Every new generation of Friends remakes Quaker history to address the needs of its own era. When Quakers lost political control of Pennsylvania, they turned to preserve Quaker values in a communal setting rather than directly challenge the status quo as the fiery evangelism of George Fox, Mary Dyer, and the Valiant Sixty Quietists had. When Quietism failed to respond to the needs of the world in the early twentieth century, Quakers like Rufus Jones and American Friends Service Committee led the Society of Friends to initiate socio-political programs that addressed the issues of poverty, justice, and pacifism. Today, younger Friends focus on social injustice as the rich 10 percent wallow in wealth and ignore poverty, discrimination, climate change, and the fight for diversity—even in our Quaker meetings.
I have no doubt all these efforts through Quaker history were, and are, Spirit-led. The tension between inner faith and outer works has been with us since our beginning, but throughout Quaker history two things have remained constant. First we trust that we are comforted and guided by a Higher Power. We aren’t just progressive Democrats fighting Trumpism; we are Spirit-led Quakers. We need a Higher Power; we admit we can’t do it on our own (there are many wonderful organizations we could join to witness to our vision of a better world).
The second constant that runs through our history is a concern for biblically approved “good works” that challenge the status quo. We’re peaceniks, and in various ways we’ve always been peaceniks: Higher-Power peaceniks. If we as a society lose the tension between these two core values we’ve lost our souls.
As Quakers we’re not only committed to our own vision but more importantly to the vision of what I’d call our loving God. What is God’s vision for the Religious Society of Friends today? Is God’s vision the same as my vision? Or your vision? Or one of the various visions that other Friends hold? The problem is most Quakers, including myself, confuse our own vision with God’s vision. The question should be: how does my vision relate to our loving God’s vision? How does each Friend’s gift enhance the Higher Power’s vision for each individual, each meeting, and the Religious Society of Friends as a whole?
As Friends search for the Higher Power’s vision to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, global warming, poverty, and systematic racism, living Friends may be encouraged by the heroic history of earlier Friends. Notables include George Fox and Margaret Fell (founders); Mary Dyer (martyred Quaker evangelist); Robert Barclay (esteemed Quaker theologian); John Woolman (saintly traveling Quaker preacher who helped abolished slavery among Friends, his Journal is a classic); Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (leading advocates for women’s right to vote); Edward Hicks (peaceable kingdom painter); Rufus Jones (scholar, mystic, and founder of American Friends Service Committee).
A few more recent Quaker heroes who come to mind include Dorothy and Irving Stowe, cofounders of Greenpeace; Bayard Rustin, the gay Black peace activist who organized the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington; Thomas Kelly, author of A Testament of Devotion; David Hartsough, author of Waging Peace, which records his life as a peace activist jailed 75 times for nonviolently protesting racism, war, and climate change; Charlie Walker, a prominent peace activist who encouraged Dr. King to give up the guns in his house and embrace nonviolence; Chris Sterne, prophetic voice calling Friends to return to their spiritual roots; Doug Gwyn, a Christ-centered Quaker historian and guitar-playing satirist; entertainers Joan Baez, Judy Dench, and Ben Kingsly, who not surprisingly played the featured role in the movie Gandhi. And finally I must mention Douglas and Dorothy Steere, who prepared the way for my encounter with Jesus, and David Richie, who put my faith into action working for the Philadelphia weekend workcamps. His dawn-breaking prayer from Gibran (“Let me wake with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving”) reminds me of my Quaker companions, past and present, who struggle to place their own vision of a better world into the hands of our loving God who has God’s own plans.