We’re now casting about for articles for a Friends Journal issue on “The Art of Dying and the Afterlife.” I’m interested to see what we’ll get. Every so often someone will ask me about Quaker belief in the afterlife. I’ve always found it rather remarkable that I don’t have any satisfying canonical answer to give them. While individuals Friends might have various theories, I don’t see the issue come up all that often in early Friends theology.
But Friends has folk customs and beliefs too. The deceased body wasn’t unduly venerated. They recycled grave plots without much concern. I can think of a couple of historic Quaker burial grounds in Philly that have been repurposed for activities deemed more practical to the living. The philosophy of green burial is catching up with Quakers’ practice, a fascinating coming-around.
It also seems there’s a strong old Quaker culture of face impeding death with equanimity. That makes sense given Friends’ modesty around individual achievements. There’s a practicality that I see in many older Friends as they age. I’d be curious to hear from Friends who have had insights on aging as they age and also caretakers and families and hospice chaplains who have accompanied Friends though death.
Writing submissions for our issue on “The Art of Dying and the Afterlife” are due May 8. You can learn about writing for us at:
How do Friends approach the end of life? We’re living longer and dying longer. How do we make decisions on end-of-life care for ourselves and our loved ones? Do Quakers have insight into what happens after we die? Submissions due 5/8/2017.
ps: But of course we’re not just a dead tradition. There are many healers who have revived ideas of Quaker healing. We have a high proportion of mainstream medical healers as well as those following more mystical healing paths. If that’s of interest to you, never fear: October 2017 will be an issue on healing!).
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.
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.
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.
We're less than two weeks from the deadline for writing about "Race and Anti-Racism" for Friends Journal and I'd love to see more submissions. It was two years ago that we put out the much-talked-about issue on Experiences of Friends of Color. That felt like a really-needed issue: no triumphalism about how white Friends sometimes did the right thing as Abolitionists or posturing about how great we are, forgetting the ways we sometimes aren't: just a collection of modern Friends talking about what they've experienced first-hand.
I think it's a good time to talk now about how Friends are organizing to unlearn and subvert institutional racism. It was an important issue before November--ongoing mass incarceration, Standing Rock, and the disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans was all taking place before the election. But with racial backlashes, talk of a religious or nationality-based registries, and the coziness of "alt-right" white nationalists with members of the Trump campaign it all seems time to go into overdrive.
Even I’m a bit shocked by the title of this post. Have I really been blogging for fifteen years? I keep double-checking the math but it keeps adding up. In November 1997 I added a feature to my two-year-old peace website. I called this new entity Nonviolence Web Upfront and updated it weekly with original features and curated links to the best online pacifist writing. I wrote a retrospective of the “early blogging days” in 2005 that talks about how it came about and gives some context about the proto-blogs happening back in 1997.
But I could arguably go back further than 15 years. In college, my friend Brni and I started an alternative print magazine called VACUUM. It came out weekly. It had a mix of opinion pieces and news from all over. Familiar, huh? Columns were made up from a dot matrix printer and pasted down with scotch tape, with headlines scrawled out with a sharpie. The ethos was there. Next April will mark its Silver Jubilee.
What’s most striking is not the huge leaps of technologies, but the single-mindedness of my pursuits all these years. There are cross-decade echos of themes and ways of packaging publications that continue in my work as editor of Friends Journal.
Nonviolence.Org was founded by Martin Kelley out of a home office way back in 1995. Over the 13 or so years of its existence, it won accolades and attention from the mainstream media and millions of visitors. It’s articles have been reprinted in countless movement journals and even in a featured USAToday editorial.
The past eleven years have seen countless internet projects burst on the scene only to wither away. Yet Nonviolence.org continues without any funding, attracting a larger audience every year. As the years have gone by and I’ve found the strength to continue it, I’ve realized more and more that this is a ministry. As a member of the Religious Society of Friends I’m committed to spreading the good news that war is unnecessary. In my personal life this is a matter of faith in the “power that takes away occassion for all war.” In my work with Nonviolence.org I also draw on all the practical and pragmatic reasons why war is wrong. For more personal motivations you can see at QuakerRanter.org, my personal blog.
A Nonviolence.org Timeline
In 1995 I was editor at an activist publisher struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing book world. Many of the independent bookstores that had always supported us were closing just as printing costs were rising. The need to re-invent activist organizing and publishing for the 1990’s became obvious and I saw the internet as a place to do that. One of the earliest manifestos and introductions to the Nonviolence Web was an essay called The Revolution Will be Online.
I began by approached leading U.S. peace groups with a crazy proposal: if they gave me their material I would put it up on the web for them for free. My goal was to live off of savings until I could raise the operating funds from foundations. “Free typesetting for the movement by the movement” was the rallying cry and I quickly brought a who’s-who of American peace groups over to Nonviolence.org. I knew that there was lots of great peace writing that wasn’t getting the distribution it deserved and with the internet I could get it out faster and more widely then with any traditional media. For three years I lived off of savings, very part-time jobs and occasional small grants.
Through 1998, Nonviolence.ommarg developed into a web “portal” for nonviolence. We would feature the most provocative and timely pieces from the NVWeb member groups on the newly-redesigned homepage, dubbed “Nonviolence Web Upfront.” A online magazine format loosely modeled on Slate and the now-defunct Feed Magazine, it also contained original material and links to interesting threads on the integrated discussion board. With these popular features, the Nonviolence.Org became a “sticky” site, one which attracted regular visitors. The combined visibility for member groups was much greater than anyone could obtain alone and we earned plenty of awards and links. There was a New York Times tech profile (boy was that a weird photo shoot!) and I was invited to write the guest Op/Ed in USA Today.
But this model couldn’t last. A big problem was money: there’s were too few philanthropists for this sort of work, and established foundations didn’t even know the right questions to ask in evaluating an internet project. Nonviolence.Org was kept afloat by my own dwindling personal savings, and I never did find the sort of money that could pay even poverty wages. I took more and more part-time jobs till they became the full-time ones I have today. At the same time, internet publishing was also changing. With the advent of “Blogs” and open-source bulletin board software, Nonviolence.org has continued to evolve and stay relevant.
Nonviolence.org continued to be one of the most highly-visible and visited peace websites, being highly ranked through the first Gulf War II, the biggest U.S. military action since the web began. This model of independent activist web publishing was still critical. The Nonviolence.org mission of featuring the best writing and analysis continued until 2008 when Martin finally mothballed the Nonviolence.org project and sold the domain.