Just 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.