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Keeping the Faith Originally published June 1, 2000 at Suite101.com
This essay was stimulated by discussions in the Quakerism topic at Suite101.com. In these discussions, people noted the changes in Friends (Quakers) in the last three and a half centuries, and certain respects in which some contemporary groups of Friends have moved considerably from the faith of the first generation. I was asked, among other things, "what ways did early Friends have to maintain unity of faith?" In this article I seek to provide my personal perspectives on this question and how the unity broke down.
Unity is commonly regarded as a positive characteristic, and it certainly is when it is true unity in the spirit - the kind of unity Jesus prayed for (John 17:21). However, a coerced unity or a false appearance of unity may be destructive. In my outline of factors that may have contributed to or led away from unity, be aware that there may be negative aspects to some of the uniting factors and positive aspects to some of the disuniting factors. Those who have looked at other religious movements will also note that most, if not all, of these factors are not unique to Friends.
We also need to be careful not to exaggerate the tendencies that existed and did have negative effects. Even in the most difficult periods of Friends, one can find remarkable examples of faithfulness and spiritual power.
Maintaining Unity Among Friends
Friends (Quakers) became a movement in the middle of the 17th century. While there were differences, and little groups that broke off from time to time, there was no lasting schism in the Society of Friends until the Orthodox/Hicksite split in most North American yearly meetings in 1827-28. Here are some factors (in no particular order) which seem to me to have contributed to the relative unity among Friends before that time:
Fervency of Faith Conviction. The first generation of Friends was passionately convicted of the truth of the faith. If you didn't share that conviction, you would not join with them. If you did, you felt a very deep bond of faith with others who shared your faith understanding.
Leadership - Recognition of Gifts and Ministries. Persons with particular gifts in spreading the Gospel, nurturing the faith community, and discerning the organizational needs of the movement were recognized and supported. While it was understood that God could speak and work through anyone, it was also understood that God fitted certain people for particular roles and functions. The discernment for the movement largely occurred in select meetings of people with particular gifts, and their leadership was accepted by the movement.
Persecution. In many ways, early Friends were under attack. Large numbers were imprisoned, many had property taken away, some were physically attacked, and they faced other obstacles placed in their way by the larger society. They pulled together as God's faithful under attack from the Enemy.
Distinct Culture. Friends were noticeably different from others, and were unified by different patterns of speech, different dress, and other distinguishing characteristics adopted because of their faith understanding.
Patterns of Nurture. From quite early in the movement, patterns developed of nurturing the faith and religious work of the movement. There was extensive correspondence and intervisitation, including an active traveling ministry.
Discipline. There was a strong sense of corporate discipline. Leadings were tested in the faith community, and not carried forth until affirmed and supported. Doctrinal and other important writings were submitted for approval. If Friends acted contrary to the group's faith understanding, and laboring with them did not bring change, they were openly declared as not a part of the movement.
Moving Away from Unity
What produced growing disunity among Friends? The schism of 1827-28 was a product of several factors working over time, which culminated in the public spectacle of unseemly struggles for control and organizational separation. Many of these factors continued to work as Friends continued to splinter. These seem to me to be some of those factors:
Waning of Faith Commitment. As the freshness of the spiritual insights faded with passing time, increasingly people associated with the now quite organized movement without always having the fervency of the first generation. And people brought up among Friends often continued to identify with Friends, but did not always have the same depth of feeling in their guts about the faith.
Legalism. What were originally true leadings can ossify into rigid, legalistic patterns. Legalism always breeds discontent. Legalistic tendencies began to develop in the second generation of Friends. Margaret Fell, the "mother of Quakerism," survived into this period and eloquently denounced creeping legalism as "silly poor gospel!" (See All In One Dress and One Colour...) Legalism erodes the discipline of spiritual accountability into the enforcement of rules, sometimes petty ones. A major factor in Friends declining from a major religious group in America to a tiny group sometimes regarded as a cult was the pattern which developed of removing from membership of large numbers of people for breaking what had become rules.
Stifling of the Spirit. The elders, who at their best had been the spiritual nurturers opening up people to the exercise of their God-given gifts, too often became the people repressing expressions of the Spirit that didn't fit into their narrow conceptions of what was acceptable expression. By the end of the eighteenth century, once can find many indications of concern that overbearing elders had produced meetings that were spiritually moribund.
Becoming Comfortable. As Quakers' reputation for integrity and fair dealing brought them respect from the larger society, it also brought business success to many. As persecution waned, Friends could settle into comfortable patterns of life not possible in the early days. Such comfort has a way of dulling the edge of one's faith commitment and tempting one to compromise the elements of faith that most bring one into conflict with the larger society.
Power Struggles. Some individuals and some places developed and sought to hold on to positions of power in the Society of Friends. Others resented that. The Hicksite movement was in part a rebellion of rural Friends against entrenched urban power structures in Friends.
Personality Cults. Perhaps this label is a bit exaggerated, but I find it noteworthy that a number of the factions resulting from the nineteenth century splintering of the Society of Friends were named after individuals, prominent Friends' ministers - Hicksites, Gurneyites, Wilburites. Friends wrote much upholding or denouncing particular ministers associated with tendencies among Friends. While in earlier days traveling ministers helped keep the society united, in later days they often encouraged factionalism in fact if not in word.
Traditionalism. While there's certainly nothing wrong with walking in the footsteps of the faithful of the past, over time the practices and tenets at least perceived as being the tradition can come to be accepted because they're how things have been done rather than because of current inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Tension develops between the guardians of tradition and those who feel they have fresh inspiration not wholly consistent with the constraints the traditionalists seek to impose.
Influences from Outside. Friends were influenced by movements in the larger society around them. In different places, the outside influences moved Friends in different directions.
Where Are We Now?
Today, differing groups of Friends have gone in different directions. There are huge variations in faith and practice. Some groups don't recognize other groups as holding a faith in common with themselves. The Society has been weakened because some features, such as the elders, which were strengths, often became perverted. As a result, groups jettisoned them without finding adequate other means to fulfill their functions. At the worst, the results range from rampant individualism to rigid imposition of doctrines imported from outside. But even where such extremes have been avoided, the Society often struggles with mixed success to maintain unity and needed discipline without legalism and repressive structures.
There are Friends with dreams of reuniting Friends. The obstacles to that are tremendous, and I personally don't believe we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But there are winds of spiritual renewal blowing among Friends from across the spectrum. While the results of such renewal don't look identical from place to place, those caught up in the moving of the Spirit bringing renewal can often see the same Spirit working in other parts of the Society where the fruits look a little different. God is not finished with Friends yet.