When Quakers do Universalism

Quaker Universalism” doesn’t usually refer to universal salvation — though I’ve met Friends who do hold the belief; it tends to crop up in those traditions where unmediated experience of God is given primary value and among the Pietistic traditions especially — but a kind of applied theological pluralism that Unitarian Universalists already exercise. Jim/Peregrinato has (re) discovered this at Beppeblog.

Little wonder I’ve heard it said that the Quakers are probably the second denomination to “opt out of Christianity” — for which I offer a cautionary tale. Seems to me that “soft universalism” is a hard environment for Christianity to thrive, and it doesn’t do much for other religions.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I quoted a section from a reading on their web site for a sermon I wrote in 1997 on “Historical Jesus” research and what implications it has for Unitarian Universalists:

    Jesus: Icon or Iconoclast?

    The article from their web site I quoted was the following:

    “Toward A New Universalism” by Rhoda R. Gilman

    Here’s the quote from Rhoda’s article that I used in my sermon:

    “Whether George Fox referred to the Living Christ, the Inner Light, or the Buddha Nature within all humans is irrelevant … As Kingdon Swayne observes, had Fox lived among Buddhists, he might have spoken of “maya” rather than “notions,” or “the Dharma” rather than “the Lord God,” and he might indeed have been able to express more freely the nature of his insights. But Fox spoke to his own world. Today we must speak to ours.”

    The part of the quote that I edited out for my sermon is the following:

    “When he announced that the world had been made anew as before the Fall, that men and women had been restored to “innocency,” and that they could again commune directly with God, he stepped outside the bounds of historical Christianity.”

    And if this isn’t an opting out of Christianity, it’s certainly an opting out of what most Christians consider to be a core belief.

  2. Quakers, and Quaker Universalism, are a complicated thing. To unravel the knot you need to understand that there are about 5 varieties of Quakers…

    (1) Friends General Conference ~ dominated by pluralistic Universalism, this is the Philadelphia based body that brings together Friends from mostly the East, South, and Mid-West. Their worship style is mostly unprogramed (silent waiting on the Spirit ot God)

    (2) Friends United Meeting ~ the moderate Orthodox branch, this is the Indiana based body that brings together Friends from mostly the Mid-West, New York, New England, and NC. This branc has major missionary efforts in Kenya, Jamaica, Palestine, and Belize. Their worship style varies from unprogramed (silent waiting on the Spirit of God), to semi-programed (hymns and Bible readings with silence), to programed (hymns, Bible, and preacher). This body has both an evangelical wing, and a Universalist wing.

    (3) Evangelical Friends International ~ conservative, evangelical body, heavily influenced by Wesleyan Holiness. Mostly found in Ohio, the Great Plains states, and California. They also have major missionary efforts in Uganda, India, and the Phillipines. Their worship style is almost always programmed, with some meetings practicing physical sacraments of communion and baptism.

    (4) Conservative Friends ~ The old-order Wilburite faction. Mostly found in Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina. Some where plain dress. They are always unprogrammed in worship style, and often hold conservative Quaker (but non-evangelical) theologies. In a sense they are more confessional in their conservative Christianity, and place great emphasis on Quaker tradition.

    (5) Independent Friends ~ Mostly a grab bag for West Coast (CA, WA, & OR) Quakers connected to the Beanite movement. They are not big on theology, but place a huge emphasis on peace and social justice work. They are always unprogrammed in worship style.

    Now for the Universalism bit, which can be divided in 2 ways.

    (A) Pluralistic Universalism ~ simmilar to the UUA, but grounded in the notion that God’s light indwells in all humanity

    (b) Restorationist Universalism ~ decidedly Christian, and grounded in a realized eschatology where Jesus Christ has come again to teach his people himself (as Holy Spirit, Inner Light of Christ, etc.).

    Pluralistic Universalism dominates the FGC and Beanite Quakers. Restorationist Universalism is also found in a large minority of FGC, FUM, and Conservative Quakers. To make things really confusing, some local congregations have joint FGC/FUM, or FGC/Conservative, or FUM/Evangelical, or FGC/Independent affiliations. The denomination alone tells you little about the kind of Universalism you may or may not encounter. So you never know which kind of Universalism you are dealing with, when you are visiting with Friends.

    As for opting out of Christianity… That may depend on which Quakers you talk to. Beanites wouldn’t care if they opted out. FGC Quakers might feel more conflicted. FUM, Conservative, and Evangelical Quakers would usually be offended by the idea that they have opted out of the Body of Christ.

  3. I will defer to Derek’s superior knowledge and connections in all manners Quakerly. I should add the reference to Quakers “opting out of Christianity” was in a Friends General Conference context, and even there it isn’t perfectly accurate.

    Also, I was thinking specifically of the Quaker Universalist Group when considering “universalist Quakers” since they seem to have the “trademark.”

  4. Scott,

    Thanks for the mention of my post on your blog.

    Interesting comments here, too!

    I might add: Gorman’s article is pretty standard for Friends associated with the Quaker Universalist Fellowship. Some have found the QUF to be controversial since some within the organization (and sometimes outside it) have had a tendency to affirm things, such as Gorman’s example, as fact about Quakerism (both past and present).

    Derek really has a great handle on the diversity of Friends here in North Ameria, offering a different perspective of what is meant by “universalism” in Quakerdom these days.

  5. My partner and I left the local UU church about a year and a half ago and now attend a Quaker Meeting here in Greensboro, NC. There are many Meetings in Greensboro and the surrounding areas. Recently, Phil Gulley and James Mullholland came to our area. The crowds who came to hear them were incredible! Friend James even spoke in one of our more conservative to moderate Meeting in town, First Friends, and was warmly received.

    Universalism in the Quaker tradition is just coming to its own in this heavily Quaker community. This universalism seems to be Christ-centered following the best know apologist for Quakerism, Robert Barckley. It is exciting!

    On another note, only the Quaker meetings here which are more progressive (mainly unprogrammed Meetings affiliated with FGC and NC Yearly Meeting-Conservative) are growing. The more evangelical/mainline Meetings are shrinking at an alarming rate. I know of two Meetings which were laid down this year.

    But, Scott, you are correct. It is of grave importance that Quaker universalism remain centered in the Christian tradition lest we follow the path of some of the UU congregations with which I am familiar. And that, honestly, is one of the main reasons we left the local UU congregation. Great folks….growing spiritually…yet, every faith path was affirmed and appreciated except, to a great extent, Christianity.

    Got a lot of pagan friends here and at the local UU church. However, I just got tired of going to a service each Sunday that resembled a meeting of Dungeon and Dragon players than a worship service.

    Preach on Friend Scott…you are a prophetic voice within the UUA and it is much appreciated.


  6. Hey, Craig! It is good to hear from you. Kind words, and wise ones of caution about the Friends. I have no objections to the Spirit of God leading as it will (if it isn’t presumptive to even make that comment) but change for change sake or (as I genuinely think was the case with the Unitarians and Universalists) because the spirit of the age seems to compell a change should throw a caution flag.

  7. I agree with Craig in that Quaker universalism is more effective if it remains Christian-centered. My reading of Craig’s post was timely since I’ve just returned from my first NEYM, and I’m still processing what I learned and experienced there. Brought up a Catholic, in my 19th year, I had a very positive, maybe mystical, experience while gazing at the moon. I realized that the universe is complete in itself, that everything is included in Nature, and that there is no need for anything “above” or “beyond” it. As new discoveries are made, they would just make my Nature bigger, they would be included. People are the way the universe knows itself. Any self-aware entity comes from the non-living, not aware, perfectly amoral material universe. This meant that all we had was each other, and that each conscious person (animal) is terribly precious and alone in existence. Every thought, emotion, concept, myth is made possible by chemistry and electricity, and in that respect we are very much a part of the universe. I believed that these truths should be embraced, because truth is beautiful, honesty rules. Love, brotherhood, empathy are real because they had and still have survival value. We are all equal in the unknowingness of the void. Band together or perish.
    Forty something years later, I’m realizing that certainty is usually dangerous. I’m realizing that Christian Quakers are doing way more good than harm in the world. I’m wondering how much good humanists are doing in the real world. I’m understanding that, not withstanding the God gene, myth is very important and leads Quakers to great positive influence all over the world. Silent worship is very important to this humanist, because I worship people and what goes on between them, and that, Tom, is a spriitual thing!. Well, I’m not done yet. I found this great forum just after getting back from neym, and am still processing. Hope someone finds this musing and seeking interesting.
    Love, Tom

  8. I am no fundamentalist or dogmatic Christian, but I tell you plainly that Quaker worship without Christ is robbed of its power. I speak not in theories or of ideals but out of experience. How can you Quake before the Lord if you do not believe in the Lord and have that immediate personal relationship with the living Christ? How does spoken ministry of nonChristian Friends compare to those of Christian Friends in power, velocity and enthusiasm?

    You can make relativistic arguments all day comparing Christianity to this religion and that religion. But even from a purely intellectual point of view, Jesus changed the way we think about God. No longer would God require sacrifice of us, but rather it is He who would sacrifice for us. And it is our role to carry that cross forward, giving of ourselves to minister to others in Jesus’ name.

    This is why I feel Steve’s suggestions that Fox would have preached differently were he born in a nonChristian culture nonsensical. Fox’s ministry was born not only out of his spiritual hunger but for his prophetic mission to call to task the paid hireling ministers (priests) and those who were selling for money what was given all for free. Fox’s mission was unique to Christianity and to the time in which he lived. HOWEVER STEVE — while the world might change, God does not change and to abandon Christ is to suggest that God does indeed change. The scriptures and the Light of Christ are large enough to address all times, and in following Christ we become centered in that which does not pass away.

    Let them who have ears hear!

    In the Light,
    ~Charles Rathmann

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