Sustaining the purpose for which we were peculiarly raised up

Marlborough meetinghouseJust fin­ished: Ken­neth S.P. Morse’s “A His­to­ry of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends” from 1962. Like most his­to­ries of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends, it’s both heart­en­ing and depress­ing. It’s great to read the quotes, which often put the dilem­ma very clear­ly, like this one from Iowa Friends in 1877:

In con­sid­er­a­tion of many and var­i­ous depar­tures in Doc­trine, Prin­ci­ple and Prac­tice, brought into our beloved Soci­ety of late years by mod­ern inno­va­tors, who have so rev­o­lu­tion­ized our ancient order in the Church, as to run into views and prac­tices out of which our ear­ly Friends were lead, and into a broad­er, and more self-pleasing, and cross-shunning way than that marked out by our Sav­ior, and held to by our ancient Friends.… And who have so approx­i­mat­ed to the unre­gen­er­ate world that we feel it incum­bent upon us to bear testimony…and sus­tain the Church for the pur­pose for which is was pecu­liar­ly raised up.

I love this stuff. You’ve got the­ol­o­gy, poli­ty, cul­ture and an argu­ment for the eter­nal truths of the “pecu­liar­ly raised” Quak­er church. But even in 1962 this is a sto­ry of decline, of gen­er­a­tions of min­is­ters pass­ing with no one to take their place and month­ly and year­ly meet­ings wink­ing out with dis­arm­ing reg­u­lar­i­ty as the con­cept of Friends gets stretched from all sides. “It is cer­tain­ly true that most of those who call them­selves Friends at the present time are only par­tial Friends in that they seem not to have felt called to uphold var­i­ous branch­es of the Quak­er doctrine.” 

Putting the book down the most remark­able fact is that there are any Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends around still around almost fifty years later. 

The task of shar­ing and uphold­ing the Quak­er doc­trine is still almost impos­si­bly hard. The mul­ti­plic­i­ty of mean­ings in the words we use become stum­bling blocks in them­selves. Friends from oth­er tra­di­tions are often the worst, often being blind to their own inno­va­tions, often­er still just not car­ing that they don’t share much in com­mon with ear­ly Friends.

Then there’s the dis­uni­ty among present-day Con­ser­v­a­tives. Geog­ra­phy plays a part but it seems part of the cul­ture. The his­to­ry is a maze of tra­di­tion­al­ist splin­ter groups with carefully-selected lists of who they do and do not cor­re­spond with. Today the three Con­ser­v­a­tive Year­ly Meet­ings seem to know each anoth­er more through carefully-parsed read­ing of his­to­ries than actu­al vis­i­ta­tion (there is some, not enough). There’s also the human messi­ness of it all: some of the flaki­est lib­er­al Quak­ers I’ve known have been part of Con­ser­v­a­tive Year­ly Meet­ings and the inter­net is full of those who share Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends val­ues but have no year­ly meet­ing to join.

No answers today from me. Maybe we should take solace that despite the tra­vails and the his­to­ry of defeat, there still remains a spark and there are those who still seek to share Friends’ ways. For those want­i­ng to learn more the more recent “Short His­to­ry of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends” (1992) is online and a good introduction.

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  • It sounds like a real­ly inter­est­ing read, thanks for shar­ing it. I’m glad the con­ser­v­a­tives are still around and hope to see it grow into a more viable move­ment, so I’m glad oth­ers (insid­ers?) are dis­cussing this too.

  • What is left unsaid here, but ought to be brought to the fore­front, is that there has been a sort of def­i­n­i­tion­al strug­gle over what, exact­ly, Con­ser­v­a­tive Quak­erism is meant by God to be.

    Ken­neth Morse had an Ohio-centric view, as the full title of his book — A his­to­ry of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends: Con­sist­ing of a his­to­ry of Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing, Som­er­set Month­ly Meet­ing (Ohio) and oth­er Con­ser­v­a­tive bod­ies in Amer­i­ca — makes plain. And the pas­sage you quote under­scores the fact that he shared Ohio’s view of what Con­ser­v­a­tive Quak­erism was sup­posed to be: a defense of every jot and tit­tle of dis­ci­pline set­tled upon by Ortho­dox Friends busi­ness meet­ings in the peri­od 1660 — 1830.

    Friends in North Car­oli­na (Con­ser­v­a­tive) and Iowa (Con­ser­v­a­tive) ful­ly agreed with the Ohioans that the ear­ly Friends were right on tar­get, and that Hicks and his fol­low­ers had tak­en one sort of wrong turn — away from the doc­trine of the Atone­ment, and away from con­fi­dence in the dis­cern­ment of the gen­er­a­tions whose tes­ti­mo­ny was com­piled in the Bible — while Gur­ney and his fol­low­ers had tak­en anoth­er sort of wrong turn — away from Qui­etism, away from care­ful cor­po­rate dis­cern­ment, and away from a wari­ness of lead­er­ship based on human charis­ma. That agree­ment was why the three year­ly meet­ings iden­ti­fied as one body.

    But beyond those basic agree­ments, the three com­mu­ni­ties’ sense of what God want­ed of the Soci­ety of Friends today was, in fact, not quite the same.

    I dare not speak at any length about North Car­oli­na ©, since I hard­ly know it. But where­as Ohio saw the ele­ments of the tra­di­tion­al tes­ti­mo­ny as absolute­ly eter­nal ver­i­ties, as true in the year Two Mil­lion A.D. as they were in 1712, there was in Iowa a strong sense that many Friends tes­ti­monies were not eter­nal ver­i­ties at all, but apt respons­es to the sick­ness of the world as that sick­ness man­i­fest­ed itself in a par­tic­u­lar time and place. Sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry Eng­land had been sick with cul­tur­al pre­ten­sion, clas­sist oppres­sion, and human pride, to which “plain” speech, with its thees and thines, had been pow­er­ful­ly con­fronting; but plain speech was only quaint to twentieth-century ears; its use­ful­ness as a con­tin­u­ing but­tress of Gospel liv­ing seemed dubi­ous. Ban­ning pianos and piano play­ing from Friends’ living-rooms didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly hold peo­ple in the dis­ci­pline of the New Tes­ta­ment, or tes­ti­fy to right­eous­ness, more than the rig­ors of learn­ing to play music beau­ti­ful­ly, and the con­ta­gious effect of music played by hand and fill­ing a room with a spir­it of love. If God had want­ed a human race that all dressed alike, would He not have said so in the Bible? — but no, what He said in the Bible was that He want­ed hearts brought ten­der­ly to His side.

    Pri­or to about 1930 or 1935 Friends in Iowa © were dis­suad­ed from fol­low­ing their sense of being called to a more adap­tive path by the greater author­i­ty of Ohio YM, but since that time they have been increas­ing­ly con­sis­tent in fol­low­ing the lead­ings of the Guide as He speaks in their own hearts and set­tled meet­ings. You may have one opin­ion about the worth, or lack of worth, of this, and I may have anoth­er, but my point is that this is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the degen­er­a­cy that Morse thought it was: it real­ly does depend on one’s point of view.

    Alas, the prob­lems you note, of geog­ra­phy and cul­ture, have pre­vent­ed the three Con­ser­v­a­tive YMs from work­ing out their dif­fer­ences and arriv­ing at a com­mon vision. Their mem­bers real­ly would need to live and work togeth­er for months, or years, to come to a suf­fi­cient feel­ing of respect for one another’s vision that they began to grow togeth­er once more.

    How­ev­er, I think the fact that there are three some­what dif­fer­ent strains of Quak­er Con­ser­v­a­tivism is like­ly a bless­ing, in the same sense that hav­ing dif­fer­ent strains of seed corn is a bless­ing. A vari­ety of good seeds means a vari­ety of good fruits; it also means more adapt­abil­i­ty to the future. I do not grieve, as Morse did, at the sight of all this variety.

    • Well Mar­shall, I think you know I don’t agree that the Con­ser­v­a­tive year­ly meet­ings fit quite so neat­ly into the box­es you like to lay out. Part of the stum­bling block to coöper­a­tion is the stereo­types. I’d love to see you put down the 1930s his­to­ries and find some way of reg­u­lar­ly vis­it­ing Ohio and North Car­oli­na. I think you’d be sur­prised if you got to know the flesh-and-blood Friends who make up these bod­ies today. I know it’s expen­sive to trav­el but I would hope Iowa might find way to help you. 

      • Hi, Mar­tin. I know they don’t fit neat­ly into the box­es, but I was try­ing to keep my post­ing short. You might be sur­prised how many flesh-and-blood Friends in those bod­ies I do know. I regret that you do not respect my per­spec­tive, and will spare you my thoughts in the future.

        • Now don’t go pout­ing off. That’s the last thing we all need. What I’m say­ing is that I’d love to see you trav­el more. I think you have a keen sense of obser­va­tion and a good under­stand­ing of how the puz­zles of Con­ser­v­a­tive iden­ti­ty fit into place. When I talk to var­i­ous Con­ser­v­a­tives from my van­tage of an out­side insid­er (inside out­sider?), I see their self-identity some­times stuck on inci­dents that are twen­ty or more years old and I’m not sure we’re very clear­ly see­ing our­selves or one anoth­er very clearly.

          I don’t have enough vis­i­ta­tion under my own belt to make defin­i­tive sweep­ing state­ments, but my hunch is that the three sur­viv­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive year­ly meet­ings are going to be test­ed in the next ten years and that their cur­rent “house styles” are going to be the threat of their undo­ing. It might be a good time to mix a lit­tle of that seed corn. One way would be get­ting you out on the road. 

          • I agree, Mar­tin. I have a lot of respect for Mar­shall; and if God led him in that direc­tion, I think it would be of great ben­e­fit to the Church for him to trav­el more among the Con­ser­v­a­tive Meet­ings. I know that he has plen­ty of oth­er respon­si­bil­i­ties in his life, but I pray that God will free him for more sus­tained pub­lic ministry. 

    • david myers

      Agreed that any kind of com­mon ground vision thing is going to require a very very long time in the oven. Nonethe­less, one can imag­ine, in the far off dis­tant hazy future, one ver­sion of the future which con­tains some­thing on the order of a ‘new ortho­dox quak­er fel­low­ship’ across the YM bound­aries — what­ev­er that would or could even rather loose­ly entail. Here’s hop­ing for some­thing to be lift­ed up in the long run, though.

  • Great post, Mar­tin. I’m glad I final­ly have a few min­utes to stop by and catch up on some of my blog read­ing! I’m also glad, as usu­al, for Marshall’s input. 

    There’s noth­ing sub­stan­tive I’ll add here, but I do want to point to Mar­ty Grundy’s new pam­phlet, about how min­istry among trav­el­ing Friends has changed over the cen­turies. A quick read that also lends itself to more thought about how the var­i­ous branch­es of Friends and those who trav­el in the min­istry do things, espe­cial­ly in mod­ern times.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  • Hey Mar­tin–

    I also would like to drag Mar­shall out as a cir­cuit rid­er. But trav­el now is high dol­lar. I dri­ve 1800 miles every week, but I still haven’t fig­ured out how to con­nect to peo­ple while I do, and I can’t park 80,000 pounds in an aver­age Meet­ing House side street.

    I’ll call you the next time I spend a day count­ing the cars on the New Jer­sey Turnpike.

    It’s worth point­ing out that the intense­ly Wilbu­rite nature of Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing in the 19th cen­tu­ry is most­ly gone. Wilbur was pre-Conservative, and would hap­pi­ly have dis­owned most any­body in OYM today. We are no longer what he was, as we have both mel­lowed and strayed. The end­point of Wilbu­rite Quak­erism was best illus­trat­ed by old Joshua Maul, who as a hard-core Ohio Wilbu­rite seced­ed from every group he cre­at­ed until ulti­mate­ly his Year­ly Meet­ing con­tained only him.

    In my excep­tion­al­ly hum­ble per­son­al opin­ion, I find a lot of tra­di­tion­al Wilburism to have missed the mark on what God would have his peo­ple do and be, to tweak Marshall’s obser­va­tion a bit. I am less con­cerned that peo­ple iden­ti­fy them­selves as Con­ser­v­a­tives than I am that they lis­ten to God and do what he says. Because I iden­ti­fy God exclu­sive­ly with Jesus Christ, I don’t have a prob­lem with let­ting him straight­en peo­ple out, even if they get his name wrong. If they’re real­ly lis­ten­ing to him, it will work out, I think.