AMA: Conservative and Liberal Friends?

Marlborough (Pa.) Friends meetinghouse at dusk. c. 2006.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:

I've read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between "conservative" friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I'm in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don't identify as such?

Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I've noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they'll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it's not the right type. That’s so tragic.

What the terms don't mean

The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don't refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.

Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can't think of any that doesn't span some diversity of theologies.

Historically (and currently) we've had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we'd append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).

In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side's labelled appendage is "Conservative," giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.

A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting's clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).

All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio's gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.

I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you'll find people who are very attached to labels. That's what the comment section is for.

The meanings of the terms

Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.

But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).

Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.

If you like the sociology of such things, Isabel Penraeth wrote a fascinating article in Friends Journal a few years ago, Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences. More recently in FJ a Philadelphia Friend, John Andrew Gallery, visited Ohio Friends and talked about the spiritual refreshment of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring. Much of the discussion around the modern phrase Convergent Friends and the threads on QuakerQuaker has focused on those who span a Liberal and Conservative Quaker worldview.

The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It's all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.

But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.

Worshipping?

Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn't bound by any of our silly words.

Thanks to James for the question!

Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.

Waking up to President Trump

Bar­ring a very improb­a­ble series of events we will more than like­ly be look­ing at Pres­i­dent Trump once the num­bers have been tal­lied overnight. And not just him but a rad­i­cal­ized Trumpian Con­gress, Sen­ate — and because of the suc­cess­ful stonewalling against Obama’s nom­i­na­tion — Supreme Court. We’ve not just elect­ed an author­i­tar­i­an: we’ve also tak­en away the entire sys­tem of checks and bal­ances that might be able to hold him back. Add to that the expan­sion of the raw pow­er of the exec­u­tive branch in recent years and it’s the set­up for a dystopi­an TV show.

We’ve seen seem­ing­ly sta­ble coun­tries fall apart under con­di­tions like this. We claim Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism but his­to­ry is lit­tered with the corpses of democ­ra­cies that didn’t make it. This will be the biggest test of our civic val­ues in our life­times. We might well expe­ri­ence things the Amer­i­can repub­lic has nev­er seen: the impris­on­ment of a los­ing oppo­si­tion leader, the rise of orga­nized hate crimes, whole­sale theft of incred­i­ble wealth by a new oli­garchy, the divy­ing up of the world back into empires… The mod­el of a kind of alt right soft dic­ta­tor­ship is well devel­oped by this point and Trump has been clear through­out both his career and his can­di­da­cy that it’s his vision.

We do not get to choose our era or the chal­lenges it throws at us. Only some­one with his­tor­i­cal amne­sia would say this is unprece­dent­ed in our his­to­ry. The enslave­ment of mil­lions and the geno­cide of mil­lions more are dark stains indeli­bly soaked into the very found­ing of the nation. But much will change, par­tic­u­lar­ly our naiv­i­ty and false opti­mism in an inevitable for­ward progress of our nation­al sto­ry. We must respond with courage and grace. We’re going to get a les­son in what’s real­ly impor­tant. Time to engage.

Historic Cold Spring Village in Cape May, NJ

Down near the tip of South Jer­sey is Cold Spring Vil­lage, a nine­teenth cen­tu­ry liv­ing his­to­ry muse­um just north of the Vic­to­ri­ana of Cape May Point . We vis­it­ed for it’s “Hands-On His­to­ry” week­end. In August, our 12 year old Theo will be a junior appren­tice in the broom-making shop. We also vis­it­ed here about this time of year in 2013.

Maple sugaring at Howell Living History Farm

photo_25126572241_oYes­ter­day the fam­i­ly trav­eled north of Tren­ton to a liv­ing his­to­ry farm to learn about maple sugaring.The kids col­lect­ed buck­ets of sap, prac­ticed drilling a tap, watched the boil­ing off process in a “sug­ar shack,” cut fire­wood, and then — yes! — ate some pan­cakes with farm-made maple syrup.

Reg­u­lar read­ers might remem­ber a trip to How­ell Farm last Feb­ru­ary, when the weath­er was cold enough for ice har­vest­ing on the lake.

Yesterday’s vis­it was a mud­dy, sog­gy day and the lake was clear. But I think every­one had just as much fun. See more pics on our Flickr set:

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Ta-Nehisi Coates: What This Cruel War Was Over

Coates lays out the sick and twist­ed her­itage of a sym­bol:

The Con­fed­er­ate flag is direct­ly tied to the Con­fed­er­ate cause, and the Con­fed­er­ate cause was white suprema­cy. This claim is not the result of revi­sion­ism. It does not require read­ing between the lines. It is the plain mean­ing of the words of those who bore the Con­fed­er­ate flag across his­to­ry. These words must nev­er be for­got­ten. Over the next few months the word “her­itage” will be repeat­ed­ly invoked. It would be derelict to not exam­ine the exact con­tents of that her­itage.

As usu­al, Coates does a great job look­ing at the chang­ing myths sur­round­ing South­ern White Suprema­cy. A rebel­lion that explic­it­ly start­ed as a defense of slav­ery shift­ed to more polite alter­na­tive myths over 150 years but it’s still real­ly about racism and human bondage. The flag needs to come down.

This mythol­o­gy of man­ners is adopt­ed in lieu of the mythol­o­gy of the Lost Cause. But it still has the great draw­back of being root­ed in a lie. The Con­fed­er­ate flag should not come down because it is offen­sive to African Amer­i­cans. The Con­fed­er­ate flag should come down because it is embar­rass­ing to all Amer­i­cans.

Carolina Friends School in Durham confronts reports of decades-old sexual abuse


A Friends School talks open­ly about past school abuse:

The alum­nus said he’s upset the prin­ci­pal [Harold Jerni­gan] has not acknowl­edged the accu­sa­tions. But he said he doesn’t regret send­ing his orig­i­nal mes­sage. ‘If you read Quak­er lit­er­a­ture, they spell ‘Truth’ in the upper­case – the impli­ca­tion of divin­i­ty,’ he said, ‘that it is a holy thing to con­tin­ue that search for truth.’

I’m glad this is get­ting out now, but I did a double-take as the accused prin­ci­ple is still alive and liv­ing a few dozen miles from me. He was a lightning-rod fig­ure as prin­ci­pal of at least two oth­er schools after Car­oli­na. I imag­ine the behav­ior con­tin­ued. Updates below:

  • An peri­od arti­cle on his tenure at a Friends Sem­i­nary, a Man­hat­tan Friends school, talked about the unrest of his two-year tenure there. It sounds like he came in and sum­mar­i­ly fired the heads of the low­er, mid­dle, and upper schools. This is the kind of thing one would do if they want­ed to cur­tail account­abil­i­ty.
  • A mem­oir by Quak­er edu­ca­tor Leonard Ken­wor­thy talks about this peri­od at Friends Sem­i­nary: “He moved much too rapid­ly in bring­ing about changes, ask­ing for the res­ig­na­tions of the heads of the ele­men­tary and mid­dle school, plus sev­er­al oth­er shifts, with­in a very short peri­od, even before he took over as prin­ci­pal. Over and over I urged him not to move too fast but he said there were two ways of han­dling such a sit­u­a­tion. One was to move slow­ly over a peri­od of years. The oth­er was to bring about quick changes and then to begin rapid­ly to ini­ti­ate new pro­grams and new per­son­nel. He was deter­mined to use the lat­ter approach.”
  • A 1986 New York Times pro­file of Friends Sem­i­nary had this to say of its for­mer head: “After a shake-up of the staff that led to the res­ig­na­tion or dis­missal of sev­er­al teach­ers, a teacher’s union was formed, and stu­dents went on strike. Even­tu­al­ly, the prin­ci­pal, Harold Jerni­gan, resigned and the school ”reject­ed mus­cu­lar Quak­erism and returned to its mys­ti­cal faith,” in the words of the offi­cial his­to­ry.”
  • A com­menter on one news arti­cle writes: “Please also know that Harold Jernigan’s behav­ior con­tin­ued on at Atlantic City Friends School, where he was Head­mas­ter. As an Alum of ACFS, I thought that should be made clear.”
  • Car­oli­na Friends School wrote an open let­ter to the com­mu­ni­ty in June.

Update Decem­ber 2014. I have received emails from a for­mer stu­dent who wished to remain anony­mous at this time. I have no way to fact check this but it is con­sis­tent with the his­to­ry and I have no rea­son to think it’s inac­cu­rate. With that caveat, here are some excerpts:

As an Alum­ni of Atlantic City Friends School I am not sur­prised at all to hear about Harold Jerni­gan sex­u­al abuse in the least . Please note this abuse along with more forms of abuse went on at ACFS into the ear­ly 80’s

Sex­u­al abuse was not the only abuse. Abuse of the school sys­tem in gen­er­al includ­ing drugs , abuse of pow­er , mon­ey , teach­ing so bad­ly that curves were used to grade so curved that the high­est grade in a math class Harold Jerni­gan taught was a 42 yet all were passed . Harold Jerni­gan also would lis­ten to class­rooms and lock­er rooms with a speak­er sys­tem in his office even after he promised Teach­ers he would not . Please note if Harold Jerni­gan did not want a stu­dent to pass he would call a meet­ing with all Teach­ers to make sure cer­tain stu­dents would not pass no mat­ter what .

I was a vic­tim of his non sex­u­al abuse but still abuse all the same .

I am only telling you this so some­one puts a stop to this abuse. Back in the late 70’s ear­ly 80’s who would believe a teenag­er . To see this Final­ly come out makes me know there is Kar­ma .

As teenagers in school we would talk amongst our­selves . No one would come for­ward because we knew Harold would hold back our Diplo­mas or not for­ward a let­ter to a col­lege .

You must remem­ber ACFS was attend­ed by either high IQ stu­dents , rich kids that were kick out of their oth­er schools or stu­dents that want­ed to attend a pri­vate school . This made the stu­dent body Easy Prey .

Dur­ing my time at ACFS I made friends with some of the Teach­ers . These Teach­ers are some of my sources ! They knew but need­ed their job

Digging into the first selfie, from Philly!

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This guy in Streetview is stand­ing near the spot where the world’s first #self­ie por­trait was tak­en in 1839.

Robert Cor­nelius was one of the first peo­ple to try to repro­duce Louis Daguerre’s pho­to­graph­ic tech­nique after news of the break­through reach Philadel­phia. A chemist work­ing at his family’s gas light­ing com­pa­ny, Cor­nelius start­ed exper­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent chem­i­cal com­bi­na­tions until he found a way to reduce expo­sure times so that a per­son to sit still long enough for a por­trait. In Octo­ber 1839 he took a pic­ture him­self “in the yard back of his store and res­i­dence, (old) 176 Chest­nut Street, above Sev­enth (now num­ber 710), in Philadel­phia,” accord­ing to an oral his­to­ry pub­lished half a cen­tu­ry lat­er (PDF). Cor­nelius recounts:

It was our busi­ness to make a great vari­ety of arti­cles of plat­ed met­al. Very soon after­wards, I made in the fac­to­ry a tin box, and bought from McAl­lis­ter, 48 Chest­nut Street, a lens about two inch­es in diam­e­ter, such as was used for opera pur­pos­es. With these instru­ments I made the first like­ness of myself and anoth­er one of some of my chil­dren, in the open yard of my dwelling, sun­light bright upon us, and I am ful­ly of the impres­sion that I was the first to obtain a like­ness of the human face.

Remark­ably, in 2014, the Cor­nelius and Co. build­ing is still there on Chest­nut Street, though bare­ly rec­og­niz­able, with an extra floor on top and exten­sive façade changes. It’s a dis­count drug store. The back is the nar­row alley named Ion­ic Street, home to dump­sters and peo­ple want­i­ng to stay out of sight. The yard is to the right of these dump­sters. With #self­ie such a pop­u­lar hash­tag, Cornelius’s pic­ture has cir­cu­lat­ed on a lot of inter­net lists as the “world’s first self­ie.” But it’s his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance is far greater: it is the first pho­to­graph­ic por­trait of our species. I’m not typ­i­cal­ly one for hyper­bole, but we humans start­ed see­ing our­selves dif­fer­ent­ly after that por­trait.

I orig­i­nal­ly assumed the build­ing on the right of the alley stood where the yard had been but a satel­lites turns up a sur­prise: the yard is still there! Look­ing at the 710 prop­er­ty from above, the build­ings fac­ing Chest­nut and Ion­ic are sep­a­rate – with a large open space in between! There are two sec­tions that look almost to be gar­den beds.

Yo Philly, how has 710 Chest­nut Street not been snatched up and turned into a muse­um of pho­to­graph­ic his­to­ry? The first floor could focus on nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Philadel­phia inno­va­tion, with the still-existent inner court­yard turned into a tourist des­ti­na­tion? It would be like cat­nip. What self-respecting mod­ern tourist wouldn’t walk the few blocks from Inde­pen­dence Hall to take their pic­ture at the very site of the world’s first self­ie? I know Philly typ­i­cal­ly doesn’t respect any his­to­ry past 1776 but come on!

Missionary zeal vs international fellowship

On a late lunch, just fin­ished “Con­flict­ing Views on For­eign Mis­sions: The Mis­sion Board of Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing of Freinds in the 1920s” by Tesuko Toda from the Fall 2011 issue of Quak­er His­to­ry.

Sounds like a page turn­er, right? But it’s inter­est­ing his­to­ry that’s still res­onat­ing. Toda’s piece sheds light on a gen­er­a­tional sea change that hap­pened among the evangelical-leaning sub­set of Philadel­phia Friends (a minor­i­ty of the Ortho­dox year­ly meet­ing):

When the sto­ry begins, Friends inter­est­ed in mis­sion work have to orga­nize inde­pen­dent of the year­ly meet­ing. Over time they come into the fold but it’s right when younger Friends are giv­ing up the idea of bring­ing Chris­tian­i­ty to the hea­thens for the idea of inter­na­tion­al fel­low­ship (a sim­i­lar atti­tude change was hap­pen­ing through­out Protes­tant denom­i­na­tions).  Toda writes:

Young Philadel­phi­an Friends did sup­port for­eign mis­sions, but did not sup­port con­ven­tion­al ones. Actu­al­ly, none of them approved of for­eign mis­sions aimed at con­ver­sion. Although some point­ed out the advan­tages of Friends mis­sions, no one insist­ed on denom­i­na­tion­al mis­sions. What kind of for­eign mis­sions did young Philadel­phia Friends think was suit­able for the new era (the 1920s), then? The first point to be not­ed is that young Philadel­phia Friends unan­i­mous­ly had a neg­a­tive view of tra­di­tion­al mis­sion­ar­ies.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth in the group but it final­ly fun­nelled its ener­gies into the still-new Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee. The AFSC had been set up to sup­port con­sci­en­tious objec­tors in World War I and there was no expec­tion that it might con­tin­ue after the war. That it did was because it bet­ter rep­re­sent­ed the inter­na­tion fel­low­ship mod­el.

I’m not going to write a full review but those of you inter­est­ed in the soci­o­log­i­cal his­to­ry of that kind of bold, “let’s change the world” ener­gy in Friends should look it up, as should those curi­ous about how gen­er­a­tional shifts some­times play out in year­ly meet­ing pol­i­tics.