Many Quakers mistakenly assume that the modern liberal Quaker movement is not akin to the movement first began by the very earliest Quakers from the 1640’s into the 1670’s. Yet, three characteristics of these very earliest Quakers remain essential characteristics of liberal Quakers in modern times: Spiritual freedom, egalitarianism, and mysticism.

As with many spiritual movements at their beginning, Quakerism began as a free-flowing spiritual society. Highly influenced by Jesus’ own spiritual experience and nature, the earliest Quakers’ spiritual experience included what we would term in modern times a “mystical experience within”. This experience was abundantly more spiritually fulfilling than what they had previously encountered from the established Church of England or the Puritan churches of the day. This mystical experience was so sufficient on its own that these very earliest Quakers eagerly cast off any religious outward forms, viewing them as unnecessary. Further, they began worshipping just as Jesus had done - surrounded by quiet so they could more easily go inward to experience individually and together the same Light experienced by Christ. This form of worship required no hierarchy of human leadership as was typical with the more established churches.

However, a free-flowing spiritual movement such as that did not bode well for its practitioners in the mid-1600’s. An atmosphere of intolerance resulted for the fledgling Quakers; causing persecution, imprisonment, and a general misunderstanding by others. For example, Quakers’ intense mystical experience of oneness with Christ was viewed as blasphemous by others outside of the Quaker movement. In modern times, such a blurring into oneness is well understood to be typical for spiritual mystics, as it is actually a fulfillment of Jesus’ own words about his hopes for his followers, as recorded in the Bible: “I am praying that they may all be One – just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they too may be in us.” Unfortunately for those first Quakers, Quakerism started in the mid-1600’s at a time before that “oneness” concept regarding themselves and the divine was understood and tolerated.

All of this backdrop created an eventual rift among Quakers by 1670. The struggle was between a number of well-known Quakers in the countryside and an emerging London Quaker hierarchy led by George Fox to create religious order through the use of prescribed outward forms; no doubt to gain respectability for the Quaker movement and thereby ensure its survival. By the late 1670’s much of the original egalitarian nature of the Religious Society of Friends had begun to subside at the instigation of George Fox. However, the introduction of outward forms was viewed by many Quakers as a wedge between themselves and their mystical relationship with the divine. They were opposed to the imposition of set worship times, prescribed forms of attire, acceptable speech patterns, membership rolls, a Yearly Meeting hierarchical structure to control all Quaker meetings, an implied hierarchy in the local meetings, and other rules of conduct that appear petty by modern standards. Many Quakers voiced that these London elders were now acting as the churches they had left years ago.

Still, as the Quaker movement entered the 1700’s, the presence of outward forms to solidify Quakers into a uniform religious society had been well established by isolating and ostracizing those prominent Quakers who resisted the changes. But something had been lost in the transition. Quakers could no longer be identified as an organic group of seekers distinguished by spiritual freedom, egalitarianism, and mysticism - as they once were. No longer did their unity lie simply in the same spirit of love and Light that was manifested within Jesus. Instead, Quakers now became viewed by others as guided by uniform peculiar outward forms – just another church of sorts, but burdened with a different set of rules and beholden to a different set of religious leaders. It wasn’t until 1828, when liberal Quakerism began to emerge, that a centuries’ long return began back to that more egalitarian and mystical experience within the Religious Society of Friends.

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What happened in 1828 again?  Was that when Hicksites forked off from Gurneyites? Ah yes, I see that's the date:  But it was Orthodox versus Hicksite, and then further branching. I remember the "Quaker guts" poster:  (very complicated!).  I'm in the Beanite branch myself. We drink lots of coffee (sorry, a joke). Although NPYM considers itself liberal, we still have set meeting times and lots of outward forms.  I agree we're conforming to people's expectations when they think "church". I'd say state laws has something to do with it too: no way to have a million dollar meeting and not file as a recognizable template, a house of worship or whatever.  Sometimes it's the Worship Groups who harken back to the early model, although even there, outward forms of some kind are unavoidable.  How does one not have a meeting time, and have a meeting?

Hi Kirby,

I guess the question a liberal meeting might ask themselves regarding an outward form before implementing it is, "Is this outward form being implemented to 'control' Friends, or is it being implemented to facilitate the free action of the Spirit among Friends?"  Whenever control is the motive, the Spirit's action is dulled. And, as you point out, schism after schism will result as human ego usurps what belongs to the Spirit.

Regarding your question about set worship times, I am thinking that each small group of the earliest Quakers likely just decided when to gather together at a time when it seemed appropriate, as the Spirit moved them week to week.  The fact that the London elders implemented set times for all Quaker groups indicates how controlling their "rules" had become.  No doubt set worship times allowed large Quaker meetings to evolve, which certainly encouraged even more controls to be implemented.  Some small groups of liberal Quaker meetings in our day do operate in a spontaneous manner as the earliest Quakers did in that they decide each week when it might be best to meet together (and where), as led by the Spirit. As an alternative, some meetings that have meetinghouses, now have a regular set time for worship and also provide keys for the meetinghouse to everyone in the meeting so spontaneous small groups of Friends can gather together when the Spirit moves them.

I think the point is that controlling mechanisms are best avoided.  A liberal meeting might want to experiment with ways to lessen/eliminate outward forms that have purely been implemented to control Friends.  The meeting I attend eliminated permanent controlling committees (elders, etc.) in favor of bringing any desire for outward forms to Meeting for Business before implementing them.  And guess what? The petty controls stopped, and joy and the Spirit began to flow among Friends naturally and freely.  For example, rules about not entering the meetinghouse once worship began were dropped, and people just naturally used common courtesy when entering worship.  Rules about not bringing a cup of coffee or tea into worship were dropped, and Friends learned to not be so petty and to mind the Light in themselves instead of others.  Instead of relegating care to a set committee, needs among Friends were brought to the whole meeting during announcements or via email notification; when coordination was needed volunteer coordinator(s) stepped up.   Instead of having an appointed committee to end worship, the Spirit was allowed to choose anyone to do so; a little card is kept on the fireplace mantel that suggests what to cover when ending worship, so anyone is comfortable to do so.

These things all may seem small, but controlling other people sucks the joy from a spiritual community and caters to the ego of the more obsessive/compulsive Friends within a meeting, instead of nurturing the free flow of the Spirit.  A more egalitarian meeting operation can be purposely implemented in even a large meeting if the desire and benefits are recognized.

Greetings Howard --

All that sounds idyllic and I am grateful that Quakerism is flexible enough to allow these more informal and easygoing outward forms.  It's not my place to judge, but were I to do so, I'd call it good.

However I also confess to vicarious nostalgia (based on readings) for a Quaker faith and practice that gives rise to outward forms of a lasting institutional nature, such as schools and service agencies, meetinghouses of substantial size. 

Mid 1600s Friends were too beleaguered by their surrounding English society to enjoy much outward success in their endeavors (in terms of institution building), and yet a way opened thanks to the workings of the Spirit. In little more than a century, the Zeitgeist (Holy Spirit) had made room for them and their outward businesses, not only in the New World, but in the homeland itself.

I'm not one who believes only Freemasonry or Catholicism is capable of achieving establishmentarian goals.

Human egos do inject pettiness wherever possible it seems. It seems egos become petty in inverse proportion to the size and seriousness of the challenges at hand.

Much depends on introjection and internalization in the case of more organized and disciplined operations. Does this institution project "who I am" in the sense of "Spirit within" or is it about controlling and oppressing?  I ponder this question whenever I pay taxes.

Where I come down is it's not an either / or proposition.  I cherish the notion that Quakerism provides a tool chest for various temperaments.  Sometimes the Spirit needs us to plan and implement on a larger scale, other times smaller.  These efforts may proceed in parallel.

It is certainly good that Quakerism is a big tent, Kirby.  Different environments appeal to different people. Our city has two liberal Quaker meetings.  One is very informal with little use for structure, appointed (formally designated) leaders, or even recorded (formal) membership.  The other has much structure in comparison such as formal leadership, more guidelines implemented, and requirements for membership in order to fully participate in all aspects of that meeting.  Friends literally drive past the meeting closest to them to go to the other meeting further away because they either like more structure or like little structure.  Needless to say the meeting with lots of structure is not overtly intimate, whereas the meeting with little structure is by design intimate.  Some people like spiritual intimacy and some do not.  The Spirit will attempt to work with where we each are.

In our city, it is wonderful that both types of liberal Quakers can be fulfilled in the environment of their choice without having to drive too far away.

Yes indeed, that sounds wonderful, including that "not too much driving" part. :-D

I believe the world hungers for model communities, replicable and attractive as lifestyles.  Religious orders have a long history of working to establish God's Kingdom on Planet Earth, though may avoid such terminology.

The two ends of a spectrum:  remote community, rural setting;  urban setting.  Either way, I'm seeking to showcase a "company town" model in the sense that roles include community sustaining work, be that farming, animal husbandry, teaching, caretaking.  It's not just about running a meeting.  It's about running a "village" (however that looks, might be in a skyscraper).

I'm encouraged by the track record Quakers have established.  However I'm not supposing my vision must manifest among the anglophones, at least at first.  An Asian context seems more likely to me at the moment.  I'm not expecting to ever live in such a village myself, not in this life. :-D

Kirby this statement captivated my attention:

Mid 1600s Friends were too beleaguered by their surrounding English society to enjoy much outward success in their endeavors (in terms of institution building)...”

Your words opened up an entire thread of thought that has broadened into a tapestry. Here is a partial view. When I read them it came to me that, for many in the Q gathering in the mid 1600s, a of lack visible institutional structure and authority was an outward manifestation of the inward appearance of the Spirit of Christ itself in itself ruling over their gathering. So that the lack of outward institutional forms would be success in itself and much  joyed over. For many in the Q gathering during that period, the appearance on the inshining Light in their conscience ... gathered them and was sufficient in itself; the experience also brought them out of the very process of participation in and identification the establishment of set times and places to gather and the visible institutional forms such practices nurtured. This is not meant as an animadversion toward your words, just an attempt to suggest further context and perspective relative to the experience of some mid 1600s Quakers.

As a secondary thought. It may have been that there was a relatively large group of Quakers (at the time) who shared the experience above (relatively speaking) and those in the gathering who surely wished for visible structure were constantly running up against some in the Q gathering who did not share their value of outward visible institutional forms. This leads me to wonder about the extent to which “surrounding English society” beleaguered “institutional building” and the extent to which some within the Q gathering itself had a beleaguring effect on the establishment of visible institutional designs in the Q gathering. After all, it was not until after around three decades of struggle amongst people in the Q gathering that the design to establish visible institutional forms were settled ... relatively speaking.  

Yes, some early Friends may have found fulfillment in their rebellious heresy and divergence from the Church of England. They were consumed with righteousness and spoke boldly and plainly to their shocked non-Quaker contemporaries, some of whom were convinced by these unminced words.

Much of what Qs were saying made sense, that all were somehow equal in the eyes of God.

The US Constitution (nowadays suspended) would go on to enshrine these principles. Ben Franklin was not a Quaker, but expressed some sympathy with Quaker views.  That all have "God within" was an idea "blowing in the wind" as they say, and Quakers (originally "Children of the Light") were among the most plainspoken about this New Religion.

Eventually, men of means (not forgetting their spouses, often the conscience of the two) were convinced of Quakerism's virtues, realizing the business sense it made to stick to a published price regardless of the customer's title. The idea of a Sears Catalog was born.

And just in time for the industrial revolution, which had everyone questioning the fate of humanity.  Will we be slaves to these new engines, doing the work of many, or will they free us to enjoy higher living standards?  Will the fruits of industrialization be distributed wisely? 

These were not merely academic questions to Quakers in steel-making, railroad and ship building.  The Quaker Darby family built the first iron bridge, still standing and symbolic of the New Age.  This bridge features pominently in Quakernomics.

For awhile there, the entire State of Pennsylvania was looking as if set aside by God for Quakers to prove themselves by demonstration.  Fox and others had visited Barbados and witnessed first hand the great cruelty on which a new economy was being built.  Was slavery really necessary in the industrial age?  Was this God's Will?  The quasi-utopian "company town" as envisioned by Cadbury, was an attempt to prove otherwise. Pennsylvania would follow suit.

However, wave after wave of immigrant made Quakers a tiny minority, even in their "own" state.  Their stance on slavery, and refusal to pay war taxes to fight the "Indians" just made them seem subversive, a terrorist threat.  They were being pushed westward by Indian-hating slave-owning average Americans well before the start of the Civil War.

Today, in Prison Nation (formerly the USA), some Quakers have not forgotten their illustrious past, how they starred in industry, in banking, in insurance.  They had a moment in the sun to maybe usher in a New Kingdom. 

That Qs ultimately failed and that Spaceship Earth became Nuthouse Earth should not end our eagerness to perform God's Will.  Quakers have long sought to improve the living standards of mental patients.  That has been our calling. 

Retreating into our private selves to assume some kind of fetal position, or call it spiritual catatonia, may still prove the most attractive option for some Qs, but I'm not closing the door on future industrialists and engineers who might want to draw upon Quakerism when wrestling with the world of Outward Forms. Some are called to "go in to go out".

True godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.
~ William Penn, 1644-1718

Kirby, you stated above:

"Retreating into our private selves to assume some kind of fetal position, or call it spiritual catatonia, may still prove the most attractive option for some Qs . . ."

However, in my experience a purposeful lessening of outward forms within a spiritual community in order to fully allow the Spirit to manifest within individual Friends and within the gathering of Friends, is not a "retreat into our private selves", as you indicated.  If our union with the Spirit is enabled to be more complete, our union with others is also enabled to be more complete, since the Spirit is the Source of all. It is the Source of love; it is the Source of union.  This more complete union is the whole point of Jesus' message to those he met. It is how he saw the kingdom of God coming upon the Earth, and he prayed that his followers would experience that full union with the Spirit and others as he himself experienced it.   

Based on your words, I think perhaps you misunderstand.  You are confusing physical, material things with our use of the term "outward forms". The connotation of an outward form as we are using it is an implemented mechanism to unnecessarily control others. In the context of a spiritual group, it is an ego mechanism hoisted on others to disenable them from directly responding to the leadings of the Spirit, and instead coerce them to respond to someone else's will. You are confusing the lives of these earliest Quakers and the lives of modern Quakers who seek less outward forms, with the intentional lifestyle of monks and other monastic individuals who are indeed retreating from others in the world.

As a person who shares the experience (of some 17th century and present people in the Q-gathering) of being drawn out of the process of identification with and participation in outward political and religious forms and institutions and of  being drawn into the sufficiency of the inshining Light itself in itself in the conscience and consciousness to guide, manage, and inform, human relationships and interaction; I am regularly confronted with those who would traduce the testimony of the sufficiency of the inshining Light with such words “spiritual Catatonia.” (Especially those who (by their own admission) value the process of participation in and identification with outward forms to guide, manage, and inform human relationships and interactions.) This approach is common and suggests a contentiousness in conversation seeking to cast aspersion upon another.

The testimony of being drawn out of outward forms and into the sufficiency of the inshining Light to rule, govern, and guide is not a testimony to and promotion of a “disturbed mental state or a state of immobility and stupor” (catatonia). Such a representation is an animadversion or criticism that draws the readers mind away from the testmony itself in order to distract attention from this thing itself. I run into this tactic regularly when I share this testimony to people on the streets who are engaged in political activism.

The testimony that their is a different way of human relationship and interaction that is not guided or informed by outward political, religious, and social, forms and institutions and leaders through waiting upon the appearance of the Spirit of Christ inshining upon conscience, suggests an alternative way to “be” with people. Sharing the testimony only becomes truducing when the sharer is suggesting those who promote the process of participate in and identify with outward forms to rule and guide human beings are somehow evil or bad or should no longer participation in the process. However, such traduction manifests a spirit of imposition upon another that further manifests a spirit that has become too identified with being drawn out of forms rather than being in the Light itself as their guide and rule. It suggests being draw into outward form. All those who, through the appearance of the inshining Spirit of Jesus Christ in their conscience, know this falling into form in the face of mis-representation and out of a spirit of defensiveness. Watchfulness in the Light itself overcomes the distraction of traduction.     

Hi Howard --

I was sketching two extremes on a spectrum.

It makes sense to me that the most fragile and spiritually insecure would seek solace in a more intimate and informal setting, such as you've described, but I did not mean to characterize all individuals in such a setting. 

Friends come from many walks of life.  Small home-based worship groups may be the only outward form available.  That's what we enjoyed in Rome, when I was growing up.  My parents established similar worship groups in Cairo and Manila. 

Both of them were activists in different ways.  Neither shied away from weighty responsibilities.  They've been role model liberal Quakers for me.

At the other end of the spectrum we have these William Penn and George Cadbury types who seek to be movers and shakers in the world, with Quakerism informing their leadings.  Few of us are like them, either.  Psychopathologies crop up in this direction as well. 

Those seeking to create God's Kingdom here on Planet Earth often suffer from despair.  As Wikipedia points out, the "company town" idea fell into disfavor.  One learns from experiment, an endless process.

Lets assume the same Friend may go back and forth between these two outward forms.  Certainly I've done that, attending small worship groups sometimes, a big city meeting other times, and in the same city.

I do have a bias, however, which is towards institution building.  I'm encouraged that Quakerism has given us such outward forms as Friends World College, for example.  I also look up to Kenneth Boulding for his commitment to improving our overspecialized curriculum.  I was just writing about him this morning:

We tend to champion the outward forms we most cherish or feel make the greatest positive difference in peoples lives.  Again, it's not either/or.  It's not like Keith Saylor's rhetoric is any more authentically Quaker than Kenneth Boulding's, nor more "primitive", nor more likely to spark a revival of interest in our sect.


Thanks for responding Kirby.  Yet, from your reply I think you are still misunderstanding me.  I want to refer you again to my statement in my previous reply to you:

"The connotation of an outward form as we are using it is an implemented mechanism to unnecessarily control others. In the context of a spiritual group, it is an ego mechanism hoisted on others to disenable them from directly responding to the leadings of the Spirit, and instead coerce them to respond to someone else's will."

I was not speaking of businesses or educational institutions, which are physical mechanism created in the world of commerce or learning.  I see a spiritual community differently than these because a spiritual community is dealing with the inner Spirit of individuals and, in the case of Quakers, their direct communion with the divine Light. If we as Quaker meetings "advertise" that our purpose is to promote direct communication with the divine, but then depend on ego-driven structures in our operation - then our spiritual communities are not much different than worldly institutions that have nothing to do with promoting a direct relationship with the divine.

Any size meeting can operate in an egalitarian manner. It is not confined to just small Quaker groups.

Hi Keith --

Apologies if my use of "spiritual catatonia" seemed a dig at your philosophy. My segue was from "Nuthouse Earth" wherein all of us suffer, without exception, from the wages of sin. Even if a child is born beautifully innocent, it's not long before the meme viruses take hold.

I'm being somewhat strictly Biblical, in adhering to a doctrine of Original Sin (something went wrong in Eden) and yet I'm converging "sin" with latter day terminology:  mental illness. Psychology has subsumed and superseded Theology for many people.

So yeah, we're all mentally ill (sinful).

The Gnostics believed a local deity messed up in making such a deformed world, but Christianity proper soon branded that a heresy.  Monotheism is uneasy with wayward sub-deities (that way lies polytheism), and yet posits a devil (or some do). Go figure.

At the other end of the spectrum: we may see Planet Earth as a great Global University.  Those are the two ways I look at us:  University versus Nuthouse (juxtaposed). 

When we're in a University mindset, we study, do our homework, and plan for a great campus.  We remain humble and acknowledge our ignorance.

The compromise between the two:  we're a teaching hospital. :-D

The exact details of one's mental illness matter of course (especially to one's ego), but not so much when we're zoomed out and looking at humanity as a whole, a messed up species that has a beautiful planet, but can never seem to find a way to do God's will. We succumb to the temptation of outward weapons.

Perhaps we blame the devil and his spawn (international bankers?) for our condition.  Blame is part of the "good and evil" syndrome i.e. the devil is "blame" personified. 

In projecting evil, we create it.  Hate begets hate, and so on.

I hope you don't take it personally that I look at Quakers as sinful (ill).  You and me included.  The question is: are we open to healing?  Healing is from the Spirit (God's grace). 

Quakerism is about remaining open to the possibility of staying sane.



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