Intellectual Quakerism: Of birthrights, convincement, and ethnic Quakers

I started this off with the intention of discussing "Birthright" quakers. I really liked what I had read on the post about birthright quakers from Quaker Street (and I would just like to state that sometimes the best conduct comes from convinced Friends). The post itself and the discussion in the comments was very good. I don't actually know that I can add anything. However, it made me recall some of my first days in big league Quaker circles.

As I have stated in several previous posts I grew up in the middle of no-where-Minnesota. I did not attend Meeting regularly till I was 12. And I choose to go to a Quaker College for the community provided and the opportunity to be surrounded by many other young Friends. I had missed out on going to summer camps and retreats and other such important developmental social functions of young Quakers. I mean yea, I had gone to FGC and yearly meeting and FINALLY got to go to some teen retreats, but I just felt like I was missing something.

However, my midwestern conceptual framework of Quakers was challenged when I arrived at college. The scholarship program I had somehow gotten into seemed to be filled with super-Quakers with connections to big names in Quaker circles, related to influential historical figures, and who had grown up Quaker --filled with camps, social circles, and friendships. While it was annoying that some of the people I was meeting in the program had to express that they new this person and that one...the really annoying part was when they would point out how they were related to insert famous name here. And how they were birthright and that their family had been Quaker for ions. It made me feel small, insignificant, and unworldly. I didn't think Quakers would be like that. I didn't know if I was related to famous Quakers, though my mother's side of the family has been Quaker for ions. It wasn't something that was important to my family...we are more of the live your life, let it speak for you kind of family. Not the speak to make your life more important kind. Which is often what happens with Quakers who feel the need to make you constantly aware of their lineage and relative importance (by way of birthrightness and who they are related to). Now, since I am pointing fingers it should probably be said that I consider Birthright to mean that you are born into the care of a meeting...technically, I was. My mother was a member of a meeting and I was born into the care of the meeting...I still have yet to attend said meeting. But I do consider myself Birthright...I don't care if the Society considers me to be one or not. At 16, I had a clearness committee to become a member of my home meeting. So I am Quaker and that is what matters.

Now, what does this have to do with Intellectual Quakerism. Sometimes it appears to me, that convinced friends (or fellow travelers who attend and don't commit) often love the intellectual aspects of what Friends say in our testimonies and other publications and discussions. In fact, they spend time devouring the writings and practices but have difficulty really getting into the practice and Spiritual practices. The theoretical ideals of Quakers are only a layer of the whole. What are Quakers? Are we a sect? A cult? That is sorta what we were considered early on...but we are a Christian sect...take away Christ and we are just a Peculiar People...which may be more like a cult...with no Charismatic leader...Now before, you start to think I am intolerant of those who do not love themselves some Christ...that is hardly the case...but at the peculiar Quaker College...I somehow learned to be a Christian...Perhaps I should start hyphenating my Quakerness as a Christian-Quaker.

But in truth I want to introduce a concept. Ethnically Quaker.

The term is not my own. A friend first used this in my presence at the retreat in Burlington. We used it to discuss how as individuals who come from Quaker stock, have a tendency as young adults we tend to drift away but cannot imagine being anything else. The ethnic Quaker is a term which to me has a softer tone than Birthright...because you are what you are, imbued with certain attributes based on how you were raised. I also don't see the type of person who loves to shove every one's noses in their birthrightness as using the term ethnically Quaker very often. However, I do think that us ethnic Quakers have an ingrained feel of Quakerism. We know when its right or wrong even if we can't tell you what that is. Sometimes I worry that convinced Friends rely too much on the theoretical ideal of Quakerism making it too cerebral when the theoretical underpinnings of Quakerism are only a fraction of the whole. I am not entirely convinced you can know Quakerism until you have truly felt the stirrings of the Spirit of the living God. Because being a minister (as we all are in Quakerism) means feeling the touch of God. The Nudge. The Stirring. The Calling. The Test. But it is a connection to the Spirit of Life, that of God in you and the experiential--unless you get a little mystical, unless you let God in--regardless of what you call it, you won't get Quakerism. It is not purely theoretical.


GMC said...

I see that as a birthright Quaker you
understand quakerism. I as a convinced Friend am struggling to
understand. I'm not sure I understand all the disagreements going between the various branches of quakerism. If Friends can't be
friendly, how can we expect nations
to be?

I grew up in the southern part of "middle of no-where-minnesota". In
looking back it wasn't the worst place to grow up. "Big league Quakers" can be like small town hot
shots, to full of themselfs for anybodys good and that is something
that everyone has to watch for.

Ethnicly Quaker dosn't set well
with me, but then it isn't describing me.

You are right that Quakerism is/should be a lot more than a liberial do good orginization, but that is all it will be if you havn't heard the still small voice of God.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

Interesting post.

I agree that there is such a thing as an "ethnic Quaker", but I'm not sure there should be. Maybe I have even become an ethnic Quaker myself, despite my non-Quaker origins. I've rubbed shoulders with other Friends year-in and year-out since my convincment in 1968/1969, and I suppose I have absorbed the folkways of our peculiar people.
BUT it seems to me that the Quaker Faith was never intended to be the possession of a self-perpetuating ethnic group. It was intended as a message for the whole world. As such, it ought to be presented in a way that is as open and welcoming as possible to people of ANY ethnic group. Our Quaker folkways should be those and only those that flow directly from our faith, not those that flow from being white middle-class, educated professionals. And sometimes, sadly, that's a part of what we've become.
- - Rich Accetta-Evans (Brooklyn Quaker)

MartinK said...

Hi "James",
I'm sure I must know you and I have a guess or two but dern if I can't piece your clues together definitely. Oh well, better that way probably. I found myself nodding along at pretty much everything you were saying here. A lot of my young adult organizing back in the day was driven by a desire to get "ethnic" and convinced Friends to work together, figuring they both had critical things to teach one another--the very issues you talk about. I got serious pushback when I made what I thought were mild suggestions to steer conferences away from the summer-camp/high-school-reunion model. I know I'm not the world's most natural diplomat (dozens of readers nodding their heads) but I didn't think I was being that radical.

The "Super-Quaker" phenom in liberal Quakerism is bizarre. I think we could probably put together a points system: born Quaker:5 points. Well-known Quaker parent:15. Guilford or Earlham: 10 (Haverford/Swarthmore: 5). LGBT: 5; dating another super-Quaker: 10; convinced and on fire: 10. The higher you score the more likely it is you'll get recognition and support. There's also a cumulative effect: having the right background makes it easier to get that Pendle Hill internship or Pickett grant, etc., that then makes the Friend more qualified for the next job. I don't know why Friends even bother with job interviews or nomination committees when it comes to young Friends, as the points system does a 95% job of predicting the outcome. I could point out counter-examples and exceptions from place-to-place and role-to-role but that's the big picture I've seen.

I think it's a matter of credentials. The current generation of boomer Quaker leadership is afraid of making judgement calls. I've been in Quaker offices where some young Friend's name was mentioned; a certain tension would cross older Friend's faces until someone clarified: "it's so-and-so daughter"; face muscles would ease, pens would come out to write down the name (I've occasionally wondered if the well-traveled parents were also generous donors and whether there was a bit of unspoken "pay to play" going on but that's just a cyncial guess). The phenomenon doesn't seem to be as strong the further West you travel and New England Yearly Meeting seems less prone for some reason. The problem in all this is that committees make poor decisions when they don't have a representative sampling of young adults Friends.

I don't know if the current batch of youth organizing is breaking down the barriers between "ethnic" and convinced. Picture galleries from recent gatherings look depressingly familiar, Super-Quakers all in cuddle piles. For years I tried raising consciousness about the issue at FGC staff meetings, but felt I was a broken record. A movement of birthright and convinced Friends working togheter would require a certain toughness, as there'd be a lot of toes stepped upon, along with painful cultural clashes and rude awakenings for both sides, but I don't see the RSoF busting out of its current cozy ghetto without a more united movement. Thanks for your interesting post.

Sorry to ramble on so long.
Martin @ Quaker Ranter

purpleduck said...

Oh I like this a lot!
I'll come back to it later, but yay!

Elizabeth Bathurst said...

I apologize for the delay in approving comments. I have just returned from NCYM-C Sessions, where I had enough internet access via my phone to know that "James" was up to something, but not enough to keep up with the "techie" blog maintenance.

I'll post an actual comment of my own when I've had time to read the post more carefully...

-Elizabeth Bathurst

Laurie Kruczek said...

I get where you're coming from. I really do. BUT the term "ethnic Quaker" (as you have defined it) seems really disingenuous. I'm just a convinced Quaker, anyway, so what would I know?

BTW, if you are an ethnic Quaker, than what are my African-American birthright Quaker children?


James Naylor said...

Hello all thank you for your thoughtful responses. My goal is to get us all thinking.

I actually don't often "out" myself as birthright because it is far too often used to inflate one's importance. And even though I was in a Quaker Leadership Program in College...I spent a lot of time with "underground" quakers who for many reasons had not joined the Scholarship Program. Some of those reasons have to do with the unfortunate lack of humility sometimes present in the Society. I think looking at some of the comments received here that folks may be interested in revisiting a couple of my earlier posts, I would do the nice little linking thing,but I don't see how to do that here so I will tell you where they are--4/18/06 "Good" Quaker I am not, and 5/03/06 Where do all the young Quakers go?

GMC--It is not what I was born that makes me understand Quakers (espcially Liberal Q's)--it is simply being Quaker through practice and commitment. I am not sure many of us understand the various disagreements going on...

Yes, it can be a lot like being in a small town. See Martin's comments here to elaborate.

Honestly, ethnically Quaker doesn't sit well with me at times either...but it has folks thinking and continuing to dialogue about some of the stickiest issues in RSoF...our own smugness.

Rich--Amen (or A-woman as my Grandfather would say)! Thank you for your comments.

Martin--Part of why I don't want to use my name is that it should not matter who I am or not. But it should be the Truth I try to speak that matters. I do try to use a big enough brush to take shots at my own hypocrisy too. And for the record I would say the same things in person so I am not hiding behind a persona...just trying to give myself some anonymity on the web.

And yes we do need to work together birthright, ethnic, convinced, Christian, Pagan (etc.) that is the true hope for continuing a vibrant Society.

I like the point system. Very nice. I have been reading some of your earlier posts on your blog and I must say we think (and rant) alike. Friend speaks my mind.

RichardM said...

It seems to me that when a Yearly Meeting begins to dismantle the traditional structure of having the body recognize and record ministers, elders and overseers and write serious travel minutes for Friends wishing to travel in the ministry then something will naturally arise to fill that space. In the absence of the meeting taking the responsibility to use its ability to discern the spiritual condition and gifts of individuals they fall back on some kind of point system.

I believe Friends when they tell me that such a point system exists where they live. That's sad but there is a solution.

James Naylor said...

Laurie, I am sorry I made you feel that way. I really did not mean to say that it was better to be convinced or birthright...I was trying to point to things that bother me in both...a kind of smugness...which is not the feeling I have gotten from reading your blog. I have truly enjoyed what you have shared with us about your spiritual path and life. It has been very vibrant and honest examination of the wrestling and wrangling that happens along one’s spiritual path.

In preparing this response, I see that you are leaving the blogsphere. I read your post “I am only Average.” It is a shame that the Quaker blogsphere made you feel that way. There are some bullies out there. And maybe I was wrong to pin the “intellectual Quakerism” on only convinced Friends…because the Lord knows there are some Friends of all stripes that fit the negative conceptualization of it. I want to say that without seekers like your family there is little hope for Friends. Your honesty, ministry, and questioning are important to our future. Which is why I am sorry if I contributed in my post to making you feel like you are somehow less-than by being Convinced—it really shouldn’t matter. It should be how you live your life and let your life speak your witness…that is what I was trying to get at towards the end of my original post. A person can be full of hot air no matter how they came to be where they are, but it is the genuine, the divine, that is what should matter. Not intellect or lineage.

Bogey Bill said...


Quakers here in midwestern yearly meetings do not seem to care much about any distinction between birthright and convinced friends.

But with a name like yours (or is that a blogging pseudonym?), I'm surprised those people so concerned with connections to weighty famous friends didn't immediately assume you were one!

I, too, grew up in rural Minnesota, found Quakerism while at college in the East (during the Vietnam war years), and then discovered much later that I'm a direct descendant of John Woolman's little brother Abraham. That definitely doesn't make me "birthright" by your definition, but it did get me more personally interested in Woolman's life and journal.

There are a lot of differences between east coast, FGC Quakers and midwestern, FUM style Quakers, and you bring up one that shines favorably on these programmed midwesterners: to me, they don't wear their "Quakerness" as pridefully, nor take themselves so seriously.

Elizabeth Bathurst said...

1) I don't think that recording spiritual gifts would fix the point system for young adults. Although my ranking certainly moved up recently when my parents were both recorded as elders.

2) I prefer the word "cultural" rather than "ethnic" when describing people who absorbed a little bit of Quakerism through osmosis. I think my brothers may still be culturally Quaker, but they've got time.

3) As for the anonymity thing, we use pseudonyms out of a recognition that this series of tubes is a dangerous place. Once we've met you in person, we're perfectly open in admitting who we blog as.

MartinK said...

Hi "Elizabeth": just for the record I think it's cool that you're saying these things under pseudonym and underground.

I don't think RichardM's return to formal structures to name and encourage ministers is necessarily enough but I think it's a step in the right direction. Near the beginning of my report on FGC's 2005 Youth Ministries consultation I tell the story of a young woman with stratospheric points who felt genuine anguish at always being confused with her numerous family members. I don't feel so sorry for her as she's used her last name to open doors I'll never see, but still, the problem with points is that we're not known for ourselves.

@Bogey Bill: long Quaker lineage mean less than one's parent's status. The mystery of all this is that the worst point-counters are convinced baby boomers who came in during the 60s and 70s and who were given a lot of breaks and opportunities. Maybe they still feel insecure themselves and want their kids to have a legitimacy?, I don't understand it, I just see it.

@Laurie: African-American born Quaker?: that's like 10 extra points right there, it lets us prove our diversity without having to work too hard on cultural assumptions. Send them to a Quaker school and they'll rule the roost by the time they hit 20.

I agree with "James" that it's cultural. I've seen convinced Friends come in at 15, go to a few years of high school programs, then onto Earlham and make it into the insider club. There was a period in my mid-20s where it seemed everyone at the meeting I attended assumed I was a Swarthmore grad and would ask me when I was going to transfer my membership from wherever I had grown up.

The other side to points is tokenism: giving the same three people opportunity after opportunity simply because they have a lot of points and fit older adult's expectations of what a younger Friend should be like. I feel so sad when I see a promising younger Friend pulled into the Token merry-go-round and taken for a ride. I worry about my own complicity as I've often done a piece of the lifting myself by encouraging blogging or leading a workshop they've attended. I worked for months once on an essay for those finding themselves tokens, mapping out the warnings and opportunities. I never posted it because I think those flush with new-found attention could probably not bear to hear it, that only a few years of realizing they'll only be golden boys and girls as long as they stay young and don't push the questions too hard.

I like some of the "underground" self-organizing that's been going on lately. I've all but written off the majority of older Friends (present company excluded of course!) and think this is the only real promise for change. I joke that I'm on the "fifty year plan" for Quaker change, but really it's not a joke...

jez said...

Interestingly (to me), of all us Young Friends who work at Friends House (either for Britain Yearly Meeting, or independently with an office there), I don't think any of us would do well with a BritainYM equivalent of the points score.

On another point, I have met some 'ethnic quakers' at various parties in London where I haven't expected to meet any other Quakers (the Quaker t-shirt becomes a talking point) and they're usually people who call themselves Quaker, grew up Quaker, but have become disillusioned or 'unconvinced' somewhere along the way and are taking a longterm break from or are generally in a very different place to fellowship, worship etc that I recognise as being an integral part of being Quaker and part of a Quaker community today.

Anonymous said...

Hello dude!

It is my first time here. I just wanted to say hi!