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The Present State of Quakerism

By any measure, Quaker contributions to the development of civil society over the past three-and-a-half centuries have been impressive.  In the 17th century, Friends made seminal contributions to the advancement of religious toleration.  In the 18th century, they established a lasting social and political order in America based on the fundamental principles of freedom of conscience and equality of individuals.  In the 19th century, they further advanced the cause of equality in practice by decisively contributing to the abolition of slavery.  In the 20th century, they went on to establish and nurture a wide range of organizations that have successfully advanced Quaker principles of peace and justice in the world at large.  The fruits of the Quaker family tree, both in America and abroad, have been rich and abundant over the past three-and-fifty years.  However, at the dawn of Christianity’s second millennium, the health of the tree that gives forth that fruit now finds itself in serious jeopardy.

Over the past 30 years, membership in North American Yearly Meetings of the Religious Society of Friends has dropped precipitously.  Between 1972 and 2002, total membership in these meetings has declined by 28,594; from 121,380 members in 1972 to 92,786 members in 2002, when the last comprehensive census of Yearly Meetings was assembled. (Quaker membership statistics derived from: Barbour & Frost, The Quakers; the Friends World Committee for Consultation website at: www.fwcc.quaker.org; and supplementary data provided by Steven Angell, Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at ESR.)  This signifies a drop in membership of approximately 23.5% in just 30 years.  Just as important as the overall numbers is the realization that no major branch of Friends has been immune to this decline.  Over the same period, membership in Yearly Meetings affiliated with EFI dropped by just under 14%, as detailed in the accompanying chart.  Membership in Yearly Meetings either singly or jointly affiliated with FUM and/or FGC, by comparison, dropped by 29.3% (with solely FUM Meetings dropping by 42.5%; solely FGC Meetings dropping by 7.5%; and membership in Meetings jointly affiliated with both FUM and FGC decreasing by 17%).  The only branch of Friends that enjoyed an increase in membership during this period, in fact, were Independent Yearly Meetings, whose membership increased by 35%.  Unfortunately, the small total number of members in Independent Meetings (3,629 in 2002) mutes the significance of these relative gains.

Membership trends over the past thirty years presents a rather gloomy picture for the future for the Religious Society of Friends in North America.  If these downward trends in the Society’s membership were to continue unchecked, American Quakers would become extinct sometime late in the 21st century.  Demographic trends within the Quaker community suggest that this projection is, if anything, optimistic.  Although no official statistics are maintained by the various American Quaker umbrella organizations (FUM, FGC and EFI) the general consensus of anecdotal evidence is that the median age of Quaker Meetings is inexorably rising, and that, on the whole, they are failing to adequately cultivate the next generation of membership and leaders. (For more concrete expressions of this view, please refer to: Among Friends – A consultation with Friends about the condition of Quakers in the U.S. today, pgs. 18-20, 32, & 102-126.)

If membership and demographic trends within the Religious Society of Friends are disheartening, its state of internal unity also provides little comfort.  The various schisms between American Friends – many of which trace their roots back to theological disagreements now a century or more old – continue to fester.  Friends continue to divide themselves into various branches encompassing: programmed and unprogrammed worship formats, conservative to liberal political views, and evangelical Christian to universalist religious beliefs.  Nor are many signs manifest of reconciliation between these various branches.  If anything, newly arising issues, such as the status and role of homosexuals in the church, for example, point to fault lines that hold out the prospect for even further division.

In assessing the status of the Religious Society of Friends, finally, Friends must invariably look beyond themselves to assess progress in advancing their mission in the world, as defined by the Quaker testimonies of integrity, simplicity, peace and equality, all leavened by the ideals of justice and tolerance.  Even a cursory glance at the situation of the U.S. and the world indicates that there is still much work left for Quakers to perform in these regards.  At a time when the American government has intentionally chosen the path of war—even to the point of deception, illegality and the detriment of America’s long-term interests—never has the Quaker testimony of peace been more relevant or needed.  Nor is the need for Quaker values in the world limited to issues of war and peace.

At a time when each day brings a fresh scandal to light in the business world, never has the Quaker testimony of honesty and integrity been more relevant or needed.  At a time when human over-consumption is putting increasingly deadly stress on the biosphere, never has the Quaker testimony of simplicity been more relevant or needed.  At a time when over 43.6 million Americans, or 15.2% of the total population, has no health insurance, never has the Quaker testimony of equality been more relevant or needed (Health Care Coverage in America: Understanding the Issues & Proposed Solutions, pg. 2).  At a time when the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with over 2 million of its citizens languishing in jail, never has the Quaker ideal of justice been more relevant or needed (As of 2003, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. was 715 people per 100,000 of the population and rising, giving it the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  The country with the next highest rate of incarceration is the Russian Federation, with 584 prisoners per 100,000 of the population (Source: The International Centre for Prison Studies).  At a time when the "war on terror" is increasing society’s levels of suspicion toward minority communities, in all their manifestations, never has the Quaker ideal of tolerance been more relevant or needed.

Which brings us to the passage from Wil Cooper’s 1959 study quoted at the beginning of this document.  In that passage, Wil observed that, if a religious community or church is to be judged by the fruits of its activity, then American Quakerism at mid-20th century might be said to be in a healthy condition.  However, if one was to judge by its membership numbers, its condition of internal unity, or the spiritual vitality of its local congregations, then one might be tempted to come to the opposite conclusion.  From this situation, he judged there to be a great need in regard to providing adequate leadership for Friends at the Monthly and Yearly Meeting level.

Today, the situation of the Religious Society of Friends may be fairly judged to be far more grave than in Wil’s day.  While Quakerism still bears abundant fruit in term of its activities in the world, Quakers would seem to have made little or no progress in terms of “saving themselves” by nurturing the vine that gives forth the fruit, so to speak.  Aside from some Yearly Meetings that have chosen to jointly affiliate themselves with both FUM and FGC, little progress has been made in terms of improving the condition of internal unity in the Religious Society of Friends.  Furthermore, the spiritual vitality of many local congregations is lacking.  Composed of aging congregants, many Monthly Meetings are failing to attract the next generation of Friends.  Most importantly, the number of Friends in virtually all branches of their Society has been in steady decline for at least the past thirty years.  It is now an open question as to how long Friends can continue to maintain their presence in the world, at least in North America.

In the midst of this rather pessimistic assessment, though, one can also see glimmers of hope and signs of strength among Quakers.  In many cases, the primary weaknesses of Quakers also manifest as their greatest strengths.  The Quaker emphasis on a personal relationship with God, for instance, has been a continuing source of division within the Society of Friends throughout its history.  On the other hand, though, this relationship has also given rise to a group of people with an extremely well developed sense of individual responsibility.  By the same token, the lack of internal unity within the Society of Friends is not only a weakness, but also a potential source of great strength.  There is, perhaps, no other single religious denomination in American society today that so completely encompasses the entire spectrum of American religious experience.  This diversity of theological perspective, in combination with the Quaker openness to continuing revelation, gives Friends great potential for defining a religion of the future that is capable of appealing to large segments of the population.

Finally, in tallying the strength of Quakers, one must look to the strength of the institutions they have created and nurtured, particularly in the field of education.  One could plausibly argue, in fact, that even if Quakers were to die out tomorrow, their presence would continue to be felt for centuries to come through the many influential, public serving institutions they have established.  Fortunately, one of these institutions—the Earlham School of Religion—has set as its mission to provide leadership that empowers and serves after the manner of Friends.