ST. JOSEPH, MINN. – Minnesota became an unlikely national hub of the Quaker faith this week when more than 1,000 faithful packed an annual conference that showcased the achievements — and challenges — of this often-misunderstood religion.
Quakers oversee more than 100 schools in the country, hundreds of “meeting houses,” retirement centers and a volunteer foreign service corps, and they can claim 13 colleges and an entire state — Pennsylvania — founded on its principles.
Their social impact has always exceeded their ranks, which now have dipped to about 85,000 in the United States. While some religions would panic, the folks at this conference take it in stride, believing that their message will resonate with those ready to receive it.
Just in case, they’re cranking up their profile in the outside world.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about us,” said Barry Crossno, general secretary of the Friends General Conference, which organized the weeklong gathering at the College of St. Benedict.
“Some people think we wear plain clothes, that we address people as thee and thou,” he said. “I even had someone ask me, ‘What’s it like to live without electricity?’ ”
Clearing up those misconceptions, and showcasing the faith to a broader audience, is a priority for him.
“I think the next 10 years will be a period in which we become more visible and even more benefit to society,” Crossno said.
Silence is golden
A quick history lesson: The Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, are a Christian denomination dating to 17th century England, based on the idea that the faithful can directly experience God without ministers or church rituals. They abolished liturgy, song and sacraments. A Sunday service meant sitting in silence and waiting to experience the divine.
In the United States, the group evolved into three strands over time: a so-called liberal group with no pastors, a liberal group with pastors and an evangelical group. Quakers now range from Bible thumpers “to folks who chain themselves to a fence to protest nuclear weapons,” said Quaker historian Thomas Hamm of Earlham College in Indiana. Members have ranged from President Richard Nixon to rocker Bonnie Raitt.
The conference this week belonged to the liberal strand, which is predominant in Minnesota, said Paul Landskroener, a Minneapolis lawyer at the conference, as attendees grabbed daily schedules with widely diverse options: Alternatives to Violence, Dance and Spirituality, Quaker Engagement in China, Songwriting with [Minneapolis folk singer] Larry Long.
Nights offered films, Broadway musical singalongs, and contra and merengue dancing.
And of course, folks could worship silently each day, a practice odd to the wider world but central to their faith.
“There is something palpable when you have a silence in a circle of people coming together to make a connection to the divine,” said Paula Palmer, a Colorado author and sociologist.
“Protestants get their ultimate authority from the Bible, Catholics from the Pope,” added Marybeth Neal of Minneapolis. “We take our ultimate authority from the inner light.”
But sitting in silence is not exactly a formula for rapid denominational growth. Palmer laughed recalling one meeting visitor who, after about 15 minutes, blurted, “You guys are so depressed!”
Landskroener, raised Lutheran, is moved by the format but admits he misses congregational singing. “I just sing in other places,” he said.
Quaker ranks peaked in the United States in the early 1900s at about 125,000, Hamm said, and membership dipped to about 100,000 by the 1950s. Quakers were active in movements to end slavery, find peaceful solutions to wars, improve public education and expand the rights of women and racial minorities.
Quakers have been in Minnesota since the 1850s, when they opened a meeting house in Minneapolis, Landskroener said. St. Paul followed after World War II, and the city now is home to a K-8 Friends School. Meeting house locations include Rochester, Duluth, Stillwater and Northfield.
There is also a meeting house in Brooklyn Park for Quakers from Kenya, which now has the world’s biggest Quaker community, he said.
Most attending Sunday meetings are converts from other faiths, Landskroener said. But they arrive not because of any proselytizing, as Quakers typically don’t flaunt their religion.
“There’s a reluctance on the part of many Quakers to let themselves be seen,” said Paul Buckley, a well-known Quaker author attending the conference. “But there are those who are very concerned about making Quakerism more visible to the wider world.
Spreading the word?
Figuring out how to attract newcomers — and nurture them once they arrive — has become a priority for the Friends General Conference, the Philadelphia-based organization that offers programs and services to Quakers.
The general conference launched the “Quaker Quest” program, offering tips on how to become more visible. (Invite other community groups to use the meeting hall, for example.)
The Friends Journal, a Quaker publication and social media site, produced short YouTube videos to educate the public. Titles include “What to Expect at a Quaker meeting” and “Why Quakers Don’t Take Communion.” The videos have been viewed 800,000 times, he said.
“This is a very meaningful expansion of our outreach,” said Gabe Ehri, the Journal’s executive director, as he headed out to lead a trivia session called Quaker Quizzo. “A lot of people think we are Luddites … or stereotype us as liberal peaceniks. I just hope people come and meet us.”