It’s certainly true that early Friends were Christian – very much so. There’s plenty evidence of that.
But it’s a profound mistake to see these outward beliefs – and if you’ve read much of early Friends, you know the disdain they attached to that word “outward” – as what is essential to Quakerism.
What is essential to Quakerism is best summed up in the opening sentence of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Advices and Queries – Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.
This is the essential core of Quakerism for two reasons. Normatively speaking, it’s the most valuable pearl of wisdom they have to offer the world. And descriptively speaking, it’s arguably where the characteristic Quaker experience starts. Everything else is just interpretation of that experience (theology) or elaboration of its effects (the testimonies).
And everything else comes second. There’s no reason to assume their interpretations of their experience are the best ones, or that their discernment of those inward leadings is inerrantly true for all people at all times. Everything is open to revision based on these promptings, for us, today.
The promptings of love once moved us to repent of our involvement in the slave trade, and today are moving us to take greater care of the earth.
The promptings of truth once moved us to refuse to swear in court, and to be honest in business.
We were once moved to oppose dancing and music, but in the centuries since have felt moved to embrace them.
And I believe that today, the promptings of truth would lead us to see that all religions are basically false – outmoded belief systems from the childhood of our species, invented before we learned the intellectual humility not to claim we know things that we actually don’t. There’s much we can learn about the human condition by studying them, and we can be forgiven if the language still resonates with many us. But continuing to live in them is foolish, as foolish as living on top of an archaeological dig.
And when we realize that Christianity, like all religions, is basically false – Jesus, if he existed, was simply an extraordinary human – our relationship with Quakerism reaches a crossroads.
We can see early Friends (and Christians) as simply deluded, and let them fall into the dustbin of history. I don’t think we should do that. More charitably, we can instead see them as humans who had extraordinary experiences that are valuable for us today, worthy of study and sometimes even emulation, but couched in unacceptably superstitious terms and concepts – the only ones available in their pre-modern society. (A naturalistic/nontheistic view of the world was barely conceivable back then, and the few pioneers in that department often did not lead very moral lives, and were therefore not at all attractive to Friends.)
For many, such a re-interpretation seems so drastic that you can’t call this post-religious Quakerism “Quakerism” anymore. So be it. If “Quaker-inspired” beliefs are more truthful than “Quaker” ones, so much the worse for Quakerism – focusing on what is most “Quaker” then becomes a form of idolatry. We should always (as was suggested at the “Food for Fire” workshop last year) be willing to give up the form we call “Quakerism” if it conflicts with how we are led.
But for however much or little it’s worth, in so doing we will have carried forward the spirit of Quakerism, better than that oxymoron “traditional Quakerism” ever could.
In the words of a letter “From Friends met together at Durham” from 1659:
–let us all, in the simplicity of Truth, (which at the first was made manifest to us,) abide and dwell, and in the liberty Christ Jesus hath made us free, stand fast; that we be not again led back into the errors of those that went before us, who left the power, and got into the form, who brought in that darkness which hath so long covered the face of the earth, that no footsteps may be left for those that shall come after, or to walk by example, but that all may be directed and left to the Truth, in it to live and walk and by it to be guided, that none may look back at us, nor have an eye behind them, but that all may look forward waiting in the Spirit for the revelation of those glorious things which are to be made manifest to them.*
Glorious thing are ahead, friends, but we must look ahead to see them.
* Quoted in Letters, &c., of early Friends ed. A.R. Barclay, 1841, pp. 288-92. This passage is best known for being quoted in chapter 6 of Friends for 300 years, where Brinton appears to have mistaken the recipient (Friends at Skipton) for the sender.