Friday, May 04, 2012

What If Quakerism Were A Movement Again?

Though it is sometimes hard to believe, the Quaker community began as a radical, free-form network that gave great autonomy to individual ministers. It was intensely focused on the mission of spreading the gospel message throughout England, Europe, the Americas, and beyond. Friends emphasized the transforming power of Jesus Christ within us and among us, and the organizing principles of the early movement reflected this priority. Though Friends would eventually congeal into settled communities under the watchful eyes of duly appointed ministers, elders and overseers, the first decades of the Quaker movement were explosive and fluid.

In this very early period, the basic unit of Quaker organization was the traveling ministry team - itinerant gospel preachers who went from village to village, preaching the good news wherever they could find an audience. They were often beaten, jailed and stripped of their possessions - and with good reason! These early evangelists were often quite disruptive, performing shocking prophetic signs, including walking naked through the streets. Quaker preachers often appeared at government-run worship services and contradicted the sermons of the local priest.

The early Friends were more a grassroots movement than an established religious tradition, spreading through the power of the message these itinerant prophets proclaimed. Friends eschewed hierarchical styles of organization, and rejected the fixed ceremonies of the establishment church. Though Quakers sometimes had to clarify that someone was not a Friend, early on there was no fixed membership. People knew who the Friends were simply by the way they acted and spoke. Being a Quaker was enormously risky, because the price of belonging was to take a public stand against the idolatry of the false religious systems of the day.

Within a few decades, much of this initial fire and fluidity had dissipated. In the face of repeated waves of state persecution - fines, confiscations of property, beatings, imprisonments and worse - Friends banded together in tight-knit communities where they could provide for one another, especially for the families of those in prison. In the context of increasingly intense pressure by the restored British monarchy, George Fox spent years helping Friends develop a highly structured organization. These structures helped to shield Quakers from the worst of the persecution, deflecting public criticism and facilitating mutual aid. As Friends developed these structures, there was an inevitable centralization of authority - first in the area gathering of Friends (the Monthly Meeting), and finally in the national gathering based in London (the Yearly Meeting).

These structures probably saved the Quaker community from annihilation. Thanks to an increasingly centralized governance structure based in London, Friends were able to effectively lobby the government for toleration. The deepening authority of the area gatherings (Monthly Meetings) allowed Friends to keep a tight lead on those individuals who might get the whole community into trouble. When necessary, such individuals were publicly denounced as provocateurs. This process, called "disownment," drew a clear line between those who were abiding by the norms of the Quaker community, and those who were dangerous renegades.

All of this made sense at the time. People were getting killed as the result of the silly actions of a few, and it was only prudent to batton down the hatches and distance the community from the dangerous activities of the more radical fringe. If Fox and his lieutenants had not succeeded in developing a more tightly structured organization for the movement, Friends very well might have been entirely suppressed. Nevertheless, these adaptations did not come without a price.

Just like the early Christian Church, the initial years of the Quaker movement were characterized by an expectation of the imminent culmination of history. Friends experienced the risen presence of Jesus, and they were sure that the end of history was just around the corner. The Kingdom was come! There was nothing left to do but proclaim it and invite others into it before the time of decision finally came to a close. This apocalyptic vision could not survive the transition from free-wheeling movement to established sect. Just like the first-century Church, the Quaker movement hardened and consolidated; it became an institution to be preserved, rather than a message to be proclaimed with abandon.

What would happen if we once again became a movement that placed all its focus on the transforming power of the gospel message? How would our present structures and assumptions change to reflect this passionate embrace of Christ's mission? What would melt away, and what would remain essential? What would be open to compromise, and what would emerge as the rock-solid foundations of our faith? What would happen if Quakerism once again became a radical, apocalyptic movement? Not a sect - not a structure to be preserved, nor an organization to be sustained - but a real movement rallying around a living experience of the Risen Lord Jesus?

I am convinced that we are living in an historical moment that demands movement rather than monument; message rather than creed; and full-bodied engagement rather than circumscribed ritual. I do not know what the next steps will look like, but I pray for courage to lay all things - structures, communities, rituals, organizations and identity - at Jesus' feet. Without a doubt, he is here to teach us and lead us himself, if we dare to be his disciples.


  1. You can't go back. If there's going to be a movement with that kind of energy, it is not going to be Quaker.

  2. It's only going back if you see it like that. I don't want to go back to a time of less car usage; I want to go forward to a time of less car usage.

    I think that the radical religionless Christianity Micah yearns for would be Quaker, although what it's called is less important than the eternal message that Christ is come to teach his people himself.

  3. It seems to me that what it would look like is a hand ful of people joining in worship to contemplate and obey the literal instructions reported to have come out of Jesus' mouth and actions He is reported to have taken. Among those are to feed his sheep, to go outwithout a second cloak or a purse of money or sandles, to share equally whatever is offered, speak what is known of the living truth, be in fellowship with whoever turns up. Until one can and does do that, s/he has no business using the word "prophetic" or preaching at all. Until we can embrace a radical voluntary poverty in a community that holds everything communally and where each holds the other lovingly and firmly accountable for doing the simple but terrifyingly difficult things Jesus said to do, we should tone down our rhetoric to focus on the specific concrete ways we cannot meet those standards and what next steps we might take to move a bit more in the direction of obedience to His words and examples.

  4. How do we Friends take risk today? Not very well... Still lots of in-fighting instead of living the reality... Most of us want to be nice Quakers...If slavery were up to this generation to deal with...I would not expect much. Read Thomas Kelly his Testament of Devotion is wonderful radical and Quaker. After reading it let us give those words life.
    Greg Williams

  5. Yes!

    There are many of us, but we are more distributed than in the days of the Seekers!

    I suspect that God is preparing a work among his children that will incorporate us all and encourage a unity that we have not yet seen, where each Christian stream is empowered by the holy spirit to honour the others and combat powerfully the kingdom of darkness, something that Quakers are uniquely positioned to encourage. I have wondered whether there will be many of us ready, who are prepared to lay down whatever is necessary at Christ's call.

    I am a charismatic Quaker from the northwest, by the way.

    I just took a peek over at Maggie Harrison's blog that you mentioned some months ago. Good words. Her "naked" theme reminds me of CS Lewis' description of the shining people in The Great Divorce. haha

    Some more thoughts about God's work among us:

    I suspect the work will require great amounts of responsibility, faith, and focus, learned and earned. And I pray that there are lots of us being "Davids" in our back-waters now, preparing and learning.

    I collect resources, so here are a few that I like, which may be of benefit:

    Wanderlust Productions has produced two documentary films (with one more coming) that offer some great current perspective on God's power and plans.

    Iris Ministries is an incredibly bright light regarding Kingdom priorities. Check out some of Heidi and Rolland Baker's youtube videos too. is going to be a gathering point for many of us with this "renewed" theology about Jesus' radical love. It's slated to launch in a few months.

    Global Legacy is one organization already working to gather those together who are seeking to steward this particular work.

    And finally, regarding growing in responsibility, I really like Bill Johnson. He's got some great teaching on responsibility, including this sermon from a couple weeks ago. This, in particular, is an area where I worry we Quakers may tend toward an unhealthy bias.

    Okay, I'm done. I confess. I got excited.

  6. Good question, Micah. What if Christ worked directly in teaching people Himself without using an established organization? Another resource:

    What if people looked to the light within and waited in silent stillness? See also:

  7. Tis a coward I am but I'll hold your coat.

  8. I would respectfully disagree with the assertion that “the Quaker community began as a ... free-form network that gave great autonomy to individual ministers”.

    From at least 1652, when the majority of the Seeker community in west Yorkshire and Westmorland was reached and converted, the movement and its public message were under the care and oversight of an already organized and settled community. Once the Fell household in nearby Ulverston was converted, this care and oversight was systematized and centralized under the loving eyes of Margaret Fell.

    Furthermore, Friends exercised quality control over the leadership and preaching of ministers from a very early point in time. Examples include their handling of the “Proud Quakers” of Nottingham in the early 1650s, their grounding of Agnes Wilkinson in 1654 after a serious moral lapse, their condemnation of Mary Todd after she publicly exposed her nakedness, and their disownment of Christopher Atkinson in 1655 when he “fell into too much familiarity and conversation with some women-kind” and “committed lewdness with a servant-maid”. There were other cases as well.

  9. @Ian - Yes, I agree that the message (and experience!) of Jesus' living presence through his Holy Spirit is the core and foundation of this new (and ancient) movement that I yearn for. "Yearn" is the right word.

    @Anon - I think you're right that we should stay humble and take seriously the demands of Jesus' message. At the same time, I think that he continues to lead us today. If we are faithful in listening to the Holy Spirit - through Scripture, through tradition, through the present-day Body of Christ and through our human faculties - I believe that he will continue to guide us in how to walk in our present society and context.

    @Greg Amen!

    @Tortoise I don't know much about charismatic Quakers. Is this a reference to speaking in tongues? What all goes into being "charismatic" in the Quaker tradition?

    Thanks for these links. I'm going to check them out!

    @Anon - I'm not anti-organization, though I do think that our tendency is often to be spectators rather than full participants in the gospel life. Thanks for the links!

    @Marshall - You know, having considered it, I think you have a good point. I probably over-emphasized the free-formedness of the early Quaker movement. (Over-simplification is always a danger when trying to paint a picture of Quakerism in under 1000 words!) Nevertheless, it is my understanding that the early movement was far less focused on settled communities and far more focused on equipping and sending teams of evangelists far and wide. This is a very different emphasis from our Society today - or even two hundred years ago - where we primarily keep to ourselves, or expect others to come to us.

  10. Micah, yes, I agree that the early Friends were highly evangelical, in a way that puts our present Society to shame. But of course, they were agreed on their message, and had something to say that resonated with a great many listeners! Those are key necessities for any serious evangelical movement.

  11. Hello friends,
    I find these themes discussed here and the themes rising from the following current conversation on to be very much ideas which water on another. Comments more and more relavant (?) as they progress. Take a look! There is currently a call going on for the next George Fox.

  12. I meant "ideas which water one another"

  13. The early movement was organized by the Spirit. People could agree on a message, because it had come to them with a power they'd felt and recognized. They could let others preach it in their name, because they could recognize it as what they'd come to know. And also say, "This person doesn't speak for us" when that was the case.

    They could welcome God, because they weren't so paralyzed with small fears. They were less paralyzed with small fears because they had, to whatever degree, knowingly met God face-to-face.

    In this time of organizations paralyzed with small fears, led by people of small fears... The antidote to those fears is the message that Jesus was proclaiming-- and not necessarily anybody's form of that message. For the people we are now, as we are now, as I am currently putting it-- it may be: "The truth is wild, crazy, and infinitely loving. How much of it can you allow yourself to recognize?"

  14. Marshall Massey you said...
    " I agree that the early Friends were highly evangelical,in a way that puts our present Society to shame. But of course, they were agreed on their message, and had something to say that resonated with a great many listeners!"

    Clarification on what the original message of Quakerism is.Micah you said,"transforming power of Jesus Christ within us"

    We can all agree that Quakers today use a smorgasbord of terms as a substitute for JC.

    When I read the writings of early Quaker they also used a
    smorgasbord of terms to describe the holy within. My next question is,what is different today?

  15. @Forrest Amen, brother!

    @Paul While the early Friends used many different words to talk about their experience of Jesus Christ, all of these words were directly tied to the words of Jesus and of the writers of the Bible.

    Friends were clear that they were talking about (and by the power of) Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit that he sends us. Their message was particular, and firmly rooted within the narrative of salvation told by the early Church.

  16. @Micah, good point to ask. Like the term "quaker", the term "charismatic" seems to vary a lot in meaning between who is using it.

    I personally tend to associate a singular emphasis on tongues more with pentacostals than charismatics.

    The charismatic movement tends to emphasize more broadly God's presence, power, and love with his children, including all of the "gifts" and anything God might choose to do.

    To me, "charismatic" looks like what I was taught the Quaker movement once looked like: a people more interested in the presence of God than in tradition, a people who believe scripture invites the reader into an encounter and a relationship with the living God, and a people who believe that God wants to (and will) work powerfully in his children for personal and world transformation.

    That said, to note a difference, a valuable emphasis for charismatics has been praise rather than explicit silence, and a recognition of what God has done that rightfully touches the emotions, something that might have jangled the nerves of many Enlightenment-worldview early Quakers.

  17. @Micah, looks like I'm no longer "tortoise", haha, FYI

  18. What is needed is that people devote themselves to listening to God and then acting as guided, without imposing the condition of being a part of a particular institution, like the Society of Friends.

  19. I really appreciate this perspective a lot Micah. As someone in the Vineyard movement who has been re-digging at our history to re-discover our Quaker roots (see some of my discovery process and )

    All to say, I think the Quaker movement has kept moving, creating waves throughout the world that sometimes people don't even know where they came from...

    As to, can it happen again?, I am currently a Fed worker, and I often pause at a statute downtown DC with the phrase: 'What is Past is Prologue' on it, and ponder the possibilities...

  20. In response to Bill Samuel’s last —

    It is certainly no part of a Friend’s business to impose conditions on the messages of the Spirit. But sometimes the Spirit itself imposes the condition that we state what institution or tradition we are speaking from.

    If it had not been so, then Philip would not have been required to preach Jesus to the eunuch (Acts 8:26-39), but would just have preached a generic, Hallmark-greeting-card message that would have given no offense to the Jewish establishment. Paul and Barnabas would simply have let the people of Lystra deify them instead of contradicting their preconceptions (Acts 14:8-18).

    And Thomas Ellwood, newly convinced, would not have had to identify himself as “a Quaker” to all his wealthy friends, but would simply have gone on bowing and scraping and exchanging extravagant endearments, while perhaps doing a little more for charity, and speaking more about goodness than before.

    Sometimes, I think, the branding is just a necessary part of the Gospel.

  21. I think the question of branding is really important. Specifically, I wonder about how Jesus felt about branding. "Back then," at least, he said fairly often, "in my name," including the all-important promise for Friends, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also." But I wonder how often the Holy Spirit, rebranded "the Spirit" by contemporary liberal Friends, might be the spirit of Christ, just moving among us without the name badge. Would—does—Christ (still) require that we confess his name? How would we know? And if he does, then why? What difference does it make?

  22. Micah, we hope to quote from this post and from some of the comments in the next lead article in 'The Call'. The quotes will be anonymised, firstly because the lead article is usually published without a byline, and secondly because some of the comments are anonymous. If thee would like to discuss, please drop me an email: goshen.meeting{at}