Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
I am new to this website but I am not new to the Society. My initial connection was through my Quaker mother, who introduced me to the Westbury, New York meeting, which (without my being aware of it at the time) made me a birthright Quaker.
This would have been in the 1950s, and my childlike perception of that meeting in Westbury was that things were good, very good, there. Likely that perception was accurate, that things actually were good there. The meeting was vital, supportive, and spiritual and a very safe place to develop as a child. The people were warm and real and now I believe that Christ was there, too.
Later in my youth, I attended with decreasing frequency, not due to any deficiency of that meeting (or the others I had traveled to). I was simply drifting away, distracted by my adolescence and young adulthood. The time was the mid to late 1960s and early 70s, and the distractions I was exposed to were considerable.
One of those distractions would put me back in proximity with a different group of Quakers. America was at war, and Friends were on the front lines in opposition to that war. This Quaker opposition was coordinated by the American Friends Service Committee and my peripheral involvement with AFSC in New York City (about 25 miles from my old meeting on Long Island) left me with a different impression of Friends, different from any of the Friends I had known before.
I had not been aware of "political" Quakers before this ( by nowI was 18 or 19 or 20 years of age) and I admit this new version of Quakerism was something of a shock to my system. As I write this, I see there is a danger of my seeming to judge these Friends, but they were very different from any Friends I had previously known and this could not be ignored.
My impression did not apply to all of them, of course, but the sum of my experience with this group was not positive. Some of them were not shy to express powerfully toxic, even violent, opinions of both the US government and individuals in that government.
It took me a while to realize this, but not all of these Quakers had the same foundation as the Quakers I had known. To many of these new type of Quaker, perhaps the majority of them, Jesus was a political figure, a radical like them. This was not the Jesus, the Christ, I had known.
At first I thought that they were simply centered on a different aspect of the Christ. He had come to change the world, he was a radical. I knew that, but I had believed that his radicalism was not political but spiritual, which to me is far more radical than political activism.
Ultimately, I was actively disabused of my notion that their focus was simply on a different aspect of the Christ by many of the people I met, some of whom were honest about their atheism. Their view was simply that Jesus was a socialist hero and not the Messiah.
The years went by and I encountered this “new” Quakerism with some frequency, but I did continue to attend meetings. About a decade later I became a member of a very small meeting near Friend's World College on Long Island, N.Y.
Perhaps I had isolated myself there, oblivious to changes in the broader fellowship. As far as I could tell, the atheists were absent from that meeting. There were many occasions where I was confident that the meeting was a gathered one.
Later, I moved to Maine and attended another small meeting there. Again, atheism seemed absent. Again, there were many occasions at that meeting where Christ had come teach his people himself and Friends were willing to listen.
Then, in the 1990s, I moved to Seattle, in Washington State, and sought out another spiritual home. My first visit was to a large meeting in the university district of that city. What I encountered shocked me. Perhaps the reader would have been shocked as well, I don’t yet know what the reaction of this audience would be (I do think I will find out from reactions to this post).
What shocked me was this: an apparent elder (I would find out later he was the clerk of the Meeting) stood and asked for the “blessings of the Gods (plural) on this gathering”. My brain was reeling, and I tried to believe I had misheard him. The remainder of the hour, and it was exactly an hour in length, was mostly silent. The one message I do remember from that hour frequently contained the word “diversity”.
At rise of meeting, I approached the individual who opened the meeting by invoking “the gods”. He was very clear with me. I was told that there are two “types” of Quakers, Christocentric or Universalist. This meeting, he told me, was of the second type.
Please pardon my ignorance of this, but I had thought that Quakerism could be described as a Christ centered society and if there were two types of Quakers, they would be either convinced or birthright. Now I was learning that there were three types of Quakers, convinced, birthright and unconvinced. How had this come about? I think I know, but please tell me what you think.
I was able to find another meeting where the majority of attendees did not seem to see Jesus merely as a “good man”, but that majority was likely a slim one.
Years later I moved to Connecticut (where I remain) and what I encountered here was universally Universalist. Christ, as a name or a word or the source, was either absent or very controversial at meeting.
I felt I should try to stay involved and was able to find one meeting outside of Hartford that seemed less atheist than the ones more local to me. A few years passed and I basically kept my head down to avoid controversy. There were even occasions where this meeting came across as gathered. Over time this would change.
The few older, seasoned friends in the meeting moved or died or entered nursing homes and the meeting gradually changed. As the elders' numbers dwindled, the next generation rose up to eldership. They were, nearly all of them, self-described Universalists. I have come to learn that that word as used by them is not inclusionary at all. It is not Universalist so much as it is anti-Christocentric.
I began as a birthright Quaker, but over my lifetime I have become a very convinced Quaker. I do believe that Fox and Barkley and so many more had expressed in words and deeds the largest single piece of God’s message and our relationship to Him ever gathered. I know there are other pieces to that message and that relationship and we do well to be open to them, but Quakerism itself was unique (peculiar) and valuable beyond our limited imaginations. Now that value and that uniqueness seems to have been repressed from within the very fellowship that was supposed to carry it forward.
So this is my report, this is what I’ve encountered. I did somehow become aware of the NFF during this time and through their publications felt that I wasn’t alone in my impressions of where this was all headed. What has become of the faith of my youth? I would ask the reader to respond.
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