The Magazine

Quaker Nation?

The Society of Friends and American society.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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Yount claims that Fox's genius consisted in focusing on the Spirit by ignoring the theological disputes that hindered true Christianity. Yet one could argue that this was Fox's great mistake. As Yount himself notes, heresies focus on a real truth "but they stretch that truth to redefine Christian faith by oversimplifying it." Isn't this exactly what Fox did? This becomes apparent as Yount explains Quaker spirituality and the Inner Light, for he quotes no less than 10 Roman Catholic and Anglican thinkers--from Dante and Anselm to Teresa of Avila and C.S. Lewis. In fact, he quotes more Catholics than Quakers! (This also leads one to wonder if the Quaker influences he claims "invented" America aren't simply part of the common heritage of traditional Christianity.) Rather than restoring "primitive Christianity," it seems George Fox isolated the contemplative strand of Christianity and set it up as the whole.

But for much of the book Yount writes about a Quakerism that doesn't actually exist. He describes a scripturally rich, Christ-centered community of Friends whom we'll know--as Yount repeatedly reminds readers--"by their fruits." But what are the fruits of modern Quakerism? Early Friends were known as "Friends of Truth." What is the truth that Quakers proclaim today? Early Friends quaked at the experience of release from sin; how many modern Quakers even use the word "sin," and who would Quakers say released them from it? For all Yount's emphasis on Jesus and the Bible I couldn't help but notice that the booklet "Faith and Practice," just put out by the Quaker school I attended for 12 years, fails to use the words "Jesus" or "Bible" at all. This is all too symptomatic of modern Quakers--even those Friends self-consciously trying to reassert their Quaker identity.

Yount describes a largely nonexistent Quakerism because he mistakes his ideal image of Quakerism for reality. It's understandable. Yount is a theologically serious Christian; in fact, he's a Catholic who became a convinced Quaker late in life and says he has "rejected none of that legacy." It's unclear how Yount reconciles Catholic belief in sacraments, priests, and dogma with Quaker belief that they get in the way. But it's readily clear that many Quakers, unlike Yount, have been drawn to Quakerism precisely because they reject the Christian legacy. And though he mentions them, he pays them scant attention.

The problem, as even Yount admits, is that when Quakers talk about God, "God himself may have trouble recognizing himself," for "whenever two or three Quakers" are gathered, "there may be five different opinions." Except, of course, when it comes to politics. Though there are always outliers, most Friends are committed liberals. The "permanent agenda" of the Friends Committee on National Legislation "seeks the peaceful prevention of deadly conflicts, extension of civil rights to all Americans, protection of the environment, and redistribution of taxes to meet pressing human needs." Emphases on peace and the environment would be expected from Fox's Quakers, but one has to wonder why a "permanent agenda" with only four goals includes redistributive taxation and what can only be understood as a veiled appeal for gay marriage. Who are the Americans, exactly, who lack civil rights?

Yount closes his book by saying that "Friends' spirituality increasingly resonates with Americans of all faiths and none." Even granting his (unsubstantiated) demographic point, Yount should tread lightly, for most Americans would find Quakerism attractive for reasons very different from his own. The appeal of being "spiritual but not religious"--where "religious," from the Latin religare, means binding oneself to common life, morals, and beliefs--is attractive to Americans. Believe and act as you wish with God's blessing, even his inspiration.

In the end, I'm not convinced that the Quakers invented America. Given my experience, it seems that America has reinvented the Quakers.

Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things.