Movement for a New Society and the Old New Monastics

Robin wrote a little about the New Monastic movement in a plug for the Pendle Hill workshop I’m doing with Wess Daniels this Fall.

Here’s my working theory: I think Liberal Friends have a good claim to inventing the “new monastic” movement thirty years ago in the form of Movement for a New Society, a network of peace and anti-nuclear activists based in Philadelphia that codified a kind of “secular Quaker” decision-making process and trained thousands of people from around the world in a kind of engaged drop-out lifestyle that featured low-cost communal living arrangements in poor neighborhoods with part-time jobs that gave them flexibility to work as full-time community activists. There are few activist campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s that weren’t touched by the MNS style and a less-ideological, more lived-in MNS culture survives today in borderline neighborhoods in Philadelphia and other cities. The high-profile new monastics rarely seem to give any props to Quakers or MNS, but I’d be willing to bet if you sat in on any of their meetings the process would be much more inspired by MNS than Robert’s Rules of Order or any fifteen century monastic rule that might be cited.

For a decade I lived in West Philly in what I called “the ruins of the Movement for a New Society.” The formal structure of MNS had disbanded but many of its institutions carried on in a kind of lived-in way. I worked at the remaining publishing house, New Society Publishers, lived in a land-trusted West Philly coop house, and was fed from the old neighborhood food coop and occasionally dropped in or helped out with Training for Change, a revived training center started by MNS-co-founder (and Central Philadelphia Meeting-member) George Lakey It was a tight neighborhood, with strong cross-connections, and it was able to absorb related movements with different styles (e.g., a strong anarchist scene that grew in the late 1980s). I don’t think it’s coincidence that some of the Philly emergent church projects started in West Philly and is strong in the neighborhoods that have become the new ersatz West Philly as the actual neighborhood has gentrified.

So some questions I’ll be wrestling with over the next six months and will bring to Pendle Hill:

  • Why haven’t more of us in the Religious Society of Friends adopted this engaged lifestyle?
  • Why haven’t we been good at articulating it all this time?
  • Why did the formal structure of the Quaker-ish “new monasticism” not survive the 1980s?
  • Why don’t we have any younger leaders of the Quaker monasticism? Why do we need others to remind us of our own recent tradition?
  • In what ways are some Friends (and some fellow travelers) still living out the “Old New Monastic” experience, just without the hype and without the buzz?

It’s entirely possible that the “new monasticism” isn’t sustainable. At the very least Friends’ experiences with it should be studied to see what happened. Is West Philly what the new monasticism looks like thirty years later? The biggest differences between now and the heyday of the Movement for a New Society is 1) the Internet’s ability to organize and stay in touch in completely different ways; and 2) the power of the major Evangelical publishing houses that are hyping the new kids.

I’ll be looking at myself as well. After ten years, I felt I needed a change. I’m now in the “real world”–semi suburban freestanding house, nuclear family. The old new West Philly monasticism, like the “new monasticism” seems optimized for hip twenty-something suburban kids who romanticized the gritty city. People of other demographics often fit in, but still it was never very scalable and for many not very sustainable. How do we bring these concerns out to a world where there are suburbs, families, etc?

RELATED READING: I first wrote about the similarity between MNS and the Philadelphia “New Monastic” movement six years ago in Peace and Twenty-Somethings, where I argued that Pendle Hill should take a serious look at this new movement.
  • forrest curo

    Then it sounds like your movement (which I’d missed knowing about) is the child of the so-called hippie movement & the New Monastics would be a grandson? (& probably it all goes back to the transcendentalists somehow?)

    I’ve found the anabaptist branch of the NM guys kind of interesting, without having met any or seriously considering joining up. My wife & I are just doing poverty, something which actual poor folks aren’t very good at but which we downwardly mobile folks (“DuMFukz?) can navigate due to being about to impersonate higher class types when we’re about to get stepped on.

    Since doubling up in the (remaining) low rent buildings is an eminently sensible way to get through hard times, we’ll probably see more of this, whether or not overtly religious. Some type of religious consciousness would help a lot; I just hope it won’t have to take one of the massmarket bs forms for most people involved.

  • Ashley W


    I would like to come to your workshop, the overlap between Quakers and the New Monasticism is something I’m really interested in, but I doubt I’ll make it across the country. After reading Robin’s post, I picked up Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism from the library. According to him, they trace their roots back to the early church and other monastic movements (of course), but also to the Bruderhof community in Germany in the 1920s, the Catholic Worker, and the Christian Community Development Association, among others. I think everyone can agree that the model of the New Monastics isn’t really new, including them!

    I think you’re on to something about them using Quaker process in their meetings. The New Monastics in my neighborhood have been very clear that they are trying to use a Quaker model of group discernment in their meetings. I am interested in why the New Monastic model of intentional community seems to appeal to so many right now, and I think there is more to it than the power of the Evangelical publishers. It seems like there is something in the current political and economic climate that is making people more open to intentional community and openly living out one’s faith. I also think that Friends have a lot to add to this discussion, and I am curious about what messages Friends can bring to the new people trying out this model.

    I wish you all the best in preparing for the workshop.


    • Martin Kelley

      I’ve been re-reading parts of “Albion’s Seed,” the most awesome book about American folkways and a lot of my social lens is influenced by this. When I was a student activist in the 1980s and “old new monastic” in the 1990s we never saw any Evangelical Christian kids (my college was three miles from Shane Claiborne’s alma mater), except for the occasional drop-out who would have long ago denounced anything Christian.

      There’s long been an alternative lived-lefty culture, with outposts in music festivals, political groups, local “scene,” etc. Quakers have long been involved, sometimes with some awkward mixing (some members of the Quaker community are more drawn to the alternative culture centered on a particular Meeting than they are to any actual Quaker faith). From a cultural perspective what seems to be happening is that a growing number of younger Evangelicals are joining this alterna-culture (being Evangelicals they have to call it “NEW!,” make it personality-centric and give it too-cool names, but that’s fine, whatever works!).

      You see this shift in the election too. I watched “The Ordinary Radicals” and it’s Jesus for President tour and I just had to laugh when they were saying they weren’t supporting a particular presidential candidate. So many traditionally Republican states voted for Obama–urban and diverse pockets in the South and West are taking on more liberal attitudes, talking about social justice and focusing again on care for the poor.

  • Micah Bales


    You ask why we don’t have any younger leaders of the Quaker monasticism. If you mean “contemporary” rather than younger, I would say that we have had leaders in the very recent past who modeled what a Quaker new-monastic movement might look like. My family and other Friends founded the Friends of Jesus community in Wichita, which for more than a decade lived and worked among the poor, black community in Wichita. Most Friends, while either praising or questioning the community, did not want to actually get involved directly. The community eventually fizzled out, with no one new joining the group.

    I don’t think that this phenomenon is particularly unique. If you look around the MASSIVE Evangelical world, there are very few individuals who are actually taking up a radical life of discipleship. As with any “scene,” most would like to pose and talk about how radical they intend to be – or better yet, about how un-radical others are! Despite the intense buzz around Shane Claiborne, there are still relatively few new monastics – incredibly few when you consider the size of the US Evangelical community.

    Now, the Evangelicals do have clear leader-figures. They have Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo, as well as TJ Jakes and Rick Warren. Evangelicals are far more comfortable with people having clear positions of leadership in their community. I don’t believe post-WWII Quakers are. So our present-day leaders are generally covert. If they aren’t writers, wielding scholarly influence that many Quakers feel comfortable respecting, then our leaders are largely unnoticed, even as they do the work of the Kingdom in our midst. I don’t blame you for missing them; we don’t really advertise their existence.

    I would suggest that a part of our difficulty taking leadership in the world is our entrenched refusal to acknowledge the authority of leaders in our own communities. It’s impossible for me to imagine the Shane Claiborne phenomenon occuring among Friends. Shane would have been eldered long ago for a variety of reasons. I think if he were a Friend, we would probably suspect him of being too full of himself and snipe him accordingly.

    Do movements need individual leaders? Are Friends ready to embrace individual leaders? What might Friends leadership look like in the 21st century?

    In friendship,

    Micah Bales

    • Martin Kelley

      @Micah: Ever since I heard of it, I’ve thought the “Friends of Jesus” folks in Wichita were interesting. Maybe these scenes naturally fizzle out. They’re great growing opportunities for the people in them and they’re members often continue to play guiding/leadership roles throughout their lives.

      Essential reading is Swarthmore historian Jerry Frost’s 2000 talk at the FGC Gathering. Although FGC has purged its site of a lot of its old content, Frost’s talk is still there. Here’s a piece:

      None of these [modern leadership] Friends is a birthright FGC Friend and most either converted or became fellow travelers as adults. Most received their religious educations at non-Quaker institutions. By and large they write pamphlets rather than books and devotional literature rather than systematic analysis of theological or ethical issues. Those few Friends who are interested in theology go to Earlham School of Religion where they learn to use words left out of PYM’s discipline. By and large, FGC Friends are not much interested and, therefore, have been only slightly influenced by post-liberal major theological emphases. Even when our history should have made us major players in new theological developments, such as feminist theology, Friends have been consumers rather than shapers.

      And here we are, nine years later being consumers: Claiborne is this year’s big speaker at FGC. It should be Chris Parker celebrating the ten year anniversary of the Quaker Peace and Social Witness network. As we all know QPSW brought thousands of people to the Society of Friends, challenged and re-energized meetings throughout the country and overwhelmed Earlham School of Religion, which had to partner with Pendle Hill and Swarthmore College to open a new East Coast campus led by Jerry Frost (dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement). Joining Chris on stage is his protege at QPSW, Shane Claiborne of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting (Kensington Preparative Meeting), who discovered QPSW while attending a Philly-area evangelical college and helped forge links between Friends and a new group of Evangelicals concerned about social justice issues. This group has dubbed itself the “New Convergent Quaker” movement, much to the consternation of QuakerQuaker editor Martin Kelley.

  • Gene Hillman

    I was surprised to see your comments on Movement for a New Society (MNS). I was in Annapolis, Maryland during much of the 80s (I moved to Pendle Hill in 1987) and was never close to them, but did hear of them and was intrigued. I now see them as a fad. They (to my knowledge) imitated the forms of the Quaker movement, but secularized them for easy application and replication (that seems to be what you are describing). Many other Quaker institutions have done the same. They use “consensus decision making” and uphold “Quaker values.” Fox criticized the practices of the churches of his time for being “shadow without substance”. I suggest MDS, most Quaker organizations, as well as much of our peace work, as being shadow without substance.

    I realize monastics saw love of neighbor as evidence of love of God (e.g. “Saint” Benedict’s “Treat every guest as if he were Christ, or Theresa of Avila “Interior Castle” V:3:8), but the love of God comes first. MNS and today’s Quaker organizations seem to not only put the cart before the horse (the cart: love of neighbor, is important), but the horse (God) isn’t even being looked for.

    That is the reason for MNS’s demise. It was build on sand (“And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” Matthew 7:26).

    • Martin Kelley

      Hi Gene: I mostly agree with you on the theological level, though in practice MNS brought together a lot of people and helped them shape a new lifestyle that was more committed to justice. There’s a lot of good people doing good in the world. Surely that’s worth something. Some of them followed the influence back to Friends, which has had benefits and drawbacks.

      One of the NSP book distributors used to describe us as “the religious publishers without a religion.” As I got less involved in the “MNS ruins” and more involved with organized Friends, the challenge for me was to see the disconnects. It wasn’t always obvious: a lot of Quaker process is more “functionally atheististic” than we might care to admit. “Secular consensus” isn’t always all that different than the Quaker “sense of meeting.”

      One reason I’ve brought up MNS in relationship with the New Monastic Movement is that for all it’s talk, the new kids often don’t feel very religious to me. It seems more lifestyle-related, with the church talk being a safe language to talk about a kind of social justice, alt-hippy lifestyle. Some of it is fad, and shadows without substance. As with most “emergent church” I’m less interested in its answers than the questions it’s asking: I think a lot of these people would be interested in us if we would actually start sharing the core Friends message more openly.

  • rebadragon

    I think the way we perceive these concerns in a semi-suburban nuclear family kind of way have to be different. We are no longer able to be independant “activists”, throwing our entire schedules and concerns into the society that surrounds us when we have a “mini-society” of our own to care about right here at home (ie, our spouse and kids). I am always looking at ways that the organism of our family can affect those around us, but still always keeping in mind the protection of my children, ensuring they are being raised with a protected childhood.
    As one raised in inner-city DC, where I encountered a lot of danger, and a natural spirit of “activism”…I can say confidently, that this influenced heavily my decision to raise my children in a much quieter, pastoral setting (physically, socially and spiritually).
    With that said, there is much that needs to be shared with a suburban or rural society. Droves of people asleep to their own spirits stuck in the cycle of work, leisure, numbing out, buy more things… infinitum…..need the example of family units who consciously choose to live in a more simple and spiritually open way. Who knows who we are reaching when we just go out to where there are others about, things that quite frankly I often scoff at…ie the PLAYGROUP, story-time at the library, local park, etc… I wrote about this on my blog:
    I think that the Bruderhof (who my family has relationship with) have a great model when it comes to this….(although I doubt I could cast my lot in this fully!). The children are raised in the protective boundaries of the community, where a deep and meaningful spiritual way to live is imparted. Then, as the children become teenagers, they go to the public school, while still being surrounded by their communities. Then, often after graduation, these young adults will go and start a “family house” in some community that needs what you spoke about in the “New Monasticism”…..they have houses in Harlem, Syracuse, etc….
    Very interesting to think about.
    I have visions of a few Quaker families inviting local children to our “hobby farms” to hold and pet the animals, simple lunches on a blanket while children run in an untouched field (instead of being “entertained” in some grand materialistic way)….I am thinking…what can we do to be “antidotes” to this very materialistic culture at large?

  • Jim

    Did you see the new paper by Andrew Cornell on MNS?

    One of the interesting things about MNS is that it contained so many strains-
    it could be written from the angles of
    • feminist,
    • anarchist, pacifist,
    • organizational-training,
    • organizing,
    • intentional community
    theory/practice (among others), and EACH paper would have something valid and interesting to say.

    • Martin Kelley

      @Jim: thanks, I hadn’t seen that. MNS process was certainly a big influence
      in the West Philly anarchist circle I was tangentially involved with about a
      decade ago.