The year 1859 saw a publication which had profound effects and made
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
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
The other book about the decline of Quakerism published in 1859, and
awarded the first prize, was Quakerism,
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
Further changes at and relatively soon after the Manchester Conference
of 1895 need no further consideration in the present discussion.
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.
addresses the question: Is there really a problem now,
with so many recent changes and developments?
considers how an onlooker might view 21st century British
asks whether 'only one thing is missing' - and, as
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.
discusses notions for the 21st century - an unavoidable
brief excursion into theology (and moral philosophy) relevant to the
future of Friends in Britain.
seeks to discern the Quaker Way Ahead, and take
account of the views and experiences of younger Quakers.
contains brief conclusions.