Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Acton University 2024 Mobile Banner

Religion & Liberty: Volume 13, Number 1

The political ideology of unprogrammed Quakers

    One branch of Quakers – the unprogrammed, officially called Friends (the organizational name for the Quaker religion is the Religious Society of Friends) – believe that God is in each person and that he leads humans to truth, not through adherence to creeds or confessions, but purely through the Spirit by means of experiential understanding and evidence. This experiential evidence manifests itself in the statements of Friends who speak up at a meeting, either voicing their thoughts or reading a passage from Scripture or other literature. Friends are only supposed to speak at a meeting when they feel the Spirit is leading them to do so.

    Among unprogrammed Quakers, business meeting is conducted usually once a month. Decisions are made by the Sense of the Meeting, which occurs when the Friends at a meeting arrive at a decision about truth. The clerk of the meeting then commits this decision to writing. This does not mean that the Sense of the Meeting embodies a unanimous or consensus determination. One or more Friends may dissent to this decision. If a Friend voices dissent, the other Friends are to listen carefully, because God’s leading could come through any one of them. Sometimes Friends do not voice their dissent and “stand aside.” This means that dissenting Friends allow the decision to pass unchallenged, because even though the decision may make them uncomfortable, they do not have any moral misgivings to proceeding on the basis that the declaration embodies truth. [1]

    Unprogrammed Quakers characterize the general beliefs in Quakerism as the sacred triad, consisting of God in every person, silent meeting for worship without a pastor or structured order of events/liturgy, and decisions and declarations about truth in accordance with the Sense of the Meeting. What distinguishes unprogrammed Quakers is that their meetings do not follow any prearranged or structured order of events or liturgy. A programmed Quaker meeting, on the other hand, usually includes a recurring, planned order of events, generally including a reading and a time for singing.

    When Quakerism was formed during the seventeenth century in England, and before it split into different factions, many Friends were merchants or otherwise involved in business. They believed in paying their workers fair wages, producing goods of quality, and charging fair prices for their products. They did not haggle with customers. Many people sent their children to Quaker merchants, confident that these merchants would not cheat their children.

    Flash forward to the twentieth century. Mark Cary, a Quaker operating a research business, found in a study that unprogrammed Friends today seem publicly almost uniformly negative about most business activity. [2] One is quoted as saying that “the deep-seated ethic of competition that underlies our economic system [is] a form of cultural violence, [and] it is a form of physical violence, as well.” He continued, stating “This violence has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death.” [3] Given that this anti-market, anti-capitalism mentality prevails among many Friends, Quaker meetings have become uncomfortable for those who remain true to classic liberalism and the moral potential of free markets.

    Pinpointing the causes of this drastic change from the seventeenth to the twentieth century is not easy. Chuck Fager, the director of Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina, finds three developments that may account for this drastic change at least in part, all of which surface around the late 1920s and early 1930s. First, he found “records of much debate at the Friends General Conference of the post-1929 years over socialism.” These new socialistic, utopian concepts now pervade the thought of most Friends, demonstrating a sharp departure from Quakerism’s classic liberalism origins. Second, “the Depression also had the parallel effect of reducing many enterprises and fortunes among established Quaker families.” Thus, some of those who would have historically supported free market business activity had gone from enjoying financial fortitude and successful businesses to struggling with insolvency and unemployment. Third, in the early twentieth century “industrial families of wealth” produced children who opted for Fabian socialism (a group who desired to effect socialistic reforms through dialogue and the political process, rather than through military-driven political revolution). [4] More recently, I have observed that the pacifism of the Quaker religion has attracted many individuals who were frustrated with the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s. These new members imported their anti-capitalist views and have gradually become the dominant voice among unprogrammed Friends.

    During the seventeenth century, the period when Quakerism was born, classic liberalism dominated intellectual thought and conversation. Classic liberalism holds that people should be free to decide which goods and services they will produce and how they will produce them, with sales and prices voluntarily agreed between buyer and seller. Among other things, the classic liberal does not want the state to choose or regulate prices. Being free of the king’s commands to implement these principles of classic liberalism was a central focus of early Quakers. Over the three centuries that followed, the term liberalism became associated with progressive ideas, such as a public school system, antitrust laws, Social Security, and regulations to make corporations behave like “good” citizens. The government has passed laws to foster and sanction these progressive ideals to the point that, in the United States, liberalism has become synonymous with interventionism, the exact opposite of its classical meaning.

    Unprogrammed Quakers have deviated 180 degrees from the classic liberal traditions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Many Eastern Friends, particularly those at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, have noted and are currently concerned about a significant drop in membership. In a personal letter to me dated November 5, 2002, Mark Cary described his view, with which I am in agreement, that liberal Friends are held together mostly by a few common threads: the open form of worship, the peace testimony, liberal or radical politics, and a lifestyle that glorifies higher education. Quakers comprise a very non-diverse and narrow section of society. Cary’s research shows that only about 40 percent believe in a traditional God. Quakers’ levels of prayer are quite low compared to other faith communities in the United States. The Religious Society of Friends seems to be comparatively a rather weak form of religion. Cary believes that “Quakers basically have a religion with a niche appeal on the boundary between religion and philosophy. Unprogrammed Quakerism has very limited appeal outside of the liberal, intellectual elites, having attracted those sorts of people over time and thus having become even less diverse in politics.”

    This lack of diversity has caused several Friends whom I know to retreat from Quakerism. One of them has written as follows: “One always hates to give up something that seems quite logical and compelling, in this case what seems to be a potentially very fruitful linking of classic liberal thought with contemporary Quaker concerns. But, there may be times and situations that simply do not work out, and it is my feeling that this is the current reality. I am scaling back my Quaker activities, because many of the things that I care about passionately, and which I believe are consistent with Quaker insight, simply do not resonate with the majority of Friends.” [5]

    For similar reasons, I too scaled back my Quaker activities. In January of this year, I took a leave of absence from the meeting I regularly attend in Boulder, Colorado, in search of another religious community that conformed more closely to the original concerns of Quakers. By June, I was back in my regular meeting again, having found that no other faith community in Boulder observes and practices anything close to the sacred triad: that of God in every person, silent worship, and decisions by Sense of the Meeting.

    If Friends have become too political – and with the wrong politics, at that – for my taste, so has every other church that I researched and investigated in Boulder. Unfortunately, it seems I will have to tolerate this ideological political climate if I want any church at all (and I do). Worse yet, I have reached the point of despair regarding my attempts to spread my message at the Friends General Conference or other yearly meetings. As I have not succeeded during the past 35 years, I doubt that I will be able to succeed in the short time that I have left; I am 82. Even so, I will continue to use the one mode of communication that has achieved at least moderate success: the internet. My online newsletter, The Quaker Economist now has more than 500 subscribers from all over the world, including Australia, South Asia, the United States, England, and Russia. The number of people signing on to this website increases daily.

    As some consolation, I have found that I am not completely alone in my frustration. Several other Friends are also uncomfortable in the meeting, many for reasons similar to mine. During my leave of absence, I received kind correspondence from many Friends. Most wished me well in my spiritual journey, wherever it would take me. A smaller number said they wished I would return because Boulder Meeting is “my home.” A few were so kind as to say they could not imagine meeting without me. I also received messages from friends that offered me advice. One suggested that I spend two months in a Roman Catholic monastery to seek clarity through meditation. Still others told me how I might change myself so I would “fit better” within the meeting. But only a few – those quoted below – agreed that the Friends’ religion needed reform. One former member of Boulder, now attending another meeting, wrote: “I am a Quaker because of the spirit-led discernment process that is an integral part of our action …. There is something profoundly wrong when we as Friends are afraid to see the full range of perspectives that experience brings and struggle with where these diverse understandings lead us in action. Discernment is central to our understanding of God ... and how to live in that life and power ... isn’t it?”

    A reader of The Quaker Economist who was on the verge of attending his first meeting states: “Excited as I am about learning more about becoming a Quaker I am fearful of the type of resistance you have had regarding basic economic reasoning. Were I to go to the San Francisco or Palo Alto Meeting I think I would be uninterested in many of the fellow Friends’ passionately held beliefs. Yet as I read more about Quaker history … I find myself drawn to the simplicity of the faith. Maybe it’s my divine duty to become a Quaker and present the liberal economic realities, as you have done. I fear I’m not yet up to that task.” I wrote to this reader to tell him I would be returning to Friends. No church is all we want it to be. I also expressed my sincere hope that he would be led by the Spirit and not by political positions. He replied: “I have decided to earnestly explore Quakerism; today I went to my first meeting – San Jose Friends. I have a long way until I feel it will be appropriate to share my economic views, but I will. And I will utilize your writing. Thanks for corresponding, I will stay in touch.”

    Another Friend living in Denver wrote: “What courage it took to take leave of absence from your beloved religion .… I was so glad to read it and found myself in accord with much of what you wrote. I hope that you will see fit to send that letter to other places, so many others may read it .… Would that Friends would permit the energy of dissent and different voices instead of singing to the choir so much.” A Boulder Friend added: “I was amazed to read the heartbreaking news that you were leaving us. Heartbreaking because you gave so much of your life to three wonderful principles (that I support), and yet the implementation of these ideas by the Quaker community falls so short of what is possible. You showed a lot of guts in being true to yourself. I greatly admire your courage to take a public stand for what you know to be true.”

    An email message from another Boulder Friend (signed by him as “another uncomfortable member”) was a bit of all the above: “I, too, suffer (somewhat) from an assumed Quaker orthodoxy that I do not accept. I’m afraid there is no such thing as unambiguous community. …. To belong to a community means to suffer. Perhaps that is a little strong. At least we will be annoyed, from time to time, by the body’s fallibilities. Yet, there is a joy (at least a satisfaction) in functioning as a part – one organ (fallible) – one indispensable member among the whole. I imagine that to be a ‘liver’ requires great humility. Its function is indispensable (processing waste and neglected matter), yet it will never be acclaimed. Maybe you are a liver – a collector and processor of unwanted thought. You are, of course, a brilliant scholar and teacher. Yet, the body is always larger (and more glorious and complicated) than the parts. Every part must undergo this ongoing ordeal of submission.”

    I experience this ongoing ordeal of submission when the Religious Society of Friends takes positions on economic matters in its publications that, as an economist, I believe will damage the very people they wish to assist: the poor and the disadvantaged. I informed Anthony Manousos, the editor of Friends Bulletin, about my concerns, but no meaningful discussion ensued. Mr. Manousos simply replied: “The problem with economics is that it is not perceived as ‘scientific’ and people’s moral judgments tend to get mixed up with their factual assessments. That’s probably why you have such difficulty convincing Friends (or any other American untrained in economics) that what you say is factually correct. Most people are so strongly attached to moral ideas (or prejudices) about economics that they can’t discern fact from opinion. I suspect that you would encounter similar problems with any other group of average Americans untrained in your specialty. Prejudices about economics are probably not confined to Quakers, or to liberals. Some capitalists are as dogmatic as some liberals. Again, I commend you for your efforts to help teach Friends to seek economic truth with integrity. Perhaps you have tilted your lance against windmills, or perhaps not. Only history will tell.” Mr. Manousos’ reply is representative of how I may be listened to by other Quakers but never really heard.

    Most of this article has focused abstractly on my differences with the majority of unprogrammed Friends. Thus, concluding with the specific ways in which my economic philosophy differs from that of most other unprogrammed Friends would be appropriate. First, globalization and multinational corporations will function as the main agents that will lift the poor out of their poverty. Globalization ushers in jobs to the poorest of the poor, allowing them to trade in a world from which they are now excluded. Multinational corporations infuse capital, technical knowledge, and jobs into impoverished countries. All over the world, the multinational corporations pay their workers more and treat them better than do other employers in the same country. Second, debts should be repaid. Many Friends want to forgive the debts of corrupt despots who have squandered or pocketed their borrowings. If these debts cannot be repaid, proper bankruptcy procedures should be implemented. The poor people of the country rarely borrow, except in small amounts, so they are not the ones who would be forgiven anyway. Third, boycotting sweatshops is cruel and solves nothing. In fact, it forces women on the streets as prostitutes or sends children abroad as slave beggars, because those women and children who work in sweatshops usually do not have viable alternative opportunities to earn a living. Four, increasing the minimum wage causes unemployment and has a negative impact on women and minorities in the workplace. The higher mandated wage encourages automation. As automation increases, employers must reduce their workforce by terminating employees, the first to go being those against whom their employers might harbor prejudice. Five, profit drives the creation of inventions and the use of innovative techniques that allow for more efficient production of necessary goods (food and shelter, for example). Profit also serves as a watchdog against inefficient business practices in that usually a business that is not efficient is unable to earn a profit and will therefore go out of business. Six, the best means to combat environmental degradation is through creating incentives to promote its preservation, not through passing laws that punish its offense.

    The contrary positions to my economic philosophy held by most unprogrammed Quakers could be campaign platforms for a modern liberal running for office. This should make anyone wonder whether the unprogrammed Friends have converted themselves into a radical political wing of the Democrat and Green Parties. My experience dictates that this conversion has in fact occurred, and this development away from Quakerism’s roots in classic liberalism concerns me greatly.


    1. For further information, see Marsha D. Holliday, “Silent Worship and Quaker Values,” FGC Online Library (December 17, 2002), at

    2. Cary, Mark S., “Friends’ Attitudes Toward Business in the USA,” page 1, Letter no. 40 in The Quaker Economist, at

    Cary, Mark S., “Friends’ Attitudes Toward Business in the USA,” page 1, Letter no. 40 in The Quaker Economist, at

    4. Fager, Chuck, Letter to the Editor no. 50 in The Quaker Economist, at

    5. By J.D. von Pischke, who has left Herndon Meeting in Loudon County, Virginia.

    Most Read