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.

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?