March 19, 2013
Second of a series of posts on John Punshon’s Reasons for Hope: The Future of the Friends Church. Part 1 is here.
In no way does John Punshon attempt to give a proper history of Quakers in the U.S. over the past two centuries, but he does see Quakerism – indeed any denomination – as being a dynamic movement that constantly has to adjust in response to new challenges, or else risk making itself stale.
Consequently, Punshon does give a kind of conceptual account of the schisms that have occurred within Quakerism. After recounting the changing material and intellectual landscape of the 19th century, Punshon writes, “Some chose the response of liberal Christianity and established a new identity by finding mystical awareness to be the central theme of the tradition. Evangelicals, preferring scripture, and thinking of themselves primarily as Protestants, found in the tradition the apotheosis of the Reformation” (p 33).
Each side in this schism, Punshon is saying, chose part of the tradition of Friends beliefs – but different parts – and built upon that in adding new elements. Punshon makes it clear that his loyalty is with Evangelical Friends, believing, I surmise, that they opted for more essential parts of the tradition than Hicksite/FGC Friends. He voices no animus toward liberal, unprogrammed Friends; he simply pays little attention to them.
The Evangelical side of the world of Friends – the side that Punshon does focus upon – threw in its lot with a strong surge of evangelical thought that coursed through the United States after the Civil War. The Friends Church joined together faith and practice drawn from the Friends tradition and faith and practice drawn from the Holiness movement. Now Punshon wants to know whether something coherent – and therefore capable of thriving – came of this fusion. “The changes of the nineteenth century were the result of enthusiasm rather than forethought,” he writes. “We are now in a position to ask whether they satisfy the proper conditions for organic growth. Some may and others may not. The hybrid we have called evangelical Quakerism can be expected to survive if the changes brought about by frontier revivalism meet the conditions for orderly development of doctrine. Otherwise it will not be s hybrid but a mutation” (pp 33-34).
“The result of enthusiasm rather than forethought:” that’s a striking observation. And “frontier revivalism” as a description of the Holiness movement may rankle. I don’t think Punshon means these as criticism. He simply thinks that it is high time we worked out how successful the fusion has been, and all the better if we can smooth the rough edges.
Why bother, we might ask? Why not jettison the older Friends ideas in favor of the newer, vital currents of evangelical thought? Why should the Friends Church continue as a separate denomination?
Punshon’s answer is that non-denominational evangelicalism has not and cannot succeed. “Churches are communities of specific people that make meaning together through their common life. Thus, “Evangelical Christianity is a loose association of churches and traditions with strong internal similarities and differences so that there is no generic evangelicalism,” he writes. “The evangelical churches in the United States occupy unique theological and sociological niches, and this is where they gain strength and capacity to grow” (p 358).
He adds, “The declining numbers of the Friends Church can be explained by its failure to find and occupy a distinct [theological and sociological] niche; and yet – this is the Hope of the book’s title – a powerful and accessible niche is waiting to be found in the historic character and practices that make Friends distinctive” (p 358).
To recognize and occupy this niche, Punshon argues, it will be important to identify the healthy tendencies within the Friends Church. He differentiates between “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” tendencies within the Friends Church, and he opts for the evangelical current. It has to do with the Bible, but what the difference is and why he chooses as he does I’ll save for a later post.