Idealism, Obligation, and Quaker Holiness

title image: idealism, obligation, and quaker holiness

Section 1D of Traditional Quaker Christianity looks at idealism, obligation, and Quaker holiness. Uh oh, we’re going to use a word some Quakers tend to avoid: sin.

Idealism & Obligation

Lewis Benson, in his “Catholic Quakerism,” defines an ethic of idealism and an ethic of obligation. He asserts that Quakers, from the early days, adhere to an ethic of obligation: we do things because they are required of us, not because we think they will add up to some version of Utopia. This is the same ethic involved in many other religions. Why do Jews keep kosher? God says to. Why do Muslims pray toward Mecca? God says to.

Yet, for some reason, many Quakers, when asked “why?” respond with a secular justification for what they’re doing. I (Mackenzie) am certainly guilty of that when put on the spot with someone asking why I wear Plain dress and cover my hair. Often I’ll instead answer how I arrived at the particulars (why these shirts?) and avoid the overarching question. Maybe I’ll give a still-spiritual answer about vanity, pride, spending less of my time on hair & wardrobe. It’s uncomfortable to answer “I think God wants me to.”

And if you’re not into God language, sometimes you’ll hear other ways of saying it:

  • I’m being led to…
  • the Universe is telling me to…
  • I felt called to…

As part of that, Benson says we have the ability to do everything that is required of us. Thus, we shouldn’t make excuses for disobedience, falling short, or sin. On the one hand, that’s pretty empowering! On the other hand, that can be intimidating.

Quaker Holiness

This gets complicated. We are, all of us, complicit in the ways of our world. We can’t really avoid all products with unethical production or distribution in a complex global economy. John Woolman went to great lengths, as “the original conscious consumer,” to avoid things made by slaves. But now, finding out the origin of any consumer goods is nearly impossible. Brands contract and subcontract and production of their goods until figuring out which factory made what is nearly impossible. Are we all sinning by wearing clothes, wherever we got them? If so, does that mean Quaker holiness is a lie?

This goes back to the “measure of the Light” discussed in episode 3. Jesus had different expectations for different people in the Bible. For example, salvation comes to Zacchaeus, who repays what he’s taken several times over and gives half his wealth to the poor.  Meanwhile, Jesus orders the rich young man to give all he has to the poor. So maybe we are being commanded to deal with the sin of the world in a different way. Maybe instead, we try to more directly change working and environmental conditions. In timely Internet fashion, an article made the rounds just last week about the limits of conscious consumerism. Discerning a leading is up to the individual, with support from their community.

What do you think? What does it mean for holiness to be an “indispensable obligation”? Can it be indispensable, an obligation, and still there’s room for screw-ups and grace?



  • I’m so happy to see this posting, Mackenzie! I’ve wasted so many years being embarrassed to say, “I do this, or refuse to do that, because I think God told me to!” But how liberating to feel free to say so! (How much more embarrassing it is to stand before the throne and say, “I didn’t do what You told me to because I was worried what people would think of me.” ) — I’m also grateful that you brought up the currently unpopular word “sin,” because I think that many of us modern Friends — along with many other good-hearted people — get stuck in our spiritual growth because we feel convicted of sin, but can’t turn to people in our meetings to confess and be forgiven in Christ’s name, and so feel ourselves washed clean of it, because we don’t have the custom or even the language for it. I’m praying to be empowered to share the good news that we can and perhaps must start doing that.

  • “measure of the Light”???? When I read the gospels Jesus gave himself totally those around him.Why would he give us only a measure of himself? What I loved and miss eucharist reminds us that we possess an immense treasure. “This is my body”

    • As mentioned in episode 3: we are given as much grace as we need to do what we have been asked. There’s some base amount of the Light everyone needs and gets, but some people are called to special tasks, and then they are given the extra strength needed for those tasks.

      “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” Luke 12:48

      “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Ephesians 4:7

      or for a Quaker source, Robert Barclay “that for this end God hath communicated and given unto every man a measure of the Light of his own Son, a measure of grace, or a measure of the Spirit”

  • For the record. The temperance movement was the training ground for the suffrage movement. Without the temperance movement for prohibition women may not have the vote today. Holy Obedience invites us to create ripples in the water. That Al Capone and others took advantage of the supply-side on alcohol does not obliterate this.


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