Support

Introduction

In September, 1959, when Wilmer Cooper submitted the report quoted on the frontispiece of this document to Earlham College’s Board of Trustees, the Earlham School of Religion was as yet but a dream.  Six months earlier, Wilmer had been commissioned by the Trustees, and funded by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment, to study the feasibility, and even the desirability, of establishing a "Friends School of Ministry."  This study was then to recommend the prospective role, if any, that Earlham College might play in initiating such an endeavor.  The idea of creating a graduate seminary to serve the pastoral and leadership needs of the Religious Society of Friends had been hotly debated for many years previous.  Because of the deep ambivalence Quakers traditionally felt toward the role of paid clergy, discussions about the need for more formally educated, professional pastors had yet to lead to the establishment of a full-fledged seminary primarily serving the ministerial training needs of the Society of Friends.  By the time Wilmer submitted his study, however, fully 73% of American Friends (and 66% of their meetings) depended upon some form of leadership ‘liberated’ for full-time service; be it pastors, meeting secretaries, or other forms of compensated service (Cooper, Survey Report on Proposed Friends School of the Ministry, 1959, pg. 8).

The ambivalence Friends have traditionally felt toward the employment of formally trained clergy has deep roots in Quaker history.  It can be traced back as far as George Fox’s original pronouncement: "that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge, was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ" (Fox, The Journal, 1646-7, pg. 10).  Friends had often interpreted this statement to mean that formal seminary education had little to offer a spirit-led ministry and, in fact, did much to detract from it.  Indeed, there are compelling reasons for believing that seminary educated pastors did much to inhibit leadings of the spirit among congregants in Fox's day.  This Quaker ambivalence toward professional clergy continued to prevail, though, even after many American Friends' Meetings, particularly those in North Carolina and the Mid-West, began employing paid, full-time ministers in the mid-19th century.  Indeed, the resulting dependence of so-called "programmed" meetings on ministers trained in non-Quaker seminaries and traditions has been cited by some Quaker historians as being a prime source of the theological schisms that have subsequently arisen among Friends (See, for instance, Cooper, Survey Report on Proposed Friends School of the Ministry, pgs. 4-5; Kaiser, The Society of Friends in North America).

What Wilmer’s 1959 study achieved was nothing less than successfully challenging the then prevalent interpretation of Fox's words as necessarily disparaging all forms of seminary training in preparation for Quaker ministry.  What Fox originally said was that such training was insufficient for preparing people to be ministers of Christ.  What he did not say was that it could have no contributing role whatsoever.  As Wilmer writes:

"Such training can, but need not, interfere with the Friends view of the ‘free Gospel ministry.’  In so far as it does interfere, the preparation has been inadequate because it has emphasized training of the mind and personal skills without preparation of the spirit" (Cooper, Survey Report on Proposed Friends School of the Ministry, pg. 8).

Commissioned to study the feasibility of establishing a seminary primarily serving the Religious Society of Friends, and with no predetermined outcomes imposed on his line of inquiry and conclusions, Wilmer returned to Earlham's Trustees with a series of strong recommendations for the creation of a Quaker school of religion.  His major finding, based on extensive consultations with numerous Friends across the county, was that such a school was not only desirable, but absolutely necessary to the vitality, and even the continued existence, of the Society of Friends.  He based this conclusion on a number of factors, chief among them being: the continuing persistence of theological schisms among Friends, declines in the rates of membership growth in Friends meetings, and the lack of leadership adequately educated in Quaker traditions to effectively address the situation.

Acting on Wilmer’s recommendations, Earlham College quickly moved to establish the Earlham School of Religion (ESR) in 1960.  At the core of the new School’s mission was providing for the ministerial and leadership training needs of the Religious Society of Friends in the manner of Friends.  Since that time, ESR has passed a number of significant milestones in its history, including full accreditation in 1975 by the Association of Theological Seminaries of the United States and Canada.  To this day, ESR remains the only graduate level seminary in the world primarily dedicated to serving the ministerial training needs of the Religious Society of Friends.  As ESR enters the 21st century, however, its mission has become still more urgent.  At the time Wilmer submitted his report, he premised the need for a graduate level Quaker seminary on overall declines in membership growth rates within the Society of Friends in North America, as well as the persistence of theological schisms between its various branches.  Today, the picture is far more grave.  Doctrinal schisms continue, while overall North American membership in the Society of Friends has actually declined by 23.5% over the past thirty years; from a peak of 121,380 members in 1972 to 92,786 members at the last comprehensive census of Yearly Meetings in 2002.

This Case for Support is an attempt to measure the progress ESR has made since its founding in 1960.  It is also an attempt to re-approach the question of renewal among Friends in the spirit of Wilmer Cooper’s original 1959 study.  More to the point, it is an attempt to update Wilmer’s original vision for the establishment of a graduate level Quaker seminary in the light of subsequent developments.  As such, this Case begins with a synopsis of the Religious Society of Friends, including: a brief historical survey of Quakerism; an examination of the unique elements that have defined its identity as a religious movement; an appraisal of some of the more valuable contributions that Friends and their beliefs have made to society at large; and an assessment of the challenges presently facing the Religious Society of Friends.  A conjecture is also made on what is required to meet these challenges.  This Case then turns to an examination of the Earlham School of Religion, including: a survey of its past achievements and contributions to Quakerism; an appraisal of its present status; and an assessment of what the School requires to better provide leadership that empowers and ministry that serves in the manner of Friends.  This Case then concludes with a development plan for ESR, outlining a strategy to garner the resources it requires to better fulfill its mission.

As demonstrated in the historical summary to follow, Friends have, throughout their 350 year history, consistently played a critical role in bringing about pivotal improvements to both the societies in which they have lived, and the world as a whole.  The fruits of Quakerism have been abundant and good.  However, at the dawn of the 21st century, the vine of Quakerism is visibly withered.  It is time for both ESR and Friends everywhere to seriously re-examine how best to revitalize the Religious Society of Friends.  As Wilmer’s fruit and vine metaphor implies, tending the vine of the Society of Friends invariably entails tending the roots of what it means to be a Quaker.  It also means re-thinking the role a seminary can play in bringing about renewal to the uniquely fruitful family tree of Friends.  Re-thinking the role of a seminary among Quakers, in turn, necessarily entails contemplating ESR as the preeminent seminary dedicated to serving the Religious Society of Friends.  If ESR didn’t already exist, it would be necessary for someone to create it.  Luckily, this difficult work has already been done.  All that is left to the present generation of Friends is to cultivate the rich legacy they have been bequeathed.