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Are the Quakers?
5/13/2001 and approved by the Visalia Friends Meeting for publication.)
are the Quakers? What is Quakerism? You have undoubtedly read about
Quakers in your US History classes, but we are commonly misidentified
with the Amish, the Shakers, or the Mennonites. We are none of these.
In Visalia your main
contact with Quakerism may come as you drive along Hwy 198 east of town
near Farmersville. There you will see the Quaker Oaks Christmas tree
farm owned by the Lovett family, long time members of our meeting. Our
meeting house, designed by Bill Lovett, elegant in its simplicity, lies
on a corner of the farm donated to the meeting, hidden under a huge
Valley Oak. There is also the billboard facing
the westbound lane of the highway, used as a canvas for self-expression
by the Visalia Friends Meeting.
The pun in the name
of the farm conjures perhaps the hollowest point of contact between
our culture and Quakerism: Quaker Oats, and the image of a colonial-era
man in a big hat.
Quakerism arose in England
as the most radical expression of the Protestant reformation. Quakerism
must be understood as a product of reformation: a stripping away of
the layers of institutional Christianity that were seen as non-essential
or even hindrances to faith. When Luther broke away from the Catholic
Church he stripped away the authority of the Pope. Luther asserted the
"priesthood of all believers," but Lutherans retained the
clergy and the sacraments. Other Protestant groups stripped away more.
Most Protestants retained, or even promoted, the authority of the Scriptures
to the extent that the Bible has been called, by some, the "paper
During the early 1600's
George Fox began a personal quest for spiritual truth. He joined one
Protestant group after another, but found none that could "speak
to his condition." In stripping off the layers of institutional
Christianity he arrived at the mystical center: God within. The opening
of the Gospel of John speaks of a light which enlightens every man.
This Inner Light, also spoken of as the Holy Spirit, the Divine Presence,
or the Risen Christ, became the cornerstone of Quaker theology. The
exclusivity of Christianity, expressed through the initiation rite of
baptism, was replaced with universalism: the belief that the same Inner
Light is present in all people everywhere.
What George Fox retained
of institutional Christianity was the community of believers, or more
correctly "seekers." In our "Meeting for Worship"
we meet in silence to listen for the "still small voice" of
God within. If someone is moved to speak we listen, not only to the
speaker, but also to the voice of God within ourselves. Truth is discerned
as it resonates widely within the seeking community. Truths that are
widely acknowledged through this process become known as Quaker Testimonies.
The Bible is retained, but not as a "paper Pope." It is seen
as the testimony of the seeking community extended over time.
What, then, do we make
of the man in the hat? Surprisingly the hat played an interesting role
in early Quakerism. One of the early Quaker Testimonies was to the equality
of all people. If God dwells in every person, there can be no assignment
of social worth that distinguishes royalty from commoners or elevates
one person over another. Removing the hat in the presence of a superior
was not just a courtesy but an obligation in 17th century society. As
a protest against institutionalized inequality Quakers refused to remove
their hats for anyone! Thus the man in the hat, who looks so quaint
today, was in the context of his times an example of social radicalism
born of spiritual mysticism.
Radicalism born of mysticism
has marked Quakers throughout the centuries. Radical literally means
going to the root. The practice of quietly seeking the indwelling presence
of God is going to the root spiritually. Acting on the basis of revealed
Truth rather than social convention leads to a radical style of life.
Respect for "that
of God" within each person led William Penn, the Quaker founder
of Pennsylvania, to respect native Americans as fully human and worthy
of treatment as equals. The norm in that day was to consider them to
be sub-human savages who could be killed with impunity like animals.
Instead of driving them off by force Penn negotiated with the Indians,
making payment for land and working for peaceful coexistence.
John Woolman led the
Quakers in colonial America to renounce slavery even before the revolutionary
war. Slavery is nowhere denounced in the Bible. Some churches even used
the Bible to defend the practice. But the Testimony that slavery was
essentially evil resonated widely among the early Quakers. Quakers formed
the core of the Civil War era abolitionist movement. They played a major
role in the Underground Railroad, a conspiracy of civil disobedience
to help runaway slaves escape to the north.
Along with the liberation
of slaves came the struggle for equality of women, led by Susan B. Anthony
and other Quaker abolitionists. The push for women's right to vote,
their right to hold property, their right to seek custody of their own
children in divorce was, in the social context of the day, as radical
as the elimination of slavery, and nearly as hard to achieve.
The Testimony that we
should not consider others, in whom God dwells, to be our enemies, has
led to pacifism. Renunciation of war entails actively working for justice
to "remove the occasion for all wars." Peace and justice are
What was radicalism
in the past is too easily taken for granted today. Radicalism is recognized
as such only when it hits closer to home. In the 1980's Quakers were
heavily involved, along with other churches in the Sanctuary Movement.
Thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled their homelands because
of war and government oppression. They were routinely denied asylum
in the US because our government was supporting the governments that
were oppressing them. The churches and Friends meetings involved in
the Sanctuary Movement organized to smuggle, transport, shelter, and
support Central American refugees in acts of civil disobedience, in
what has been called the new underground railroad. Some refugees were
taken to Canada where they were more readily granted asylum. Others
were helped to disappear anonymously into the American landscape.
In other traditions
George Fox, William Penn, John Woolman, and Susan B. Anthony might be
considered Quaker "Saints." The Quaker tradition doesn't set
apart special individuals as "Saints," but if we did Visalia
would have its own: Bard McAllister.
Bard spent his life fighting for recognition of the fundamental human
dignity of farm workers. Bard came to California working under the American
Friends Service Committee. His goal was to assess the condition of migrant
farm workers and see how their lives could be improved. To truly understand
the people he actually became a migrant worker, for a season, along
with his whole family, living in migrant housing and working alongside
them. He attacked issues as fundamental as sanitation and safe drinking
water. Bard comes to mind every time I see the porta-potties in the
fields at harvest time. He found workers who could speak articulately
about their conditions and organized them to give testimony to the legislature
in Sacramento. He was instrumental in bringing safe drinking water to
the tiny overlooked farm worker communities of Allensworth and Teviston.
He founded Self Help Enterprises,
to enable workers to build decent housing for themselves. He was also
instrumental in founding SCICON.
SCICON was originally conceived as an educational enrichment program
for the children of migrant farm workers. Today it is the crown jewel
of the Tulare County educational program. Bard brought people together
to turn dreams into realities.
Quakers don't recognize
sainthood as a special category because each of us is equally called
to let our daily lives express the light within. If you visit the Visalia
Friends Meeting you will be invited to sit quietly with us, with no
clergy, no sermon, no hymns, no collection plate. You will be invited
to seek the light of God's presence within you, as we do within ourselves.
As we sit quietly someone may feel called upon to speak briefly, or
perhaps not. When we leave we are energized to let our light shine.
That is the essence of Quakerism.