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A Submission for the Friends Quarterly 2009 Prize Essay

by Stuart Donnan
(the original submission was anonymous, as required)



1. Is there really a problem now?

2. An onlooker's view

3. One thing is missing - and another

4. Notions for the 21st century

5. The Quaker way ahead especially young Quakers

6. Brief conclusions

The year 1859 saw a publication which had profound effects and made fundamental changes to the human view of the world. Charles Darwin's publication had a subtitle 'The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life' which is a general theme as relevant to the perseverance of Quakers in the 21st century as in the beginning or in the 19th century.

Halfway through The Origin of Species Darwin has a chapter addressing 'Difficulties on Theory'. Darwin was always as polite as he was perceptive. In describing how what we could call 'special creationists' might respond to his examples of surprising structural variations by introducing the role of the Creator, he wrote that this seemed to him "only restating the fact in dignified language". It is the aim of the present discussion both to be perceptive and to ensure that dignified language enlightens rather than obscures.

The year 1859 also saw the publication of two very different books about the decline of Quakerism. Thomas Hancock, a socialist priest and prophet of the Church of England, was awarded second prize for his essay entitled The Peculium (relating to the Quakers being called from the earliest days - in Biblical phraseology - the "peculiar people of God"). Hancock started as he meant to continue. The first sentence in the first chapter states, "It is the lot of societies made up of men and women to be subject to a law of decay." And decay is what he predicted as both proper and inevitable for the Society of Friends. He presented his case cogently and at length - what remained good in Quakerism should return to the Church from which it had come. Two of the details of his argument are worth special note in the present context. What had originally been viewed as "The Light" had become gradually to be spoken of as "a light" and considered as an influence, a religious tendency in every man, a part of his ordinary spiritual anatomy. Furthermore, for Hancock the greatest decay was manifest in the sphere of "aggression". "Originally, the Quakers were the sect most before the world ... Their present peculiarity is that they are the most hidden and private of all bodies." This personal and corporate introversion will be the subject of much more attention in the present discussion.

The other book about the decline of Quakerism published in 1859, and awarded the first prize, was Quakerism, Past and Present by John Stephenson Rowntree. The title of the present contribution follows from Rowntree's observation about the earliest Quakers. "It was the feeling that they were grasping a reality instead of a shadow - the substance instead of the form - that induced so many persons to accept the views proclaimed by Fox and his colleagues."

Rowntree has strong words to say about membership and about what we would call outreach. One of the many paradoxes that Rowntree describes is that Quakers were initially inclusive but soon became what he called seclusive. "Fox's views were far more extensive than the mere founding of a sect. Wishing to include all within its pale, it would have been contrary to the genius of primitive Quakerism to have made a definite statement as to who were members and who were not: the habitual attendance at their religious meetings was the only popular test which indicated whom were to be regarded as friends." Later he says, "It is justly remarked .. that the organisation of [Methodism] is "expansive", that of Quakerism "seclusive". We regard this as having been a powerful cause of the society's first stationary, then retrograde condition - one that has been in operation almost from its origin to the present time." Perhaps Rowntree's sternest strictures were about disowning members. Changes were rapidly made and this issue, though vital at the time, need not detain us now.

Rowntree was not constrained by modern verbal sensitivities; he described the regrettable lack of propagandism and aggression, and of proselytes and proselytising. "History proves that such a system [of centralised authority] is best fitted for the prosecution of an active propagandism: the Quaker polity is the reverse of this, hence the main reason of its failure as an instrumentality for obtaining proselytes." Later he adds, "The Society of friends was no longer an advancing aggressive body aspiring to universal dominion - it was one sect among many," and still later he is very harsh in describing "the subjective character of modern Quakerism ... expressing itself in many pointless platitudes such as: 'We are not a proselytising people'".

Rowntree was forthright in his comments about Quaker traditions - meetings, silence, ministry and teaching. He believed that "the peculiar form of public worship adopted by the Friends has not a little to do with their declining numbers". The desire to abstain from all 'forms' meant that meetings for worship were frequently silent for months together which resulted in making the worship of God "specially distasteful to the young". He noted that "the structure of the human mind is not adapted to long-continued silence and this is especially the case in the earlier stages of life". Meetings often depended on a minister to be present. But Rowntree notes, possibly with a hint of a smile on his face, that "an eminent minister ... spoke strongly against persons expecting a revelation 'as distinct as would be required to predict the downfall of a city, before they would venture to open their mouths in vocal prayer or ministry'". Concerning the neglect of education in the early period of the society's history Rowntree said it was "remarkable that the distorted application of the doctrine of the inward light" had been a major contributory factor. He further noted that by the mid 18th century "instead of being a company of faithful men and women, united in religious fellowship and possessing a strong bond of union in heartfelt allegiance to their common Lord, the Society of Friends increasingly assumed the character of a corporation, existing for ends partly religious, partly social and partly civil." Later still he was caustic about how "as now developed and organised the Society is unsuited to be a direct agency ... even in the promulgation of its own most prominent tenets; and this has led persons to support associations for the advocacy of their principles in fragments e.g. the Peace Society, the Society for the Liberation of Religion from State Patronage and Control etc." Many of these issues seem familiar to 21st century Quakers.

The response to some aspects of Rowntree's essay was prompt. In 1860, the peculiarities of dress and speech were made optional, and a year later a complete revision of the Discipline was made. The pace of change after the 1861 Yearly Meeting was slow, as (according to Heron) the membership of the Society adapted itself to their internal changes, while becoming slowly aware of external changes that might mean fresh problems to face. By the turn of the century many people were touched and changed through both education and missions meetings. However few applied for membership. And the Society was divided - many missioners were young converts to Quakerism of working-class origins. According to Isichei (quoted by Heron) John Stephenson Rowntree believed that a good deal of the criticism was due to their having offended the tastes of some in the Society.

So problems persisted, and again a comment rings true today. Heron records how at the Yearly Meeting of 1893 the 25 year-old John Wilhelm Rowntree (the same age as his uncle John Stephenson Rowntree had been when writing his prize essay) frankly told Friends that much that was said in the way of ministry in meetings for worship did not reach the youth of his generation. It simply passed them by and did not strike home. He called for religious messages expressed "in their own language".

Further changes at and relatively soon after the Manchester Conference of 1895 need no further consideration in the present discussion.


In discussing the future of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain the present discussion will focus on a fundamental change needed by the Society, namely that we need to go out - even to the highways and byways - and invite (not compel) people to come and JOIN US. It has already been pointed out that Rowntree was a proponent of outreach. The argument will be put forward here that this is a necessary approach not primarily because of numbers - although greater and sustained numbers are indeed fundamental to our survival - but because the message of the Quaker way is of major importance in the 21st century for the church, for other faith groups, and for society in general, both the leaders and the people.

Of course "outreach" has explicitly been on our agenda for some years. But the public survey about British Quakers which is yet to be fully reported shows the amount of communication which is still needed. So it is very clear that for such an open and public and projected invitation - to join us - to be coherent, much hard thinking, hard work, and possibly fundamental change will also be needed in order to join explicit Quaker substance to our Quaker forms. That is the task of the next few pages.

Section 1 addresses the question: Is there really a problem now, with so many recent changes and developments?

Section 2 considers how an onlooker might view 21st century British Quakerism.

Section 3 asks whether 'only one thing is missing' - and, as outlined above, suggests that there are in fact two things lacking - one is U (as in the current Quaker outreach advertising), and the other relates to ensuring that adequate substance is embedded in Quaker form - as was the experience of the first Quakers.

Section 4 discusses notions for the 21st century - an unavoidable but brief excursion into theology (and moral philosophy) relevant to the future of Friends in Britain.

Section 5 seeks to discern the Quaker Way Ahead,  and take account of the views and experiences of younger Quakers.

Section 6 contains brief conclusions.

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The text of The Peculium
can be viewed on-line
at Google books in a
new window here

The text of Rowntree's
book Quakerism past
and present
can be
viewed on-line at
Google books in a
new window here


In addition to numerous quotations from John Stephenson Rowntree's essay of 1859, the pages contain many brief references by name to books and/or authors. Many quotations, mostly directly acknowledged, are taken from The Friend and some from the Friends Quarterly.

Reference has also been made to many books, in particular the following:

David Boulton:
Real like the daisies or real like I love you? and Who on earth was Jesus?

Pink Dandelion: An Introduction to Quakerism; The Quakers - A Very Short Introduction, and The Liturgies of Quakerism

Alastair Heron: Quakers in Britain, and On Being a Quaker

John Punshon: Portrait in Grey