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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Quaker Environmentalism
by Marshall Massey
Originally published April 1, 1999 at

Marshall Massey proposed the creation of the North American Quaker environmental organization -- the Friends Committee on Unity with Nature -- in a 1985 plenary address to Friends in California. He helped set up the actual organization at the annual gathering of Friends General Conference two years later. He presently serves as staff for the Environmental Projects Center in Colorado, and leads workshops on witnessing skills for religious and environmental groups. Marshall attends Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

Quaker Environmentalism Different

Quaker environmentalism is different from most other kinds of religious environmentalism because Quakerism itself is different! And so, to understand the one, we need to start by looking at the other.

Now, there are three things in our Quaker tradition that, in my opinion, explain nearly all the striking differences between our Religious Society and most other Christian bodies:

  1. First, ours is truly a Society of mystics. It's not just a subordinate order of mystics within some larger denomination. Nor is it just a denomination that happens to contain a lot of mystics. Its whole reason for existing is our shared commitment to a continuing mystical experience -- a commitment that we express through our unique form of worship, waiting on the Presence in our midst.1

    Our historic testimony is that all people are called to such mysticism. Just as Christ called Zacchaeus to come down out of the tree into his presence, there to be transformed,2 so the living God calls each one of us today to come down out of our hideaways into His presence, and be transformed here and now.

    And our waiting worship is a straightforward answer to this calling; for it consists simply of turning our attention in God's direction, letting our minds fall silent and our hearts open, so as to hear and feel what God has to teach us. One could go to Sunday worship at any other denomination merely to be entertained by distractions -- the choir, the sermon, the ancient ritual. But Quaker waiting worship is devoid of such distractions, so that there is really just one reason to take part in it -- namely, to listen to God Himself.

  2. Second, our mysticism isn't just contemplative, but is strongly prophetic in nature.

    By this I mean: we don't just sink into a passive contemplation of God's presence, as a monk might in his cell (though we do treasure the "meditative" experience of God). But going to the place of conscience within us,3 and experiencing God as our Counselor (Paraklete) there, we seek to feel and know His will in that place -- both His will regarding ourselves and His will concerning the world.4 And this experience then impels us to action5 -- and the action it impels us to is very often an act to address some sort of lack in the world: either a correction of our own erring behavior, or a healing response to some wound that another has suffered, or a challenge to some unrighteousness we have recognized in the world around us.

    In these ways, our mystical experience makes us into witnesses to the world -- witnesses regarding God's will for our time -- witnesses who speak, not from ancient scripture or church dogma, but from their own fresh and immediate encounters with God. -- Which, of course, is what prophecy is all about! It's true that the way we do it today differs in various points from the way that prophets did it in Biblical times: for instance, we don't generally live in the desert on locusts and wild honey. But that is a difference of style, not one of substance. At the level of substance, our mysticism is a direct continuation of the practice of the prophets in our time.

  3. Third, since our fundamental source of guidance is this inward experience -- and since the source of this experience is God Himself -- we do not let ourselves be ruled instead by mere human understandings of scripture, or by a human priesthood, or by human custom and tradition. We accept only the rule of God who is present here and now amongst us.

Other branches of Christianity also have one or more of these features, at least to some extent. But I cannot think of any other branch of Christianity, or of any religion whatever, that not only has all three of these features, but makes them the central organizing features of its practice as Friends do. For other branches of Christianity, these three things are typically just one small part or aspect of the religious life. But for us, these three things are the living, beating heart of a true relationship with God.

Well, it seems to me that these same three features also shape the way that Quaker environmentalists approach environmental issues. Here is what I mean:

Mystical Character

First, because of our Society's essentially mystical character, our Quaker environmental movement has been swifter than most to give up old, unhealthy ways of thinking about nature.

For instance, we have been quick to shake off the idea that the natural world is simply a collection of "properties" or "resources" that we are to exploit as "stewards". For that may be how we are taught to think of nature by the profit-chasing world, with its superficial pseudo-pieties by which it seeks to justify the hardness of its heart6 -- but that is not how we Friends experience nature in God's presence.7

Our religious experience of the natural world is pervaded by a strong sense of God's presence immanent within it -- a feeling so strong that it moves us directly to the worship of God, just as we would be moved to worship in a church or temple where we suddenly became strongly conscious of God's presence.

And so we have come to look upon nature as a temple God created for Himself, and as deserving not of "stewardly" exploitation, but of healing and humble respect. And we have come to recognize that the non-human creatures are our fellow worshipers in that temple, our fellow inhabitants of God's Kingdom, and to realize that as such they are entitled to all the rights, all the gentleness and consideration, that Christ himself would give them.8

This difference has brought us to a rather more radical environmentalism than most churches have developed, because a concern for the creature's rights and the sanctity of the natural world cuts far deeper than a mere concern for stewardship of resources. But I hasten to add that our radicalism is a very gentle one, in keeping with our peaceable character as Friends.

Prophetic Approach

Second, in keeping with our religion as a whole, our approach to environmental issues is markedly prophetic.

I must confess that it has taken time for this prophetic character to emerge. When our modern Quaker religious-environmental movement began in the 1980s, most of us who became involved in it didn't understand at all what God was calling us to do; and so we spent our efforts on things like recycling programs, Earth Day tree-plantings, and lobbying for laws -- good activities, yes, but really just carry-overs from the secular environmental movement, without any deeply religious or spiritually inspired character about them.

But as our understanding has deepened, our activities have gradually been transformed.

For instance, some of us have begun developing new cooperative approaches to agriculture in partnership with the native farmers of Costa Rica's San Luis Valley -- approaches that protect the soils and the forests, and shelter the wildlife, while providing a more reliable income and greater social justice for the farmers. This "San Luis Valley Project" not only reestablishes an environmentally righteous way of living in a fragile environment, but also stands as a witness to the world, of what is possible even for civilized humans in the tropics, if they return to what is right.

Others of us have engaged in acts of civil disobedience in the face of wrongdoing, as for example in the face of reckless logging of old-growth forests -- and have made their acts of civil disobedience, not just angry protests against something we find wrong, but instead, loving and positive and constructive reachings-out to the minds and hearts of those who are doing the destroying.

In these and other ways that I do not have space to talk about here, environmentally minded Friends are coming to focus more and more on the two essential tasks of the prophet: first, to demonstrate, through their own deeds and lives, the possibilities for a greater righteousness that exist here in God's world; and second, to recall the wrongdoers from their wrongdoings, as the prophet Nathan did with King David.9 For we have begun to see that such a reformation and redemption of the destroyers -- meaning by "destroyers", both ourselves and others -- is the central business of God's environmental movement. Without such a reformation, without such a redemption, our planet cannot be saved from destruction.

Grassroots Character

Third, since our fundamental source of guidance is not a priesthood but an experience of God, our approach is utterly grassroots in character.

Our major Quaker religious-environmental organizations are not organized or directed from a denominational headquarters, not led by people appointed from such a headquarters, and not subject to such a headquarters' approval. They are self-organized, and composed solely of those who have come to the movement of their own volition, feeling themselves drawn by God's Spirit into religious environmental work.

This has given our Quaker religious environmental movement an important freedom: freedom to keep complete faith with the guidance it receives from the Spirit, without any sort of hindrance from outside -- which includes freedom to rock the boat of convention, and freedom to challenge the world to reform, without hindrance from those who do not yet understand.

I believe that this freedom of action just might prove decisive in time. But we shall see.

Source of Guidance

And fourth, since our fundamental source of guidance is the Paraklete rather than the scripture, our movement feels little need for constant recitation of Biblical "proof texts" to justify what it does.

As we Quaker environmentalists seek to be guided and corrected by a collective experience of God's will, we focus our efforts entirely on maintaining a complete, honest and humble faithfulness to this guidance. And as long as such a faithfulness exists, we find that it is a sufficient justification in and of itself.10 (We do, though, seek to be guided and corrected by scripture as well, as I think my running footnotes to this essay demonstrate.)

And as we feel this way, when we appeal to other people to join us in environmental reform, we tend to speak of what our listeners can discover in *their* own hearts regarding God's will -- rather than trying to persuade our listeners by means of abstract scriptural apologetics.

Thus our religious environmentalism tends to express itself in simple, down-to-earth, experiential ways. And I believe this has made our ministry and outreach far more effective than it otherwise might have been.11

Quaker Environmental Email List

Readers who wish to learn more are welcome to subscribe to the Quaker environmental list on the Internet, and ask their questions there.

The body (text) of your message should consist of the word "subscribe" followed by your e-mail address -- for example:


(You should of course substitute your real e-mail address for the imaginary address in this example.)

There should be no other words in the message.

You will receive in reply a welcome message, explaining how to use the list and how to unsubscribe. There is no cost for a subscription to this list.

This essay is copyright ©1999 by Marshall Massey and The Environmental Projects Center. For permission to quote from or reprint it, contact The Environmental Projects Center, 4353 East 119 Way, Thornton CO 80233, USA, Permission to quote is freely granted when we are notified in advance and receive proper credit for authorship. We appreciate receiving copies of publications in which we are quoted.

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