Doing Christianity differently? – new theologies, renewing Quakerism

In its content the Foundations has a lot in common with the work of Christian social reformers and socialists – emphasising the “universal brotherhood” of humanity, mutual service and community as the goal of human life, the teaching of Jesus pointing towards a true social order. It was written at a time when institutional Christianity was under enormous strain after the war – not just from “crises of faith”, but from failures to connect with working-class people’s lives or the shattering experiences of war.

Meanwhile, many Quakers had come to understand themselves as a radically different Christian community, with a distinctive message for everyone. It seemed obvious that religious change was needed, to meet the enormous spiritual needs of the post-war world – and at least some Quakers thought they had the key to the change.

This optimistic, outward-facing attitude – seeing Quakerism as the answer to deep spiritual needs in the world – was possible because of the theological shifts in Quakerism at the turn of the twentieth century. The Manchester Conference of 1895 brought liberal theology to the forefront of British Quakerism. Quakers were energised to engage with modern science and modern biblical criticism, and with other possible sources of new insight – and to emulate early Friends who “followed out their convictions and took their part in the movements of their age” (Silvanus Thompson).

  • The Manchester Conference was not mainly focused on social issues – but several of the speakers did call Quakers to hear and respond to the “passionate demand for justice” in the writings of social reformers.
  • Many of the War and Social Order Committee members had been young adults at the time of the Manchester Conference; the new liberal theology shaped their Quaker identity, and their optimistic sense of how Quakerism could rise to the challenge of reconstructing the social order.
  • Lucy Morland, the 1918 Swarthmore Lecturer, was one of this generation and expressed this vision: “Quakerism is not a privilege of a small select group, but a Truth to be promulgated everywhere”.