Rediscovering Quakerism’s Liberal Religious Roots


Unprogrammed Quakerism contains an often startling array of religious beliefs. In many meetings you may find Jewish Quakers celebrating Yom Kippur and Passover; the name of Thich Nhat Hanh invoked almost as frequently as Jesus of Nazareth; or someone speaking about the harmony of Quakerism with Neo-Pagan goddess religions. In contrast to prior generations of Quakers, the majority of people in meetings are often convinced Friends, converts from other religious traditions, who bring an awareness of those practices with them. Having this openness to multiple sources of truth only strengthens the Religious Society of Friends.

The diversity of views can, however, risk obscuring the important heritage of Quakerism as a liberal Protestant denomination. Because the Religious Society of Friends professes no creed, has no single governing organization, and has members that hold this bewildering array of religious beliefs, often the firmest ground we have for unity and understanding our shared purpose is based on reflecting on our past. Yet it is a subject that we explore only selectively. Seldom does a month go by without an appeal in a blog or in the pages of Friends Journal to renew our faith by rediscovering the wisdom of earlier generations of Friends, but the profound changes that shaped our denomination far more recently are seldom discussed. A little over a century ago, many Quakers rejected Fundamentalism in favor of religious Liberalism, standing with several other Protestant groups as part of a vitally important religious movement. Understanding these roots reassures us that there are many firm truths that Quakers do hold and reminds us that we benefit from collaborating with our other liberal religious allies.

The dawn of the modern era posed a dilemma for Quakers and other Protestants in Europe and America. The nineteenth century had seen the advent of startling new ideas including the theory of evolution as well as a growing body of scholarship that understood the Bible as a historical product of its time, rather than a divinely revealed text without error. These concepts undermined traditional faith to such a degree that it hardly seemed tenable to educated people, a group whom one eminent Protestant theologian termed “religion’s cultured despisers.”

Many Protestant leaders saw the only possible response was to embrace religious Liberalism, a position with limited relationship to political liberalism. These Protestants rejected the idea of tradition or dogma as the only arbiters of truth and sought to find a place for religion in an increasingly secular world. It was a movement that cut across denominations. Unitarians, long known in America for their unorthodox religious beliefs, had nearly a 100-year head start on developing these ideas. For example, the famous abolitionist minister Theodore Parker declared that there were permanent truths that were eternally part of Christianity, like the importance of love, while many of the specifics of worship and doctrine could and should vary in each era of history. A generation later, Baptists had joined the movement, and the well-known University of Chicago theologian Shailer Matthews publically announced that science was helpful in cutting away the layers of encrusted superstition from religion. Another theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch, tried to show that creating the Kingdom of God required working to build a society capable of helping the poor and oppressed.

Weighty Friends in the early twentieth century like Rufus Jones, Henry Cadbury, and Jesse Holmes saw Quakerism as the quintessential liberal religion, suited perfectly to this new era. From the days of George Fox, many Quakers had seen the Bible as important, but also thought that divine truth continued to be revealed. The turn to liberal theological views meant Friends could see Quakerism in new ways, but traditional understanding of revelation as ongoing meant that tradition would back them up in doing so.

Rufus Jones
Rufus Jones

Jones became the most famous Quaker leader of the twentieth century in large part because of his writings, which understood Quakerism as a mystical tradition. Rather than focusing on the idea that Quakers should aim for an evangelical conversion or find God through science, Jones taught that in personal lives we are open to the experience of the Divine. Jones’s Quakerism was a seeking and questing spirituality, not a dogmatic born-again revivalism. He urged American Quakers to accept this move toward religious Liberalism, telling them “it is part of our business to demonstrate that modern thought and scholarly research do not undermine religion, and Christianity is not outdated or superseded.”

Jesse Holmes, a professor at Swarthmore College, went further afield from orthodox Christian belief than Jones did. Writing an appeal for new members called “a Letter to the Scientifically-Minded,” he explained that he was not sure “whether God is a person as we are persons or not” but that Quakerism could offer a community to anyone interested in living out the ideals that Jesus had preached in the Sermon on the Mount. For Holmes, Quakerism was one of the few faiths that could survive rigorous inquiry. He told interested newcomers that Quakers “have a faith, which we believe may properly be called a Christian faith, which has nothing to fear from science and demands no medieval credulities of intelligent people.” He thought that even if conventional theism, with its belief in a being that existed somewhere beyond humanity, was in error, Quakerism and Christianity would still stand firm.

Henry Cadbury
Henry Cadbury

Henry Cadbury, who eventually occupied the most prestigious professorship in religion at Harvard Divinity School, admitted that he was unsure about a personal God, but he argued the great value of living a religious life. “I should be willing,” he wrote, “to let my religion rest very largely in a life of honest thinking, of kindly dealing, and of challenging impact upon the social uses and conventions that it comes in contact with.” Like many religious liberals he saw taking a public stand against injustice as a key part of the Christian faith, which he tried to do by publically standing for pacifism (even at the cost of his job at Haverford College) and working to create American Friends Service Committee.

These Friends understood that their faith meant working with other denominations, not merely as allies but as co-religionists. Jones lectured widely; he was the central speaker at Methodist conventions and Presbyterian colleges, and he offered his own thoughts on liberal religion to European clergy and lay audiences in the United States. His influence was wide. One of his students, black Baptist minister and civil rights leader Howard Thurman, observed he had “the gift of intimacy” with any audience. Cadbury’s work as a scholar was explicitly ecumenical; he was one of the most famous Bible scholars of his generation and worked with many other religious professionals in creating the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Unprogrammed Quakers were so enmeshed in this world of liberal religion that in the 1930s the Unitarians floated the idea of union to create a single denomination, an offer that might have led to the existence of Unitarian-Quaker-Universalists today if Quakers hadn’t prioritized rebuilding relations with their Evangelical programmed brethren instead.

The close kinship between Quakers and other groups should remind contemporary Quakers that these other denominations are still our allies and that building connections and bridges with them is important. Often Quakers take part in interfaith efforts with groups that are unlike them, such as Pentecostals or Sunni Muslims, trying to build connections to others with the idea that they are illuminating the Inner Light in all. These are worthy and noble efforts, but Quakers too frequently neglect their bonds to those with comparable worldviews.

Making connections with like-minded groups might be more crucial in building tolerance than interfaith work with dissimilar groups. There are some who having left the denomination into which they were born and having joined Quakerism bring baggage with them and generalize about Christianity based on their limited frame of reference. These members have strongly negative feelings toward Christians, a group they wrongly view as synonymous with the religious right, even though the views they hold are largely consistent with the beliefs of many mainline Protestant churches.

There are intellectual gains to be made by cooperation. Too often Quakers are also quick to disparage theology as an enterprise, neglecting a rich body of Christian religious thought. Questions that have long divided Quakerism, such as the perennial issue of whether Quakers can be non-theists, take on different dimensions when considered in light of figures like Episcopal Bishop John A.T. Robinson or Baptist professor Harvey Cox who sought new ways of understanding God in the modern world. It bespeaks a problem that libraries in Quaker meetings are far more likely to contain the poetry of Sufi mystic Rumi or A Course in Miracles (a New Age text which claims to have been authored by Jesus’s spirit in 1965) than they are to have anything written by Paul Tillich, one of the most famous theologians of the twentieth century. Obviously we must not close ourselves off to anything that offers us insight, but we have a special duty to pay attention to teachings of liberal religion because it is part of our heritage.

Finally, cooperation with liberal religious groups is an important part of serving the world. On social causes like providing shelter to undocumented immigrants, fighting for LGBTQ rights, and working for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, the Religious Society of Friends is by no means the only religious group tackling these issues, and oftentimes Quakers are not at the vanguard in dealing with them. Many meetings are part of community interfaith groups, but there is room for further cooperation in working toward joint goals. Fostering ties at every level, from First-day school classes working with other denominations’ young people to having weighty Quakers “exchanging pulpits” with ministers, simplifies the task of mobilizing people to work on the same social causes.

Collaboration could be essential for Quakers continued existence. Though statistics are limited, the number of American Quakers has decreased in the last several decades, and projections indicate that if this decline is not abated, Quakers will be gone from both Britain and the United States by the end of this century. This is typical of a broader trend of declining religious participation in the United States. With the exception of Unitarian Universalists who are thriving, other liberal religious groups are in similar straits. Sharing physical meeting spaces, publishing resources, and perhaps even religious education classes with other like-minded denominations may be some ways for meetings to be viable once membership declines.

An even grimmer reality that some denominations are considering when finances and membership decline is uniting with another denomination. While Quakers are far from this point, we may reach it in another generation. If we believe that our faith has something to offer, then we need to consider working with others to preserve it.

John Grenleaf Whittier
John Grenleaf Whittier

The Quaker abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier once cautioned his readers about the danger of parochial denominationalism, telling them “Melt not in an acid sect / the Christian pearl of charity.” To contemporary Friends it is a trenchant message; as a religious society, we often veer between celebrating our universalism and openness to vastly different ideas or, at the other extreme, praising our firm Quaker faith, and we act as though there is no possible compromise between these identities. But we are not forced to choose. We can remain grounded in Quakerism, understanding that we are the heirs of a liberal Protestant religious tradition, and also maintain our integrity as citizens of a global community. The history of Quakerism is often visually depicted as a tree, each schism or new idea producing a new branch. It’s a fitting metaphor, and it should remind us that a tree can only survive if its roots are both expansive and deep.

Isaac Barnes May

Isaac May is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of Virginia. He is an alumnus of Earlham College and holds an MA from Harvard Divinity School. Isaac became a member of the Religious Society of Friends at Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.).

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