PART I: ROOTS OF QUAKER NONTHEISM
This is a look at the roots of Quaker nontheism today. Nontheist Friends are powerfully drawn to Quaker practices but they do not accompany this with a faith in God.
Nontheist is an umbrella term covering atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, pantheists and wiccaists. You can combine nontheist with other terms and call yourself an agnostic nontheist or atheist nontheist and so on. Some nontheists have set aside one version of God (e.g. as a person) and not another (e.g. as a word for good or your highest values). A negative term is convenient, even necessary, because when speaking positively we describe our views in so many different ways.
Many of the Quakers mentioned here were not nontheists but they stood for views, heretical in their time. In the earliest days this included questioning the divinity of Christ, the divine inspiration of the Bible, and concepts of heaven, hell and immortality. Later some Quakers questioned miracles, the trinity, and divine creation. Recently the issue has been whether you have to be Christian to be Quaker, or theist. There have been other changes in clothing, marriage practices and so on. Quakerism has always been in progress.
Views held today are no more authentic because they were present in some form in earlier years. However, it is encouraging to Quaker nontheists today to find their views and their struggle prefigured among Friends of an earlier day.
In the following excerpts and comments, we learn about Quaker skeptics of the past and the issues they stood for. These are the roots that support the flowers of contemporary Quaker nontheism.
FIRST GENERATION SKEPTICS: Quakers were a varied group at the beginning. There was little effective doctrinal control and individuals were encouraged to think for themselves within the contexts of their local meetings. Many of the early traditions are key for nontheists today, such as the emphasis on actions other than talk, and the injunction to interpret what we read (even Scripture). All the early Friends can be considered forerunners of the Quaker nontheists of today, but two people deserve special mention. Gerard Winstanley (1609-c.1660) was a Digger, or True Leveller, who became a Quaker. He published 20 pamphlets between 1648 and 1652 and was a political and religious revolutionary. He equated God with the law of the universe known by observation and reason guided by conscience and love. Winstanley wrote, “And everyone who speaks of any herb, plant, art or nature of mankind, is required to speak nothing by imagination, but what he hath found out by his own industry and observation in trial…And thus to speak, or thus to read the Law of Nature (or God) as he hath written his name in every body, is to speak apure language, and this is to speak the truth as Jesus Christ spake it, giving to everything its own weight and measure…. By this means, in time men shall attain to the practical knowledge of God truly… ‘Aye but,’ saith the zealous but ignorant professor, ‘This is a low and carnal ministry indeed, this leads men to know nothing but the knowledge of the earth and the secrets of nature, but we are to look after spiritual and heavenly things.’ I answer: To know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God; and to know the works of God within the creation is to know God himself, for God dwells in every visible work or body…. And if a man should go to imagine what God is beyond the creation, or what he will be in a spiritual demonstration after a man is dead, he doth (as the proverb saith) build castles in the air, or tells us of a world beyond the moon and beyond the sun, merely to blind the reason of man…. I’ll appeal to your self in this question, what other knowledge have you of God but what you have within the circle of the creation?… For if the creation in all its dimensions be the fulness of him that fills all with himself, and if you yourself be part of this creation, where can you find God but in that line or station wherein you stand?”
Jacob Bauthumley (1613-1692) was a shoemaker who served in the Parliamentary Army. He is described as a Ranter. In 1650 he published The Light and Dark Sides of God, the only pamphlet of his that we have. This was declared blasphemous and he was thrown out of the army, had his sword broken over his head, and his tongue bored. After the Restoration he became a Quaker and a librarian and was elected sergeant-at-mace in Leicester. For Bauthumley (apparently pronounced Bottomley), God dwells in men and in all the rest of creation and nowhere else. We are God even when we sin. Jesus was no more divine than any person is, and the Bible is not the word of God. He wrote, “I see that God is in all Creatures, Man and Beast, Fish and Fowle, and every green thing, from the highest Cedar to the Ivey on the wall; and that God is the life and being of them all, and that God doth really dwell, and if you will personally; if he may admit so low an expression in them all, and hath his Being no where else out of the Creatures…. Further, I see that all the Beings in the World are but that one Being, and so he may well be said, to be every where as he is, and so I cannot exclude him from Man or Beast, or any other Creature: Every Creature and thing having that Being living in it, and there is no difference betwixt Man and Beast; but as Man carries a more lively Image of the divine Being then [than] any other Creature: For I see the Power, Wisdom, and Glory of God in one, as well as another onely in that Creature called Man, God appears more gloriously in then the rest…. And God loves the Being of all Creatures, yea, all men are alike to him, and have received lively impressions of the divine nature, though they be not so gloriously and purely manifested in some as in others, some live in the light side of God, and some in the dark side; But in respect of God, light and darkness are all one to him; for there is nothing contrary to God, but onely to our apprehension…. It is not so safe to go to the Bible to see what others have spoken and writ of the mind of God as to see what God speaks within me and to follow the doctrine and leadings of it in me.”
18th CENTURY SKEPTICS: These were Quakers who asserted views such as that God created but does not run the universe, that Jesus was a man and not divine, that theology is superstition and divides people unnecessarily and that the soul is mortal.
A Quaker who asserted some of these views was John Bartram (1699-1777) of Philadelphia. He was a farmer and possibly the best known botanist in the American colonies. He expressed a mystical feeling for the presence of God in nature and supported a rational approach. In 1758 he was disowned by Darby Meeting for his opinion that Jesus was not divine, but he continued to worship at that meeting and was buried there. In 1761 he carved above the door of his greenhouse a quote from Alexander Pope: “Slave to no sect, who takes no private road, but looks through Nature up to Nature’s God.” He wrote in a letter, “It is through the telescope I see God in his glory.” He carved into a stone in the wall of his study: “It is God alone, Almyty Lord, the Holy One by Me ador’d. John Bartram 1770” He wrote to Benjamin Rush, “I hope a more diligent search will lead you into the knowledge of more certain truths than all the pretended revelations of our mystery mongers and their inspirations.” Bartram was frequently accused of being a deist. His sons Moses, John, and James were founding members of the Free Quakers.
FREE QUAKERS: These Friends were disowned for abandoning the peace testimony during the Revolutionary War, but they cast the issue in more general terms. There several Free Quaker meetings, the longest lasting one being that in Philadelphia (1781-1834). The Free Quakers supported freedom of conscience and saw themselves as upholding the original Friends’ traditions. They wrote: “We have no new doctrine to teach, nor any design of promoting schisms in religion. We wish only to be freed from every species of ecclesiastical tyranny, and mean to pay a due regard to the principles of our forefathers…and hope, thereby, to preserve decency and to secure equal liberty to all. We have no designs to form creeds or confessions of faith, but [hope] to leave every man to think and judge for himself…and to answer for his faith and opinions to…the sole Judge and sovereign Lord of conscience.” Their Discipline forbade all forms of disownment: “Neither shall a member be deprived of his right among us, on account of his differing in sentiment from any or all of his brethren.”
PROTO-HICKSITES: Some the views that emerged during the schism of 1827 had been expressed much earlier. Job Scott (1751-1793) saw all outward signs, such as the Bible, creeds, reason, and learning, as hindrance to the experience of the inward Christ. His Journal, published in 1797, aroused opposition from evangelical Christians.
There were also New Lights in Ireland. Abraham Shackleton (1752-1818) emphasized the experience of the Inner Light and objected to legalistic Disciplines and scriptural doctrine. He was disowned in 1801.
Hannah Barnard (1724-1825) of New York questioned the interpretation of events in the Bible and put reason above orthodoxy and ethics over theology. She wrote a treatise in the form of a dialogue to teach domestic science to rural women. It included bits of philosophy, civics and autobiography. She supported the French Revolution and insisted that masters and servants sit together during her visits. In 1802 she was silenced as a minister and disowned by Friends. She said, “Nothing is revealed truth to me, as doctrine until it is sealed as such in my mind, through the illumination of…the word of God, the divine light, and intelligence, to which the Scriptures…bear plentiful testimony.” She wrote, “under the present state of the Society I can with humble reverent thankfulness rejoice in the consideration that I was made the Instrument of bringing their Darkness to light.” On hearing Elias Hicks in 1819, she is said to have commented that these were the ideas for which she had been disowned. He visited her in 1824, a year before she died.
In Massachusetts there was a group called the New Lights, such as Mary Newhall (c. 1780-1829) and Mary Rotch. They opposed the power of the Elders, sometimes theatrically by occupying the facing benches or wearing bright colors to meeting. They also held reason and individual perception of truth over the authority of Scripture. The New Lights expressed views similar to those of Abraham Shackleton, Hannah Barnard and Elias Hicks. About 60 Friends were disowned and the movement died out. The dissenters did not continue meeting together and many became Unitarians. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke highly of them. In the Hicksite-Orthodox schism of 1827, New England Yearly Meeting did not divide and one reason for this may be that they had already confronted and disowned the New Lights.
HICKSITES: The schism that started in 1827 involved many people but it is instructive to focus on one man at the center of the conflict. Elias Hicks (1748-1830) traveled widely, urging Friends to follow a God known inwardly and to resist the domination of others in the Society. He wrote, “There is scarcely anything so baneful to the present and future happiness and welfare of mankind, as a submission to traditional and popular opinion, I have therefore been led to see the necessity of investigating for myself all customs and doctrines…either verbally or historically communicated…and not to sit down satisfied with any thing but the plain, clear, demonstrative testimony of the spirit and word of life and light in my heart and conscience.” Hicks emphasized the inward action of the Spirit rather than human effort or learning, but he saw a place for reason. He turned to “the light in our own consciences,…the reason of things,…the precepts and example of our Lord Jesus Christ, (and) the golden rule.”
Another proponent of Hicks’ views was Benjamin Ferris (1780-1867), editor of The Berean. He rejected creedal doctrine and claimed Inner Light sufficient for salvation of any person. He emphasized historical relativism and grounded his religion on facts and evidence rather than mystery and emotion. In 1821-1823 he published a debate with an evangelical minister, Letters of Paul and Amicus, which contributed to the schism in 1827. He was the first Clerk of the Hicksite yearly meeting in Philadelphia.
THE MANCHESTER HERETICS: David Duncan (c.1825-1871) was a merchant and manufacturer in Manchester, England, and a former Presbyterian who had trained for the ministry. He married Sarah Ann Duncan and became a Friend in 1852. He was a republican, a social radical, a free thinker, and an aggressive writer and debater. Duncan began to doubt Quakers views about God and the Bible and associated the Light Within with intellectual freedom. He developed a following at the Friends Institute in Manchester and the publication of his Essays and Reviews in 1861 brought the attention of the Elders. In it he wrote, “If the principle were more generally admitted that Christianity is a life rather than a formula, theology would give place to religion…and that peculiarly bitter spirit which actuates religionists would no longer be associated with the profession of religion.” He was disowned and died suddenly of smallpox in 1871. Sarah Ann Duncan and about 14 others resigned from their meeting. “They believed that formal agreement upon dogma was not necessary in a church, and urged an ideal of complete intellectual freedom among church members united only by good will and amity….The forgotten Friends of Manchester, who welcomed liberal views in the 1860s, instead of the 1890s, deserve to be rescued from oblivion – they followed what they believed to the truth in the face of what amounted to persecution, with remarkable courage, tenacity, and openness of mind.” (Isichei, 1970, pp. 30-32)
Another Manchester heretic was Joseph B. Forster (1831-1883), editor of the Manchester Friend and leader of the dissidents after the death of David Duncan. He wrote, “…every law which fixes a limit to free thought, exists in violation of the very first of all doctrines held by the Early Quakers, – the doctrine of the ‘Inner Light’. In 1873 the dissident Friends described themselves thus: “There is no organization of any kind; there are neither officers, nor any of the religious ‘orders’ to be found in other Christian societies; hence no name has been adopted.”
George S. Brady (1833-1913) was a scientist, a member of the Royal Society in London, and a supporter of Charles Darwin. Brady published opinion pieces in the Manchester Friend. In 1873 he wrote, “(U)nless this Society shows in coming years more capacity to discern the signs of the times than it has recently shown, unless it can be brought to see that religious belief…must advance with…advancing knowledge, it will inevitably fall back, even further than it has already fallen, from its old position in the advanced guard of religious freedom.” Thomas Kennedy wrote: “Brady’s Essay on the Exercise of the Intellect in Matters of Religious Belief (1868) was a plea for free thought, for the legitimacy of biblical criticism and for the need to reconcile modern scientific principles with traditional religious beliefs.” (2001, p. 92)
PROGRESSIVE AND CONGREGATIONAL FRIENDS: The Progressive Friends at Longwood (near Philadelphia) were committed to peace and the rights of women and blacks but they were also concerned about church governance and doctrine. Between 1844 and 1874 they separated from other Hicksite Quakers and formed a monthly meeting and a yearly meeting. They asked, “What right had one Friend, or one group of Friends, to judge the leadings of others?” They objected to partitions between men’s and women’s meetings and the authority of meeting elders and ministers over the individual conscience and actions of other members. There had been similar separations in Indiana Yearly Meeting (Orthodox) in the 1840s, Green Plain Quarterly Meeting in Ohio in 1843 and in Genesee Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) in northern New York and Michigan and in New York Yearly Meeting in 1846 and 1848. In their Basis of Religious Association they declared that they were open to “all who seek truth…without distinction of sex, creed and color. We open our doors to all who wish to unite with us in promoting peace and good will among men. We ask all who are striving to elevate humanity to come here and stand with us on equal terms.” The Exposition of Sentiments of the Friends at Longwood in 1853 was addressed “to Friends of Pure and Undefiled Religion, and all Seekers after Truth, of whatever name or denomination…who acknowledge the duty of defining and illustrating their faith in God, not by assent to a creed, but lives of personal purity, and works of beneficence and charity to mankind.” They wrote, “We seek not to diminish, but to intensify in ourselves the sense of individual responsibility… We have set forth no forms or ceremonies; nor have we sought to impose upon ourselves or others a system of doctrinal belief. Such matters we have left where Jesus left them, with the conscience and common sense of the individual. It has been our cherished purpose to restore the union between religion and life, and to place works of goodness and mercy far above theological speculations and scholastic subtleties of doctrine. Creed-making is not among the objects of our association. Christianity, as it presents itself to our minds, is too deep, too broad, and too high to be brought within the cold propositions of the theologian. We should as soon think of bottling up the sunshine for the use of posterity, as of attempting to adjust the free and universal principles taught and exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth to the angles of a manmade creed.” Between 1863 and 1874 the Friends at Longwood were taken back into membership by their meetings. By the time of the birth of modern liberal Quakerism at the turn of the century, Friends in unprogrammed meetings had become progressives.
19th CENTURY FREE THINKERS: Liberal religious dissenters in the 19th century were called Free Thinkers. Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) worked for abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and temperance. She liked to quote William Penn: “Men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ.” Her motto was “Truth for authority, and not authority for truth.” She refused to be controlled by her meeting but also refused to leave it. Her meeting denied permission to travel in the ministry after 1843 but she went anyway. She was a founding member of the Free Religious Association in 1867, when she told them, “I believe that such proving all things, such trying all things, and holding fast only to that which is good, is the great religious duty of our age. . . . Our own conscience and the Divine Spirit’s teaching are always harmonious and this Divine illumination is as freely given to man as his reason, or as are many of his natural powers.” She also said, “I confess to great skepticism as to any account or story, which conflicts with the unvarying natural laws of God in his creation.” In 1840 Elizabeth Fry refused to shake her hand because of her Hicksite and Unitarian views. In 1849 Mott said, “I confess to you, my friends, that I am a worshipper after the way called heresy, a believer after the manner many deem infidel. While at the same time my faith is firm in the blessed, the eternal doctrine preached by Jesus and by every child of God since the creation of the world, especially the great truth that God is the teacher of his people himself; the doctrine that Jesus most emphatically taught, that the kingdom is with man, that there is his sacred and divine temple.” She wrote, “I hold that skepticism is a religious duty. Men should question their theology and doubt more in order that they might believe more.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton quoted her as saying, “There is a broad distinction between religion and theology. The one is a natural, human experience common to all well-organized minds. The other is a system of speculations about the unseen and the unknowable, which the human mind has no power to grasp or explain, and these speculations vary with every sect, age, and type of civilization. No one knows any more of what lies beyond our sphere of action than thou and I, and we know nothing.”
A Friend who became a Unitarian was Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), an astronomer, professor of astronomy at Vasser College, founder of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, and first woman elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Philosophical Society, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She wrote in her diary (and all the following quotes are from the privacy of her diary), “It seems to me that if anything would make me an infidel, it would be the threats lavished against unbelief.” Later, she wrote, “Why cannot a man act himself, be himself, and think for himself? It seems to me that naturalness alone is power; that a borrowed word is weaker than our own weakness, however small we may be. If I reach a girl’s heart or head, I know I must reach it through my own, and not from bigger hearts and heads than mine.” She also wrote, “(Resolved)… If possible, connect myself with liberal Christian institutions, believing as I do that happiness and growth in this life are best promoted by them and that what is good in this life is good in any life.” She saw no conflict between religion and science and defended Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: “Can the study of truth do harm? Does not every true scientist seek only to know the truth? And in our deep ignorance of what is truth, shall we dread the searching after it? I hold the simple student of nature in holy reverence and…I cannot bear to have these sincere workers held up in the least degree to reproach. And let us have truth even if the truth be the awful denial of the good God. We must face the light and not bury our heads in the Earth.”
Another free thinker was Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). She was an active supporter of rights for women, abolition of slavery, and temperance. Raised a Quaker, she considered herself one even when she joined the Unitarians after her meeting failed to support abolition. Her friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, called her an agnostic. She refused to express her opinion on religious subjects, saying she could only work on one reform project at a time. She said “every religion or none should have an equal right on the platform” of the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1854. In 1886 she pleaded with a women’s organization, “These are the principles I want to maintain – that our platform may be kept as broad as the universe, that upon it may stand the representatives of all creeds and of no creeds – Jew and Christian, Protestant and Catholic, Gentile and Mormon, believer and atheist.” On another occasion she said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires….What you should say to outsiders is that a Christian has neither more nor less rights in our association than an atheist. When our platform becomes too narrow for people of all creeds and of no creeds, I myself can not stand upon it.” Anthony said to a group of Quakers in 1885, “I don’t know what religion is. I only know what work is, and that is all I can speak on, this side of Jordan.” When asked in an interview in 1896 “Do you pray?”, she answered, “I pray every single second of my life; not on my knees, but with my work. My prayer is to lift women to equality with men. Work and worship are one with me. I know there is no God of the universe made happy by my getting down on my knees and calling him ‘great’.” In 1897 she wrote, “(I)t does not matter whether it is Calvinism, Unitarianism, Spiritualism, Christian Science, or Theosophy, they are all speculations. So I think you and I had better hang on to this mundane sphere and keep tugging away to make conditions better for the next generation of women.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who was leader of the women’s suffrage movement for 55 years, was one of the most famous and outspoken free thinkers of her day. She was a member of Junius Meeting, a Progressive (or Congregational) meeting in upstate New York, during their first ten years starting when they split off from Genesee Yearly Meeting in 1848. As a child she was terrified by preaching about human depravity and sinners’ damnation. Later, “my religious superstition gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts, and in proportion as I looked at everything from a new standpoint, I grew more happy day by day.” Also, “I can say that the happiest period of my life has been since I emerged from the shadows and superstitions of the old theologies, relieved from all gloomy apprehensions of the future, satisfied that as my labors and capacieties were limited to this sphere of action, I was responsible for nothing beyond my horizon, as I could neither understand nor change the condition of the unknown world. Giving ourselves, then, no trouble about the future, let us make the most of the present, and fill up our lives with earnest work here.” Stanton led a committee that produced the Woman’s Bible which removed the parts that called for the domination of women by men. She wrote, “When women understand that governments and religions are human inventions; that bibles, prayerbooks, catechisms, and encyclical letters are all emanations from the brain of man, they will no longer be oppressed by the injunctions that come to them with the divine authority of ‘thus saith the Lord.’” Also, “I have endeavoured to dissipate these religious superstitions from the minds of women and base their faith on science and reason, where I found for myself at lat that peace and comfort I could never find in the Bible and church.”
MODERN LIBERAL FRIENDS: Edward T. Bennett (1831-1908) was the last Quaker disowned for heresy by the Yearly Meeting in Britain (in 1873). A new liberal consensus began to form with the publication in London in 1884 of A Reasonable Faith: Short Essays for the Times by Three ‘Friends’, written by anonymous authors who later turned out to be Francis Frith (1822-1898), William Pollard (1828-1893), and William E. Turner (1836-1911).
Joseph Rowntree (1836-1925) was a chocolate manufacturer and reformer of the Religious Society of Friends and of society in general. He helped craft the London Yearly Meeting response to the Richmond Declaration of 1887, when he wrote, “(T)he general welfare of the Society of Friends the world over will not be advanced by one Yearly Meeting following exactly in the footsteps of another, but by each being faithful to its own convictions and experience. This may not result in a rigid uniformity of either thought or action, but it is likely to lead to something far better – to a true and living unity.”
The conference of Friends in Manchester in 1895 was a clear declaration of their views, as was the first Summer School (on the British model) at Haverford College in 1900, the founding of Friends General Conference in 1900 and American Friends Service Committee in 1917.
William Littleboy (c.1852-1936), with wife Margaret Littleboy, were among the first staff at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center. William Littleboy was a strong advocate for Quakers who do not have mystical experiences, ethical living as basis for religion, and extension of Religious Society of Friends to a multitude of skeptics. In 1902 he wrote to Rufus Jones urging consideration be given to Quakers who do not have mystical experiences, and in 1916 he published a pamphlet, The Appeal of Quakerism to the Non-Mystic. In it he wrote, “We know that to some choice souls God’s messages come in ways which are super-normal, and it is natural that we should look with longing eyes on these; yet such cases are the exception, not the rule….Let us then take ourselves at our best. (Non-mystics) are capable of thought and care for others. We do at times abase ourselves that others may be exalted. On occasion we succeed in loving our enemies and doing good to those who despitefully use us. For those who are nearest to us we would suffer – perhaps even give our life, because we love them so….To the great non-mystic majority (the Quaker’s) appeal should come with special power, for he can speak to them, as none other can whose gospel is less universal”. This influenced the young Henry Cadbury who said in 1957, “I am sure that over the years (William Littleboy’s) perceptive presentation of the matter has brought real relief to many of us.”
Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1934), an astronomer who felt that scientists and Quakers had something important in common. In 1930 he wrote, “I think that the spirit of seeking is still the prevailing one in our faith, which for that reason is not embodied in any creed or formula…. The finding of one generation will not serve the next. It tarnishes rapidly except it be preserved with an ever-renewed spirit of seeking…. I think it may be said that Quakerism in dispensing with creeds holds out a hand to the scientist…. The spirit of seeking which animates us refuses to regard any kind of creed as its goal…. Rejection of a creed is not inconsistent with being possessed by a living belief. We have no creed in science, but we are not lukewarm in our beliefs…. If our so-called facts are changing shadows, they are shadows cast by the light of constant truth.”
Joel Bean (1825-1914) and Hannah Shipley Bean (1830-1909) were attracted to older forms of Quaker worship instead of to pastors and revivals. In 1887 they founded the College Park Association in California, prototype for new unprogrammed meetings, with an openness to new thought and less emphasis on the Discipline. They were disowned by Iowa Yearly Meeting in 1892.
REUNIFIERS: Some Friends worked their entire lives to bring together branches of the Religious Society of Friends that had broken away from each other. Examples are Rufus Jones and Henry Cadbury. They based their call for reunification on the same grounds nontheist Friends rely on today, such as the emphasis on practice instead of beliefs; the idea Quakerism is a set of beliefs from which we each take some and leave others; the writing of the belief sections of Disciplines in the form of quotations from the writings of individuals; the idea that religiously inspired action can be associated with many different faiths; the love of diversity within the Religious Society of Friends; viewing religion as a matter of how we live our daily lives; a tender concern for religious skeptics; emphasis on Jesus as a person rather than doctrine about Jesus; and so on. These bases for reunification among Friends also serve to include nonmystics, nonChristians and people of other faiths including nontheistic faiths.
NONCHRISTIAN QUAKERS: At regular intervals among Friends there is discussion about whether you have to be a Christian to be a Quaker. This is often in the form of an exchange of letters in a Quaker journal. One such flurry was prompted by two letters from Watchman in The Friend in 1943 and 1944 (reprinted in 1994). In 1953 Arthur Morgan proposed inviting people of other faiths to join Friends. Henry Cadbury was invited to address the question in a talk given at the annual sessions of Pacific Yearly Meeting in 1966. In his view Quakerism and Christianity represent sets of beliefs from which individuals make selections, with no one belief required of all. Quaker universalists have raised the issue many times (for instance, John Linton in 1979 and Dan Seeger in 1984). The basis for including nonChristians often serves to include nontheists as well.
UNIVERSALISTS: The Quaker Universalist Group was formed in Britain in 1979 and the Quaker Universalist Fellowship in the United States in 1983. Among the founders were nontheists John Linton and Kingdon Swayne. It is a diverse movement. For the early Friends it meant that any person could be saved by Christ. For some it is a quiet acceptance of diversity in the world. For others it is an active searching for common aspects of different faiths, for a way to combine them. Universalism can also mean an effort to learn from each other and live together well and love each other, differences and all. In Quaker universalist literature there is some ambiguity over whether nontheists can be Quakers and universalists, and how to include them if this is possible. Doctrinally open membership is still a new idea among Friends.
Over the years, many Quakers stood against the doctrinal views of their times. Listed in somewhat chronological order, I have called them deists, Free Quakers, proto-Hicksites, Hicksites, Manchester heretics, Progressive Friends, nearly Unitarians, modern liberal Quakers, reunifiers, nonChristians, and universalists.
They represent a continual stream of doctrinal dissent and a struggle for openness throughout the history of the Religious Society of Friends. What was rejected at one point was accepted later. Much of what many Friends believe today would have been heresy a few years ago. Worse, there have been repeated schisms. We have not found innovative alternatives to conflict within our own religious communities.
Through the years, certain characteristics of the Religious Society of Friends have supported the presence of doctrinal skeptics such as being noncreedal, tolerant and universalistic; emphasizing that Quakers are concerned with experience rather than beliefs; emphasizing the authority of the individual and the need to interpret what we read; and the conviction a sense of the meeting and clearness on membership do not require agreement on religious doctrine.
Quaker traditions that require some translation or interpretation by nontheists include a Divine Light within each person; theistic definitions for key terms such as religion, worship, message, leading, discernment, sense of the meeting, continual revelation, and interpretation of scriptures; and the description of Quaker identity, meeting unity, and faith based action in theistic terms.
Quaker behavior is changing and has always been changing, not only in doctrine but in other areas such as music, art and drama. We have changed the way we dress and talk, and we have changed how we treat people’s race, gender and sexual orientation. Our social testimonies have evolved, too.
All of this encourages those who are working for a Religious Society of Friends that is a home for all seekers who join in the communal effort to live as well as we can in the manner of Friends.
PART II: FLOWERS OF QUAKER NONTHEISM
This is a look at the Quaker nontheism that is flowering today. Nontheist Friends, by and large, do not experience, accept or believe in a deity. They are more concerned with the natural than the supernatural. For some, God is a symbol of human values but others avoid the concept altogether even as they accept it as significant for other Friends. Nontheists vary in their religious experience and language. As a negative term, nontheism provides a broad tent for people who hold many different positive views.
Nontheists work for diversity of thought in the Religious Society of Friends. They bless what theists and nontheists bring to their meetings and the opportunities that come with diversity. They have not formed an organization because that could lead nontheists away from the theists. They hope Friends will accept each other as Quakers, without adjectives.
Quakerism has been changing since George Fox had his first opening on Pendle Hill, becoming deeper and richer. Nontheists are part of this living faith.
In this paper you will meet several Quaker nontheists. Some were quietly nontheistic and others were more outspoken. Following that is a description of the surveys that show something of the distribution of these beliefs among Friends. There is a brief description of the FGC Gathering workshops that have been the main means of contact among Quaker nontheists during the last ten years. Finally, two internet sites that were started recently are mentioned.
PROTO-NONTHEISTS: These Friends were humanists who showed a tender concern for religious skeptics but who did not explicitly address the issue of nontheism in public. They seem to represent a nontheistic approach without calling it that. We do not know what their personal views were (or are) and it doesn’t matter. It is enough that they helped create the Religious Society of Friends of today that includes meetings that welcome nontheists.
Jesse Herman Holmes (1863-1942) was a passionate advocate for Quakerism free of creeds. He was one of the founders of the American Friends Service Committee, clerk of the Progressive Friends Meeting at Longwood, chairman of the National Federation of Religious Liberals, a political candidate for the Socialist Party in Pennsylvania, and for many years a professor of philosophy at Swarthmore College. In 1928 he published a letter titled “To the Scientifically-Minded” to reach out to scientists who might be interested in joining the Religious Society of Friends. He wrote, “It is a Society of Friends. Friends claim no authority but owe each other friendliness…Our unity consists, therefore, in having a common purpose, not a common creed….God is…the name of certain common experiences of mankind by which they are bound together into unity.” He did not see religion as establishing truth, as he wrote in 1912: “The accurate formulating of our ends and of the tested ways of attaining them is the function of philosophy and the sciences. The more difficult task of holding ourselves to the higher loyalties is that of religion. Not the discovery of truth but the patient using of it for the more abundant life is its task.” He saw that the Religious Society of Friends was a congenial home for scientists and in fact needed them. In 1931 he wrote, “It has not been, and should never be, that knowledge of truth as revealed to the scientist, is out of place in our galleries. Certainly that vision of what should be which in all ages is the heart of religion, must be based on what is now, or our temple will lack foundation and be no more than a castle in the air. The spirit of the Society of Friends is closely allied to the spirit of the genuine scientists. It involves that intimate relation between ourselves and our world which makes any final statement of it in a formula impossible….I believe a very large and increasing number of the scientists of the world are in unity with the essential Quaker point of view.” In private Jesse Holmes was often outspoken. He left these words in an unpublished manuscript (finally published by Quaker Universalist Fellowship 61 years after his death): “Meaningless phrases and irrational theologies have been moulded into rigid, authoritative institutions perverting and stultifying the adventurous, creative spirit which distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. They turn our attention from the splendid possibilities of our mysterious life and toward a mythical, improbable life after death. Over all presides a despotic, unjust, and irrational deity of the medieval king type, who must be worshipped by flattery and blind obedience….I propose to a fairly intelligent people of a partially scientific age…that all this is a sad mess of ancient and medieval superstition which should speedily be relegated to the storage rooms of the museum of history. We should stop the pretense of awe, or even respect, for teachings which lack even a slight amount of evidence or probability. We should substitute a religion based on actual repeatable, describable and testable experience, and which has some connection with the genuine values of life: not an absurd and impossible life in a stupid, idle heaven, but a rich, active, adventurous life in the world we live in….But if those who reject all this medieval rubbish will join heartily in a real world-wide effort for an uplifted humanity; if they refuse to continue systems which involve contests in indiscriminate killing and destruction; if they will dedicate themselves to a general cooperation in mutual service, refusing all incitements to seek poser over each other; if they will accept the adventure of lives everywhere seeking harmony, good-will, understanding, friendliness; if they will turn aside from all claims of super-men for super-rights and privileges, whether in religion, in politics, in industry or in society; then indeed we may renew and revive the purposes of prophets, statesmen, scholars, scientists, and good people since the world began. This would be a real religion.”
Henry Joel Cadbury (1883-1974) was an outspoken advocate for Quakerism without mysticism, unity based on love rather than dogma, beliefs as collateral effects rather than sources of action, ethical living as ones religion, and the possibility of life as spontaneous response to passing situations. He worked his entire life for unity among Friends. He was a historian of the Religious Society of Friends, a Biblical scholar, a social activist, and a humorist. His brother-in-law was the Quaker mystic, Rufus Jones. Cadbury hid his personal beliefs, preferring to help you find yours. He did lift the veil once when he said in a private talk with his students in 1936 (later published by Quaker Universalist Fellowship in 2001), “I can describe myself as no ardent theist or atheist.” In the same talk he said, “My own religion is mainly neither emotional nor rational but expresses itself habitually or occasionally in action…If you know John Woolman’s Journal you will know what I mean by a religious personality in action…The amazing revelation which he gives is that of a sensitive conscience feeling its course in a series of soul-searching problems – public problems that he felt must be personally decided. Such forms of religion do not often get recorded, but they are none the less real and important…And what is the real test or evidence of religion that I can offer in myself?…It is whether in all our contacts…you can conclude that not consciously nor for display I represent the manner of reaction that befits a religious personality in action.” In 1959 he wrote, “Ever since its earliest days Quakerism has been something appreciated by the adherent rather than deliberately advertised. For that reason it has not depended on definition and formulation. These have followed ex post facto. They are not blueprints of a course of development to be recommended. They are analysis of the deposits of experience.” In 1962 he put it simply: “I have been willing that life should be spontaneous response to passing situations or problems – rather than a plan or pattern.”
Arthur Morgan (1878-1975) was an engineer, educator, and utopian. He was president of Antioch College, chairman and chief engineer of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a founder of Celo Community and the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. He was a Unitarian who became a Friend in 1940. In 1955 he proposed this minute to his yearly meeting: “Many men and women of many faiths have shared in the search for truth and love and human brotherhood. Each faith has helped its sincere followers in that search. Each faith has something to learn form the others, and something to give. The Lake Erie Association of Friends desires to be a unit of such a brotherhood, and welcomes into its membership and to its meetings all sincere, concerned seekers whose ways of life and ethical standards and practices are compatible with its own. Also, the Lake Erie Association of Friends would welcome affiliation with other fellowships of sincere seekers, whatever may be their religious origin or affiliation.” The minute was not approved. On his 90th birthday in 1968 he alluded to nontheism during a talk at his monthly meeting: “What do I mean by right conduct? It is conduct which makes me approach the truth. What is truth? Truth is the expression of necessity…So, the only way I see for being free from necessity is to follow her eagerly and to hunt out her desires before she enforces them upon me. In that way she gives continually larger range to move about in….I have not seen evidence which has led me to know of any order of existence beyond that of matter-energy. I do not hold that there is no such evidence, but I have seen none which impressed me, though I was desirous of being sensitive to any such….With the theist, searching for the cause behind the cause, I do not wish to dispute. I only confess that the idea he holds has not been revealed to me, though I have endeavored to search honestly….With weak insight, and deaf to celestial music, if any there be, I can only say in honesty I do not see angel wings or hear celestial music from other orders of being….There is no easy way to an optimum course of living….Objective critical study of necessity, motivated by caring much about life, and sustained by aspiration and critical imagination, gives hope of being productive….I have nearly run my course. I live in the future – the future of mankind, and of life. I do not look forward to personal immortality. I see the person I call me as not a separate unit of life. It is a thread in the fabric of life, a moment in the course of being. Day by day I live and have my joy, as part of mankind. Day by day I live and find my joy in the future. I feel great hope, but not certainty, for human life. The issue I would live by is this: Will the continuity of life have more value because I have lived? Bodily pleasures and personal ambitions are but incidental in comparison. What sets limits of prospect for fulfillment of great hope? It probably is, I believe, the degree of caring enough about life and the will to make the utmost contribution. What do I believe for my friends and fellow men? It is that they may share to the full this great hope. I wish it because I know of no greater wish for them.” Arthur Morgan declined to sign the Humanist Manifesto of 1933. He saw positive value in religion and did not want that thrown away. In a letter published in the same issue of The New Humanist as the manifesto, he wrote: “I believe that unless the Humanist movement achieves a better distribution of emphasis, it will act as a sectarian movement to divide those who have one partial view of the issues of life from those who have another partial view…[A]ny vital religion must give great emphasis to faith, which in essence is an unproven conviction of the significance of living…. Faith, hope, and love are usually transmitted by contagion from persons who possess those qualities, but the human associations which transmit them generally have transmitted also an uncritical credulity…. Those who are free from that uncritical credulity commonly are also free to a considerable extent from the faith, the hope, and the warm love of men which so commonly accompanied that credulity in our religious history, when nearly all men were credulous…. The problem of humanism is…to hold faithfully to a completely open-minded and critical attitude, while holding to, or eagerly seeking, the strong drives of faith, hope, and love. As such strong drives appear they will express themselves in heroic living, and by contagion will be transmitted…. Religion should instill a hot partisanship for life which shall set for science the task of finding significance or of creating it. “Wishful thinking”, if wisely inspired, may cause the discovery or creation of the values wished for. Our business is to find significance, or to create it.”
Morris Mitchell (1895-1976) was the founder of Macedonia Cooperative Community, director of Putney Graduate School, and founder and president of Friends World College. One person who knew him well described him as an atheist but, as far as I know, he did not speak of this in public. He did write in 1967, “In our search for truth relevant to our times, we can, and doubtless will, continue to use traditional value words, but every word must assume revised meaning. For example, among Christians the ‘divinity of Christ,’ at first threatened by the growth of objective understanding, loses its uniqueness and its superstitious qualities and becomes in a superlative degree that gift for sympathetic love with which every human is endowed. Again, to listen for the ‘voice of God’ is to open one’s being, heart, and mind in earnest, ‘reverent’ search for the meaning of the unfolding of the powers of truth. And a localized, personalized god becomes those all-pervasive forces and motives that govern every electron of every galaxy….While Quakerism was Christian in origin, increasing numbers of Friends are humanist and hold a cosmic theology. In 1971 Bart Sobel wrote about him, “Mitchell is opposed to the role and practice of traditional religious institutions in society. He believes that worshipping a supreme being lessens the importance of every individual; people give up a part of themselves to an external power….Mitchell believes that individuals must assume responsibility for their own actions and welfare. He wants people to rid themselves of unquestioned obedience to a supernatural authority….He believes that ‘there is that of God in every one of us.’ Therefore, he feels that people must speak of the divinity of every man, woman, and child, so that they come to respect one another for the infinite capacities which they possess….Mitchell sees World Education as one vehicle which will help bring about the change of emphasis from traditional religious practices to humanism….In an unconventional and unorthodox way, Mitchell is a deeply religious man….Mitchell has devoted his life to the principles in the philosophy of World Education….To Mitchell, the philosophy of World Education is not only an educational theory, not only a philosophy of life, not only a vehicle to change culture, but also a philosophy of religion.”
Alice and Staughton Lynd are long time advocates for peace and human rights, Alice has been draft counselor, teacher, and director of day care and health centers and Staughton has been historian, teacher, labor lawyer, and community organizer, director of freedom schools in Mississippi in 1964, and chairman of a march on Washington in 1965. Staughton has described himself in an interview an “agnostic or atheist” but I do not know how Alice would describe herself. In 1996 they published Liberation Theology for Quakers, the first paragraph of which is a fine declaration of faith from a what is implicitly a nontheist perspective: “We are Quakers. We have faith that there is a potential for good in every person, and that this ‘inner light’ needs no mediation by priest or church. We believe in treating people as equals. We believe in nonviolence and forgiveness. We disavow retaliation or retribution. We try to practice direct speaking, speaking truth to power, and living consistently with our values. We follow a simple way of life and try to be responsible stewards of the earth and its resources. We think these are Quaker beliefs.” Later on in the pamphlet they call for an emphasis on lives rather than doctrine: “We believe that there is Scriptural authority for an approach to Jesus’ teaching based on what people do, not on what they think. Jesus says that people who feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, and comfort the afflicted, will experience salvation even if during their lives they are unaware of Jesus and give no thought to him (Matthew 25:31-46). Saying ‘Lord, Lord’ is not the path to salvation, for the righteous will be known by their fruits not by their words (Matthew 7:20-21). The unbeliever who does good deeds – the Good Samaritan – will be preferred to the church member who passes by on the other side (Luke 10:30-37).”
NONTHEISTS: The first public expression of nontheism among Friends, that we know of, was the Humanistic Society of Friends, founded in Los Angeles in 1939. Many of the members had been Quakers, including their leader, Lowell H. Coate (1889-1973). He later served as editor of The Humanist World, American Rationalist, and The Rationalist. The Society published The Humanist Friend, from 1939 to 1943, and continued as an organization until it became a chapter of the American Humanist Association in 1987. Three years later the chapter became a division of AHA responsible for ministerial and religious humanism programs.
The next public evidence we have of nontheistic Friends is the report of the Workshop for Non-Theistic Friends who met at the FGC Gathering in Ithaca NY in 1976. The report was collectively written by 15 to 20 Friends led by Robert Morgan (1913-1992). Here are their ringing words: “There are non-theistic Friends. There are Friends who might be called agnostics, atheists, skeptics but who would, nevertheless, describe themselves as reverent seekers. The fifteen to twenty of us who joined this workshop did so out of the need to share ideas with others who are searching for an authentic personal religious framework. The lack of an adequate religious vocabulary which could be used as an alternative to traditional concepts has led to mistaken assumptions about individual non-traditional beliefs, thus hindering dialogue and real communication among Friends….We began the workshop by sharing our struggles with words, concepts, and beliefs. We felt immediate relief that we could air our a-typical religious ideas and our fears about disclosing these in our Meetings.… Through discussion in pairs, in small groups and in the workshop as a whole, we became a support group, giving each other credibility, courage and stimulation….In imaginative ways, all shared an eagerness to explore beyond traditional religious and Christian concepts for creative answers to life’s mysteries. We share a respect and concern for all human beings. We shared an admiration for the history of Quaker altruism and, a desire to be part of our own Meeting “families”. Welcoming diversity, we were stimulated in our own thinking by listening to the beliefs of others. It is exciting to share these beliefs, but it is even more exciting to sense that we all had experienced important values and feelings that can not be adequately expressed intellectually. For us these values have given truth and meaning and zest to everyday life and an experience of religion as a growing, evolving concept….Why do we belong to the Religious Society of Friends? In part because we feel the need to seek from within a loving and traditionally tolerant, gathered community. We found in our group that we were representative of a rainbow of beliefs which exists within the larger Society of Friends. This spectrum included theists who define God as a spirit or presence which intervenes and guides in a personal way. Most were non-theists who, while believing in something universal beyond our biological selves which exists in everyone, do not believe in an external directing spirit. There were seekers and questioners looking for new definitions of God free of human characteristics or not wanting to use the term God at all. Some of us explored life-energy as an evolutionary process existing in all of us and giving meaning to life. Some of us identified ourselves simply as “non-believers”…. Recognizing that there are energies and ideas that may well be part of a new spiritual consciousness in the making, we want to develop an awareness of our diversity and a respect for it through responsibly shared dialogue. We hope for sensitivity and trust in our Meetings which allow us to grow in a community of seekers despite our differences. Unable to accept traditional theology, we are skeptical about substituting new concepts lest they become yet another theological system, but we felt it important to share the thoughts that sprang from this workshop with old and new Friends, young Friends and those who are considering becoming Friends. We believe Quakerism can accommodate this minority, and find part of its vital creativity in the process.”
John Linton (c.1918 - ) was one of the founders of the Quaker Universalist Group in 1977. He wrote, “This new group would be committed to the view that, however great one’s reverence for the teachings and personality of Jesus, no faith can claim to be a unique revelation or to have a monopoly of truth. Because Christianity traditionally makes this claim, members of the group feel that they cannot limit themselves by calling themselves Christians. In their search for truth, and also in the interests of world peace and brotherhood, they are opposed to all divisive religious claims. They take the view that truth can be reached by more than one path. Yet because they believe in the Quaker way of life, and that Quakerism is universally valid and not dependent on Christianity, they have no wish to cut themselves off from the Society of Friends.” In 1979 he wrote, “It seems to me that the Society would be greatly strengthened by the influx of people who claim to be agnostic rather than Christian and yet who sincerely share the fundamental aspirations of Quakers. I shall therefore argue not merely that the Society should admit such people as a fringe element of ‘second-class members’ (which is what they feel at the present), but that it should widen its own basis and give up its claim to be a specifically Christian organization. I think this should be done not just as a matter of expediency, but in the pursuit of Truth, because I believe the Truth is wider than Christianity. And I like to think that Quakerism is about the search for Truth.”
Kingdon Swayne (c.1920 - ) published “Confession of a Post-Christian Agnostic” in 1980. Four years later, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting selected him to be their clerk. He wrote, “My own religious life can perhaps be best understood as an effort to build moral stability and connectedness by creating a web of motivation and behavior that is internally consistent and emotionally satisfying. I describe myself as post-Christian because both my best behavior and its motivations owe much to Christian thinking, though I reject most of the traditional theology….If one rejects the authority [of Jesus] and most of the Christian tradition, where does one begin to build a belief system? I think I begin with the existentialist proposition that life without meaning or purpose is intolerable. Therefore one must define the meaning and purpose of one’s own life. I believe this task is within my power and is my sole responsibility. I prefer to see myself not as finding and doing God’s will but as striving for goodness on the basis of general principles that are derived from my own sense of the nature of the universe….If I had presented this paper to Worship and Ministry of Newtown Meeting 150 years ago, would this meeting still be in session, or would I have long since been sent home in disgrace; branded a heretic? Can Worship and Ministry accept me in 1979? If you can, is this a confession of laxness on your part? Has the Religious Society of Friends lost any semblance of a core set of beliefs? Are we really comfortable with the notion that a sincere seeker may arrive at some bizarre interim conclusions on his or her road to true enlightenment, or that she or he may in fact never find the right road at all? Well I hope we are, because I would really like to stick around to see whether one day my enlightenment will come more to resemble that of George Fox or John Woolman. I would also like to stick around because the Quaker ambience does have meaning for me….I grew up in the Religious Society of Friends, and I feel comfortable with many aspects of it. I like its rebellion against orthodoxy, its commitments to service and non-violence, its disdain of ‘hireling ministers,’ its careful rationality, and above all its de-ritualized ritual….Writing this paper has been a richly rewarding experience. I have been forced to firm up and pull together a lot of ideas that have been floating disconnectedly through my mind. Now that I put it all together, the structure seems quite formidable….I am very much alive to the possibility that some new truth may come my way that will cause the whole structure to collapse. Then what fun it will be to build a new one!” In 1986 Swayne wrote, “I am a lifelong Friend who was been encouraged by his Quaker (dare I say Hicksite?) upbringing to construct his own edifice of religious meaning. My edifice is non-theistic…I don’t think it is terribly important how Universalistic or how Christocentric the early Friends were. The important point is that late 20th century Quakerism be true to its non-creedal self. For its role in the larger religious society of our era surely is as home and refuge for those stubborn individualists who create their own theologies but need a community in which to pursue their spiritual journeys.” In 1994, he wrote, “I have since concluded that ‘agnostic’ was the wrong word, for the troika of believer-agnostic-atheist really limits the issue to whether or not God exists. The true issue, I think, is how best to think about the ability of humans to experience inner lives that seem in some sense to be metaphysical – beyond the physical, the rational, and the emotional. I now speak of my metaphysics as ‘nontheistic’.”
Eric Johnson ( ? – c.1995) published “Why I am an Atheist” in 1991: “For me God does not exist. God is an invention of human minds to help them deal with the inexplicable….If you need God and believe in God, fine! But that doesn’t cause God to exist….Though I have no faith in God, I do seek: how to make the world better, even how to make me better. But I think faith is irresponsible. We must think – to use our minds and our bodies to make the world better. Faith is a kind of short-circuit that can destroy the mind or weaken it. Faith means: “without evidence or reason.” Five months later he published a letter explaining, “(The responses) have been so profound, witty, and intelligent that I hereby tell you that I have been lovingly and powerfully and nonviolently forced to modify my state of mind: I hereby declare that I am no longer an atheist; I have become an agnostic.”
Many other Quaker humanists and nontheists have published, especially in recent years. This includes Stephen Allott, Robin Alpern, George Amoss Jr., John Banks, David Boulton, Os Cresson, Scott Crom, David E. Drake, Kenneth Ives, Harold Loukes, Philip Mayer, Thomas Miles, David Rush, T. Noel Stern, and many more. A partial bibliography of their work is attached, below.
SURVEYS: Polls on Quaker beliefs should not guide us in these matters, but it is fair to mention that several surveys suggest the presence of nontheists among Friends. In Britain in 1989, 692 Quakers were asked “Do you believe in God?” and 26% answered “No” or “Not Sure”. In Philadelphia in 2002, 56% of 552 Quakers indicated “No” or “No Definite Belief” in response to the statement, “I believe in a God to whom one can pray in the expectation of receiving an answer. By ‘answer’ I mean more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.” In the same survey, 44% disagreed, or neither agreed nor disagreed, with the statement “I very much want a deeper spiritual relationship with God,” and 52% did not agree with the statement “I have had a transcendent experience where I felt myself in the presence of God.” These polls are described in David Rush’s chapter in Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism (Boulton, 2006). Also see Rush’s interviews with 199 nontheist Friends. (Rush, 2002).
FRIENDS GENERAL CONFERENCE WORKSHOPS: There was an FGC workshop for nontheists in 1976 and then a hiatus until Robin Alpern, Bowen Alpern and Glenn Mallison held one in 1996. Almost every year since then one or two nontheist workshops have been held at the Gathering, led by different people. They meet six times during the Gathering week. There are usually about 25 people in each workshop, a combination of newcomers trying to find out what their views are and older Friends who have held these views for many years. They share experiences, support each other, and try to find ways to be useful members of religiously diverse meeting communities. Until recently, this was almost the only way Quaker nontheists came in contact with each other.
OTHER WORKSHOPS: In 2004 and ‘05 there were workshops at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, England, and Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation near Philadelphia. These were attended by about 30 people each time. A strong desire was expressed to support other Friends, whatever their religious views are, and to be supported in turn. There is always a great variety of nontheists at these workshops, as much variety as there is among theists.
INTERNET SITES: A website for and by nontheist friends is on the internet at www.nontheistfriends.org . Writings are posted and there is a blog and an email listserve.
WRITINGS: Over the years there have been many articles and a few pamphlets by Quaker nontheists (see Recent Publications, below). David Boulton has published several books from this perspective and in 2006 he edited and published a collection of essays by 27 Quaker nontheists. It is titled Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism (Dent UK: Dales Historical Monographs; available from www.quakerbooks.org ).
Nontheism is coming out of the Quaker closet. Gradually during the 20th century, Quakers began to talk about nontheism. The proto-nontheists, who held closely related views but did not declare their nontheism, were born during the 19th century. Those who spoke more openly were born later. The components of a movement only came in the last decade of that century. But come they did and the survey data support the sense that there are nontheists in Quaker meetings, more than are speaking of it. They may be silent for positive reasons, because they are well adjusted with themselves and their meetings and more important things concern them. However, every year at the FGC nontheist workshop there are new reports of people struggling to remain Quaker and nontheist, too. As the numbers increase the possibility of will problems increase, too. We need to get better at finding the nontheists and providing the support they need.
A good step is to work for the acceptance of diversity of all kinds, rather than just for one particular viewpoint. How do we talk with each other? What circumstances make it easier to love someone who is different? How do we maintain our spirits while giving the situation the community time to find a way forward? These are a few of the questions that challenge the contemporary Quaker nontheist.
Anthony, Susan B.
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Barry, Kathleen (1988). Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist. NY: New York University Press
Sherr, Lynn (1995). Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony In Her Own Words. NY: Random House
Bauthumley, Jacob (1650/1983). The Light and Dark Sides of God . London: William Learner. Also in Nigel Smith (1983), A Collection of Ranter Writings from the 17th Century. London: Junction Books
Cohn, Norman (1970). The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press
Hill, Christopher (1972). The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. NY: Viking Press
American National Biography, Vol. 2 (1999). “Barnard, Hannah Jenkins” by H. Larry Ingle. NY: Oxford University Press, 177-178
Barnard, Hannah (1820). Dialogues on Domestic and Rural Economy, and Fashionable Follies of the World. Interspersed with Occasional Observations on Some Popular Opinions. To Which is Added an Appendix, on Burns, etc. with their Treatment. Hudson NY: (Samuel W. Clark)
Cresson, Osborn (2006). Hannah Barnard’s Story (unpublished manuscript, see www.nontheistfriends.org )
Fager, Chuck (1996). “Hannah Barnard – A Liberal Quaker Hero” Friends Journal 42(1) 11-12
Frost, J. William (1984). The Records and Recollections of James Jenkins. Texts and Studies in Religion, Vol. 18. NY: Edwin Mellen Press (pp. 339-380)
Maxey, David (1989). “New Light on Hannah Barnard, A Quaker ‘Heretic’,” Quaker History, Fall, pp. 61-86
Clarke, Larry R. (1985). “The Quaker Background of William Bartram’s View of Nature”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 46(3): 435-448
Darlington, William (1967). Memorials of John Bartram and Humphrey Marshall. NY: Hafner
Wilson, David Scofield (1978). In the Presence of Nature. Amherst MA: University of Massachusetts Press
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Cadbury, Henry J. (1957). Quakerism and Early Christianity (Swarthmore Lecture). London: Allen & Unwin
Cadbury, Henry J. (1959). The Character of A Quaker (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #103). Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill; also in “Two Strands in Quakerism” Friends Journal, April 4, 5 (14), 212-214.
Cadbury, Henry J. (1962). (Untitled). (Notes for talk at Doylestown Monthly Meeting). Unpublished manuscript in the Quaker Collection, Haverford College, Haverford PA
Cadbury, Henry J. (1966). “Quakerism and/or Christianity.” Friends Bulletin, 35(4), 1-10
Cresson, Os (2006). “Henry Joel Cadbury: No Assurance of God or Immortality” in Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism, David Boulton (Ed.) Dent UK: Dales Historical Monographs, pp. 93-98 (expanded version at www.nontheistfriends.org )
Cresson, Os (2006). “David Duncan and the Free Friends of Manchester” in Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism, David Boulton (Ed.) Dent UK: Dales Historical Monographs, pp. 90-93 (expanded version at www.nontheistfriends.org )
Duncan, David (1861). ‘Essays and Reviews’. A Lecture. Manchester.
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Forster, Joseph B. (1867). On Liberty: An Address to Members of the Society of Friends; quoted in Isichei (1970), p. 30
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Wetherill, Charles (1894/2002). History of the Free Quakers. Washington. D.C.: Ross & Perry
Wetherill, Samuel (1791). An Address To those of the People called Quakers, who have been disowned for Matters Religious and Civil. Broadside published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, dated “24th of the 4th Month, 1781”. Reprinted in Charles Wetherill (1894/2002)
Forbush, Bliss (1956). Elias Hicks: Quaker Liberal. NY: Columbia University Press
Jacob, Norma (1984). Introducing…Elias Hicks: A Condensation of Bliss Forbush’s Original Biography. Philadelphia: Friends General Conference
Holmes, Jesse H.
Holmes, Jesse (1912). The Modern Message of Quakerism. Philadelphia: Friends General Conference. Also published as: What is Truth? Philadelphia: Friends General Conference (undated)
Holmes, Jesse (1928/1992). “To the Scientifically-Minded.” Friends Intelligencer, 85(6): 103-104; reprinted in Friends Journal, (1992) 38(6): 22-23. Also published as a brochure, To the Scientifically-Minded. Philadelphia: Friends General Conference (undated), and in Spanish, A Los Intellectuales. Philadelphia: Friends’ General Conference (undated). Also reprinted in the magazines Atlantic, Christian Century, Harpers, and Unity (Wahl, 1979, p. 295)
Holmes, Jesse (1931). The Quakers and the Sciences. Friends Journal, 88(6): 20
Holmes, Jesse (2003). “‘Our Christianity’?” Universalist Friends, 39 (Fall & Winter, 2003): 15-22
Stern, T. Noel (1992). “Jesse Holmes, Liberal Quaker.” Friends Journal, 38(6): 21-21
Wahl, Albert J. (1979). Jesse Herman Holmes, 1864-1942: A Quaker’s Affirmation for Man. Richmond IN: Friends United Press
Humanist Society of Friends (Lowell H. Coate)
The Humanist Friend, 1939-1944. A periodical; copies at Haverford College and Earlham College
Wilson, Edwin H. (1995) Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto, Amherst NY: Humanist Press
Johnson, Eric (1991a). “Why I Am an Atheist.” Friends Journal, 37(1): 17; also in Quaker Universalist Fellowship (1991), Variations on the Quaker Message (Pamphlet #201). Landenberg, Pennsylvania: (author)
Johnson, Eric (1991b). “Atheism and Friends, #7” (letter to the editor). Friends Journal 37(5): 6
Linton, John (1978a). “A Universalist Group” (letter to the editor), John Linton, The Friend, 136 (April 21): 484
Linton, John (1978b). “A Universalist Group” (letter to the editor), John Linton, The Friend, 136 (October 20): 1315
Linton, John (1979/1986). “Quakerism as Forerunner.” Friends Journal, 25(17): 4-9; reprinted as Quakerism as Forerunner (Pamphlet #1) (1979). London: Quaker Universalist Group; also reprinted in Quaker Universalist Fellowship (1991), The Quaker Universalist Reader Number 1: A Collection of Essays, Addresses and Lectures. Landenberg, Pennsylvania: (author)
Linton, John (1984). “Nothing Divides Us”, The Universalist, 12: 16-20
Littleboy, William (1916/1938/1945). The Appeal of Quakerism to the Non-Mystic. Harrowgate, England: 1916 Committee of Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting of the Society of Friends; reprinted in 1938 by the Friends Literature Committee, Yorkshire, and in 1945 by Friends’ Book Centre, London
Lynd, Alice and Staughton
Lynd, Alice & Staughton Lynd (1996). Liberation Theology for Quakers (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #326). Walingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications; reprinted in Lynd, Staughton (1997)
Lynd, Staughton (1997). Living Inside our Hope: A Steadfast Radical’s Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press
Albers, Henry (Ed.) (2001). Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters. Clinton Corners, NY: College Avenue Press
Brackett, Anna C. (1889). “Maria Mitchell”, The Century, vol. 38(6): 954
Kendall, Phebe Mitchell (1896). Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals. Boston: Lee and Shepard; reprinted by Classic Textbooks
Morgan, Helen (1977). Maria Mitchell, First Lady of American Astronomy. Philadelphia: Westminster Press
Wright, Helen (1949). Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell, First Woman Astronomer in America. NY: Macmillan
Mitchell, Morris (1967). World Education – Revolutionary Concept. NY: Pageant Press
Sobel, Bart (1971). Morris Mitchell: Prophet of World Education, dissertation for Boston University, Department of Education. Ann Arbor MI: University Microfilms
Kahoe, Walter (1977). Arthur Morgan: A Biography and Memoir. Moylan PA: The Whimsie Press
Morgan, Arthur (1927). My World. Unpublished manuscript, Antioch College, Yellow Springs OH
Morgan, Arthur (1954/1998). Should Quakers Receive the Good Samaritan. (QUF Pamphlet). Landenberg, PA: Quaker Universalist Fellowship
Morgan, Arthur (1957). Search for Purpose. Yellow Springs, OH: Community Service, Inc.
Morgan, Arthur (1968). Necessity. Unpublished manuscript; quoted in Kahoe (1977)
Morgan, Ernest (1991). Arthur Morgan Remembered. Yellow Springs, OH: Community Service, Inc.
Wilson, Edwin H. (1995) Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto, Amherst NY: Humanist Press
Bacon, Margaret Hope (1980). Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott. NY: Walker and Company
Cromwell, Otilia (1958). Lucretia Mott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Greene, Dana (Ed.) (1980). Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons. NY: Edwin Mellen Press
Hallowell, Anna Davis (1884). James and Lucretia Mott. Life and Letters. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co.
Palmer, Beverly Wilson (Ed.) (2002). Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott. Urbana: University of Illinois Press
Tolles, Frederick B. (1959). “The New-Light Quakers of Lynn and New Bedford” The New England Quarterly, September 1959, 32(3): 291-319
Progressive Friends at Longwood
Densmore, Christopher. “Be Ye Therefore Perfect: Anti-Slavery and the Origins of the Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends in Chester County, Pennsylvania” Quaker History, Fall 2004, 93(2), 28-46
Longwood Progressive Friends Meetinghouse, 1855 – 1940: 150 Anniversary Celebration, Sunday May 22, 2005, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. A brochure, privately published, 2005
Rowntree, Joseph (1888). Memorandum on the Declaration of Christian Doctrine issued by the Richmond Conference, 1887. Broadside published in York, Eng., dated “10, v, 1888”
Grubb, Mollie (1993). “Abraham Shackleton and the Irish Separation of 1797-1803,” Journal of the Friends Historical Society, 56(4), pp. 262-271
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady
Densmore, Christopher (1995). “Forty-Seven Years Before the Woman’s Bible: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Congregational Friends.” Paper presented at the Women’s Centennial Conference, Seneca Falls, NY, November 4, 1995. Online at http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/units/archives/exhibits/old/urr/WNYWHO.html
DuBois, Ellen (1994). The Elizabeth Cady Stanton – Susan B. Anthony Reader. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press
Gaylor, Annie Laurie (1997). Women Without Superstition: No Gods – No Masters. Madison WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1993). Eighty Years & More: Reminiscences 1815-1897. Boston: Northeastern University Press
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1993). The Woman’s Bible. Boston: Northeastern University Press
Stanton, Theodore & Harriot Stanton Blatch, eds. (1969). Elizabeth Cady Stanton As Revealed in Her Letters Diary and Reminiscences, Volumes One and Two. NY: Arno & The New York Times
Swayne, Kingdon (1980). “Confession of a Post-Christian Agnostic.” Friends Journal, 26(3): 6-9. Also in Quaker Universalist Fellowship (1990), Variations on the Quaker Message. Landenberg, PA: (author)
Swayne, Kingdon (1986). “Universalism or Latitudinarianism?” Universalist Friends, 7: 8-11
Swayne, Kingdon (1990). “Humanist Philosophy as a Religious Resource”, in Varieties of Religious Experience: An Adventure In Listening, QUF Pamphlet #7, Nov. 1990. Landenberg PA: Quaker Universalist Fellowship. Also at http://www.universalistfriends.orgquf1990c.html
Swayne, Kingdon W. (1994). Universalism and Me – 3 Friends Respond. Universalist Friends, 23: 9-10. Also at http://www.qis.net/~daruma/QUF/quf-ks.html
Boulton, David (1999). Gerrard Winstanley and the Republic of Heaven. Dent, Cumbria, UK: Dales Historical Monographs
Boulton, David (2005) Militant Seedbeds of Early Quakerism (Quaker Universalist Fellowship pamphlet), at http://www.universalistfriends.org/boulton.html
Cohn, Norman (1970). The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press
Hill, Christopher (1972). The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. NY: Viking Press
Sabine, George Holland (1965). The Works of Gerrard Winstanley. New York: Russell & Russell
Workshop for Non-Theistic Friends (Robert Morgan)
Workshop for Non-Theistic Friends (1976). Report From The Workshop for Non-Theistic Friends. Friends General Conference Gathering, Ithaca NY, June 26-July 3, 1976
RECENT PUBLICATIONS BY QUAKER NONTHEISTS
Allott, Stephen (1989). Quaker Agnosticism. The Friends Quarterly, 25(6): 252-258
Allott, Stephen (1994). Is God Objective Fact? The Friends Quarterly, 28(4): 158-166
Alpern, Robin (1997). Why Not Join the Unitarians? Universalist Friends, (28): 23-28. Also at http://www.universalistfriends.org/alpern.html
Amoss, Jr., George (1999). The Making of a Quaker Atheist. Quaker Theology 1: 55-62. Online at http://www.quaker.org/ quest/issue1-4.html Also see James and Amoss (2000), below.
Banks, John (1993). Simply the Thing I Am, The Friends Quarterly, 27(7), 317-322
Boulton, David (1996). A Reasonable Faith: Introducing the Sea of Faith Newtwork. Loughborough, England: Sea of Faith Network. Also at http://www.sofn.org.uk/sof/reasonable_faith.html
Boulton, David (1997). The Faith of a Quaker Humanist (Pamphlet #26). London: Quaker Universalist Group
Boulton, David (1999). Gerard Winstanley and the Republic of Heaven. Dent UK: Dales Historical Monographs
Boulton, David (2002). Real Like the Daisies or Real Like I Love You?: Essays in radical Quakerism. Torquay, Devon, England: Quaker Universalist Group with Dales Historical Monographs
Boulton, David (2005). The Trouble with God: Building the Republic of Heaven. Ropley, Hampshire, England: John Hunt Publishing
Boulton, David (editor) (2006). Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism, Dent UK: Dales Historical Monographs
Britton, David (2010). Knowing Experimentally. Friends Journal, October, 56(10), 5
Cadbury, Henry J. (1936/2000). My Personal Religion. Universalist Friends, (35) Fall-Winter: 22-31, with corrections in (36): 18
Cadbury, Henry J. (1966). Quakerism and/or Christianity. Friends Bulletin, 35(4), 1-10
Cresson, Osborn (2003). Quaker in a Material World. Quaker Theology 5(1), Spring-Summer, 23-54. Also at http://quest.quaker.org/issue-8-cresson-01.htm, or www.nontheistfriends.org
Cresson, Osborn (2006). Quakers from the Viewpoint of a Naturalist. Friends Journal, 52(3) March, 18-20
Cresson, Osborn (2009). On Quaker Unity. Friends Journal, July, 55(7): 5; also in “Notes on Quaker Unity,” expanded version online at www.nontheistfriends.org
Cresson, Osborn (2010). Excerpts on Religious Diversity from the Discipline of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Unpublished manuscript
Cresson, Osborn (2010). Roots and Flowers of Quaker Nontheism. Unpublished manuscript, online at www.nontheistfriends.org
Crom, Scott (1972). The Trusting Agnostic (with Comments by Maurice H. Friedman and John H. McCandless, and Response to Comments by Scott Crom). Quaker Religious Thought, 14(2): 1-39
Drake, David E. (2003). Confessions of a Nontheistic Friend, Friends Journal, 49(6): 18-20
Holmes, Jesse (1928/1992). To the Scientifically-Minded. Friends Intelligencer, 85(6): 103-104; reprinted in Friends Journal, (1992) 38(6): 22-23
Holmes, Jesse (2003). ‘Our Christianity’? Universalist Friends, 39 (Fall & Winter, 2003): 15-22
Ives, Kenneth H. (1980). New Friends Speak: How and Why They Join Friends (Studies in Quakerism #6). Chicago: Progresiv Publishr
Ives, Kenneth H. (1990). Recovering the Human Jesus. Chicago: Progresiv Publishr
Ives, Kenneth H. (1996). Some Quaker Perspectives for the Years 2000+. Chicago: Progresiv Publishr
James, Edward and George Amoss Jr. (2000). An Exchange: Quaker Theology Without God? Quaker Theology, Issue #2, 2 (1), spring 2000. Also at http://www.quaker.org/ quest/issue2-6.html
Johnson, Eric (1991a). Why I Am an Atheist. Friends Journal, 37(1): 17; also in Quaker Universalist Fellowship (1991), Variations on the Quaker Message (Pamphlet #201). Landenberg, Pennsylvania: (author)
Johnson, Eric (1991b). Atheism and Friends (letter to the editor). Friends Journal 37(5): 6
Linton, John (1979/1986). Quakerism as Forerunner. Friends Journal, 25(17): 4-9; reprinted as Quakerism as Forerunner (Pamphlet #1) (1979). London: Quaker Universalist Group; also reprinted in Quaker Universalist Fellowship (1991), The Quaker Universalist Reader Number 1: A Collection of Essays, Addresses and Lectures. Landenberg, Pennsylvania: (author)
Loukes, Harold & H. J. Blackham (1969). Humanists and Quakers: An Exchange of Letters. London: Friends Home Service Committee
Mayer, Philip (1987). The Mature Spirit: Religion without Supernatural Hopes. Northampton MA: Pittenprauch Press
Miles, Thomas R. (1985/1994). Towards Universalism (Pamphlet #7). London: Quaker Universalist Group
Miles, Thomas R. (1998). Speaking of God: Theism, Atheism and the Magnus Image. York, England: William Sessions Ltd.
Morgan, Arthur (1954/1998). Should Quakers Receive the Good Samaritan Into Their Membership? (QUF Pamphlet). Landenberg, Penna.: Quaker Universalist Fellowship
Rush, David (2002). They Too Are Quakers: A Survey of 199 Nontheist Friends. The Woodbrooke Journal, 11, Winter 2002. Also at http://www.universalistfriends.org
Seeger, Daniel A. (2010). Why Do the Unbelievers Rage? The New Atheists and the Universality of the Light, Friends Journal, (56) January: 6-11
Stern, T. Noel (2002). “How I Became a Universalist Quaker.” Universalist Friends, 37 (Fall & Winter): 21-31
Swayne, Kingdon (1980). Confession of a Post-Christian Agnostic. Friends Journal, 26(3): 6-9. Also in Quaker Universalist Fellowship (1990), Variations on the Quaker Message. Landenberg, PA: (author)
Workshop for Non-Theistic Friends (1976). Report From The Workshop for Non-Theistic Friends. Unpublished report, Friends General Conference Gathering at Ithaca NY, June 26-July 3, 1976