Discovering Your Inner Quaker
It is not unusual in my neck of the woods to drive down an Indiana road and happen upon an old Quaker meetinghouse, set back from the road with a cemetery nearby. The graves will date from the early 1800s to the current day, bookending the span of Quakerism in America’s heartland. Many meetinghouses date from the mid-1800s. Given their age and the unintended message of death every graveyard conveys, passersby could be forgiven for believing Quakerism to be an antiquated tradition, out of step with the modern world.
I know this misperception is a common one, for I believed it myself before becoming a Quaker; and others, who eventually became Quakers, also thought it true and told me so. To discover people still gather at those meetinghouses each Sunday, still laugh and love and learn within those serene spaces, is a surprise to those of us who believed Quakerism to be a dying expression. Not only is the mere existence of Quakerism a surprise, so are its vitality and relevance.
What is more surprising is that a religious tradition as evangelically bashful as Friends is still around at all. The average Quaker, if there is such a thing, will warmly welcome a visitor once he or she arrives at a meetinghouse but would seldom have invited that person in the first place, fearing that might be construed as spiritually coercive or pushy. Instead, we rely upon our history and reputation—and in more recent years a website called Beliefnet.com—to evangelize for us. I first visited that website several years ago and was invited to answer a series of questions in order to determine the religion that best suited me. Intrigued, I took the quiz, submitted my answers for evaluation,and was informed I would feel most at home in a Quaker meeting. I remember chuckling to myself, pleased the test confirmed the path I had chosen over thirty-five years before.
A few weeks later, a visitor arrived at our Quaker meetinghouse. After welcoming her, I asked if she had ever attended a Quaker meeting.
She answered, “No, this is my first time. But I took a test on the Internet, and it told me I’d be happy as a Quaker.”
I mentioned I had taken the same test and had been told the same thing. Many others have visited our meetinghouse since, telling the same story. This has not been unique to our meeting. In my conversations with other Quakers around the country, they have reported the same phenomena. I would later learn a significant number of the quiz respondents were advised to consider Quakerism. This confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine—there are far more people who embrace our Quaker traditions, testimonies, and beliefs than ever join a Quaker meeting.
Indeed, were everyone who is philosophically sympathetic to our tradition to join our ranks, ours might be the largest denomination in America.
Because so many people were advised by Beliefnet.com to consider Quakerism, I thought perhaps a Quaker had designed the test and was using it to expand our ranks, but that turned out not to be the case. Instead, I learned many people were sympathetic to the ideals of Quakerism without realizing their convictions were shared by a somewhat obscure religious faith over 350 years old. They were Quakers but didn’t know it.
These newcomers to Quakerism have defied easy categorization. Some have been young, others elderly. Some have been prosperous, some have struggled economically. While most have had some experience with organized religion, their experience has been broad, ranging from Roman Catholicism to Judaism to Islam to Baptist. More than a few have been agnostics, uncertain about God but appreciative of the Quaker witness to peace and social justice. Several have mentioned finding the Quaker emphasis on silent reflection helpful to their spiritual journey. One man who had lived for some time in Asia said to me, “Quakerism might be America’s closest thing to Buddhism.”
I’m not sure what to make of our newfound popularity, but I am excited the long-held priorities of Quakerism are being valued by others and hope it signals a wider commitment to the virtues we Friends have cherished and practiced for centuries. At first, I worried the growing attraction of Quakerism was a fad and would fade over time. But as I engage those drawn to the Religious Society of Friends, I am sensing other motivations.
They do not perceive Quakerism as fashionable or chic. Rather, they have found its focus on the inner life to be an antidote to the complexities and challenges of modern life.
The Quaker values,
what we call testimonies—simplicity, peace, integrity, community,
and equality—offer an ethical and spiritual platform upon
which people can happily build their lives.
It is this platform, this spiritual structure, I wish to explore in the pages ahead. These Friendly testimonies are easily remembered by the acronym SPICE: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. I would be remiss in suggesting these are uniquely Quaker ideals. They were not invented by us, and people of other faiths—or no faith at all—have lived them out powerfully and creatively. But I do believe these values are best honed in the crucible of community, which is why I remain a Friend. That these priorities speak to so many people today, including many who have scant knowledge of Quakerism, indicates the common ground shared by ancient traditions and modern seekers. We need not jettison the time-tested truths of our ancestors, but we do need to reinterpret them for our age, lest we mistake stale forms for vital living. It is then, with deep appreciation for the past and profound hope for our future, that I offer these testimonies of the Quaker way for your consideration.
But let me be clear, were I merely to inform you of this way, my job would be left undone. It is the life, the Quaker way,
I urge you to take up and live. By that I do not mean for you to seek out the nearest Quaker meeting and become a member, though you may if you wish. I mean for you to embrace these values, to give your assent and your heart to these virtues, so that our world might be transformed. My interest is not in growing the Quaker denomination. My passion is in growing a world in which peace, love, and justice reign.
In the end, I am not inviting you to a church but to a life.
Excerpted from Living the Quaker Way by Philip Gulley. Copyright © 2013 by Philip Gulley. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.