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Deism and the Quakers

From John Punshon's Portrait in Grey:  A Short History of the Quakers.

For more information on Quaker Beliefs, go to Chuck Fager's Quaker Theology Page.

Pages 158-167. "A Divided Inheritance" This discusses the different theological tendencies within Quakerism. Quakers have never formally adopted the "Trinity," but the three streams of Christian theology can be found in Quakerism.

Deism, the "doctrine that God is quite other than the cosmos and entirely transcends it. Having created it as a closed system, he remains aloof from its operations and lets it go its own way" (160). This is God the creator, the "father." People who adhere to this theology tend to stress rational thought and science as a way of discovering truth, they tend to also place great emphasis on classic religious texts. Orthodox Quakerism is more sympathetic to Deism. For deists "the light was the inherent rational capacity of the mind." (161)

Evangelical, the focus on Christ as the unique Son of God, the Redeemer who died for our sins. People are sinners who can be saved only by accepting Jesus as their Savior. This approach tends to stress charismatic leadership, strong emotional appeals and adherence to doctrine. At certain points, this has been strong in Quakerism, and it is stronger among Friends with Pastoral form of worship.

Pantheist, the "the view that God and the universe are one entity, and that the divine is wholly immanent in the creation." (160). This is God as Spirit, as Holy Ghost, as Sanctifier. Silent and unprogrammed worship is most compatible with this theology, since it facilitates awareness of the spiritual dimensions of reality.

It also leads to Universalism (as we define it, the belief that all religions are means to approach a the same spiritual reality) since many other faiths also practice this form of spiritual worship, e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism. Gandhi's book "All Religions Are True" is consistent with this philosophy. Pantheist Quakers view the "light [as] the direct operation of God upon the soul, something which the deist cosmology in principle refused to admit." (161).

Pages 171-176 - The 1827 Separation in Philadelphia. This section makes the theological difference between Orthodox and Hicksites clear. In 1806, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting made it "a matter of disownment to deny the divinity of Christ, the immediate revelation of the Holy Spirit, or the authenticity of scripture." (172). The Orthodox, in effect, wanted to impose traditional Christian doctrine as imposed in most Christian churches. The "Hicksites" were somewhat more diverse, but they had in common a stress on inward reality.

The Hicksites were Quietist, they believed in waiting for revelation from God, more than finding it in the Bible or from rational thought. The Orthodox were more evangelical, the Hicksites more pantheist and Quietist. At the time London Yearly Meeting was Orthodox in philosophy. New England never split. The Hicksites were more numerous in PYM.

Pages 226-229, Rufus Jones and Mystical Quakerism. This section relates to more modern developments. In the 20th century, Friends who worship silently have stressed the mystical approach over the doctrinal approach. Rufus Jones developed these ideas clearly.

In my own view, Quakerism is better off emphasizing pantheist and universalist perspectives. Our mode of worship is especially well suited to this theology. Other denominations probably better serve people who are looking for strict adherence to doctrine (i.e., Roman Catholicism) or for Christ crucified as a personal Savior (evangelical Protestantism).


rict Deists are probably better served by Unitarian/Universalist churches which emphasizes science and intellect. (Incidentally, the Unitariarian/Universalist churches use the term "universalism" in a different way, to mean that all people have inherent goodness and can be "saved." This differs from some Protestants who beieve that only an "elect" can be saved.)

Theologically, among the various Christian denominations, Quakerism can be classified as a "Unitarianism of the Spirit." We give most emphasis to the third element in the Christian Trinity, without denying the value of the other two.

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