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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Quaker Anabaptists?


American Quaker William Penn
    I was a bit startled a couple of weeks ago to read an essay about Evangelical Christianity’s “more progressive and more contemplative Anabaptist cousin, Quakerism.”  Stranger still, the author of the article was not only Quaker but a graduate of George Fox, a leading Quaker university.
    First the Southern Baptists are now Anabaptists and now the Quakers are coming home?  What’s going on here?  What’s next? – Will the Amish again admit to being kith and kin with the Mennonites?

    Consumed by debates between Mennonites and Amish on the traditional American side, and between traditional Mennonites and ethnic Mennonites amongst the Russländer, the Quakers have generally been pushed off the historic Anabaptist table. 
Yet, historically, at least prior to the turn of the 20th Century, the close theological and historical relationship between European Anabaptists and English Quakers was an accepted fact.  Yes, this statement is often confusing to and contradicted by contemporary Mennonites and Amish who are less steeped in their own cultural and theological historical heritage, but it remains true nevertheless.  GAMEO’s article on The Society of Friends aka Quakers states the following:
    Almost from the beginning the Quakers completely repudiated violence and warfare, standing for full nonresistance, and refused the oath. They suffered severe persecution for decades in England and elsewhere, but could not be suppressed. They developed a close-knit effective organization with strong discipline. 
So much in the Quaker principles is similar to the principles of the early Anabaptists (not the form of worship or polity) that it seems impossible that there could have been no influence from Anabaptism upon the origin and ideas of the movement. However, the most intense search, by both Quaker and non-Quaker historians, has failed to uncover direct connections. There is a very real possibility, however, that the spirit of Continental Anabaptism, which was transferred to England in 1530 and continued to influence English religious life with results in the earlier Congregationalist and Baptist movements, had an indirect influence upon Fox and the early Quakers.  (Bender, Harold S. "Society of Friends." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 18 April 2012. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/society_of_friends.)
    The debate over ties between 17th Century Quakers and Anabaptists is interesting in that today various Mennonite denominations and conferences are actively searching out ties to “similar”-minded groups – which would seemingly include the spiritual heirs of the 17th Century form of Quakerism.
    No less an expert that American Mennonite jurist and historian Daniel Cassel went to great pains to explain the close ties between the Quakers and Mennonites of Pennsylvania and the United States East as those between fellow Anabaptists.  Yet by World War I, the close affiliation and affinity between the several groups had dissolved to the point that while inter-cooperation was still encouraged and practiced, the United States Quakers and the United States Mennonites had evolved distinct identities and independent World War I-era non-combative services and perspectives towards alternative service – the Quakers being slightly more oriented towards participation in rebuilding and non-combatant roles and the Mennonites insisting slightly more on the avoidance of any ties to the military and war whatsoever.  As we have seen, Major Kellogg was much more impressed with the organization and patriotism of the Quakers over what he perceived as a slightly opportunistic inconsistency amongst the Mennonites, Amish and Hutterite objectors.
    Today, few Russländer Mennonites would recognize Quakers as fellow Anabaptists – differences in Anglo-American Evangelicalism having become less important than common traditions of spirituality and pacifism amongst the historic peace churches.  While mutual support has continued to exist on college campuses and in historic churches such as the Evanston Mennonite Fellowship, it is recently to the Methodists rather than to the Quakers the Mennonites turned to for shelter for the congregation – despite a previous history of having met in the local Quaker church building.  On the other hand, other Mennonite services such as those of the Evanston Fellowship and the Saint Paul Mennonite Fellowship in Minnesota are barely distinguishable from a normative contemporary Quaker service template. 
    The earliest interaction between Quakers and Anabaptists took place not in Pennsylvania but rather in the England of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and following.  George Foxe mentions one English Anabaptist in his famous book of martyrs:
    “Of all the executions during this dismal period, the most remarkable were those of Mrs. Gaunt and Lady Lisle, who had been accused of harbouring traitors.  Mrs. Gannt [sic] was an anabaptist, noted for her beneficence, which she extended to persons of all professions and persuasions.  One of the rebels, knowing her humane disposition, had recourse to, and was concealed by her.  Hearing of the proclamation, which offered an indemnity and rewards to such as discovered criminals, he betrayed his benefactress, and bore evidence against her.  He received a pardon, as a recompense for his treachery; she was burned alive for her charity, on the 23d of October, 1685. (Foxe p 503).”
    Mrs. Gaunt seemingly represents a homegrown English Anabaptist, but other Belgian and Dutch Anabaptist refugees and missionaries were persecuted earlier as part of a xenophobic religious campaign aimed at preventing the new Protestant religions of England from becoming radicalized by persons or instigators from the continent.  The most famous of these groups were the 25 Dutch Anabaptist refugees placed on trial at St Pauls in London in 1535.  Portraits of this group have survived as woodcuts.  GAMEO reports that 14 of the English were burnt at the stake.
    The native Anabaptists of England never did coalesce around a centralized ethnic identity as did those from the Batavian Lowlands (Netherlands and Belgium), those from Switzerland, or the Ruβländer Mennoniten of Russia and Eastern Europe.  But they did fellowship with the Quakers and proto-Baptists of England.  In fact, most United States students will easily recall the story of English Puritans and Anabaptists sheltering amongst the Mennonites or Doopsgezinde of Amsterdam and Friesland.  But it was to the Quakers and not the Continental Anabaptists, that fell the challenge of representing Christian pacifism to the English people.
    Yet another interaction between the American Quakers and the Russian Mennonites occurred in 1819, after the American Revolution and just prior to the great Pietist Awakening in the Mennonite colonies of Ukraine.  William Allen and Rev. Stephen Grellet visited Chortitza to fellowship with their fellow Christian pacifists.  Grellet’s journals are an excellent look at life in Chortitza and contain useful descriptions of ritual amongst the Chortitza Mennonites of Russia.
    Impressed with their piety and simplicity of life, both English and American Quakers continued to concern themselves with the well-being of their pacifist Mennonite brothers and sisters in Russia and in 1878, petitioned Czar Alexander III to extend the terms of the Mennonite settlement agreement in Russia and Ukraine and to continue the respect for the religious freedom and pacifism of the Mennonites.  Yet another indication of the refugee status of our North American ancestors.
    GAMEO takes a relatively harsh stance against the liberal theology of contemporary Quakerism, but as recently as 1976, the MCC contemplated endorsing proposals and an invitation by an Evangelical wing of the Quaker churches to join in dialogue with America’s historic peace churches (Mennonite, Quaker and Brethren) in the New Call to Peacemaking conferences (1976-1978).  Steps were seemingly taken in this direction without seemingly impacting the Evangelical-minded Mennonite and Amish conferences.
    I find Ron Davis’ description of Quakerism and of George Fox University compelling, “… George Fox is a rare and rich combination of America's famously conservative and spirited Evangelical Christianity and its more progressive and contemplative Anabaptist cousin, Quakerism,” (Davis, Ron, Evangelical Universities, Gay Students and Faculty Freedom, Huffington Post, 13 Apr 2012). 
    While I have Mennonite and Brüderthaler cousins who have attend George Fox, I must admit that I have seldom thought of the Quakers as interested in Evangelical Christianity or Anabaptism, let alone considering themselves to be part of the family.  Davis’ recommendation that George Fox is both representative of the American Evangelical intellectual tradition and deeply impacted by contemporary evangelical intellectual norms is greatly interesting and encouraging… “Admittedly, schools belonging to the confessional faiths walk a difficult line when requiring faculty to affirm their central tenets. At its best, shared core convictions often prove fertile ground for inspiring intellectual inquiry and imbuing community life with meaning,” (Davis, ibid).
    Davis’ article is encouraging because it indicates that the great conversation begun in 16th Century England, supported by the Grellet visit of 1819 to Chortitza, and manifest in the invitation to dialogue in the 1976-78 New Call to Peacemaking Conferences, has and will continue.  One would tend to encourage such an historical dialogue with fellow peace-minded Christians – especially those who have had our back in England, in Pennsylvania and in Russia. 
    Davis’ warning about the dangers of stifling or pre-empting true intellectual Christian dialogue is both a warning to all Evangelical and Anabaptist college campuses and seminaries, an indication of the Quaker intent to remain part of this dialogue, and an invitation by all parties to continue the historic conversation – in good faith.
    To Davis’ Quakers, I say, “welcome to the dialogue… just please, keep an open mindand um, er… would you mind explaining the rules to our friends from Baylor and Bob Jones?  Thanks, we really appreciate it.”

4 comments:

  1. The Quakers can't be Anabaptists. They don't practice baptism.

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  2. Jerry:

    You are right that there are definite distinctions between groups of Christians. I don't think that either I or Davis are arguing that Quakers will be joining Mennonite Church - USA or vice versa, anytime soon.

    On the other hand, there are many ties that bind the two historic Christian traditions together. Our shared history as dis-establishment churches with a strong focus on social justice goes back to the 16th Century, as does our often united Peace Witness, not just in the USA, but around the world.

    I am not aware of Quaker attitudes towards the rite of Baptism, but... both sects do reject infant baptism. The rejection of infant baptism would have been a more significant sign of unity in the 16th and 17th Centuries than would a common rite or form of adult baptism today. Yet, it is an interesting point to consider.

    Nor should one underestimate that while 16th Century Continental Anabaptism may have impacted and help encourage, if not shape, early Quaker ideals, the simplicity and fellowship of the Quaker service and community is today having a significant impact on the shape of Postmodern Anabaptism.

    If one sees the historic relationship between Quakers and Anabaptists as Dialogue, I think that it is a dialogue that has been useful and supportive of both sides... a dialogue that is sure to yield even more fruit far into the future... a dialogue that should be encouraged and pursued.

    I would be interested in learning more about your idea of that dialogue and its content.

    Thanks.

    ~ Bruderthaler

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  3. I have a distinct perspective on the Anabaptist to Quaker connection. I was raised a Pentecostal preacher's kid and became a pacifist in my youth. As an adult, I sought out peace churches and the Mennonites were the best fit, though they were not mystics or ecstatics. When my literal faith in the Bible dissolved in a mystical experience, I became involved with Quakers, where I've been since 1997.

    As for a genetic connection, I would say that the origins of Quakerism were quite distinct from how the Anabaptists originated, though there are interesting parallels. The movement from which Quakers descend is the communist Diggers, who preached the inward light of Christ and communal living. Quakers discarded communalism, but Fox took up almost verbatim Winstanley's approach to the inward light.

    The anabaptists first major historical event was the Munster rebellion in which a group of communists took over a German town and instituted communism and polygamy, calling themselves anabaptists. They were violently put down and anabaptism spent decades reinventing themselves as nonviolent sectarians.

    Quakers also became nonviolent sectarians, but since they spoke English, they could never create the sort of closed communities that Anabaptists could when the migrated into other regions like Russia and North America.

    There were mystical anabaptists, but they shunned organization, so they died out. Quakers made the fateful decision to organize their mysticism and so survived.

    As for nonviolence, early Quakers turned to it after the restoration of the monarchy. Many of the first generation, such as Naylor, served in the Puritan army. Anabaptists turned to nonviolence as well, as a bulwark against another Munster incident.

    Anabaptism emerged as a protest against the existing state churches, whereas Quakers emerged as an initially radical puritan group that became sectarian and apolitical. Anabaptists have held on to a biblicism that is shared to some extent by Evangelical and programmed Friends, so the possibilities of collaboration are interesting for those groups. Liberal unprogrammed Quakers do tend to be post-Christian, but not entirely. Quakers and Anabaptists do work together at ecumenical gatherings as a sort of peace church bloc.

    My Quaker blog is here: leftistquaker.wordpress.com

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  4. I am a Mennonite, theologically speaking. I am currently worshipping with Evangelical Quakers because there is no Mennonite Church USA in Sacramento California where I live. The differences are real but so are the parallels. Not all Mennonite Brethren Churches teach pacificism any longer or separation of church and state either. The same is true with Evangelical Quakers (although American Quakers have always been too friendly with the Government in my opinion). These elements have even eroded in some Mennonite Church USA churches unfortunately. Many Christians in America who are influenced by conservative American Evangelicalism find nationalism and pro military sentiment intuitive. I consider myself to be fully Anabaptist and as such struggle with the lack of water baptism in Quakerism yet I am aware that this is perhaps a reflection of my own legalism. The separation of church and state is a very real conviction with many Mennonites as well as many newer groups such as The Anabaptist Network, New Monastics and self identifying Anabaptist popular teachers such as Greg Boyd, and ecumenicals like Shane Claiborne. However if separation of church and state were the point of comparison maybe we would be talking about the Catholic Worker Movement. Also in another comment mysticism and Pentecostalism were mentioned. There are more Quakers in Kenya then the rest of the world and more Mennonites in the Congo than the rest of the world as well and these folks are more evangelical and Pentecostal than in western churches in general. I will also say in response to the comments above about Munster that Mennonites became pacifists from a determination to take seriously the words of Christ. However obviously Munster was a huge factor. I appreciate this post. Thanks

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