Back to the Future

This is a strange image—backward and forward—but perhaps a helpful one for Friends in 2006. As I was re-reading John Woolman’s Journal this spring, I was struck over and over by his almost eerily relevant, contemporary, and forward-looking ideas and insights. He spoke out, under the Spirit’s guidance, about slaveholding, the rights of Indians (Native Americans), the victims of gambling (lotteries), paying or not paying the war tax, the true causes of war, simple living (anti-wealth, anti-consumerism), and accepting Truth wherever one found it.

Of course, those issues are as relevant now as they were in the 1740s. John Woolman is a Quaker prophet for our time because he speaks and acts from the places we need to recapture. Perhaps most dramatically, he didn’t just preach or speak his ideas; he lived his words. He did so in such a way that he could be heard, and he was difficult to argue with. The effect, as we now know, was social change; it was needed in his time, as it is in ours.

It’s easy for us to say, "Oh sure, but that was John Woolman—he’s a saint; his example isn’t for ordinary folks living ordinary lives in our time. It would be impossible for me." But as I re-read his Journal, it is an unavoidable fact that Woolman was an ordinary person. This is not the place to document his life, but I encourage all Friends to read his Journal—and for those who have already read it, to read it again. There is no doubt in my mind that this historic figure gives us all the material we need as we think seriously about what Friends are called to today. It’s an important question that the entire Religious Society of Friends must consider, one we must consider every day of our lives.

Our name is the Religious Society of Friends. John Woolman, by his life, testimony, and legacy, teaches us that we do not have to reinvent ourselves. Our history offers us more than enough witnesses and examples of faithfulness to the basis of our name, which is found in John 15:14, when Jesus says to his disciples, "You are my friends if you do whatsoever I command you." The context set in this chapter is one of love, mutuality, and the witness of life, work, and words. As the Religious Society of Friends, we are clearly in the Christian tradition; as Robert Barclay said in the early days of Friends, "primitive Christianity revived." Revived means finding new life and energy for that to which we are called. In that sense, we do well to go back to find our future.

Perhaps it’s helpful to think about the question in terms of our name. What does it mean to be religious in a new or renewed way? What does it mean to be a society, a fellowship, a faith community of respect, love, and equality in a new or renewed way? What does it mean to be Friends, the friends of Jesus, the witnesses to Truth and love in our everyday lives, in a new or renewed way?


People discover Friends in many ways, and some do not discover that we are a religious people, based on Christian teachings, until long into their involvement with us. Spiritual, yes, but religious? Throughout our history we have been enthusiastic about writing; in our early history we were known as Publishers of Truth. While that meant both printed and spoken words, our foundation as a Religious Society is solidly built on witnessing and calling others to the Christian journey. George Fox was a dynamic preacher, as were many of those who joined him in promoting the revived Christianity he preached. And the Religious Society of Friends grew rapidly and widely in its first few decades. It is interesting to note that many of the preachers found themselves in prison for promoting a "heresy." As a result, prison reform became one of the basic missions of early Friends, both in England and in the United States.

One of the characteristics of early Friends was that they took the teachings of Jesus literally, and tried their best to live out the truth of those teachings in their lives. They saw every person as a child of God, loved by God, and deserving of respect. Therefore, the prisons needed to be reformed. They would not doff their hats to royalty or leaders as deserving of more respect than any other person; and they eschewed ministers claiming to be more holy and to have more truth than anyone else.


Early Friends were a society, a faith community, bound together in love for one another and for Jesus the Christ. Each of them had a responsibility to obey God’s laws and commands, and they were responsible to each other in finding the ways to live, to witness, and to be responsible members of their larger society. They were ordinary folks who, through seeking, listening, and making a commitment to God, had found a profound truth and the power, support, and nurture of their faith community and the Holy Spirit to live out that truth in obedience. We’d be less than honest to suggest that it was smooth sailing, or that we’ve done it perfectly! Community of any kind has its bumps, arguments, discouragement, and frustration. While we are communal creatures, we are also individuals and must deal with our own selfishness, fatigue, creativity, and independence on a daily basis. Dealing with our humanity in any kind of intentional community is not easy, but those who experience it know it is possible, especially if the community is formed around faithfulness and obedience to God. Prayer is vital. Worship is vital. Friends have found that seeking clearness regarding leadings is also vital.


So we are the Religious Society of Friends. What about that word "Friends"? A study conducted by University of Chicago and published in American Sociological Review (June 23, 2006) confirms what is widely reported in the popular press: we are moving toward "social isolation." It documents that one-fourth of all who live in the United States report that they have nobody to talk to about "important matters." Another one-fourth report that they have only one person with whom they can talk seriously. In the past 20 years, the number of people who have no one to talk to has doubled, and the number of confidants of the average U.S. citizen has gone down from three to two.

I recognize that when we call ourselves the Religious Society of Friends, we are talking about Jesus’ definition of "friends" for his disciples. But is that so far off from our understanding of relations with close, personal friends? I think not. We are called to be friends of Jesus and friends of one another, both spiritually and personally. We are to love one another as Jesus loves us. I’m not suggesting that each of us should have scores of close personal friends. I am suggesting that our meetings be places where we gather to worship God with those whose religious basis is similar to ours, as well as with those who we make welcome and who are seeking a faith community. In this mode, we will find our particular calling of faithfulness in the world.

As we look to our future, beginning now, what does our past call us to do and be? One of our strongest points is our calling to mission and service, as if they are two sides of one coin. We have to acknowledge that we move into our future a divided people. Sometimes I think we are divided in many ways, even to the point of rampant individuality, as persons and even as meetings. We must find a way to affirm one another where we are and find ways to work together. I am keenly aware that there are Quakers (our nickname because early Friends were observed to literally "quake" in the power of the Holy Spirit) who want no part of being Christian or having any connection to Christians. At the other extreme, there are Quakers who want no connection with folks who seem to reject Christianity and have no intention of becoming Christian, yet call themselves Quakers or even Friends.

There are Quaker social activists for whom their activism is their religion, and there are Quakers who want no part of activism because they see it as disrespectful, unpatriotic, or even unchristian. I acknowledge that these characterizations are overly simplistic and describe only a few among the many kinds of Friends today. Even so, it would be easy to conclude that Quakers now are like the five blind men and the elephant, each one claiming the definition of the whole from the experience of a small part.

Do I have a solution to the problem of our division? Yes—and no. It’s what I call the Rodney King solution: "Can’t we all just get along?" I’m serious! Within our local and yearly meetings, can we relax a bit and encourage each other to embrace as family all who claim the name of Friends? It’s a tall order, but absolutely necessary. It is probably the most radical and important change that we as Friends can put on our agenda. It affects us considerably as individuals, but dramatically as a Religious Society of Friends. Can we encourage new believers and work together for peace and justice?

We have much to teach and learn from each other. The only way that educational process can happen is as we worship together, work together, and find our mutual paths of obedience. In order to do this, we must be welcoming communities to all who would seek us out for whatever reasons; we must be transparent about our beliefs and testimonies; we must be communities that educate others about our practices; and we must be communities that reach out, even to the world, carrying our lives and our service to those in need of spiritual and physical friends.

Having come together in a worship and teaching mode within our meetings, what might the strength of our faith community yield in outreach? We already have excellent educational institutions at all levels. In my view, education is a commitment that we should and are likely to continue, infused with Friends testimonies, values, and faith principles. Many of our local meetings are truly worshiping communities that welcome newcomers and stay focused on their service in the world. One suggestion I would make is that we make ourselves more available in telephone directories, on websites, and even with visible signs on our meetinghouses. I have observed over the years that there are some meetings that seem to think of themselves as a "Secret Society of Friends"—a meetinghouse is located in a community for years without the neighbors or passersby ever seeing a sign of its existence. Modesty certainly becomes us, but I doubt we’re called to invisibility!

Yes, we are called today—as we always have been—to nurture one another in our inward spiritual lives, as individuals and as faith communities. When we follow these practices well, we will be seeking leadings for our outreach work, in both mission and service, based on our faith commitment. We can look at the many institutions and individuals who have answered that call over the years. Friends do not lack opportunities to serve with a Friends project or institution at home or abroad. Supporting, guiding, and providing leadership to those projects and institutions already in place expends a large percentage of Friends’ human and financial resources. It is quite possible that we need look no further for opportunities to move into our future. Perhaps our call is truly to find ways to work together, to be "one in the Spirit, one in the Lord."

If we can do that, we will find plenty to do that builds squarely on our history, testimonies, and principles, and we will be doing so in a world that reveres us far beyond our value. Living "lives that speak" is a way of making faith visible, whether in Quaker institutional life, or in the many institutions operated by others. Even individually, working with others in secular or business institutions, we Friends have the opportunity to witness with our lives and our testimonies.

We can demonstrate our faith by the way we live, the way we spend our time and treasure, and the way we treat one another both inside and outside our meetings. We can be careful, when we speak, that our testimony addresses what we are for and why, rather than what we are against. We can continue to function as Friends, yet avoid making our process and peculiarities our religion. We can continue to be Publishers of Truth, with our words (both spoken and written) and with our lives. We can continue to be seekers (and finders) of Truth. We can embody our belief that we are called to be peacemakers. We can listen to and respect the prophets among us when they speak, however softly, remembering that sometimes the most softly spoken among us may be the most prophetic.

While I’m not talking about a revolution here, it is interesting that most revolutions are brought about by the passion of the young and their no-holds-barred approach to problem-solving. Reading John Woolman, I was reminded once again that early Friends were young, passionate, and ready to give their lives for what they believed. Woolman, while not an "out there" revolutionary, does describe his teenage struggles with sin and disobedience regarding what he knew God was calling him to. In fact, each time he felt called to take a different stance on an issue, he struggled with finding what, for him, would be obedience. Our youth would be well served by an introduction to the lives of Quakers who have gone before them. I know from my years of working with teens—and having four of my own—that there is always the temptation to entertain them and keep them safe, happy, and out of trouble rather than disciplining and challenging them to find their avenues of service and faithfulness.

We must all say with John Woolman, "I have desired that Friends, in all their conduct, may be kindly affectioned one towards another." It is well for us to go back to find our future: our calling for today and tomorrow.

Kara Newell

Kara Newell is a member and recently became presiding clerk of Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, Oreg. In 2000, she retired from American Friends Service Committee where she was executive director for eight years. She currently serves on the Policy and General Committees of Friends Committee on National Legislation.