“Quakers don’t have creeds.”
I don’t recall hearing this said more than once or twice in the Friends meetings I’ve physically attended over the course of the past thirty-five years. But I’ve encountered it often on line, in Usenet conversations and on Quaker blogs.
I’ve encountered some Net-active Friends who repeat it over and over whenever anyone (not necessarily me) writes about the beliefs we Friends have historically held in common, the beliefs that have made Quakerism what it is today. It’s obviously important to them.
Some Friends seem to have misconstrued what creeds are, concluding that since we don’t have creeds, we also don’t have doctrines, catechisms, dogmas or confessions of faith.
Yes, we don’t have creeds. But no, we do have doctrines, dogmas, and confessions of faith. We once even had a catechism.
Permit me to explain —
The Value of Names
The five terms we need to be concerned with here — creeds, doctrines, catechisms, dogmas, and confessions of faith — are terms that have been enormously important in the evolution of Christian thinking, and also in the evolution of Western thinking generally, even outside the formal limits of Christianity.
They’ve been important because they describe ways of thinking, and of organizing ourselves, that humans do without even being conscious of it. By naming these ways of thinking and ways of behaving, calling them “doctrinal” and “dogmatic” and “credal”, we give ourselves a way of bringing them fully into consciousness, and talking deliberately about what it is we do. This helps us think about ways in which what we are doing could be improved.
Actually, I think this is rather similar to the way that naming a problem, and bringing it to full consciousness, can help two people mend a troubled relationship: “You know, dear, I’ve noticed that when we don’t agree about something, instead of talking it through, we both avoid the matter altogether, so that the problem keeps festering. Have you noticed this, too?”
In just this way, Christian groups, and to a lesser extent secular groups, have found it helpful to be able to say things like, “You know, I think X has become something of a dogma amongst us, and it shouldn’t be,” or “You know, I think we really need a clear doctrine about such-and-such.”
Thus the value of learning about doctrines, catechisms, dogmas, confessions of faith, and creeds, has to do with the ways in which thinking and talking about such things can help our communities endure in bad times, flourish in good ones, and pass on the best of what they have to new generations.
It also has to do with the ways in thinking and talking about such things can help us simply to understand ourselves.
Who are we, Friends? What are we doing? And what are we accomplishing, if anything? Bringing our doctrines, dogmas, etc., to consciousness, helps us get a grip on some answers.
As time permits, I hope I will have an opportunity to talk with you, my readers, about catechisms, dogmas, confessions of faith and creeds. But in this essay I think we need to begin at the beginning. I invite you to join me in looking at Friends from the perspective of the ways we have shaped our doctrines — and our doctrines, in turn, have shaped us.
What Doctrines Are
The word “doctrine” simply means “teaching”, or “a body of teachings”. A faith community’s doctrines are simply those things its members teach one another, and their children, their newcomers — and themselves! — by way of keeping their faith community alive.
We speak of these things as “doctrines” if we wish to break them out item-by-item, and as “doctrine” if we wish to emphasize the fact that the items link together as an integrated whole.
The purpose of doctrine, or doctrines, is two-fold: to convey the ideas that define and shape the community’s religion, and to nourish religious life and worship.
That first purpose, conveying ideas, is pretty intellectual. When it’s done right, it’s enormously helpful in clarifying areas where seekers are having difficulties.
But the second purpose — nourishing — can also give rise to doctrines that are poetic, suggestive, allusive, creative, intellectually hard to pin down, and likely to crop up in daily life at the oddest moments. Parables, for example, serve doctrinal purposes: Christ himself used them that way. When done right, they bring doctrines to life in beautiful ways.
Thus, for example, the doctrine of willing self-sacrifice can be taught intellectually, but it is also taught poetically and allusively, by stories such as that of Abraham and Isaac, that of Francis of Assisi renouncing his birthright, and that of the Quaker martyrs in Boston.
Such stories, in some contexts, can be a good deal easier to listen to, talk about, struggle with, and grow from. And they have this way of popping up in one’s thoughts — oh, as for example, when one is struggling with one’s teen-age son and his confession of misbehavior, and suddenly, as one is struggling with the temptation to bully the poor kid into submission to what is right, one thinks of Abraham and Isaac, and how Abraham was all ready to sacrifice Isaac to the God of righteousness, and the God of righteousness Himself said, No, don’t do it, and one suddenly realizes that bullying is not what it’s about —
Doctrines don’t have to be rigid, set in stone. Some faith communities, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, devote a great deal of energy to nailing down details of their doctrine in written form. But other faith communities are happy to leave things relatively fluid.
In the more traditional parts of the unprogrammed Quaker world, there are doctrines that have never been formally recorded, but that elders take pains to transmit orally and by example. This makes for considerable fluidity, since doctrines that lose their value can be quietly forgotten, and new doctrines evolve as needed without a lot of fuss. But this approach maintains fluidity without depriving the community of any of the real richness of its tradition. For this reason, it’s a very healthy set-up.
On the other hand, while doctrines don’t have to be rigid, they do need to exist. Doctrine plays an essential part in helping a seeker understand and evaluate the reasons for being part of a particular community — as, in liberal Quakerism, the doctrine that every person has some measure of the Light, or in evangelical Quakerism, the doctrine that the Holy Spirit that descended at the Pentecost is still here with us today.
Moreover, communities cannot function as communities without doctrines to guide them! It’s doctrine that teaches a community what to do when it gathers together. It’s doctrine that tells it how to make decisions, how to settle disputes, and how to keep the peace. It’s doctrine that tells it which priorities outrank which other priorities — as, in most Quaker communities, the priority of love outranks the priority of being correct. It’s doctrine that tells it what things are out-and-out wrong — for example, making a pass at your neighbor’s spouse.
We humans know much of this intuitively, so that when we come into a community where such doctrines are not clear, we clutch at whatever guidelines we can find — books of Faith and Practice, Quakerism 101 packets, whatever will serve.
But then there are those — particularly in places where Quaker doctrines are not clear, such as relatively young meetings and meetings with a high proportion of transient members — who, confusing creeds with doctrines, say that we Quakers don’t have doctrines. This is a mistake. It’s not just that (as we’ve already seen) no community can get along without doctrines, not even Friends. It’s also that Friends have always been quite forthright about the fact that they do have doctrines.
Volumes IV, V, and VI of George Fox’s collected Works are entitled Doctrinal Books. The subtitle of Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity describes it as “Being a Full Explanation and Vindication of their Principles and Doctrines”.
The writings of prominent Friends early and modern are shot through with references to doctrines both Christian and Quaker, as in this lovely example from George Fox’s letter “To the King of France”:
You should have overcome evil with good … you should love enemies, let them be heretics, or whatsoever you call them, this is the doctrine of Christ; you should receive strangers, you should not imprison them….
Or this pointed one, from liberal Friend Howard Brinton’s 1952 masterwork, Friends for 300 years:
The Quaker doctrine of equality does not mean equality of ability, economic resources or social status. It means equality of respect and the resulting absence of all words and behavior based on class, racial or social distinctions.
Brinton, as it happens, wrote essays titled “Quaker Doctrine of the Holy Spirit” and “The Quaker Doctrine of Inward Peace”.
Basic Christian Doctrine
But so far I’ve spoken of doctrine only from the outside — describing how its shape and activity fit into a larger picture. I suspect I should also say something about its inside — what it contains.
Let me begin, then, by speaking of what “doctrine” has historically contained for Christians.
Let’s bear in mind that Christianity is not fundamentally a tribal religion, but a revealed one. In other words, it’s not a religion that a community worked out together, like classical Greek paganism or modern Hinduism. It’s certainly been shaped by the community that has kept it alive, but at bottom it’s quite specifically the revelation imparted by a single individual, Jesus Christ.
And so its basic doctrine is not about how a community can function as a community. Its basic doctrine is about the revelation imparted by Christ; the doctrine describes what that revelation was and what it means.
Thus the basic doctrine of Christianity is a package of information about Christ’s life, teaching, death, resurrection, and rôle as Savior — the things which, when you get down to it, are what set Christianity apart from other religions and from the world. It’s not much more than a simple proclamation of this news — in Greek, the word for such a proclamation is kerygma, and the basic doctrine of Christianity is often referred to as the kerygma. In English, of course, we call it the “gospel”, or “the message of the gospel”. But I’ll stick to kerygma here, because it might help us avoid some of the popular meanings of “gospel” that don’t really fit what I’m trying to say.
This kerygma, then, is given heavy emphasis in Christianity, not just because it’s what sets Christianity apart, but also because it’s hard to believe, and easily distorted. (As Paul observed, it’s “foolishness to the Greeks”.) The history of Christianity can be seen as a continuing struggle to understand, preserve and transmit the foolish story of Christ’s life, teaching, death and resurrection, in the face of all the pressures of sweet reasonability, misunderstanding, forgetfulness, mythologizing, acculturation, and just plain entropy.
O reader, you may not believe the Church has succeeded in this struggle. You may believe that the picture the Church presents is not a true picture of what happened. If that’s how you see it, that’s okay. I have some suspicions trending that way myself, particularly when I’m in one of my sourer moods.
But it’s not my purpose here to affirm or deny the question of whether the Church has succeeded or not. What I’m saying is simply that this has been what the Church has understood its task to be.
Doctrine for the Needs of Christian Community
Earlier in this essay I pointed out that communities need particular sorts of doctrines in order to function as communities.
There’s plenty of room in Christianity for secondary doctrines — doctrines that go beyond the basic kerygma — to serve such purposes. There’s a general understanding, though, that the doctrines that perform this task for the Christian community (the Church) must be doctrines that follow naturally from the words and deeds of Christ and the apostles.
Christ, of course, stressed love, reconciliation and servanthood very heavily in his teaching — pure, common-sense basics for any community anywhere.
The apostles, especially Paul, did a good job of working out most of the other primary doctrines that a Christian community needs, such as the guidance of conscience and the indispensability of righteousness. All these doctrines have official doctrinal status in one form or another.
In addition, the early Church evolved activities of baptism, worship, preaching, hospitality to traveling ministers, the common meal, systematic charity to the sick and weak and poor, and a coördinating leadership, that served as means of drawing the community together. And so there also arose doctrines encouraging each of these things, although some of them (like the common meal) have since evolved away from their original forms almost beyond recognition.
Different parts of the Church today have developed the further implications of Christ’s teachings in markedly different directions. But that’s fine. It’s generally understood that there is room for such variation in the Christian world.
The Basic Doctrine of Early Quakerism
Turning then from the Christian world at large to the Quaker world in small, the first thing we need to recognize is that, when Quakerism broke off from the larger Christian world and became a separate sect, it did so because its idea of the kerygma to be proclaimed had come to differ, quite markedly, from the idea held by the Church as a whole.
The Church as a whole made the centerpiece of its kerygma, the message of the historical Christ. The Quaker movement arose in a place where everyone had already heard that message, so that it was no longer news. But the Quaker movement proclaimed a message of the living Holy Spirit and of Christ livingly present in our midst in this present hour. This — at least in that time and place — was something very new, and very much needed. And this became Quakerism’s own central kerygma and doctrine.
Nothing, in my personal opinion, in all of Quakerism today, is more widely misunderstood by Friends themselves, than this central kerygma and doctrine of early Friends.
Liberal Friends tend to forget that the new kerygma and doctrine of Friends was not detached from the old. Quakerism was never meant to be detached from the story of the historical Jesus Christ and his salvific rôle in the Universe. It was never meant to be simply about observational truth, or about the innate worth of each human being.
Friends clearly understood — not only in their first generation, but in every generation afterward, at least down through World War II — that the outbreak of the Spirit among them was a belated fulfillment of Christ’s missionary work, and a validation of what the first Christians had clearly said about the historic Christ’s pivotal rôle in the world.
The early Friends saw themselves as part of the same story as the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and saw their own lives and experiences as being a part of the fulfillment of the promises that Christ made at the Last Supper in the gospel of John. It is very significant in this regard that they took their name for themselves — “Friends” — directly from the fifteenth chapter of John.
Later Friends gradually lost the first Friends’ keen sense of real unity with the first apostles, but they kept a weaker sense of continuity.
Thus the central doctrine of Quakerism was originally not just a premise about the Holy Spirit and the living Christ, but also a story about the workings of that Spirit and that living Christ through history — a story that just naturally contained the whole kerygma of Christianity. The central doctrine of Christianity dwelt — and still dwells — within the central doctrine of Quakerism as water dwells within a wave. This is something liberal Friends tend to forget.
Pastoral and evangelical Friends, on the other hand, tend to forget that the new kerygma and doctrine of Friends was different from the old. Its purpose was never simply to uphold the normative beliefs of Christendom. Its purpose, as the early Friends repeatedly said, was far more radical — to “overturn, overturn, overturn” the whole fallen world.
The Basic Doctrine of Liberal Quakerism
The Quaker movement came to its first dividing point at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The new spirit of scientific rationalism was at work in the educated Western world, and Friends, being historically more open than most Christians to the idea of learning from the natural world, were readily infected.
Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost, Quaker historians, tell us that the split began in Ireland, with a Quaker elder, Abraham Shackleton. In 1797, as clerk of his local monthly meeting of ministers and elders, Shackleton openly refused to apply the word “Holy” to the Bible; he also expressed doubts as to whether God had commanded the Old Testament wars. His co-religionists were horrified, and in 1801, they disowned him — deprived him of membership in the Society of Friends.
The controversy came to North America soon after. Hannah Barnard, a recorded minister from New York, traveled to England in 1797, and later to Ireland. She was republican, egalitarian, and in sympathy with the French Revolution; and by the time of her trip to Ireland, she was ready to challenge not only the rightness of the Old Testament wars but also the story of the Virgin Birth. In a nutshell, she — like Shackleton — had imbibed the new spirit of rationalism and was applying it critically to the givens of her religion. London Yearly Meeting sent her home in disgrace, and she was disowned by her meeting in 1802.
Nonetheless, within twenty years, the spirit Shackleton and Barnard had embraced had become widespread among Friends throughout much of North America.
Friends imbued with the new spirit were rationalists because they turned common-sense reasoning as a critical tool upon the Christian revelation. They were widely regarded as rebellious, even as revolutionaries, by their opponents, not only because they dared contradict their elders, and even outshouted them in disputes, but also because many of them were, like Hannah Barnard, sympathetic to the ideals of the French Revolution and the cause of the common man. They found a good spokesperson in Elias Hicks, coalesced into a movement, separated from the Orthodox Friends in the late 1820s, and were known as “Hicksites” thenceforth.
The spirit of rational skepticism, which Hicksism had coalesced around, is innately corrosive to traditional doctrine. Nonetheless, due to the conservatism of Quaker religious culture, it took a long time for the basic doctrine of liberal (Hicksite) Quakerism to evolve away from that of the first Friends. The process didn’t really pick up steam until the 1890s.
Eventually, though —
The Holy Spirit lost its rootedness in the Book of Acts, and became for an increasing number of liberal Friends the simple light of social conscience and reason.
The word “Truth” gradually ceased to mean faithfulness and the message of the Christian Holy Spirit speaking through Friends, and came increasingly to mean honesty and factual accuracy instead.
The very word “Friend” fell gradually out of fashion, most members in the liberal Quaker world disliking the Biblical reference and preferring to speak of themselves and each other as “Quakers”.
Because liberal Friends do tend to form their own individual opinions about everything, there is some debate as to whether liberal Quakerism has any unifying doctrine at all. (I’ll come back to this point later in this essay.) But I personally think it does.
I would submit that, at this point, the kerygma of liberal Quakerism has now become one of the “Inner Light” (a.k.a. “that of God in every one”) as a light of consciousness, intelligence, and capacity for love that makes each human in some sense holy. Not only do most liberal Friends seem to believe in this doctrine, but their yearly meetings and other institutions affirm it, in one way or another, fairly regularly. Liberal Friends are even mildly evangelical about it.
The existence of any God beyond this Light is in sufficient dispute that I think it can no longer be regarded as a corporate doctrine. The truthfulness and relevance of the original Christian kerygma is also in dispute, and so can no longer be truthfully regarded as the water within the wave. There are still many deeply Christian liberal Friends, but for liberal Quakerism as a whole, Christianity is now more an optional thing.
And thus, while retaining much of the outward form of the original Quakerism, modern liberal Quakerism is in truth a much altered religion. Yet it still has doctrine, taught in Quakerism 101, in First-day School, in the pages of Friends Journal, in books such as Friends for 350 years, and in its various Books of Faith and Practice. And this doctrine includes at least a memory of the doctrine with which Quakerism began.
The Basic Doctrine of Pastoral and Evangelical Quakerism
Pastoral and evangelical Quakerism, too, arose from the infecting of the Quaker world by a spirit from outside.
But in the case of pastoral and evangelical Quakerism, the infecting agent was the spirit of evangelical Protestantism, and of the Holiness movement in particular. The infection was fueled by a reaction against the quietism of Friends in the eighteenth century, which had come to seem too arid and lifeless to support a vital religion.
George Fox and Robert Barclay had taught that each believer should silence his own will, so that the Holy Spirit could work through him. Nineteenth-century Orthodox (i.e., non-Hicksite) Friends became frustrated with the effort and patience this quietism required, and with the length of time one might have to wait for satisfyingly obvious results.
In place of quietism, these Orthodox Friends were drawn to the evangelical doctrine of substitutionary atonement — the idea that Christ did all the necessary work by dying for us on the cross, so that no further human work was needed except to give one’s allegiance. And they found the central idea of the Holiness revival, the idea that one might become sanctified instantaneously by the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”, to be just enormously appealing.
These influences tended to pull Orthodox Quaker doctrine back toward a standard-issue Protestant model. The kerygma of the life, death, resurrection, and saving rôle of the historic Jesus Christ returned to the forefront, displacing the kerygma of the early Friends as the center of Orthodox Friends preaching.
From the beginning, Orthodox Friends laid more emphasis on the teaching of doctrine than Hicksites did. The reasons were tied to the reasons why the Orthodox had rejected the Hicksites: they saw the teaching of good doctrine as essential to salvation. So they instituted First-day (Sunday) schools, and funded the publishing of doctrinal materials, well in advance of the Hicksites. They also placed a renewed emphasis on doctrinal instruction in sermons, and on the correct doctrinal training of ministers.
Orthodox yearly meetings began elaborating the doctrinal sections of their books of discipline, inserting details that matched the teachings of other Protestant churches — as Ohio Yearly Meeting (Orthodox) did, for example, in 1876. The 1891 Discipline of Western Yearly Meeting declared that “no one should be recorded as a minister whose doctrinal views are not clearly in accord with the Affirmative of the Questions” which the Discipline listed regarding God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
And the ultimate upshot of this drift back toward a mainstream Protestant kerygma was — quite predictably — the rise of a new missionary impulse that sent Orthodox Quaker missionaries out to India, China, Madagascar, Mexico, Jamaica, Alaska, Kenya, Bolivia, and Guatemala, to proclaim the old-fashioned gospel of mainstream Protestantism afresh.
Of course, the Holy Spirit and the living Christ remain important in pastoral and evangelical Quaker doctrine. But as in the liberal Quaker world, albeit to a lesser extent, their rôle, and the way they are understood, changed and diminished from what it had been in early Quakerism.
In modern pastoral and evangelical Quakerism, neither the Spirit nor the living Christ is now allowed to lead a Friend in ways that appear to contradict the teachings laid out in the Bible and in traditional Protestantism. This is a marked change from early Quaker times, when the Spirit was allowed to override Biblical statements on water baptism, church hierarchy, and slavery.
But this firm pastoral and evangelical commitment to the fixed teachings of the Bible has become very important, in recent years, in debates about universalism and homosexuality.
The Basic Doctrine of Conservative Quakerism
The third major branch of Quakerism — the Conservative branch — took more than half a century to separate from the rest of the Quaker world and find its own identity.
The original separation was one within the Orthodox ranks, dividing the Gurneyites (who evolved into modern pastoral and evangelical Friends) from the Wilburites, during the 1840s and 1850s. Further separations caused some of the remaining Gurneyites to withdraw from the rest into separate meetings in the 1870s and again in the early twentieth century.
The Gurneyites who had withdrawn in these latter separations gradually joined with the Wilburites to become “Conservative Friends”.
The original impulse of the Conservatives was to conserve both the form and the doctrine of original Quakerism. In practice, this didn’t turn out quite as planned.
The first generations of Conservatives were so concerned with conserving the whole of Quakerism that they made something of a fetish of conserving every possible detail — with the result that the focus of their religion became quite different from the evangelical focus of the first Friends.
They still preached the Spirit and the Christ amongst themselves, but they were not so filled with it that crowds gathered to learn what was going on. They sent few, if any, apostles out into the world.
Their struggles to conserve the details turned their attention so inward, so much upon themselves, that they largely ceased for a very long time to regard their kerygma as a kerygma — that is, as news for the proclaiming.
Conservative Friends were also influenced, rather like the pastoral Friends although to a lesser degree, by evangelical Protestant thinking: for a time, they exalted the idea of exact faithfulness to the Bible even more than the pastoral Friends did. There is still a very strong strain of this way of thinking within Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative).
The basic doctrine of Conservative Friends probably remained closer to the original basic Quaker doctrine than the basic doctrine of either the liberals or the pastorals. It remained a doctrine depending almost entirely on the Holy Spirit and the living Christ, without much reference either to atonement or to the “Inner Light” of reason.
But the simple fact that Conservative doctrine largely lost its flavor of kerygma was no small change. This elevated the community-conserving part of Quaker doctrine, while allowing the fire of the prophets to fade into the background.
Doctrine for the Needs of Quaker Community
With Friends, as with other branches of Christianity, secondary doctrines have emerged as branches from the central doctrine of the faith.
Chief among these are the doctrines concerning the testimonies. These doctrines are not the testimonies themselves, although many modern Friends do not understand the difference.
In general usage, “testimony” is what a witness gives in a case before the law: it’s anecdotal evidence that might help settle an unanswered question. For example, a witness might testify (provide testimony) that a man accused of a serious crime was in his house as a guest that night, and so could not have committed the crime in question.
Testimony is thus retrospective: it describes what has happened in the past, rather than prescribing for the future.
And traditionally, the testimonies of Quakerism were understood in just this way. A Quaker testimony was something that Friends could provide to the world at large, and also to the Judge seated in their hearts, by way of evidence of the difference that their faith and practice had made in their lives so far.
An example would be that Friends testified of how they had been led again and again by the Holy Spirit to refuse to take off their hats before people of supposedly “superior” class. This testimony became referred to as the testimony of “hat-honour”. It was retrospective: it described what Friends had generally done in the past, rather than prescribing for the future.
Originally, then, Friends’ testimonies bore witness to the essentials of their faith. The testimony of hat-honour bore witness to Friends’ faithfulness to the leadings of the Holy Spirit; the testimony against wars and fighting, and the testimony against tithes, bore witness to Friends’ faithfulness to teachings they had found in the Bible.
Friends were not “upholding the principle of equality” by refusing to take off their hats; they were not “upholding the principle of nonviolence” by refusing to take part in war. They were not, in fact, acting on abstract principle at all. They were simply being faithful to the Spirit and the historical Christ, and their actions “were a testimony” to this faithfulness.
This distinction is important because it shows us that early Quakerism was not a philosophical position. It was a discipleship.
But the thing is that, once you live in discipleship to the Holy Spirit and the historical Christ, obeying their strictures in all the matters where their strictures can be clearly discerned, this changes you. It changes your values, your attitudes, your emotional temperament.
And as a result, you start behaving differently in other matters as well. You not only refuse to doff your hat; you also learn compassion for the people you’ve insulted by refusing to take it off. You not only refuse to engage in fighting, but you start looking for better ways to settle your disputes.
Early Quakerism had been a movement under severe attack from the world. Its members were powerfully stimulated by persecution to apply the love they found in the Holy Spirit, and the teachings they found in the New Testament, to the meeting of one another’s material needs.
A wide variety of practices thus arose — practices of taking up collections for suffering witnesses in their midst, of sponsoring their widows, orphans, and poor, of subsidizing travel to knit their communities together, of marrying within their faith, and so forth.
As Quakerism entered its second generation, Friends began looking back at the ways in which Christ and the Holy Spirit had led them to act, and recorded these things systematically to document the testimonies and sufferings they had borne for Christ’s sake and the Spirit’s. In doing this, they began writing Quaker history.
But then they went a step further, and formed the expectation that their children, and new converts, would continue to uphold these same testimonies. They began preaching sermons, and writing minutes and memoirs and doctrinal texts, teaching the testimonies as imperatives.
Teaching the testimonies as imperatives, was in fact a way of answering the questions that I posed at the beginning of this essay: Who are we, Friends? What are we doing?
And we have already seen that every teaching is a doctrine! So this is where doctrines touching on the testimonies first emerged — very early in the history of our faith.
Hundreds of years have passed since then, of course, and experience has taught Friends that many of the testimonies — such as that against hat-honour, and that against “marrying out” — which earlier generations regarded as imperatives, really are not. In the late nineteenth century, Friends began simplifying their lists of testimonies, tossing out the ones that no longer seemed important, and reducing the remainder to short lists of principles such as “peace”, “equality”, and “simplicity”. This gradually restored to secondary doctrine the fluidity it had possessed in the first years of Quakerism, and that we see in it today.
But fluidity was not the same as total abolition. “Marrying out” may no longer be forbidden, but “marrying in” is still seen as a delightful development. (And why not?) “Not giving hat-honour” may no longer be required, but our modern doctrine of “speaking truth to power” expresses the same underlying spirit.
Thus the practices that hold Quakerism together as a path, the practices that hold Friends communities together, and the practices that make Friends recognizably Friends in the eyes of the world — all these are reflected in the doctrines of Quakerism. This is truly how far the doctrines of Quakerism extend.
So Do Liberal Friends Still Have Doctrines?
Now, in the liberal part of the Quaker world, because rational skepticism has done so much to corrode respect for doctrine, there are those who contend that their form of Quakerism is not doctrinal at all, but is rather a matter of right practice (“orthopraxy”) alone.
In more conventional terms, the first half of this assertion is tantamount to saying that even the doctrine of the “Inner Light” is not sufficiently accepted by everyone in the liberal Quaker world to be treated as basic. I touched on this issue earlier in this essay.
But the second half of this assertion amounts to a statement that the doctrine of the testimonies — the teaching that we should practice nonviolence, simplicity, etc. — now controls. What were originally patterns of evidence showing how the Spirit and Biblical discipleship changed people’s lives, have now become prescriptive principles, more or less divorced in many liberal Friends’ minds from the Holy Spirit and Bible that they once pointed to.
If this is so, liberal Quakerism has largely evolved from being a discipleship into being a philosophy in the old Greek and Roman sense of that term. And maybe this is so. I’m not presently convinced, but I’m open to the idea.
But even if this is the case, it’s still a situation in which there are doctrines concerning the testimonies. Liberal Quakerism can’t get by without doctrines, any more than any other religion can.
Note: The exploration of creeds and related phenomena
that begins in the essay above, is continued in a
second essay here.