Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Stranger Amongst Friends: Memories of Doing Ethnography Among the Quakers

Between 1987 and 1989 I studied for a higher degree in Cultural Anthropology at a second or third level research university (it is not a member of the Association of American Universities) at Capital University, home of the Aardvarks, in Capital City in the Northeastern part of the United States. As a graduate student in Cultural Anthropology I had to do what any postulant in that academic discipline has to do, I had to do fieldwork. While some of my colleagues were doing their ethnographic rite of passage by studying beach culture in Mexico or traditional medicine in Japan, I decided to do mine in Capital City itself by observing Capital City’s local branch of the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers.

A brief caveat about this post: I never finished my observations—I didn’t complete a Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology and eventually ended up in History—so what I write here from somewhat hazy memories must remain tentative and incomplete. Now back to my tale.

Quakers originated in England in the sixteenth century during a period great economic, political, and cultural change in that “green and pleasant land”. Known for their iconoclasm and pacifism Quakers came to the United States, to some extent to escape persecution, as early in the 17th century. Most Quakers came to Pennsylvania, the colony created by Quaker William Penn. Others settled in Rhode Island and New York.

It wasn’t until 1884 that Quakers organised a meeting or church in Capital City. By 1915, the meeting was gone. In 1942, however, organised Quakerism was reborn in Capital City. They have remained a small presence in the city ever since. In 1960 Capital City’s Friends had prospered enough to purchase an old Victorian three-story mansion on one of Capital City’s main thoroughfares from the nearby Capital City College of Education. They have been there ever since.

As I mentioned earlier my sojourn among Capital City’s Friends began in 1987 and ended in 1989. By 1987 Capital City, which began life as a trading post, had, by the early 19th century become a state capital. By the middle of the 19th century Capital City developed into an industrial city. By the mid-19th century Capital City was one of America’s largest cities and, like most other cities in the Northeast, had a quite diverse population. In the 1950s Capital City reached its zenith. After 1960, like many other cities in America’s Northeast and Midwest, Capital City began an economic and demographic decline thanks to deindustrialisation and suburbanisation and eventually globalisation. Attempts at urban renewal in the 60s and after did little to reverse the downward trends. Today, Capital City is dominated economically by the the state government apparatus, two regional medical centres (Capital City Medical Centre and St. Peter's), and two regional retail centres.

Institutional Form: The Capital City Monthly Meeting I did my fieldwork in was a member of New York Yearly Meeting and a member of Friends’ General Conference (FGC) headquartered in Philadelphia, one of the two major Friends’ five-year meetings. The other one is Friends United Meeting (FUM) headquartered in the American Midwest.

Demography: I don’t recall how many were members of the Capital City Friends Meeting. Some of my memories of my fieldwork are hazy. I don’t think it was much more than 150. Most members were, as I recall, White and middle class. Some were what might be called countercultural middle class. Some members were descent Friends. They had been Friends all their life. Others were consent Friends. They became Friends generally because they had an affinity with Quaker pacifism and mysticism. One of these was a middle aged Jewish male who began attending Quaker meeting because he was a pacifist. The majority of attendees were older members though there was a smattering of younger college age members.

Built Environment: Capital City’s Friends met in an old Victorian mansion, as I mentioned earlier. One entered the meetinghouse on the ground floor. As one entered the building a library and meeting room was on one’s right. To one’s left was the meeting room where meeting for worship and meeting for worship for business took place. North of the meeting room was a gathering room where Friends, fellow travelers, or visitors could mingle and eat. To the east of the gathering room was a full kitchen. Upstairs were two meeting rooms. On the third floor was the caretakers’ apartment.

Worship: Like most other FGC meetings the Capital City Friends Monthly Meeting was “silent” in form. Members and attendees sit--I never saw more than around 40--at the appointed time, 10:00 am to 11 am every First Day, every Sunday, and wait upon the “spirit” or the “inner light” to possibly move them to speak. Usually two or three members were moved by the “spirit” to speak during the worship hour. Occasionally more would be moved. Sometimes no one would be so moved. When someone was so moved right before the end of the hour silent worship would be extended for several minutes longer. After the meeting attendees gathered in the mingling room to the north of the worship space for cookies, coffee, tea, and talk.

Speaking of worship space, the worship room itself, like traditional Quaker meetings everywhere, was spare or plain containing no crosses and no religiously oriented stained glass. There were windows facing out on to the porch at the front of the meetinghouse to the west of the entrance.

Silent meetings, by the way, aren’t the only form of Quaker worship. Many FUM meetings are “programmed”, they are, in other words, characterised by a liturgical form similar to that found in Methodist churches. Many FUM meetings during the 19th century were impacted by waves of Methodist and later evangelical revivals that impacted their liturgical form.

Key Symbol: At the heart of “silent” or “unprogrammed” meetings, at the heart of historical Quakerism, is the notion of the “inner light”. It is this symbol, this cultural form, that gives meaning to every other aspect of Quakerism be it meeting for worship, meeting for business for worship, and historic Quaker peace activism. This key symbol, by the way, has multiple meanings for Friends. Some more Christian oriented Quakers see it as the “light of Christ” that everyone might have if they simply listen to that “small still voice within”. Other less Christian oriented Friends see it as that element within everyone that is “divine” and that speaks to those who have the ears to listen.

By the way, this multivocality is common among social and cultural groups. When I did fieldwork amongst Mormons in Utah in the 1990s I found something similar. Those I talked to who converted to Mormonism from another Christian denomination or sect often carried with them notions of "Jesus" that were common in their previous religious communities. These symbols often differed from traditional Mormon notions of "Jesus" held as central by the Mormon powers that be in Salt Lake. All of this should remind us that official culture and popular culture are not always the same and that researchers must be aware of the differences.

Ethnocentrism: My sense was that Quakers had a general sense of superiority tied to their activism. Quakers, members would remind me, were at the forefront of the abolition movement, the women's rights movement, the Indian rights movement, the peace movement, and so on. Members of the Capital City Meeting had the sense when they engaged in such activism, and the membership was engaged in extensive peace and social justice activism, that they were following in the progressive footsteps of their Quaker ancestors.

Language: Quakers at Capital City Meeting as well as other Quaker meetings across the nation and the world have their own nomeclature. In the case of Quakers this nomenclature includes words like "FGC", "FUM", "NYYM", "AFSC", "FCNL", "YFNA", and the "inner light". These "secular" words stand for Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting, New York Yearly Meeting, American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Young Friends of North America. Friends, in other words, speak a variety of English peppered with short-hand for Quaker bureaucratic entities and with Quaker theological terms like the "inner light".

Governance: The Capital City Meeting, like FGC Quaker meetings in general, was governed by consensus. Issues could only be approved if there was a consensus amongst members of the meeting. Members could also abstain from voting and also abstain from limiting the ability of the Meeting to take a position on the issues in front of the membership.

The greatest power in the Capital City Quaker Meeting, like that of other FGC silent Quaker meetings, was vested in the clerk. The clerk controlled the Worship for Meeting for Business and ascertained the “sense of the meeting” at such Meetings giving him or her a degree of power, real or potential, that others at the Meeting did not have. During my years of observation at the Capital City Friends Meeting the clerk was a female.

There were also a number of powerful governing committees in the Capital City Meeting just as there were at other silent Quaker meetings. Among these committees was the Peace and Social Justice Committee, an important one given the history of Quaker activism and peace activism. I attended one of these committee meetings during my years. Another important committees in the Meeting was the Ministry and Nurture Committee, a committee that theoretically, at least, could “discipline” Friends found wanting by the Meeting.

Culture War: The most contentious and controversial issue I observed at the Friends Meeting House in Capital City occurred, if memory serves, in the fall, winter, and spring of 1988 and 1989. It had to do with whether the Meeting should accept and allow gay and lesbian marriages. I attended a special meeting to try to resolve the controversy in winter 1989 on a Wednesday I think it was. The special meeting was quite contentious and revealed that what I had heard from several sources was accurate. There was one faction, the dominant one, led by two young women, who were present that evening, who wanted the Meeting to accept and allow gay and lesbian marriages. There were at least two members, both present that evening, who were opposed to this. As long as they objected, the Meeting could not make a final decision on the issue. My understanding is that tensions between the two factions--the faction in favour of accepting and allowing gay and lesbian marriages wouldn't let it sit or "season", eventually boiled over to such an extent that the two members who opposed allowing the Meeting to accept and allow gay and lesbian marriages left the Meeting. One, I understand from sources, eventually transferred membership to another Quaker meeting in the area.

Critical Reflections: As I engaged in more and more observations on Quakers without their knowledge I increasingly felt like a voyeur and increasingly felt more and more uncomfortable with my voyeurism. It became clear to me that if I was going to take a PhD. I didn’t want to take it in Cultural Anthropology. Afterwards, I increasingly turned to History as the place where I might engage my social constructionist, Weberian, Marxian, religion as meaning system, and social and cultural construction of identity and community interests. By the way, I found the ethnography I had done to be very helpful during my History "career". Doing ethnography amongst Quakers, Mormons, and Mennonites gave me a sense of the culture of these religious movements that I could trace back through history.

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