Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Judge Fell: Quaker liberal?

I've resumed my journey through The Beginnings of Quakerism by Willam Braithwaite that I started before the Quakerism 101 class but had laid aside for a couple of months.

Today, I was taken with this passage concerning Margaret Fell's husband, after a paragraph that noted that he would often sit in his "justice-room" with the door ajar at Swarthmore Hall to hear Quaker preaching:

Thomas Fell protected the new [Quaker] movement, but he never identified himself with it. He showed many kindnesses to Friends, and shielded them from persecution: his wife says that during his last illness he became more than usually loving to them, having been always a merciful man to God's people. But the same breadth of judgment which enabled him to appreciate the deep spirituality of Quakerism would also give him unity with true-hearted men outside the Quaker pale, and he no doubt preserved to the last the catholicity which had thrown Swarthmore open to ministers and religious people of all kinds.
The Beginnings of Quakerism at 104.

If this is accurate, then I think we can identify Judge Fell as perhaps the first Quaker liberal. As we're told, he never accepted the label of Quaker, but this brief description paints a picture of a kind of person we all know from our meetings. He is kind and protective, a minister of justice. He permitted his home to be a sanctuary to the dissenters of his day with a wide front door. He obviously had a sentimental fondness for Quakers, especially at the end of his life. We might say he shared their values, if not their identity, and was the quintessential friend of Friends. He may well have live a sanctified life.

I know I would have loved him and enjoyed his company; he's the kind of man I've always been attracted to. I would also admire his cool reserve and his "unity with true-hearted men" and "catholicity" -- he was a universalist of the best sort, accepting, non-exclusive. But more than this, I love his honesty: despite his obvious sympathy with the Quakers and other dissenters, he did not "join" the movement, but served and supported it from a different position.

Today, I imagine he'd be like one of those long-time attenders of the meeting and surprises everyone when they learn he isn't a member. His insights and wisdom would be sought out and followed. He is probably a quiet and significant financial contributer to the meeting, and perhaps has made significant witness -- perhaps a war tax resister? -- with a kind of steady, solid depth that makes him "the kind of Friend I'd like to be" to most members of the meeting. Every meeting needs men and women like this in its midst.

Nevertheless, he would be clear in his own mind he was not himself a Quaker. Perhaps he was a skeptic by temperament, constitutionally incapable of commitment. But more likely he was simply fastidious and could not in good conscience "join" the Quakers without having experienced the convicting conversion experience that was at its core. He perhaps felt like Groucho Marx who didn't want to join any club that would accept somebody like him as a member.

Today, I think we have a lot of members of our meetings who are like Judge Fell in the strength of their character and their high-mindedness, except that they do not share his scruples against claiming membership in the Quaker movement. My sense is that a great many of the beloved elders of our Society came to Friends during the pre- and post-World War II era, the cream of the progressive religious and political traditions (the New Deal and the Social Gospel) -- especially in the college-town Beanite meetings -- who were attracted to Quakerism by its "values" and by their experiences in Quaker-run projects (e.g., CPS and AFSC work camps), but who never accepted the necessity of the conviction and conversion that was the heart of the Quaker experience, though many of them were deeply "spiritual" in their own ways. They lived the lives of saints and prophets.

Initially, these newer, convinced Friends were familiar from their childhood with the biblical narrative and the Christian ethos that was common to traditional Quakers. This common religious vocabulary helped the newer and older Friends to talk with each other in meaningful ways, but for these Friends Quaker Christianity was accepted as an historical artifact rather than a defining characteristic or commitment, something incidental rather than essential to the movement. Instead of drawing their identity and role models from Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, or even Fox, Fell, Barclay, Penn, Pennington, Woolman, etc., they think of themselves more as heirs to the abolitionists, womens suffrigists, labor union organizers, civil rights martyrs, and peace protesters -- Quaker and non-Quaker alike.

In due time, acceptance the Bible as an important source of religious truth and authority (second only the authority of the Living God who continues to teach and instruct within our hearts) degraded into no authority and familarity with this heritage weakened. The Bible and its story and images is no longer the common tongue among liberal US Friends; it is, at best, one of many sources of sacred texts. (This is an opinion I expect Judge Fell might hold if he were among us today.)

The difference, of course, is that today, the meeting might encourage a man or woman like Judge Fell to become a formal member of the Quaker movement, despite his inability to commit to or identify with (what once was) its central tenets. It's not enough, somehow, to remain a friend and protecter and supporter of Friends because of an insignificant difference of religious opinion -- such as faith in a living God -- if it doesn't bother us, why should it bother you?

All of which creates the situation I faced recently where I was asked to preface statements I make about God to the 4-year olds I teach in First Day School (e.g., "Jesus is our great teacher" "God lives within you") with "I believe. . . " lest I indoctrinate them and thwart their individual spiritual development. When I protested that this qualification was unnecessary because "we" believe in God, I was told, "I'm a Quaker and I don't believe in God", and therefore my statement was disrespectful as well as untrue.

I don't think I would have had this problem with Judge Fell; or he with me.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

It seems to me you've done a good job of character analysis and sociological analysis here.

The one thing I didn't see, and regretted not seeing, was a statement that you were talking specifically about liberal unprogrammed Friends meetings, and not about Quakerism as a whole. After all, conservative unprogrammed meetings and pastoral meetings, and even some ultra-traditional meetings in the Hicksite camp, have followed quite different evolutionary paths from the one you're describing here.

In your next-to-last paragraph, your word "indoctrinate" jumped out at me because of the essay I'd posted a few weeks back to my own site regarding Friends and doctrines. In that essay I affirmed that Friends do have doctrines, and that every community needs them and needs to teach them to children and newcomers (via a process known as "in-doctrin-ation"), in order to endure through time. It sounds as if the fellow who criticized you doesn't understand this.

Paul L said...

Yes, Marshall -- I am talking about the liberal-unprogrammed-FGC branch of Friends. They're the ones I know best and of which I am a member; it was presumptious of me to think of us as the norm. I should have been more explicit about this.

And yes, "indoctrinate" has taken on an negative connotation, as have other powerful and precise terms such as "discriminate" (good discrimination is now called "discernment"), for example.

The thing my Friend didn't understand, in my view, is that the question isn't whether we indoctrinate our children, it is what we indoctrinate them with.

quakerboy said...

To me, and I could be way off base here, our various YM's "Faith and Practice" is a statement of "we believe". These publications are not creeds, but they are Truth discerned as a corporate body.

When in conversation I say, "we believe", I am refering to what we as the NCYM-Conservative have put forth in our Faith and Practice. The F&P takes into account continuing revelation, but new Truths which make their way into our F&P must come by seeking Divine Will as a gathered body.

I suppose what I am saying is that we CAN say, "we believe". To speak in another way is giving way to gross invidualism which, in my opinion, is not in good Gospel Order.

Love and peace,

Paul L said...

Craig -- Northern YM's Faith & Practice is in progress, though some portions have been approved. We have considered, but not adopted, a section entitled "Friends Beliefs" (though that does not appear on the YM's web site as either a draft or approved section, so I may be mistaken).

In the approved section on Structure and Function, however, we say: “[Our Yearly Meeting] shall be a free association of Monthly Meetings for mutual support and consultation and for furthering such concerns as its members have in common. Its relation to a Monthly Meeting is consultative and not authoritative."

As such, I don't think our F&P is very helpful as a normative statement that one could appeal to or cite as to what "we" believe, and our monthly meeting has nothing, either.

Of course, this reflects the prevailing view in our YM that corporate witness of religious truth is to be avoided if possible (ostensibly based on the testimony against creeds, a basis that Friend Marshall Massey has recently critiqued on The Quaker Magpie) and that corporate witness may be made only in areas of visible behavior, e.g. decision-making, simplicity, witness for peace, marriage, etc. We we tell the world what we do (and what it should do), but can't say why or, more importantly, how.

Whether this is a symptom of gross individualism or of a resurgence of radical insistence on the essentiality of a personal, transforming encounter with [your god's name here] is the question, it seems to me.

James Riemermann said...

Correction to the above: that chapter has been approved, and is called "Faith of Friends of Northern Yearly Meeting." It is here:
I am delighted that it holds a place for Friends like me, who do not believe in God, here:

"Some Friends believe in this inner power which may be called love; yet do not identify the source of this power and love as being from an external Higher Power or God. These Friends share the belief that each person has worth and is precious and agree that everyone should be treated with dignity, mutual respect, and love."

Though I am in Paul's meeting, I am not the Friend who challenged Paul here. I think I share some of this Friends concerns, and some of Paul's.

To begin with, a statement that "we" believe in God is simply false, as a blanket statement. It is best that we separate our understandings of actual truth--that which is the case--from our understandings of what we think should be the case. I am a Quaker (specifically, a liberal Friend of the Hicksite branch), whatever Paul thinks. I do not define Quakerism, but I do seem to have a role in expanding its reality, for better or worse. That present reality is informed by the past, but it is not constrained by it.

At the same time, I am not much a fan of the cautious approach to speech advised by the Friend who challenged Paul. In general I would rather we be free to make statements from our hearts that might in fact be wrong, than to keep our hearts and spirits and words chained so as to never offend anyone. It is a difficult balance, and the risk of offense must be part of our discernment, but I would rather err on the side of freedom than the side of inoffensiveness.

I am also very much not a fan of religious indoctrination, but I trust Paul as a First Day School teacher, even though I know that he will make some statements that I consider mistaken. I think my children--our children--are strong enough and independent enough to sort out their own beliefs over time, and they will learn something from having heard from good-hearted Christian Friends like Paul.

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,

Thanks for such a great post. I was lucky enough to visit Swarthmoor Hall last weekend, as part of a Quaker gathering. Of all the rooms I visited, for some reason I found Judge Fell's Study to be the most spiritual, the most moving. It is right next to the Great Hall, where Meetings for Worship were held, so I imagined Judge Fell in his study being able to hear the muffled spoken ministry permeating through the door and walls. I thought you might like to see some photos that I took - here's a link into them.

Oh, and thanks for the link to my page of Quaker blogs on your sidebar!

Peace & Light,


Liz Opp said...

Hi, Paul--

I enjoyed this post and feel like I learned something about the nature of a few of the earliest of Friends and friends of Friends.

I've left a comment on another Friend's blog in response to the FDS situation. ...At some point, liberal Christian Friends and liberal nontheist Friends will be called (forced?) to convene a time to wrestle with the intersection of personal belief and corporate faith.

Those of us who value the individual's place within the whole will preserve our right to have a voice in who Quakers are and what Quakers believe.

Those of us who value the sense of the corporate body in relation to the experience and voice of the individual will preserve our right to assert what it is that "we" Quakers believe, despite individual differences of belief among us.

In the end, we must be faithful, we must be loving, we must be enduring. If we have not love, all is for naught.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Embracing Enlightenment said...

Dear Paul,
This was a very enriching post. Thank you.

Thank you also for stopping by my blog and adding some input and that wonderful quote. It really did make sense.

Feel free to stop by whenever.


Zach A said...

I think to some degree I share the basic feeling expressed here. I'd prefer, or at least I'd like to explore, being a part of a spiritual community that has a common core that everyone is roughly on the same page about. One could call it a "creed" if one liked, but I'm thinking of something more local, changeable, and flexible than what that word usually connotes. (I wrote about this a bit on the last post on my blog, as well as on Kevin's.) In such a community, the Judge Fells would be encouraged to take part in the life of the meeting, but not invited into membership or leadership, in an attempt to sacrifice a broad-but-shallow kind of community for a slightly narrower but deeper one. I think this is something like what you're looking for.

And it seems that you're looking for a community that, in particular, is united around a basic belief in a "living God" and the secondary authority of the Bible, and also a particular kind of spiritual experience ("the conviction and conversion that was at the heart of the Quaker experience").

Now that's all fine, but I'm not sure where you're going with this from there.

Speaking factually, it doesn't appear that your MM, YM, or branch is such a community. Speaking normatively, the basic argument for liberal Quakerism -- that what early Friends called the guidance of the Spirit trumps everything else, and that this Spirit has in our discernment led many of us away from outward Christianity and even theism -- is as sound as any other Quaker position, and liberal Friends aren't going to abandon it anytime soon.

So what is the problem? Are you in denial about which branch you are in? Why haven't you started a new meeting, or joined a Conservative YM presumably more compatible with what you're looking for? I hasten to emphasize that I say this *not* to extend an "unwelcome" to you among liberal Friends, but to try to understand why you would torture yourself by staying a community that is so unlike what you are looking for (assuming my description above is accurate).

Warm regards,
Zach / The Seed Lifting Up

Francis Drake said...

... The Beginnings of Quakerism at 104 ...

Glancing at this half-asleep I couldn't help thinking: Boy howdy and I thought *I* was a late bloomer becoming a convinced Friend at 62... :o)

It put me in mind, though, of two people prominent in the activities of my home meeting, both of them attenders still, of ten and twenty years, respectively.

Anyways, thanks for getting me better acquainted with The good Judge Fell, who I consider added to my personal cloud of Witnesses.

In the Light...