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Are Quakers Going Extinct?

My experience of Quakerism has always been tinged with a palpable awareness of its impending demise. When I first became a Quaker during my time living in Mexico City, I remember walking with a respected elder from Pacific Yearly Meeting who confided in me, I don’t know whether Quakerism will survive.

This question of denominational survival has been a live one for generations of Friends. The Quaker community has been in steady decline for hundreds of years. Hard as it is to imagine now, roughly one third of the colonial American population was Quaker. Today, the Quaker community is statistically insignificant.

In the last 50 years, Quakerism has basically imploded in many parts of the United States. Meetings have dwindled and winked out of existence. There are many indications that this rapid decline may still be in process. An enormous question facing the overwhelming gray-haired North American Quaker community is, Can the Religious Society of Friends survive the passing of the Baby Boomer generation?

I had the opportunity to visit a Quaker Meeting on Long Island recently, and during the tea time following meeting for worship we had a deep discussion about where we are at as a spiritual community. As we talked, it became clear that, for Friends in that Meeting, the status quo isn’t working. One Friend said bluntly, If we keep doing what we are doing, this Meeting is going to die.

I couldn’t help but smile. This is exactly where this Meeting, where all of us, need to be: staring death in the face. For hundreds of years, the Quaker movement has stagnated and declined, and time and again we have responded with panic. We’ve tried all sorts of things to save Quakerism. We’ve doubled down on our sectarian streak, disowning the greater part of our membership for petty offenses like marrying non-Quakers or participating in non-Quaker organizations. We’ve gone the other way, too – virtually abandoning our traditions in the quest to be more relevant – whether that relevance looked like adherence to the latest scientific fads or Evangelical dogma.

We have tried so hard to survive. For generations, we’ve wrung our hands over why we’re shrinking. We’ve lamented our cultural irrelevance. We’ve blamed everyone else, and we’ve blamed ourselves. But always, always, always, we’ve tried to survive.

What I said to the Friends at this precious Meeting on Long Island, and what I say to you now is: We’re not going to get anywhere as a people so long as survival is our objective. We’re not going to grow – in any sense, spiritual or numerical – when our obsession is the future of Quakerism.

Everyone dies, but not all deaths are created equal. There’s the sad, pathetic demise of a person or organization who clings tooth and nail to every last breath. This is a deathbed drenched with fear of losing out, terrified of uncertainty, grasping at straws to hold onto some semblance of familiarity. This is the cringing, repulsive state that we are in when we cry, how do we keep Quakerism from dying?

In stark contrast to this repellent death rattle, there is a way of dying that welcomes, blesses, and builds up. Rather than clinging to the last shreds of life as we have known it, those who die in this way radiate joy and impart true life to everyone around them. This is the dying life of Mother Teresa and Francis of Assisi. This is the radiant death of Jesus, whose triumphant agony still has power to restore us today.

This is the abundant life that we are invited to dwell in today, as we witness the dying moments of our beloved religious communities. Instead of spending the time we have left lamenting what we are losing, why not rejoice in the gift that God has given us? Instead of desperately trying to preserve our community and tradition, what would it look like to break it open and pour out our blessings on others with reckless abandon?

The church will never thrive until we stop trying to survive. As we participate in the deep, radiant life of Jesus, we are freed from the power of brokenness, sin, and death. We don’t have to be captive to the terror of mortality anymore. With gratitude in our hearts, we can pass on what has been given to us, without expectation and without fear.

Related Posts:

Can Quakers Become a Mass Movement?

QuakerSpring: A New Creation

  • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

    We might try loving G*d by loving our neighbor….

  • broschultz

    Amen. Quakers as well as any religious or sectarian organization have to be an essential part of life to survive and prosper. Each meeting has to look around and actually find what is the NEED of its surrounding community that that meeting is being called by the Spirit of God to meet. In a world of soccer Moms and Football Dads churches don’t have a monopoly on Sunday activity. But what we should have a monopoly on is Compassion. I don’t know about other Quaker Meetings but the community around mine certainly has a need for compassion.

  • jillann57

    I like BroSchultz’s comment. In addition, those things that (some) Quakers think are unique to Quakerism aren’t that unique anymore. While that may mean that we need to rediscover our uniqueness, it might also mean working side by side with those churches and organizations with which we share something in common. To do that, we need to get out of the Meetinghouse and take a few risks.

    • That’s absolutely right, Jill. Many of the beliefs that were radical at the time that Quakers first held them are now increasingly commonplace.

      A question I ask myself a lot these days is, what are the truly radical questions of our day, and who do I need to partner with – Quaker or not – to engage them?

      • Handel

        Coming from outside Quakerism, I have to say that Friends are at the core much more radically unique than any other Judeo-Christian faith around. The reason? Unprogrammed worship is found only in Quaker meeting, I have found myself turning to the RSOF after a long time just unable to connect with any other program. My first meeting, about 10 minutes in, I found myself just crying silently but huge tears of pure relief and connection. And now I am pretty excited about becoming a Friend. You have the most valuable spiritual treasure I have ever found and I will take a strong grip on this faith. Being a worrywart, I read things like this and hope that the treasure of Quakerism endures. (I may be becoming an evangelical Quaker, LOL – I know, contradiction in terms, right?) But seriously, I want to tell everyone how I have never felt more grateful and empowered than in silent worship. Is it OK to hold Quakerism itself ‘in the light’? Quakerism is just too valuable to the world to die. It just IS. The contributions of Friends to society is way way out of proportion to their numbers. I think society will benefit in unexpected ways from this ‘dwindling’ faith.

  • Karla Moran

    I think that we need more people to do what you and Faith are doing in DC. Is not easy to take those risks, but we do have to step out in faith.

    • Thanks, Karla. It sounds like you’re doing some pretty important work in Indy!

  • BicycleThief II

    I would look at it this way … Quakers have moved on from the Garden of Gethsemane more than most Christian denominations? I am definitely all for salvation through works than by faith or grace and that’s how I understand your activities. I may have said this before on here but British Methodist congregations are literally dying and it seems to be doomed but as |Jesus taught …

    Truly,
    truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it
    remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses
    it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

    • I definitely think there’s more than one way to die. I hope we’re learning to die like Jesus!

    • charlesburchfield

      i know you wrote this 2 months ago and really, it seems a valid critique of the Quakers. (the Quakers you have known?) I’m just wondering where you’re at now w/ your thinking on works being more important to them then faith or grace b/c I am finding individuals in the movement right now to be more evolved spiritually than anywhere else in the blogosphere.

  • Brad

    I can’t help but think that so much of this dwindling of the congregations is also partly because of the over-politicization of Quakerism, and the desire to bring justice but not necessarily be discomforted. Just a look at the racial makeup of the congregations relative to the desires for diversity. For me, when I see hundreds flock to gatherings (Yearly, FGC, FCNL, AFSC) but so few going out in the name of service in the world (an expression of radical Quakerism?), it is no wonder we struggle. We preach to the choir (often ad-nauseum), instead of going out to be a part of the larger choir. In the process, I think we also shy away from proclaiming what our faith is but in a way that allows for others to share theirs. Ultimately, despite claims to being open, I think we are often not there, nor do we engage in a practice that opens for deeper exploration. To live with the faith that there is that of God in all – truly live it – is not easy, but it is where I think Quakerism lies in the world.

    • charlesburchfield

      i think that to live in the faith that there is ‘that of god in all’ is to accept that reality. in my limited time on earth, in my only sphere of influence i can only go on trying to maintain constant contact w/ the holy spirit. I had to walk away from the Quakers I knew 3 decades ago in order to find peace. Finally I am finding shelter in individual Quaker hearts again maybe b/c of what the holy spirit wants to do in raising quakerism from the dead.

  • neil_nachum

    I belong to a somewhat larger liberal denomination, Unitarians, and if we do not collaborate periodically our size and visibility will diminish. Additionally, as a leading advocate for Esperanto, another group with strong pacifist leanings, I recommend collaboration (at least some partially bilingual websites). Some decade ago the president of Universal Esperanto Association was Quaker activist, Edmond Privat, while Quaker activist, Montagu Butler was busy writing the now famous English-Esperanto dictionary. Quakers, Unitarians and Esperanto speakers must visibly collaborate. I’d rather not speak for Quakers, but the Unitarians are pretty much closed into the English speaking world. They should wake up to the EASY, POLITICALLY neutral, universal language, with large communities in countries as diverse as Nepal, Indonesia, Cuba and Iran. (About a quarter of American Esperantists are also Unitarians). My NYC Unitarian church seats about 400 comers but only 80 seats are regularly filled. Grey hair is most common.

    • Mi ankaux apogas la uzon de Esperanto por la komunikado internacia! Bona memorigo!

  • Bill Rushby

    Hello, Micah!

    You wrote that: “The Quaker community has been in steady decline for hundreds of years.” I don’t think that this assertion is true. Quaker membership has occasionally shown explosive growth. The post-Bellum Gurneyite Friends in the Midwest are one instance of this. The Kenyan Quaker phenomenon is another.

    • Hi, Bill. You’re right to point out some times of explosive growth throughout history. I’m especially grateful that you pointed out the rise of the Friends Church in Kenya, which is still actively growing. I should have been more clear that I was talking about Quakers in North America.

  • Bill Rushby

    You also wrote that: “We’ve doubled down on our sectarian streak, disowning the greater part of our membership for petty offenses like marrying non-Quakers or participating in non-Quaker organizations.”
    Actually, tightening of discipline among Pennsylvania Friends during the mid-18th Century helped to restore spiritual vitality and faithfulness among them. The problems they were having had much more to do with birthright membership, affluence and politicization than with sectarianism.

    • I think both can be true, and I’ve heard both sides of this argument. From my own research, it seems to me that all the issues you mention were definitely big problems, but over-aggressive disownment was certainly among them.

  • Bill Rushby

    You spoke of ” petty offenses like marrying non-Quakers or participating in non-Quaker organizations.” These taboos were not just random petty nuisances. They had a purpose, to maintain the cohesion of the Quaker community.
    Abrogating the rule against exogamous marriage in some cases caused disastrous membership losses, in Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) for example. An overwhelming proportion of outgroup marriages, in my observation, have resulted in the OYM member leaving the fold. I don’t regard this as a petty matter! It happened repeatedly in our own family!
    In Barnesville some Friends valued their Grange commitments more highly than their church involvement. I remember very distinctly one prominent Barnesville Friend saying that he could not commit to attending a particular meeting until he checked his Grange schedule. For some Friends, “participating in non-Quaker organizations” can greatly diminish their meeting involvements.

    • I get the logic, but I disagree. For example, my wife Faith and I participated yesterday in the ordination service of a good friend who has just become an Episcopal priest. 150 years ago, simply being present for this rite could have meant disownment! Many friends were disowned simply for being present at a non-Quaker wedding, or participating in mixed societies, such as the abolitionist movement.

      I want to be part of a movement of disciples that is fully engaged in the world, risking our own “contamination” so that “by all means, we might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

  • Bill Rushby

    My general response to the decline in membership among Friends is that we have not taken it seriously enough. To start with, the Society of Friends is a very diverse denomination. Decline in one Quaker group may result from conditions quite different from those that cause losses in another group. To understand what is going on, one would need to study local meetings and yearly meetings, rather than attempting to generalize to all Friends. There may be pan-Quaker difficulties, but my hunch is that they are less significant than problems more specific to particular Quaker groups.
    When I first joined Ohio Yearly Meeting, I found it perplexing that the yearly meeting had so drastically lost numbers and vitality over the course of its history. Proposed explanations such as migration to urban areas and higher education didn’t really account for the decline. It wasn’t too long before I saw that there were much more serious problems that led to decline. Unfortunately, probing these was painful for Ohio Friends, because “fixing” the difficulties would require changes they did not want to make!
    I believe that Friends tend to dismiss membership losses without careful examination. Then, when they offer remedial strategies, these are often attempted without close examination of the problem. It’s somewhat like attempting to “cure” cancer without looking closely at what kind of cancer is at issue and what its dynamics are. Offering a “cure” without really understanding the pathology involved is not likely to work!

    • I agree with you that we tend to dismiss the problems we’re facing without sufficiently examining them. I also agree that there are local issues, particular to different churches and yearly meetings, which lead to decline.

      And, I would also suggest that Quakers track quite nicely with the great body of Mainline Protestant Christianity in the US. That’s not to say we’re the same – theologically or culturally – as the Mainline Protestant church; but our demographics issues have followed a remarkably similar pattern. I don’t think that this is an accident, and I tend to think that the trends and changes facing us right now are best understood in the context of US society and culture as a whole.

      • charlesburchfield

        I am so happy to find someone who is willing to be open to this topic! In the context of where I live (America) in the context of where I have been spending my religious coin, I have come to believe the systemic problems render down to ‘group think’, narciscism, cronyism, nepotism, systemic violence, sexism & racism. The Quaker advantage is that there is a dim historical memory and surviving artifacts of true holy spirit revival When Quakers actually quaked! Why did they I wonder?

        • Ivan T. Errible

          Aren’t the Quakers an extremely White and middle/upper middle class group? Who run some very expensive schools for over-privileged children?

          • Yes they are.

          • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

            Many Quakers are white, some are middle/upper middle class. Some run expensive schools that MOST Quakers cannot afford to attend

          • Ivan thinks that’s terrible!!

          • Ivan T. Errible

            So basically the Republicans with a subscription to “The Nation” and few recycling bins scattered around? Probably a Subaru or Prius in the driveway?

          • Did you mean to say” basically they’re Republicans?” Yeah I think you’re right about that. The ones I knew in Newberg Oregon in the 80s were definitely like that!! They were Republicans of that age if you know what I mean. Very cautious, Frugal and uptight!! They stuck to their families brand. I don’t I think the ones I knew would really be loving Trump. I’m so out of touch with them I have no idea where they fall politically these days. And as far as Subaru and Prius no those weren’t invented in the 80s. They’re Drive of choice was Volvo!! I don’t belong to the Quaker church anymore. I don’t know any Quakers anymore. My antisocial kicked in about 30 years ago!! I go to an AA meeting now and then.

  • Just a Friend

    I was raised in a Quaker household and attended weekly
    Meeting, Friends camps, young friend’s activities and a Friends middle
    school. Also, my ancestors were Pennsylvania Quakers in Penn’s colony in
    the 17th century. My wife also likes Quakerism and we are sending our
    daughter to a Quaker camp this summer. This being said, I am not a
    practicing Quaker. I have a warm view of Quakerism and Friends, but
    I don’t attend meeting and am not active.

    I have a few thoughts on the modern downfall of Quakerism. Please forgive
    me if you believe they are ignorant or wrong.

    These aren’t a prescription for changes in Quakerism, rather why I think
    Quakers have decreased as a population and will continue to.

    1) Nonviolence in the face of extreme evil: The horror of humanity in the 20th
    century calls into question the non-violence of the Friends. It is hard
    not to question a theology that would allow for inaction in the face of mass
    extermination of peoples (Nazism, Japanese occupation of China). In the
    extreme and inhuman violence of modernity, passive resistance seems
    fundamentally wrong. I agree with Augustine of Hippo. On the other
    hand, Quakers also seem out of step with the cultural and media violence that
    permeates our increasingly militarized society. This has been an ongoing
    process over the last 100 years, with perhaps a spike in the last 14,
    post-9/11. This might make Quakerism a harder sell to youth. (I am
    not advocating current societal trends.
    What is with the current fascination with killing Zombies?)

    2) Lack of Evangelicalism: If you don’t evangelize actively you will have fewer
    members. Quakers don’t push their religious views on people. I
    think it would be seen as rude and bigoted if Friends tried to actively convert
    non-believers to the Quaker creed. Being a modern Quaker is about having
    freedom of conscience and coming to faith through reason. Evangelicalism
    isn’t about reason, it is about faith without reason. Consider that
    Mormons have a much more complex theology than many other faiths. But,
    they have 15 million members and a thriving church. I’m not suggesting
    that Quakers start trying to convert people, but it helps explain why there are
    so few Quakers today. The success of earlier Quakers was through mass and
    impassioned evangelicalism.

    3) Universalism: What does a faith stand for if there are no set
    lines? If salvation or god or the inner light can be touched by
    Unitarian, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, agnostic, atheist, etc. why would someone be
    a Quaker? A large part of having a successful religion is about avoiding
    relativism, universalism, etc. It is
    about having a clear and simple proscribed faith. Quakerism is often
    unclear and requires a lot of consideration, personal discovery, and some
    debate. This seems to doom the faith at the onset as a mass
    religion. [Though, perhaps it helps Quakerism be considered by liberally-minded,
    humanistic, rationalist people (as many a small meeting house near a liberal
    arts college campus attests). A lot of people agree with the ideas of
    Quakerism, but many of these people are simply not religious. Why be a
    Quaker as opposed to a humanist?

    4) Lack of Hierarchy: It is easier to control and dominate people when you have
    leaders to give commands. Quakerism’s relative lack of organization gives
    it less stability than other more structured faiths. I have always liked
    this aspect, as it beautiful.

    5) Isolation and self-orientation in the larger society: God has been replaced
    by Self for many people. These people have less time for religion in
    general and see less value in it. Large segments of younger people spend
    a great deal of time on the internet in virtual worlds. Quaker meeting is
    a old institution that may be hard for young people to connect with. It
    lacks the instant gratification and stimulation of our electronically connected
    world. (See Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community)

    6) The emancipation of Women: This is one of Quakerism’s great triumphs. Religions
    that deny female reproductive choices and education tend to have a lot more
    babies and more followers. Part of having a successful religion is about
    controlling female sexuality. Paternalistic domination of women
    proscribed in a religion gives men a self-reinforcing reason to adhere to
    it. (Again, I think equality of women and men is one of the best aspects
    of Quakerism, I am just giving reasons for Quakerism’s decline.)

    Anyway, just a few thoughts. I don’t know what Quakers should do to change
    current trends. Personally, I really like Quakerism, but I don’t attend
    meeting because: I live in an area where there are few Quakers, they are all
    30+ years older than me, I work all the time to keep a business in operation (and
    spend any extra time I have doing fun things with my young kids), and I hold
    agnostic viewpoints. I live a Quaker life as best I can, but am not part
    of a larger Quaker community.