What Is It With the Quakers and Jesus Christ?
The kinds of surprise that I have heard fall into two broad categories, which I would describe as follows: Some people are surprised that these silent liberal Quakers are “more Christian” than they had thought, others are surprised that Quakers are “less Christian” than they had thought – or even that they seem to not be Christian at all. Each kind of surprise may strike some visitors as disappointing, others as welcome, and still others as simply odd.
I would add that although I am no longer a new visitor, the ambiguities and complexities of Quaker attitudes about Jesus are still somewhat surprising -- and curious or strange -- even to me. My aim in this essay is not to explain away apparent contradictions or inconsistencies, but to explore where they come from, and to make my case that despite these paradoxes Quakerism is still very much a Christian religion. I will also explain why the fact that some other Quakers do not agree has not led me to reject them as Friends, nor to feel that I must join a break-away faction or turn to some other denomination for Christian fellowship.
The Two Kinds of Surprise
1. Some visitors are surprised that Quakers seem “more Christian” than they had thought.
By this I don’t mean that they are surprised to find Quakers leading “Christian” or spiritual lives. Quakers have a pretty good reputation for that, probably a better reputation than we deserve. What these visitors find surprising is not our way of life, but the amount of Christian theology and belief that they find among us. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are surprised to find people like me in Meeting: people who pray to Jesus, who quote Him as an authority, and who use the Christian scriptures as a spiritual resource.
These expressions of a specifically Christian spirituality are often not mentioned in “outreach” literature that may be an inquirer’s first source of information about Friends, and they may not even be mentioned by the Ministry and Counsel of some local meetings. The outreach literature often comes from Quaker service organizations and institutions such as the American Friends Service Committee or the Quaker schools in many cities. These quite properly exist to serve broad constituencies regardless of religious belief and they also rely on the efforts of many non-Quakers from all possible backgrounds to assist them in their work. While these groups often uphold “Quaker values” in the broad sense, it is not their primary mission to interpret the Quaker faith or the tradition behind it.
To the extent that these service institutions and schools refer explicitly to Quaker tradition they tend to rely heavily on certain isolated catch phrases such as “that of God in every one”, or on a list of Quaker ethical stands presented as “testimonies”. While this bare-bones version of Quakerism may be somewhat accurate as far as it goes, it hardly scratches the surface of what our faith has meant to generations of Friends or of what it has to offer for seekers. Unfortunately, in the absence of a fuller account from actual Quaker meetings – the worshipping communities that attempt to put Quakerism into daily practice – this superficial picture may become the only picture available. It is no wonder, then, that many spiritual seekers and other visitors come to us without any advance knowledge that Quakerism at its inception was a particularly intense and concentrated form of Christianity. It was distinguished from other Christian denominations in many ways, but especially by the degree of its zeal to experience again the spirit-filled and Christ-directed life of the early Christian church. Consider this description by George Fox, often regarded as the founder of the Quaker movement, of what his mission was as he understood it:
“Now I was to turn people from darkness to the light that they might receive Christ Jesus, for as many as should receive him in his light I saw that he would give power to become the sons of God, which I had obtained by receiving Christ. And I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all Truth, and so up to Christ and God as they had been who gave them forth. And I was to turn them to the Grace of God, and to the Truth in the heart which came by Jesus that by this grace they might be taught, which would bring them into salvation, that their hearts might be established by it, and their words might be seasoned, and all might come to know their salvation nigh. For I saw that Christ had died for all men and was a propitiation for all, and had enlightened all men with his divine and saving light, and that none could be a true believer but who believed in it…” [Journal of George Fox, John L. Nickalls, ed., published by London Yearly Meeting 1975, p. 34]
This is not the language of a non-theistic mysticism or an open-ended “seekers” religion, or even of a conciliatory inter-denominational or ecumenical Christianity. This is, rather, the announcement of a mission to gather people into a movement radically centered on no one else but Jesus, a movement whose members would actually live by His teaching in their hearts. It was that movement which eventually became the Religious Society of Friends. Friends today would do well to acknowledge to each other and to any inquirers who want to learn about us that this Christ-centered vision was the cause that first gathered us as a people, and that it remains a living part of our tradition today.
It is true that over 350 years have passed since George Fox began his preaching. It is true that Quakers have lived in the world with many other peoples and have modified our practices and way of thinking from time to time under the influence of insights from other faiths – from evangelical Christendom to Zen Buddhism. It is true that advances in science and technology have given Quakers – like everyone else – new things to think about and pray about and question. It is even true that some Friends today will feel that George Fox’s statement does not speak for them or that it needs to be interpreted or explained or translated somehow into a more modern idiom before they can embrace it. Nevertheless, this explicitly Christ-centered vision still speaks very powerfully to many, including me, and it is not likely to be expunged from Quaker consciousness. There are signs, indeed, that openness to the Christian testimony of earlier Friends is once again growing, rather than diminishing, among Friends of today.
How will the presence of this Christian spirituality in our meetings affect seekers who come to us? Will it be seen in a positive light, as an expression of a faith and a spiritual practice that is worthy to be considered? Or will the very mention of Christianity raise a barrier that turns people off? The answer may be different for each person who comes to us. It will depend in part on each one’s spiritual needs and each one’s receptiveness, or lack of same, as influenced by any prior experience they may have had with people who claimed to speak or act in the name of Christ. The same could be said for the other forms of spirituality found in our meetings. Any conceivable spiritual path would be unpalatable to someone, either because of what it is in itself, or because of the reputation it has been given by those who follow it. But the receptiveness of the audience is not something we can control or should even want to control. Our faith is not a product to be marketed, nor can we fine-tune our witness and ministry using focus groups. What Christian Friends can do, however, is labor to be so grounded in God that our words and actions draw life from the Holy Spirit we seek to serve. We should not be afraid to give offense by sincerely representing the gospel of peace. But we should guard with all our might against giving offense by misusing the name of Christ to justify hatred, prejudice, self-righteousness, vindictiveness, greed or jealousy.
2. Other visitors experience surprise of the opposite type – surprise that Friends seem “less Christian” than they had expected.
Once again, I am not referring to any judgements these seekers may make about how “really” Christian our lives may be. It is true that Quakers are often far less saintly than our reputation might lead people to expect, but that is not the topic of this essay. Rather, I am speaking of the surprise some people express by saying things like “I thought Quakers believed in Jesus but now I see they don’t.” Or “I thought this was a Christian Church, now I see that it isn’t”.
How does this kind of surprise occur? Is it justified? What gives some people the impression that Quakerism has ceased to be a Christian movement?
There are several reasons for this impression, some more to the point than others. First, our unprogrammed silent meetings lack many of the features most other Christian Churches have in common. There are no hymns, no paid clergy, no altar, no pulpit, no rite of water baptism, no ritual celebration of communion, no observation of religious festivals or holy days, no religious statues or images or sacred objects or substances such as crosses, crucifixes, monstrances, censers, or fonts of holy water. People who have grown up thinking of these things as essential to Christian faith may be surprised to not find them in a Quaker meetinghouse. These “peculiarities” of Quakerism do not arise from a rejection of Christianity, however. They date from the earliest and most explicitly Christian period of Quaker history, and represent what the earliest Friends thought was the purest and most essential form of Christian worship. They had their own understanding, based on the Bible as they read it in the Spirit, of what constituted true baptism, true communion, true ministry, the true organizing principle of the Christian church, and so on. George Fox had experienced “openings” on all of these matters and they are described in his Journal. This is too large a topic for further development here, but the essential point is that Quaker worship and Quaker church government were both grounded originally on the faith that Christ himself would be present among the people and guide them in how to serve Him.
Second, a great many Quaker Meetings today do not require a statement of Christian belief - or indeed any kind of theological commitment – as a precondition of membership.
In a sense, this open membership policy is consistent with a strand in earliest Quaker thinking – that your ideas or “notions” about God, and your adherence or non-adherence to a written creed are not as important spiritually as your actual experience of God and your faithfulness of that experience. It is also consistent with a general attitude of respect for each person’s spiritual journey and for the honest questions that may coexist with real faith and real love for God and humanity. It may be that a potential member who shies away from definite theological affirmations is nevertheless more firmly on the road to true spiritual worship and spiritual community than someone who has absorbed the letter but not the spirit of the Bible or of the writings of Friends.
In my opinion, however, this diffidence about discussing theological questions with applicants for membership has gone too far in many meetings. As a result it isn’t hard to find Quakers in official good standing who will say without any sense of incongruity or paradox that they are Quakers but not Christians. In many meetings, such Friends are actually a majority. This has to be confusing for anyone who understands the Christian framework that earlier periods of Quakerism always took for granted.
Of course it is possible to be a Quaker without being a Christian. It is also possible to be a Quaker without being a pacifist or to be a Quaker and buy lottery tickets. This doesn’t change the fact that normative Quakerism has a peace testimony and a testimony against gambling. Nor does it change the fact that the witness of Quakerism is that “Christ has come to teach His people Himself.” Any of us in our journeys toward understanding may have to live with contradictions and paradoxes. But when we do we ought to be able to recognize them as such.
I personally am grateful to have been admitted as a member myself while still a seeker who was unsure about Jesus and his relationship to God and the Holy Spirit. I am afraid that rejection of my application on those grounds might have truncated my spiritual growth. At the same time, I am also grateful that those who interviewed me clearly communicated that these were important questions and not matters of indifference. I believe that this should always be communicated to those who wish to join Friends. In my case, I knew that I was joining my life to a Christian tradition and faith, even if my intellect and reason were still having trouble with Christian concepts and beliefs. This paradox seemed possible to me because I felt and trusted the One who some Friends were calling Christ, even though I myself did not know what to call Him. I was grateful for the Meeting’s openness to me, but I did not presume that this was an opportunity to push for a modification of Quakerism’s basic nature in order to fit my preferences.
So…Is Quakerism Christian, or isn’t it?
I have admitted that in many Quaker meetings a majority of the members will say they are not Christians. I have even defended – up to a point – the idea that embracing Christian theology should not be an ironclad criterion of membership. Why, then, do I hang onto the belief that Quakerism is and should be a Christian faith? Why not accept it as a kind of inter-faith spiritual community where no single world religion has any preferred status? Isn’t it overly “exclusionary” and narrow to limit Quakerism by calling it Christian? Or if I want to be in an explicitly Christian group, why don’t I join another denomination that already identifies in that way? Or maybe start or join up with a breakaway group of Friends who reclaim their Christian roots? Let me take those questions one at a time.
1. Why not accept that Quakerism is an inter-faith spiritual community rather than a Christian Church?
This at first glance might seem to be nothing more than realism. If such a question could be settled by a poll, it would be accepted in many meetings that this has already happened. But I don’t believe that this question can be settled in that way. The meetings where the poll might go that way are not in a position to speak for Quakerism as a whole, nor – for the most part – do they really want to divorce themselves from the larger Quaker movement. The seeming rejection of our Christian tradition is so historically recent, so demographically and geographically narrow, and so theologically shallow that I think it is entirely too early for Christian Friends to surrender to it.
The rejection of Christian beliefs among Friends is much more historically recent than many realize. We have already seen that George Fox, Margaret Fell and all of the 17th century Friends were intensely Christian. So was John Woolman, the most widely known Friend in the late 18th century, and so were Elizabeth Fry and other well-known Quaker activists. In fact, almost all Friends from 1648 until well into the 20th century assumed that the Society of Friends was a Christian movement. During the great separations of the 19th century Friends disputed many things – and adherents of each new branch sometimes considered the other branches to be unchristian – but Wilbur, Hicks, Gurney and nearly all their respective followers considered themselves Christians. Elias Hicks would not agree with the “Hicksites” of today who think he was not a Christian. He was, perhaps, a unitarian rather than trinitarian Christian, but he found support for his theological views in the New Testament and was willing to debate them in those terms. Even in the early twentieth century, liberal Quaker leaders like Rufus Jones interpreted Quakerism as a form of Christianity, albeit a “mystical” form.
The rejection of Christian beliefs among Friends is demographically and geographically narrow, in that it is largely confined to certain parts of North America and Europe, and to only a subset of meetings even in North America. Quakerism in Africa, parts of Asia, and South America, not to mention much of the Midwestern United States is still a predominantly Christian phenomenon. The form this Christianity takes may be quite different from anything our Quaker ancestors would recognize, but it also has continuities. If those in liberal meetings can engage in ongoing dialog with other kinds of Quakers there is a chance that we can help each other reclaim lost parts of our heritage. But if liberal meetings decisively reject their Christian identification the remaining bonds of unity may be broken altogether.
Finally, the rejection of Christian beliefs among Friends is (often, but not always) theologically shallow. How many Friends have really heard, understood, and considered the radical and prophetic Christianity that is at the heart of our tradition? How many who think they have rejected it have, in fact, merely rejected some other kind of Christianity learned in some other place?
2. Isn’t it overly “exclusionary” or narrow to limit Quakerism by identifying it as Christian?
I don’t think it is exclusionary in any useful sense of the term for any religion to simply be what it is. Mosques practice Islam. Roman Catholic Churches practice Catholicism. By the same token, Quaker Meetings should practice Quakerism – which is a form of Christianity. Practicing these various faiths doesn’t in itself mean that these religious bodies have to turn their backs on others or shut their doors against them.
Curiously, I have not heard many people argue that it is “exclusionary” for the Religious Society of Friends to uphold its peace testimony, even though the number of the people in the world who profess to be pacifists is far fewer than the number who profess to be Christians (Quakers being one of the few groups who have traditionally taught that Christianity implies pacifism). We seem to understand quite well that it is OK for people with the ideal of pacifism to form a group devoted to pacifism. But for some reason, when we acknowledge that the Quaker peace testimony is at bottom also a Christian testimony some Friends get nervous and want us to underplay that aspect of it.
Our attitude toward pacifism can also illustrate how it is possible to uphold a certain view while remaining open to some who may doubt that view. I have known several Quakers, including some who thought themselves Christian, who didn’t think they could completely endorse Jesus’ teachings about non-violence. Some have thought, for example, that they would probably have joined the military during World War II. They are not thoroughgoing and consistent adherents of the traditional peace testimony of Friends. Nevertheless, they feel close enough to Friends in spirit, and close enough in practice as far as the current world situation is concerned, to feel comfortable as members. Friends can easily accept these members, without surrendering our commitment – as a body – to the peace testimony.
3. Why don’t I join some other Christian Church?
The short answer to this is: “Because I’m a Quaker”. Quakerism is not the same as Roman Catholicism or Methodism or even the Mennonite faith (which I admit comes close). I do not believe that Christ wants me to endorse the views of these other churches when they go against the truth as I see it. Some radical early Quaker positions have since become widely accepted by other Christian groups: the view that Christ died for all, and not just for a predestined few is one example. Other Quaker views are still rejected by almost every other denomination: the view that baptism and communion are inward spiritual realities rather than ritual practices, for example. Most fundamentally, no other church that I know of even attempts to conduct both its worship services and its decision-making meetings directly under divine leadership, without a professional clergy to lead the worship and without voting and other secular procedures to make decisions. The Religious Society of Friends has a testimony to bear that is unique among all sects in Christendom, and I believe my place is within it.
4. Why don’t I start or join up with a break-away group of Friends who reclaim their Christian roots?
Perhaps if I really believed that the Society of Friends I know and love had decisively left Christianity behind I would do something like this. But I don’t believe it has. Over the past thirty years I have sensed a growing interest in the Christian message among Friends and a growing understanding of its centrality to what Quakerism actually is. I have felt the presence of Christ as active among us, even in gatherings where many present would have recognized it only as “the Spirit” and not as His Spirit. I have also witnessed the spirit of division at work and have not been able to see that it in any way serves Christ. During a particularly trying session of New York Yearly Meeting several years ago, I was given a somewhat enigmatic message that I believe to have come from Christ.
“I am not,” He seemed to say to me “the leader of a faction.”
I wish that Hicks and Wilbur and Gurney had heard that message in their day (though of course I understand that the pressures on these prominent ministers were quite different from anything I will ever experience). It may be that I do not fully understand this message myself. But what I hear in it right now is that if I want to follow Christ I should work for unity rather than division among my Friends.