Quaker States

Religions have always fascinated me.  Having grown up in one that was self-assured that it alone was right, I didn’t have much opportunity, as a child, to look closely at others.  I had to assume that other religions took their beliefs just as seriously as we did, but that they were dead wrong.  Majoring in religion requires a bit more broadmindedness.  We looked, as objectively as possible, at other traditions.  Still, Grove City College is unapologetically evangelical, so some professors weren’t shy about stating this or that belief was just plain wrong.  Things improved from then on, academically speaking.  By the time of my doctorate, and as an Episcopalian, I learned to distance myself a bit; dispassionate was the only way to be in the face of sometimes conflicting accounts.

The other day, following my natural curiosity, I was researching Unitarian Universalists.  Having a strong biblical background, I was curious about this denomination that represents Scriptures quite differently.  The Google metrics brought up a page with logos of various traditions: the Unitarian one I recognized, as I did the Episcopal and United Methodist Churches, having been a member of both.  Then I noticed the symbol used for the Quakers: the Quaker oats man.  I was inclined to laugh and be horrified simultaneously.  The “Quaker” Oats symbol is a commercial mock-up, and had Google read Wikipedia it would’ve known that the company has nothing to do with the faith.  Capitalizing (literally) on the reputation of Quakers for purity, the company used William Penn as a model for a guy who wouldn’t cheat you.

Now that I live in the Quaker State (again), I’ve grown curious about the Society of Friends.  This is particularly so since they are one of the few Christian groups to have been expropriated by the commercial world.  Who’s ever heard of Presbyterian laundry detergent?  Well, with the exception of hospitals and caregiving institutions, which are happy to take the name of a denomination, religion is hardly a trusted commodity these days in these parts.  The Quakers do have a symbol—two superimposed, four-pointed stars.  Metrics, however, are based on search frequencies, I suspect.  As far as religious denominations go, the Society of Friends isn’t massive.  Far more people search for Quaker Oats than the actual religion whose name the company borrowed.  Such is life in these United States—the ultimate corporate venture.  Now a wholly owned subsidiary of The Trump Organization.


A Glimpse at the Future

Last month one of the three remaining Shakers died. In this era of religion unawareness, not many Americans, I expect, could identify this dying religion. The Shakers aren’t the Quakers—we like to give religions we don’t understand pejorative monikers—they are a group that grew out of the Friends but that had important differences. Shakers believe, especially, in celibacy. It had to grow through conversion since Shakers could not reproduce biologically. At their height there were about 6000 of them—the number of Twitter followers of a fairly successful humanities professor, I suspect. They were hard-working and their brand of furniture endures beyond the life of the sect. The official count of Shakers worldwide now stands at two.

This little bit of news saddened me. Not that I’ve ever been tempted to join the Shakers—it would be a bit of a stretch for a family man—but I’ve always admired countercultural groups. Like many religious sects of the late eighteenth century, the Shakers were millenarians. That is, they believed in the imminent second coming of Christ. Given this belief, biological reproduction wasn’t really necessary. In fact, it was counter-productive. Like so many of the slumberers of the Great Awakening, the Shakers eventually settled in upstate New York. Since their lifestyle was different, they had to form their own communities. The last community is in Maine. When the last two Shakers go to their reward, barring a miracle, the denomination will be extinct.

life_of_the_diligent_shaker

The Shakers were distinctive for yet another reason as well. They were open to, and often defined by, female leadership. This might be expected in a world where men have difficulty controlling themselves in mixed company. Catholic monasteries locked men in without women. To agree to live in a mixed gendered community but without mixed gendered relations took a dose of will power that borders on the saintly. The Shakers won’t be the only religion to have gone extinct, when that happens. Religions, like organisms, grow, thrive, and die. This little group had a disproportionate impact on society. Those who watched Michael Flatley throwing his body across the stage to the haunting joyfulness of the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” likely had no idea that the world owed one of its most beautiful melodies to a group of people living celibate lives in the woods of Maine. The Shakers’ unique contributions to the weird and wonderful world of religion will be missed by at least one.


Quaker Way

QuakerWayDoctrine can be an immense stumbling block. As a person who’s been involved with many churches in my life, the virtue of virtues often seems to be sacrificed on the altar of doctrine. If you don’t believe X, you’re not one of us. It was a great delight, therefore, to read Philip Gulley’s Living the Quaker Way. Having grown up in Pennsylvania, you might think I’d know a great deal about Quakers. I never met any, however, when I lived in the state. And I really didn’t know much about their beliefs. I knew they called themselves Friends, and I knew “Quaker” was originally a derogatory title, like “Methodist,” “Jesuit,” or the near homonym, “Shaker,” later reappropriated as a name for the group. I also knew that numerically they were on the smaller end of the religious demographic. Reading Gulley’s insightful little book was an epiphany.

I learned of Calvinism at a Presbyterian College. There I was taught TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints, the first three of which struck me as dangerous and unholy. What a beaming of light to read instead of SPICE: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. This acronym is Gulley’s shorthand for what defines the Religious Society of Friends. Doctrine is nowhere on the list. A deity who creates people just to throw them into Hell is also missing. As is Transubstantiation. And religious violence in the name of spiritual purity. There is an awful lot to be learned from the simple message of people who understand that they are people and every other person is too. Gulley is not naive; he knows Quakers aren’t perfect. What he does show, however, is that those who are willing to relinquish self-assured self-righteousness make far better neighbors who resemble what Jesus taught than do many who would rather destroy the livelihoods of those with whom they disagree.

The beauty of what this book describes is that one need not be a Quaker to live this way. Not being doctrinal, a Quaker wouldn’t insist on that and still be true to the ideals of the Friends. If we could learn to want less, to get along with those with whom we disagree, be honest, welcome others, and treat all people as if they had a bit of God inside them the world would be a better place. There can be no doubt about that. One might say, “that’s just common sense.” I would guess that most Quakers would agree. Religion, freed from platitudes, could be a viable and valuable way of being in the world.


Awakening Forces

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_Poster

Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not disappoint. Many of us who saw the original installment recognized the archetypal image right away. Good versus evil, light and darkness, the quest for the father, and a host of other tropes backed the story in ways that made us believe we were in a galaxy far, far away. As is well known, the mythographer Joseph Campbell was closely consulted on the movie, bringing his own Jungian understanding of myth to the story. We felt that we cared about the outcome of these characters’ lives. Prequels are, of course, a hard sell. Although technically proficient, the Sith episodes I-III dulled the eyes of many original fans. It wasn’t just because the action had to be all “shoot-‘em-up” western style either. There is a logic to mythology, and yes, whether we want to admit it or not, religious imagery. The Force Awakens returns to that religious, archetypal imagery and it shows not only in box office numbers, but in the reviews.

This is one of those movies that kept interrupting my subconscious the night after I saw it, even as a matinee. There was some powerful imagery going on there. Having seen the film only once, I’m sure much of it escaped me, but even based on the trailers people were wondering about the cruciform light saber wielded by Kylo Ren. Naturally, the force does awaken, carrying the mythology further. C-3PO, however, is the one who blurts out “Thank the Maker” when the resistance finally gets a break. What would a robot know of the force? Visions and prophets, the stuff of classical conflicts of good and evil, are fully present and accounted for. Even the marking of Finn’s helmet in the opening scene has elements of the Passover to it.

What stayed with me the most is a concept traditionally associated with the Quakers—the light within. Kylo Ren is struggling to defeat that light. Others are, in effect, praying for him to realize that it is still there. The force pervades every living thing, but humanoids have the light within. Movies that understand this kind of archetypal thinking quickly draw a fan base. Part of what we are seeing on the screen moves beyond entertainment to a kind of religious thinking. The original trilogy led to the growth of an actual religion called Jediism. The tenets are almost Manichean in their duality, and despite an ending that leaves you wondering, those who know the power of mythology have no doubts who, at the end, will be victorious. It is the way of the force.


Social Media and Persia

A story appeared on the BBC recently about “sin free Facebook.” The website, which started in Brazil, is based on the idea that users don’t like having swear words and violence among their friends. According to the story some 600 words are banned from use, making me think that I’m seriously behind the times. With an “amen” button and a keyword of “bless” Facegloria has been growing dramatically. Some 100,000 friends are now on board. Of course, the concept of friends in a religious conceptual context goes back to the Quakers, but they tended not to use computers, if I remember my history correctly. The odd thing, to me, is that on social media you get to select your friends already. If you don’t like what they post, why are you friends?

Sin is going through a resurgence of academic interest these days. One of the features that emerges from all this exploration is that sin is not as clearly defined as we might think it is. Wrong and right. White and black. Things in their proper order. In the biblical world the word “sin” seemed to mean missing what you’d aimed at. From there it grew to cover all kinds of infractions. Today most people think of sin in sexual terms—those things you aren’t allowed to do. Ironically we call other things phrases like “hate crimes” rather than “hate sins.” And crime is supposed to make it worse, since sin is often not illegal. Or if it is illegal, it’s not often brought to the law.

800px-Forbidden_fruit

I have a Facebook account, but I have to confess to not looking at it much. My days are busy and although the marketing departments of publishers use Facebook, those of us with editorial roles are seldom encouraged to spend time on it when we could be doing something more valuable. I arrive home so late I don’t even check my email before bed. I guess I haven’t had the time to notice the sin on Facebook. Yes, a few of my friends use what Spock might term “colorful metaphors,” but I seldom feel the need for confession after reading a post or two. My friends, like me, are fallible and many of them are in less-than-ideal circumstances. I really don’t think social media with further restraints would help the situation. Of course, I could use an “amen” button on this blog, I suppose. I think I’d rather have it read “verily,” though.


Diggers, Ranters, and Muggles

Great Britain, despite its relative secularity today, has historically been the Petri dish in which many religions have been cultured. A large part of this phenomenon derives, I suspect, from the relative indecision during a crucial period of what the official religion should be. It is quite possible for a state to dictate a religion, and historically religions have often served the purposes of the state. Governments support the religion that serves them best. Beginning with Henry VIII, however, Britain had a difficult time making up its royal mind. The Church (in Rome) had decreed divorce immoral, and the interests of patriarchy run deep in some men’s souls. In the flip-flopping between Protestant and Catholic that took place, many new groups emerged from the froth. The True Levellers, popularly known as “Diggers,” were one such group. Taking the book of Acts literally, they believed true Christians should have everything in common. They formed farming communities (digging the soil) to support themselves as dissenters. As with most utopian communities, however, this kind of radical sharing just didn’t last. After only two years the Diggers had disbanded.

Around the same time another sect known as the Ranters abounded. The Ranters, early rivals to the Quakers, held ideas well beyond the simple communism of the Diggers. Pantheists in an age of omnipotence, they didn’t really stand a chance of survival. They didn’t trust the authority of the church, and being Christians, as well as pantheists, they urged their English compatriots to listen to the Jesus inside instead of the one proclaimed in a limited way by the church and the Bible. Their antinomianism led to the perception that they were a threat to the social order. Interestingly, there seems to be evidence that the movement was somewhat widespread in the seventeenth century. Eventually they disappeared, absorbed into the Quaker movement or simply losing their cohesiveness by dint of their native antipathy to order.

Mr. Muggleton, I presume

One of those influenced by the teaching of the Ranters was Lodowicke Muggleton. Technically a tailor, Muggleton is remembered as a religious thinker (a rarity in itself) largely because of his writings and Muggletonianism, which he founded (and which lasted until 1979). Apart from the Ranters, he also rejected the Quakers. Muggleton believed only in that which could be physically embodied, denying many aspects of an early modern world still alive with miracles and superstition. Even angels were beings of pure reason. Tracing the origins of fictional concepts may be a fool’s errand—and if so I am well qualified—but I wonder if J. K. Rowling’s “Muggles” derive from the name of this former Ranter who came to see life as having no magic. Muggleton’s world had no place for witches, magic, or divine intervention, yet it was profoundly religious. Once religion enters the public domain, it is sculpted to the satisfaction of individuals in search of their own meaning. Some of those searchers will be Muggles and others will be Ranters and a few may remain Diggers. Without any of them, the fabric begins to unravel.


Help from the Friend

Being unconventional does carry certain risks. I first learned of the Publick Universal Friend, born Jemima Wilkinson, from Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America. There are many things, I imagine, worse in life than being labeled “occult,” but the Publick Universal Friend seems to have been more eccentric than occult. The “Friend” of her chosen moniker was a mark of her Quaker roots. The Quakers, while never among the most numerous of Christian sects, are infrequently considered occult. Two U.S. Presidents were Quakers, as is that friendly face smiling at you from your breakfast cereal box. What Jemima Wilkinson did that pushed her over the edge into the unconventional was actually the fault of her father: she was born female. In the 1770s religious leadership was nearly unanimously male. 

Wilkinson underwent a near-death experience that, like John Wesley some 70 years earlier, led her to believe that she was born to some higher purpose. Quakers, or Friends, generally eschewed excess showiness and the Publick Univeral Friend liked to make her presence known. She rode a white horse into Philadelphia and rode around in a carriage with her own logo, a kind of evangelical branding, if you will. Eventually tiring of the criticism of city folk (Publick Universal Friend was strictly platonic, advocating absolute celibacy), she moved to a region of New York that would eventually become the birthplace of several distinctive American religions. She settled near Keuka Lake and formed a community called Jerusalem.  New York and Pennsylvania would eventually harbor many utopian groups.  Both states were (and are, to a large extent) rural and it was a fairly easy matter to locate unclaimed real estate and establish a little bit of heaven here on earth. 

The message of Publick Universal Friend was peace and friendship, nothing too radical.  If preached by a male it would have been considered gospel. In fact, in a less darwinian world it might actually work.  The pull of nature on some people is too strong.  On others it is too weak. Maybe it is the legacy of having been born in a state that began as a “holy experiment” by William Penn, but I find it sad that the Publick Universal Friend has been nearly forgotten. Perhaps the Friend will have the final laugh. It seems that a young man named Joseph Smith might have been influenced by her in the days before writing up the Book of Mormon. As I’m sure Joseph Smith learned in the town of Carthage, we can all use a Friend who encourages us all to get along.


Seneca Falls

Located in central New York, along the northern end of Cayuga Lake, is the village of Seneca Falls. Based on a vote by residents last year, the village is being dissolved today. With a population of almost 7,000 people Seneca Falls is the largest village in New York ever to be dissolved. The move brings me a personal sadness. Not because I have ever been to Seneca Falls (I haven’t), but because it is a historically significant location.

On July 19–20, 1848, The Seneca Falls Convention met. It was one of the earliest gatherings of women’s rights proponents held in the United States. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and local Quaker women, the Convention met to provide a platform for Lucretia Mott, a Quaker leader known for her public speaking on women’s issues. The Quakers, in a rare historical twist, generally acknowledged the validity of female religious participation equal to that of men. The Convention produced the Declaration of Sentiments and its resolutions, which argued for women’s right to vote. Even Frederick Douglass gave a favorable assessment of women’s suffrage at the conference.

One of the long-term results of these early steps became the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution. The amendment was passed only in 1920. The state of affairs for women still has far to go before it can be called true equality. Certainly some aspects of society have improved, but women still fall under the pay scales of men and are often barred from leadership roles they have every right to hold. Finland, India, Liberia, and Sri Lanka have all had women presidents. In the United States, Seneca Falls is dissolving.

The reason that women have been relegated to secondary status is generally because of religion. The gods seem to favor one set of genitalia above another. Most pantheons operate under the control of a masculine god. Of course, the rationale given is often based on scriptures written by men but passed along to the divine male for proxy authorship. We need more Seneca Falls Conventions, only they should be held in a higher court, not one inch shy of heaven itself. One of our national resolutions, as this year ends, ought to be finally to take seriously the spirit of our founders and bring equality for all to life.

O little town


Impossible Kingdom

Over Thanksgiving we visited friends in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Newtown was the home of the Quaker painter Edward Hicks, famous for his many renditions of The Peaceable Kingdom. On a chilly Black Friday we walked to his former home, visited his Meeting House, and stopped by his grave. The Quakers, whose presence is much more palpable in the eastern part of the state, were the original Pennsylvanians. Their pacifism defined them, and the peaceable kingdom was their ideal world. A world without strife, without greed, without televangelists and politicians. It is a compelling vision.

A peaceable kingdom

The Society of Friends recognized no human leader to their movement that sought direct experience of the divine. In the Bible such a vision pervades early Israel where the rule of God was expected to be enough; no king was needed for this kingdom. The ideal world, however, was plagued by human ambition and selfishness. Before the first judge hung up his hat they knew that they’d need a king. A monarchy, as they were warned, that would bring about its own set of intractable problems. Leadership inherently creates inequalities. Just ask any accountant who keeps track of a governor’s expenses. Kinglets are just as bad as godlets.

We read about the excesses and abuses our leaders stockpile in the name of public servanthood. Yet, for all that, the world is not at peace. An increasing number of nations are joining the nuclear club, poising their missiles over populations of innumerable people in need. The peaceable kingdom has no king, and the visions of the prophets are cloudy and uncertain. Visiting the quaint, affluent hamlet of Newtown, it is possible to believe in the vision of one of their defining personalities. Just don’t open the newspaper or turn on the television. Because, like the Israelites, we have many eager kings lined up outside the door.

Is the peaceable kingdom dead?