Growing up Quaker

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The Quaker meeting house I attended on Sundays in Salem, Ohio, is a large building built in 1871. It’s built of brick with a wide front and large porch, set back from the street with a big lawn. There’s no belfry because no bells. This is a different format from most Protestant denominations.
The inside is different too. Sometimes there’s a lectern, but no one organizes the worship service or preaches regularly. The usual pattern is silent worship, akin to the meditative practices of Hinduism and Buddhism, though I doubt that either religion originally inspired the practice of Quakerism, because I doubt either was known in the England of the mid-17th century. According to Wikipedia, nobody recorded how the form of Quaker worship was arrived at. Was it influenced by another tradition? Or did George Fox and/or some other make some kind of intuitive leap? I would suggest that Fox and other early Quakers were trying to get rid of anything inessential in their lives and worship, and saw Catholicism in particular as abounding in what Fox called “vanity”.
A series of rows of benches faces the back wall of the building, while a few rows face towards most of the congregation. Elders sit on these facing benches, and conclude worship by shaking hands after about an hour. That hour may be entirely silent, but if people feel moved to speak (ideally by what they consider to be the spirit of God), they do so. Of course some enjoy the sound of their own voices, but perhaps fewer than you might think. I have rarely experienced really contentious speech in meetings for worship, but I haven’t attended many since I was a teenager either.
We spent every Sunday (or First Day, according to Quakers, who objected to days being named after pagan gods) at that meeting house, sometimes for fairly long periods. There was Sunday school before meeting, there was a business meeting every month, after which there was a potluck dinner (I loved gorging on delicious food at those), and another business meeting every quarter, at which meetings besides our own were also represented. I didn’t find the business meetings too fascinating, but enjoyed playing or hanging out with other people my age.
The group of meetings ours belonged to was called Ohio Yearly Meeting, though it didn’t take in all of Ohio, by any means. The Yearly Meeting part was named after the annual business meeting including anyone who could attend from any of its member meetings. It included mainly eastern Ohio, and there was another Quaker group in our town and elsewhere that was modeled more on mainline Protestantism: it had a minister and music was included in its services.
It was also more socially conservative than the Quakerism I grew up with. We were called Conservative, or Wilburite Quakers, but had relatively liberal social views concerning war, racism, and other weighty matters. There was a contingent of Quakers in our Yearly Meeting who still dressed very plainly, much like Amish or Mennonites did, but most of the Yearly Meeting no longer did. Plainness of this sort had been part of Quakerism since its beginnings in the 17th century. Not only did Quakers dress plainly, but they also refused to recognize social classes. They came from a time when English, like other languages still, had different forms for speaking to different people. People who had superior social positions were to be addressed as “you”, while people with whom one was familiar, or from inferior social classes were to be called “thee” or “thou”. English changed, and the use of thee and thou became archaic, but the equivalent survives in other languages.
Quakers also became known for refusing to swear in formal situations like courts of law, as they considered the Bible prohibited this. They also became known for their positions against war and slavery, and their interest in prison reform. Reportedly, Quakers on the American frontier would often leave their doors unlocked, and Native Americans wouldn’t bother them, since Quakers treated them as equals.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries Quakers weren’t different from many other European settlers in this country: some of them owned slaves. There were earlier voices calling for the end of slavery, but it was John Woolman, in the first half to about the middle of the 18th century, who took this position seriously and worked at convincing all Quakers to free their slaves and work for the abolition of slavery. It seems quite amazing that slavery, which had been an ordinary part of life for as long as we have records, should only have started to be protested against in the 17th century, mass movements against it begun in the 18th century, and our Civil War fought about it in the 19th century–after most countries (at least in the western world) had already freed their slaves.
Elizabeth Fry was another Quaker, famous for her interest in prison reform in the early 19th century. Lucretia Mott was another, famous as an abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights. Other Quakers protested wars at various times, and were probably among the first to demand conscientious objector status because they were unwilling to take part in war(they considered this also contrary to the spirit of the Bible), but were willing to contribute to their country in other ways. My father helped build things in Indiana and North Dakota during World War II. One of his brothers was a doctor, and served overseas in that way. The other brother drove an ambulance in the war.
Not all Quakers were anti-war. General Smedley Butler enlisted in the Spanish-American war because he’d fallen in love with the idea of being a Marine. He was evidently a very good one: promotions came quickly, and he served in many places for over thirty years: the Philippines, China, Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua at least, but after some thirty years he had second thoughts about what he’d been doing, and denounced the Military-Industrial Complex. I remember reading about how President Eisenhower warned against this Complex on leaving the presidency, but I hadn’t realized it went back all the way to the 1890s. Butler also foiled a coup d’etat when he reported someone who offered to make him the face of a military takeover.
There have been other famous Quakers too, including two US presidents, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Neither were altogether successful as presidents.
Quakerism has been as present in cities as in the country, but my experience of it has been mostly rural or small-town. The town where I grew up was small, and the town where I attended a Quaker high school was smaller. The school itself was on the outskirts of town, and had its own farm to provide milk and food. One of the barns was on campus when I was a freshman there, which ensured there were lots of flies. Behind the boys dorm was a steep grassy valley where the cows grazed.
The barn is gone now, along with most of the flies. The boys dorm where I stayed was renovated not long after I graduated, and a new girls dorm was built. The main building is probably one of the older structures in the area, I think even older than the meeting house near the entrance to the campus. My father worked on an addition to the main building almost sixty years ago, and there have been various renovations since. It’s a place I like to visit when I can because the site and its buildings give me good feelings, and I also get to meet old friends there. We regularly gather when spring has gotten well underway, and summer is just around the corner. This has been the source of a lot of long-term friendships. Several of mine go back 50 years.
One reason for this was that the school was small (and is even smaller now). At most, the student body may have reached 100 occasionally. This meant that everyone knew everyone else, at least by name, just about everyone lived in the dormitories, and room assignments got switched around with each new term, so everyone got a chance to know some other people quite well.
I think some of the good feelings for me, and maybe for some others, may have come from the meeting house sitting at the entrance to the campus. Meditation seems to be a positive sort of practice, and when I went to school there some 90 years of meditation had taken place in that building. When I first visited there, almost 60 years ago, I was tremendously excited, though I couldn’t have told you why. There simply was something about that place and building.
When I was a teenager the Quakers I knew had begun to lose what made them distinct from others, and to become part of homogenous (white) America. Many of my friends (but not all) and I left the meeting as we became young adults. It’s kind of a shame we did, because our older classmates were a pretty special group, taking responsibility and looking out for we younger boys and girls better than we probably did for the young people who followed us. Ohio Yearly Meeting isn’t dead yet. I wonder if it would be unfair to say that it’s on life-support, though. Many of the meetings have gotten very small.
The Yearly Meeting used to run the Quaker high school I attended. It doesn’t anymore. For one thing, it’s too small to have the resources. For another, the meeting has changed. I gather that to some extent it has become polarized like much of the rest of society. About 20 years ago many alumni found they didn’t agree with a particular position taken a group in the Yearly Meeting, and after some prolonged wrangling, the Yearly Meeting relinquished responsibility.
I have little experience of Quakerism in other places or different forms. I’ve heard something about it, of course, but will only attempt to give the limited picture that I experienced myself. I’m not entirely sure why I turned away from it, as in some ways it was idyllic. But it was a rebellious time in history, I was in a rebellious period, so I turned away from it. I might have been happier if I’d stayed in that subculture, but I didn’t.
Quakerism started out as a largely positive movement, in my opinion, but movements tend to lose their way if they don’t follow the spirit that originally inspired them, and periodically reinvent themselves. Apparently the group I grew up among lost much of what made them special. Perhaps they’ll find it again, or perhaps it will be necessary to look in other places.
Quakerism did a lot to shape my worldview, though I no longer attend meetings for worship. I think the Quaker view is largely a positive one, and I might recommend it to anyone who thinks they’d get something from it. I chose not to myself, though I don’t know entirely why.

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One thought on “Growing up Quaker

  1. Julian Scala

    Your language here embodies what non-Quakers tend to think of as Quakerish simplicity and calm. It’s a very good piece. I was surprised to learn that General Smedley Butler, an interesting figure, had been raised as a Quaker. During the 1960s, I met Quakers active in the peace movement and Quaker COs. Quaker activism, to the extent that I encountered it, reminded me of the Catholic Worker movement, though doctrinally of course the two had little in common.

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