The Lost Quaker Generation

Provocative post over at Martin Kelley, Ranter: The Lost Quaker Generation, where Martin recounts a conversation with a friend and former Friend who served time in prison for a Plowshares action and has returned to his parents’ religious tradition.

Martin’s friend told Martin “He didn’t feel supported in his Plowshares action by his Meeting.” But he doesn’t say (or Martin doesn’t relate) whether he asked his meeting for a clearness committee before taking the action. Corporate discernment is central to my understanding of Quaker life, and is all too often neglected by contemporary Friends. It is too easy to assume that because there’s a hefty risk, the leading must be genuine. So, did he ask his meeting for a clearness committee as a step in asking them to support his action?

Martin’s friend concludes that

[T]he 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 The radical mysticism that is supposed to drive Friends’ practice and actions have been replaced by a blandness that felt threatened by someone who could choose to spend years in jail for his witness.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 suspect he’s right about Mary Dyer’s passion not being appreciated as a model for our own lives today. But plenty of stodgy, unmystical old Friends have spent time in jail (or worse) themselves. Not knowing what the Plowshares action was, I suspect Friends’ fault was actually being unable to support destruction of property. In leading a nonviolence exercise in several Quakerism classes, I’ve found that a majority of contemporary “liberal” Friends and seekers in those classes disapprove of actions that involve trespassing, cutting fences, or hammering nosecones. Neither John Woolman nor Mary Dyer harmed the property of others. And John Woolman writes extensively about the corporate discipline to which he submitted.

Martin begins to draw to a close:

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.

This is all too true of how stand-offish we can be in our meetings. But Martin–did you not notice? Are you not mourning? Did you not reach out to him and ask why (and even write about it)?

I know what you mean, but this is another common failing among us. We want “the meeting” or “Friends” to do something and overlook the things that we ourselves are doing or might do. Pastoral care is a big blindspot in this way. When I broke my ankle, Friends and friends stepped right up to give me transportation, company, and food. At the time, Beacon Hill Meeting didn’t even have a pastoral care committee, the meeting never took any action, and I don’t remember receiving a phone call “on behalf of the meeting.” (There were drugs involved...) Does that mean I didn’t receive pastoral care from the meeting? NO WAY. The meeting came through for me in a big way, discernably more so than my other communities. But I’ve heard others who received the same kind of loving care complain that the meeting didn’t do anything.

In spite of my contrary comments on elements of Martin’s post, I am worried by the same issues (just interpreting some of the elements differently). I came to Quakerism as a twenty-something, almost twenty years ago now. I was shocked then to be consistently among the youngest in many committees or gatherings. I’m shocked and saddened now to find that that is still all too often so. I’m glad that Martin and others like him are trying to make our Quaker home more welcoming and nurturing (and challenging) to all.

3 Replies to “The Lost Quaker Generation”

  1. hey kenneth. feeding baby & typing w/ 1 hand therefore i’ll be brief. first thing–the crime for which mary dyer was ultimately killed was, as i understand it, trespassing. can’t speak about woolman since it’s been many years since i’ve read his journal but i do know much of his ministry involved what many modern friends would probably consider coersion & maybe even harassment w/ regard to the abdication of what was then believed to be personal property. he certainly was an extremist even by modern standards. Other abolitionists effectively helped steal or remove the “property” of others. Second, in the past i personally have made use of and advocated the use of communal discernment in quaker mtg, all too often to realize later the process failed miserably. i could name many such instances and many reasons why i believe they failed, foremost of these a lack of faith–faith in he who guides us in all things IF WE ARE WILLING TO LISTEN. in my opinion & experience, most friends are not so inclined.

  2. Hi Julie,

    Thanks for the comment on my blog. As I obliquely mentioned in the entry, I share some of your (and Martin’s) concerns, but I think we’ve had very different experiences or interpretations. I’ve come to realize that I’m quite an optimist. Among other things, I tend to pay attention to the leaven in a group rather than to the dross (to mix metaphors).

    Personally, I’ve felt pretty well served by Friends when I’ve asked for corporate help in discernment or oversight, although Friends can be a bit timid in exercising authority. Perhaps that’s part of the lack of faith you experience.

    I’ve certainly seen (and unfortunately participated) in discernment processes that failed because Friends didn’t say “no” or “that’s not good enough” or “great idea, but we can’t feel the Spirit moving in it” or “yes, and I’ll give sacrificially to support it”. That, too, perhaps reflects the lack of faith you point to.


  3. Hi Kenneth,
    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ve been chewing over the issues for a few days.

    A little background that didn’t come out in my original post: When I started talking to this old friend, I didn’t expect us to have too much in common anymore. In the intervening years since I knew him, my understanding of Quakerism has become more religious. I now see our traditional testimonies as foremost a testifying to God’s power and grace. I don’t see Mary Dyer as a social activist but as a religous martyr. When many contemporary Friends refer to the peace testimony, they seem to refer to a left-liberal secular activism/witness. I write about this elsewhere on my own site, but because of where I’ve come in the last few years, I didn’t expect to have much in common with my lunch date.

    I don’t know if he had a clearness committee before engaging in the Plowshares direct action; I do know if he had and I had been on it, I would likely have labored with him about why he was choosing this particular action and whether it was in line with Friends’ understanding of the peace testimony.

    So I was surprised when I did feel a kinship with him. It was over what he refered to as his mysticism, which I interpreted as the belief that the Spirit is alive in our lives and sometimes calls us to do unexpected things. I would go on to quote George Fox, that Jesus has come to teach the people himself. My friend described a Monly Meeting that was rooted in rationalism, where First Day messages and monthly business meeting was led by the brains, with little attention to the Spirit.

    I suspect that what my friend hungered for was something that Quakerism could have given him, should have given him: that pearl of great price. If members of his Meeting had labored with him, I think he would have found something.

    It should also be said that much of what I was saying about his troubles was and is my own projection. In my year serving as co-clerk of my monthly meeting, I stuggled with a culture of unbelief and oversaw rushed decisions that had the weight of the Meeting but not the imprimature of the Spirit. I saw a campaign of detraction go unchallenged for fear of alienating an old member of Meeting. And I saw the truth routinely sacrificed in the name of socialibility. I haven’t gone back since the end of that last business meeting I clerked. And no one from the Meeting has called or even emailed me to ask why.

    I wrote my post since I’ve seen almost all my old conteporaries leave Quakerism over the past five years. And I myself am left wondering why I stay. Right now, it is not because of anything that anyone in any Meeting has said or done but is only because of the Great Comforter who has been at my side. George Fox’s epiphany came after he had exhausted men’s religions and was told that there was one that could speak to his condition. I understand what he felt and mourn that for me, and for many of my old friends, the organized Society of Friends is not speaking to that condition.

    What can we do to start once again valuing and recognizing our young seekers so that we can labor with them and give them the gift that we’ve found here among Friends?

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