Susan Jeffers of Lake Erie Yearly Meeting has a very useful website at www.read-the-bible.org.

Ultimately our religious education should deepen our spiritual lives. At one level Quakerism may be a way of life or subculture shaped by our testimonies, but if our testimonies are cut off from that deeper level to which they testify, our direct experience of God’s presence, they lose their power and authority. The challenge to Quaker religious education, particularly for adults, is to deepen this experience—in the manner of Friends.

There are also prayer groups; my meeting has a men’s prayer group that meets twice a month. Another approach is the Spiritual Formation Program, a ten-month program involving reading, discussion, and spiritual friendships in which spiritual disciplines are developed. Yet another approach is Spiritual Friendships, in which two people will meet regularly to support each other’s prayer lives and devotional practices.

Gene Hillman

Gene Hillman, a member of Nottingham (Pa.) Meeting and a sojourning member of Middletown Meeting in Lima, Pa., is coordinator of adult religious education for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.