Friday, August 13, 2010

The Quaker Label

Johan Maurer wrote last month about Who Owns the Quaker Brand addressing some of the disagreements that come up with what we mean when we say "Quaker". Rather than looking at those differences, I think it is interesting to look at what we are trying to say about ourselves when we call ourselves Quaker.

In some of these struggles about what it means to be a Quaker, there are people who get quite upset when they feel like others are telling them they aren't a real Quaker. I think some of this could be based on a fear of losing a community that one has found precious, either through not belonging to the community, or by the community changing and becoming something that doesn't fit. Perhaps this fear is more easily realized in a community that avoids defining itself, so that there is less security in what the community is actually about.

The thing about the name "Quaker" I really want to look at, however, is the extent to which the name is important to us, and why. What if you were no longer allowed to call yourself Quaker, while still maintaining the same level of membership in your faith community? What would you feel you had lost? Is it important, for example, to be associated by name with other Quakers of the past and present? Would you feel like you had lost your connection to the Divine? Would you feel like you had lost some kind of moral authority?

These are questions I often ask myself. My feeling is that if I am holding on too tight to the word "Quaker", it becomes almost an idol for me, a substitute for the direct inward experience of Christ. It also seem to me that the less tightly I hold onto that word, the less I worry about whether other people use it differently. That doesn't mean that I give up my concern for my community and whether or not it is being faithful, but that I am less worried about how other communities use it.

There is a passage in Revelation in which the Spirit says "And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it." This verse points me away from worldly words and names, and towards God. Whether anyone else knows that name doesn't matter, what matters is that I am faithful.


  1. Hi, Mark!

    I think we are more or less stuck with using the word “Quaker” according to the standard definition, which you may find in any dictionary you consult, and also in the book of discipline of New York Yearly Meeting: Quaker : member of the Religious Society of Friends.

    No, I’m not terribly happy about that definition, either. But at least it doesn’t say that absolutely everyone is a Quaker who chooses to call herself one. One has to get an official body to accept one into membership.

    When I want to make a distinction suggesting that I am not impressed by the standards that many meetings use in accepting people into membership, I talk about “traditional Friends”, by which I mean (if I am asked to explain) those who adhere to the faith and practice of earlier generations.

    I do think some sort of clear label for such Friends is important. Our predecessors in our common faith spent several hundred years saying that the Society of Friends is called by God to bear a common testimony. In many cases, they gave up their lives for that testimony. And they united in saying that our consistency in practice and in doctrine is essential to that testimony. Traditional Friends still do their best to carry that testimony forward, even as other sorts of Friends (nontheists, Pagans, social-action-only Friends, etc.) labor to undercut it. It seems to me that if we have no clear and unambiguous label for such Friends, to draw the attention of observers back from the actions of such Friends to the One they are testifying of, the power of their corporate testimony is severely weakened, and perhaps even lost.

  2. Yesterday I was talking to someone who said that the Quaker Meetings here were mainly serving as "a religious society for people who don't want to be religious."

    That's what I emphatically don't want calling myself "Quaker" to mean! But it seems to be pretty accurate. (Even more accurate might be "for people who intensely resist being religious, oy vey.)

    I agree that "the name isn't the thing," but it bothers me when things are mislabeled. The Quaker label has gone onto good things and bad over the years, but it's the word I know for the proclamation of direct access to God that came out from England a few centuries back...

  3. I had read years and years ago that the programmed meetings were quietly dropping the "quaker" label.
    Seems fine to me.They dropped quakerism in 1865.

  4. Marshall,I agree that labels serve an important function as a shorthand for descriptions, I guess I was thinking more about the situation where the label is confused for the thing itself. I think it is a similar issue to the one you raise with "anyone is a Quaker who wants to call themselves one".

    Forrest, I would agree that "Quaker" incorporates "direct access to God", although I think it also connotes the intention of living one's life according to that direct access. And if we have that direct experience of God, the idea of calling ourselves "Quaker" seems somehow pale in comparison.

    ben, what turning point was reached in 1865?

    With love,