Quakerism: America’s Unreligion
Note: This is a lightly-amended repost of an earlier article
A recurring theme in the culture wars is the question of whether or not America should be considered a ‘Christian’ nation.
Quaker Meeting, painting by unknown British artist, late 1700’s, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston copyright 2016
Missing from these conversations are America’s original evangelists, the Religious Society of Friends, aka the Quakers.
Introducing the Quakers
For many years, starting in colonial times, a group of evangelical not-quite-Christians served as America’s unofficial moral compass. Whereas puritanical New England merchants and genteel Southern plantation owners were ultimately proud of their pragmatism, Quakers dared to dream of a world of truth, justice and freedom. The Quaker organization, the Religious Society of Friends, was a unique, ungovernable para-religious confederation formed expressly to torment the establishment. Quakers advocated, and exercised, freedom of religion and freedom of speech, at a time when both were illegal. Some Quakers lived in self-imposed poverty, while others were stupendously wealthy. William Penn’s Quaker Colony of Pennsylvania was a libertarian ‘holy experiment’ that broke new ground for its guarantees of religious and personal freedoms. Quakers were stubborn, argumentative, pious and annoying, but they were able to influence society in ways that had previously been unthinkable.
Today, Quakerism is too close to religion to be taught in schools, and too close to apostacy to be taught in churches. Thus, Americans today have only the vaguest notions of how Quaker ideas about personal freedom shaped America and became embedded in the Constitution.
Quakerism as a political protest
The Quaker movement emerged in England following years of civil war among Puritans, Anglicans and Catholics. Protestors across England walked out of state-sanctioned religious services and formed an organization, the Religious Society of Friends, whose members became known as Quakers, or simply ‘Friends’. As its name suggests, the Religious Society of Friends was not technically a church. Neither the Society of Friends nor its leaders would publicly state exactly what its members believed, nor did the Society of Friends tell its members what they should believe. Like the Zen concept of one hand clapping, the Quakers had established a religion with no articles of faith: a ‘creedless’ religion.
By refusing to be coerced into declaring their own faith, Quakers put themselves in a unique place in the Christian world. Whereas Puritans, Anglicans and Catholics had been willing to go to war over the finer points of theology — or at least, to use the finer points of theology to justify war — Quakers simply had no theology. Even though virtually everyone who joined the Society of Friends was a committed Christian, the Society of Friends, on principle, refused to acknowledge or enforce any articles of faith. This represented a nightmare scenario for the professional clergy. Quakers could believe, and did believe, pretty much anything they wanted. It didn’t take long for some practically-minded Quakers to observe that they had hardly any need for a Bible at all: just a weekly meeting for worship and some common sense were all it took to live a moral life. Quakers mocked the Oxford- and Cambridge-trained professional clergy, declaring them thieves and ‘hireling wolves’. Quakers refused to pay taxes to the Church of England, and denounced the Catholic Pope as an Antichrist.
Freedom of conscience, that is, freedom of religion, is as close to an article of faith as the Quakers ever had. For as long as anyone could remember, religious leaders had been complicit in all manner of governmental excesses. Quakers were united in that they wanted their fellow Christians — the Puritans, the Anglicans and the Catholics — out of the government. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” was the Quaker philosophy. In order to make that happen, church and state needed to be separated.
Quakerism as America’s un-religion
The fact that the First Amendment doesn’t namecheck Jesus has caused a lot of confusion. Even though the Quakers never formally adopted a statement of faith, their understanding of the biblical teaching of Jesus is more or less summarized in the First Amendment. That’s right, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States of America is about Jesus. And not just any Jesus. Jewish Jesus. Just to be clear, for those sufficiently ‘unchurched’ to be confused about this, Christian Jesus is held within the Christian faith to be a deity, the divine Son of God, and an integral component of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In contrast, Jewish Jesus was a rabbi — a mortal, Jewish, teacher. Quakers believed that people could decide for themselves if they wanted to accept the full, Christian view of Jesus, but they thought it was perfectly clear that biblical accounts of Jesus taught that people needed to think and worship for themselves, regardless of what tribe they were born into.
According to the Quakers, Jesus himself taught freedom of religion. Even though Jesus was Jewish, and was preaching mostly to and for Jews, the Quaker position was that Jesus taught that it was neither necessary nor sufficient to be born Jewish in order to practice the rudiments of the Jewish religion. That is, Jesus taught that a person’s spiritual identity is a choice, not something inherited or handed down from the religious authorities. According to the Quakers, Jesus was leading the theological equivalent of a jailbreak exploit. Instead of religion being an immutable part of a person’s tribal identity, Jesus was teaching that each and every human, regardless of race, gender or caste, was free to choose how or if they were going to worship the Jewish god.
There is a direct line from the Quaker understanding of what Jesus taught in the Bible through the First Amendment to the American ideals of equality, freedom and justice. Quakers relentlessly championed the idea that individuals, regardless of their heritage, must be trusted to choose their own spiritual destiny, whether it was traditionally Christian or not. This idea, which was ultimately incorporated in the United States Constitution, was completely at odds with the preceding thousand-year-plus legacy of state-imposed Christianity.
The blurred line between faith and secular
The extent to which Jesus, even in his non-messianic capacity as a philosopher of religion, influenced the Constitution is a tender subject, to say the least. In schools today you are more likely to learn that religious freedom was the brainchild of Jefferson and Madison, under the influence of secular philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke and Voltaire. Secular philosophers certainly had their place in history, but in a very real sense it was the Society of Friends that made the world safe for philosophers, not the other way around. At the start of the Quaker movement, the punishment for heresy was death by burning at the stake. Thousands of Quakers were jailed, beaten, branded or killed, not just in England but in Puritan New England, as they defied government controls over speech and religion. The Quaker movement gave cover to anyone who wanted to speak freely, including intellectuals and philosophers who didn’t share the religious zeal of the Quakers.
Quakers interacted with, and, to a certain extent, inspired the work of some of the great European philosophers, but the philosopher the Quakers themselves focused on was Jesus. Quakers relied heavily on biblical accounts of Jesus’ teachings to support their argument that the only way to protect the integrity of religious practice was to separate church and state. Quakers took the position that Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans had corrupted religion by allying with kings and emperors, making the Church an instrument of political power. Armed with biblical passages describing Jesus’ confrontations with corrupt rabbis, Quakers demanded secularization of government. Thousands of Quakers and their sympathizers crossed the Atlantic to participate in William Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment’ in Pennsylvania, with its guarantees of religious freedoms. Where Voltaire wished he could see Pennsylvania, but feared he would be made too seasick by the voyage, it was an army of Quaker radicals, acting on their beliefs, whose work he documented.
America, the evangelist
The Quaker activists who shaped the contours of American democracy left their mark, whether it is recognized today or not. Freedom of religion is as close to an article of faith as America possesses, and the Quakers owned that issue. The legacy of other Quaker innovations is more of a mixed bag. For example, Quakers invented the concept of an amendable constitution, specifically as a means to prevent violent conflict. The Framers applied this Quaker innovation to the United States Constitution, creating a pathway, even before ratification, to bring the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery to a peaceful end. Of course, Americans didn’t believe in their amendable constitution enough to rely on it to peacefully settle the issue of slavery. Unfortunately, America still is divided over the history of the Civil War and the legitimacy of the amended Constitution that emerged from that conflict.
The broader cultural influence of Quakerism is also evident in America’s self-appointed role as a quasi-evangelical ‘beacon of democracy’ for the rest of the world. Quakers sought to counter the militaristic excesses of colonial-era Catholic conquistadors by evangelizing peacefully. Quaker preachers admonished, “Let your life be your testimony,” and advised Quaker congregations to live simple, exemplary lives as their means of spreading the gospel. Americans are justifiably proud of how American culture, just by its sheer exuberance and creativity, captured the world’s imagination in the decades after the second world war. Like the Quakers, America was spreading much of its influence just by setting a good example, rather than through military force. However, America’s blundering attempts to spread democratic values overseas, first in Vietnam and then in the Middle East, have made the limitations of America’s ideology of democratic evangelism hard to ignore. Moreover, America’s legacy of ‘inland imperialism’, as seen in the historical brutalization of Native American and African American minorities, raises legitimate questions about how fully Americans ever bought into the virtues of living by example.
Today’s Red/Blue debates are dishonest because they excise centuries of Quaker history and experience from America’s cultural legacy. Quakers aren’t Christian enough for the Reds, and they are too religious for the Blues. Rather than embracing the Quaker tradition of freedom of conscience, Reds and Blues ignore it or actively suppress it. You deserve better. Quaker history is messy, contradictory and more than a little seditious, but it couldn’t possibly be more relevant to America and the problems we face today.
Much modern-day Red/Blue beef traces back to issues that divided the Quakers themselves. Cycles of power and corruption that split Jewish, Catholic and, yes, Quaker, communities, are manifested today in America’s corporate, academic and governmental bureaucracies. The biblical tension between tribal, inherited identity versus chosen identity is eternal, and Americans of all races and religions face deep questions about how they fit into the national fabric. Quakers, who have long since had to face the fact that not everybody wants to live and think like a Quaker, have deep experience trying, and often failing, to transcend identity.
Today’s diverse, multicultural generation of young Americans has no choice but to build on the Quaker legacy. Quakerism is already hard-wired into the American experiment, and elements of Quaker culture permeate the modern Red and Blue tribes. Ignoring the Quakers won’t make their legacy go away, and ignoring the many failings of Quakerism won’t make modern society immune to those same issues. Young Americans deserve to know the story of the Quakers if they are going to fully participate in building the next phase of American society. Stay tuned for more…
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