The Lost Quaker Generation

The oth­er day I had lunch with an old friend of mine, a thirty-something Quak­er very involved in nation-wide paci­fist orga­niz­ing. I had lost touch with him after he entered a fed­er­al jail for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Plow­shares action but he’s been out for a few years and is now liv­ing in Philly.

We talked about a lot of stuff over lunch, some of it just move­ment gos­sip. But we also talked about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. He has left the Soci­ety of Friends and has become re-involved in his par­ents’ reli­gious tra­di­tions. It didn’t sound like this deci­sion had to do with any new reli­gious rev­e­la­tion that involved a shift of the­ol­o­gy. He sim­ply became frus­trat­ed at the lack of Quak­er seriousness.

It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of frus­tra­tion than the one I feel but I won­der if it’s not all con­nect­ed. He was drawn to Friends because of their mys­ti­cism and their pas­sion for non­vi­o­lent social change. It was this com­bi­na­tion that has helped pow­er his social action wit­ness over the years. It would seem like his seri­ous, faith­ful work would be just what Friends would like to see in their thirty-something mem­bers but alas, it’s not so. He didn’t feel sup­port­ed in his Plow­shares action by his Meeting.

He con­clud­ed that the Friends in his Meet­ing didn’t think the Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny could actu­al­ly inspire us to be so bold. He said two of his Quak­er heroes were John Wool­man and Mary Dyer but real­ized that the pas­sion of wit­ness that drove them wasn’t appre­ci­at­ed by today’s peace and social con­cerns com­mit­tees. The rad­i­cal mys­ti­cism that is sup­posed to dri­ve Friends’ prac­tice and actions have been replaced by a bland­ness that felt threat­ened by some­one who could choose to spend years in jail for his witness.

I can relate to his dis­ap­point­ment. I wor­ry about what kinds of actions are being done in the name of the Peace Tes­ti­mo­ny, which has lost most of its his­toric mean­ing and pow­er among con­tem­po­rary Friends. It’s invoked most often now by sec­u­lar­ized, safe com­mit­tees that use a ratio­nal­ist approach to their decision-making, meant to appeal to oth­ers (includ­ing non-Friends) based sole­ly on the mer­its of the argu­ments. NPR activism, you might say. Reli­gion isn’t brought up, except in the rather weak for­mu­la­tions that Friends are “a com­mu­ni­ty of faith” or believe there is “that of God in every­one” (what­ev­er these phras­es mean). That we are led to act based on instruc­tions from the Holy Spir­it direct­ly is too off the deep end for many Friends, yet the peace tes­ti­mo­ny is fun­da­men­tal­ly a tes­ti­mo­ny to our faith in God’s pow­er over human­i­ty, our sur­ren­der to the will of Christ enter­ing our hearts with instruc­tions which demand our obedience.

But back to my friend, the ex-Friend. I feel like he’s just anoth­er eroded-away grain of sand in the delta of Quak­er decline. He’s yet anoth­er Friend that Quak­erism can’t afford to loose, but which Quak­erism has lost. No one’s mourn­ing the fact that he’s lost, no one has bare­ly noticed. Know­ing Friends, the few that have noticed have prob­a­bly not spent any time reach­ing out to him to ask why or see if things could change and they prob­a­bly defend their inac­tion with self-congratulatory pap about how Friends don’t pros­e­ly­tize and look how lib­er­al we are that we say noth­ing when Friends leave.

God!, this is ter­ri­ble. I know of DOZENS of friends in my gen­er­a­tion who have drift­ed away from or deci­sive­ly left the Soci­ety of Friends because it wasn’t ful­fill­ing its promise or its hype. No one in lead­er­ship posi­tions in Quak­erism is talk­ing about this lost gen­er­a­tion. I know of very few thirty-something Friends who are involved nowa­days and very very few of them are the kind of pas­sion­ate, mys­ti­cal, obedient-to-the-Spirit ser­vants that Quak­erism needs to bring some life back into it. A whole gen­er­a­tion is lost – my fel­low thirty-somethings – and now I see the pas­sion­ate twenty-somethings I know start­ing to leave. Yet this exo­dus is one-by-one and goes large­ly unre­marked and unno­ticed (but then I’ve already post­ed about this: It will be in decline our entire lives).


Update 10/2005

I feel like I should add an adden­dum to all this. As I’ve spo­ken with more Friends of all gen­er­a­tions, I’ve noticed that the atten­tion to younger Friends is cycli­cal. There’s a thirty-year cycle of snub­bing younger Friends (by which I mean Friends under 40). Back in the 1970s, all twenty-year-old with a pulse could get recog­ni­tion and sup­port from Quak­er meet­ings; I know a lot of Friends of that gen­er­a­tion who were giv­en tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ties despite lit­tle expe­ri­ence. A decade lat­er the doors had start­ed to close but a hard-working faith­ful Friend in their ear­ly twen­ties could still be rec­og­nized. By the time my gen­er­a­tion came along, you could be a whirl­wind of great ideas and ener­gy and still be shut out of all oppor­tu­ni­ties to serve the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends.

The good news is that I think things are start­ing to change. There’s still a long way to go but a thaw is upon us. In some ways this is inevitable: much of the cur­rent lead­er­ship of Quak­er insti­tu­tions is retir­ing. Even more, I think they’re start­ing to real­ize it. There are prob­lems, most notably tokenism — almost all of the younger Friends being lift­ed up now are the chil­dren of promi­nent “com­mit­tee Friends.” The biggest prob­lem is that a few dozen years of lax reli­gious edu­ca­tion and “roll your own Quak­erism” means that many of the mem­bers of the younger gen­er­a­tion can’t even be con­sid­ered spir­i­tu­al Quak­ers. Our meet­ing­hous­es are seen as a place to meet oth­er cool, pro­gres­sive young hip­sters, while spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is sought from oth­er sources. We’re going to be spend­ing decades untan­gling all this and we’re not going to have the sea­soned Friends of my gen­er­a­tion to help bridge the gaps.

Relat­ed Reading

  • After my friend Chris post­ed below I wrote a follow-up essay, Pass­ing the Faith, Plan­et of the Quak­ers Style.
  • Many old­er Friends hope that a resur­gence of the peace move­ment might come along and bring younger Friends in. In Peace and Twenty-Somethings I look at the gen­er­a­tional strains in the peace movement.
  • Beck­ey Phipps con­duct­ed a series of inter­views that touched on many of these issues and pub­lished it in FGCon­nec­tions. FGC Reli­gious Edu­ca­tion: Lessons for the 21st Cen­tu­ry asks many of the right ques­tions. My favorite line: “It is the most amaz­ing thing, all the kids that I know that have gone into [Quak­er] lead­er­ship pro­grams – they’ve disappeared.”


  • Hi Mar­tin. Great post. I did dig in to a few of your points, how­ev­er, in a post I made to my own blog! Not being too savvy yet about all the techie aspects of blog­ging, I’ve just found out how the track­back works – by tick­ing off that lit­tle box in my type­pad post­ing win­dow, and then see­ing that it pings your site and shows up on your blog in the “track­back” sec­tion. Cool! Thanks for writ­ing these thought­ful, chal­leng­ing posts.

  • Chris Park­er

    Well, I’m one of these thir­ty some­things that has drift­ed away. I’m sure each of us has our own sto­ry. I did try to help orga­nize, but that turned out to be a bit­ter and unsuc­cess­ful expe­ri­ence. A long sto­ry for anoth­er time
    There are a lot of dif­fer­ent forces at work. Some of them a sim­ply what hap­pens when you gath­er humans togeth­er. Ever run across a book by Ken Wilbur, called Boomerites? It’s a lament over nar­cissm of the mid-life crowd. Thir­ty some­things are up against the cul­tur­al phe­nomi­non that is a lot big­ger than Quakerism.
    But the spir­it flows in many direc­tions and if the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty has lost it’s vital­i­ty or doesn’t work for some peo­ple, there are oth­er places there. Hold­ing on too tight­ly to Quak­erism is to hold on to a human creation.
    I am now liv­ing and work­ing at Kri­palu yoga cen­ter, a place that many call a spir­i­tu­al home. We have 60,000 peo­ple on our mail­ing list, of whom about 68% have come here as a guest. There are about 30,000 unpro­grammed Quakers.

  • Rita Tiefert

    When I con­vert­ed from the Uni­tar­i­an Uni­ver­sal­ist Fel­low­ship to Christ, I dis­cov­ered that I seemed to have much in com­mon with the ear­ly Quak­ers. I was read­ing var­i­ous texts on Quak­erism and was flab­ber­gast­ed at some of the beliefs and expe­ri­ences I had in com­mon with the writers.
    But mod­ern Quak­erism seems like a whole dif­fer­ent sto­ry. I have encoun­tered two mod­ern Quak­er groups and heard pre­cious lit­tle from them about being led by the Holy Spir­it or even about Christ. I admire sev­er­al of mod­ern Quak­ers’ activist efforts, but they’re just efforts if not led by the Pow­er of God!
    Not find­ing a Quak­er con­gre­ga­tion I felt com­fort­able with, I have become entrenched in my local Methodist con­gre­ga­tion. They’re not per­fect; no con­gre­ga­tion is. But at least they know Who leads.

  • Harold

    I sym­pa­thise very much with Rita Tiefert – I find that I agree in the­o­log­i­cal mat­ters with the ear­ly Quak­ers and that in turn leads to peace con­cerns, but these days so many Friends deny Christ his prop­er place as leader of the Society.
    If a per­son is not being led by Christ, what’s the point in “fight­ing for peace”, or for any­thing for that matter?
    The most impor­tant thing is the rela­tion­ship with Jesus Christ and if that’s not there to begin with, lit­tle else matters.
    One has to know why he or she is work­ing for peace in the first place.
    It’s some­times dif­fi­cult to remain respect­ful to the indi­vid­ual per­sons who call them­selves lib­er­al Quak­ers while at the same time let­ting the world know the prop­er place of Jesus Christ in our Society.
    Today it seems as though the very men­tion of the Lord’s name is offen­sive to some Friends, and as though those of us who keep alive the love of Jesus Christ are looked upon as “mis­in­formed” at best, and stu­pid or old­fash­ioned at worst. It’s extreme­ly dis­heart­en­ing and has caused many peo­ple who would oth­er­wise be attract­ed to Quak­erism to turn to more thor­ough­ly Chris­t­ian groups such as the Methodists and Episcopalians.
    So in short, I agree with Rita – there’s lit­tle point in hav­ing a Quak­erism with­out Christ. It’s too easy to get lost if peo­ple don’t even know who’s lead­ing them!

  • Peo­ple move on. What leads Quak­ers or any human group to sup­pose that they’re unique? I once led a small group of Quak­ers at a retreat in N.C. I asked them if any­one ever had a feel­ing that there might be some­thing bet­ter than Quakers.
    Most peo­ple were emphat­ic in their denial (ultra trib­al­is­tic?) One young lady nod­ded her head vig­or­ous­ly. She was looking!
    Me too! I sojourn with Quak­ers because they’re the best (for me) avail­able at the moment. But God has all kinds of sur­pris­es for us.
    Many Quak­ers are sup­posed to join at 20, go some­where else lat­er. It’s a jour­ney; it’s noth­ing like yours— or any­body elses for that matter.
    Wake up! Real­ize that Quak­ers are not as dif­fer­ent as they would like to be. Strengths? yes! weak­ness­es? yes! God has dif­fer­ent things in mind of us, olé bud­dy. Maybe even for you.

  • Hi Lar­ry,
    It’s great to see some­one find­ing this two year old post and (per­haps) reviv­ing the conversation.
    You’re very right of course about the trib­al nature of many Friends groups. Our approach is not mean­ing­ful because we’ve named it, cod­i­fied it, insti­tu­tion­al­ized it and set up a dozen com­mit­tees to over­see it. The Quak­er path of the Chris­t­ian high­way is mean­ing­ful only in the way it’s a true way to God and that truth is truth only if it tran­scends us and our names for it.
    That said, it is the job of Friends to be true to our­selves and to God’s call. We are the inher­i­tors of a tra­di­tion that does have some impor­tant (if not unique) insights. I don’t think God is done with us. Which means its our respon­si­bil­i­ty to keep this thing going once we’re gone: to inspire, lift up and cel­e­brate the ever-changing renew­al and rebirth that is the next generation.
    Look­ing back at this after two year’s time I think what I’m try­ing to say is that it’s not just “those Quaker’s” job to make sure we’re fol­low­ing our path, it’s “us Quaker’s” job. When­ev­er we’re gath­ered togeth­er, in what­ev­er group we’re in, it is us who are the Quak­ers and we are Quak­ers not because the sign out­side says we are but because we are devot­ed to fol­low­ing the call of the inward Christ. There are times when we should stop think­ing of our­selves as sojourn­ers, to come out of the desert into the city, to share the good news we’ve been giv­en and to pol­ish up the out­ward tem­ple so it shines forth anew. It will start get­ting smudgy right away but that’s a les­son for us: we’re all liv­ing in human time but as peo­ple of faith it’s our job to point the way to God’s eter­nal time.
    I’m sim­ply one per­son lift­ing up one con­cern. The faith­ful­ness lies in con­tin­u­ing in prayer for greater dis­cern­ment, in wait­ing for those times when the Spir­it indi­cates it is right to bring the con­cern to the larg­er body, in being patient even when the con­cern is not tak­en up (in the knowl­edge that a true con­cern won’t die or go away), and in being bold when the time to speak has come.