Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 11, 2013 9:37AM

Friends with benefits: Talking Quakerism with Claus Bernet

Rate: 9 Flag

claus bernet

Historian and social worker Claus Bernet

IN AN ERA WHERE the mainline churches are losing their appeal and fundamentalism is growing increasingly authoritarian, alternative forms of religion are becoming more attractive to many spiritual seekers. One counter-cultural religious movement, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), has been a familiar feature of the spiritual and even political landscape of the English-speaking world since George Fox first began the movement in seventeenth century England. Two Quakers even made it into the White House, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, and Sidwell’s Friends School in Washington has long been the preferred school of America’s first families. In other parts of the world, the Religious Society of Friends has taken a lead in relief efforts and social reforms but has had much less impact on religious feeling. Most people may have heard of Quakers, but who are they really and what do they have to say to us today? I recently caught up with Claus Bernet, a Berlin-based author, religious historian, and social worker who is also Germany’s leading authority on Quakerism, to try to get an understanding of where the Friends’ relevance lies in a rapidly changing twenty-first century.

LOST IN BERLIN: Quakerism presents a riddle. How has such a formless religion, lacking a sacred book and liturgy, not to mention an ordained clergy, managed to exist for such a long time?

CLAUS BERNET: I’m more interested in how people today can still put up with a professional clergy and a bunch of made up rituals. I’m thinking of the various sex abuse scandals that are currently rattling Germany’s Catholics. I personally regard Quakerism and its complete lay culture as a genuine liberation. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t really want to be free. Or do they? One shouldn’t seek to loosen other people from their own self-sought bonds if they don’t want it. And yet, Quakers are justified in regarding themselves as genuine pioneers: As seekers, as experimenters in a world that appears to be becoming more standardized and closed off in many ways. But they have also had a few other companions on the way, for example the Swedenborgians, the Sufis, and many currents in the New Age movement.

Is the formlessness of Quaker faith an asset or a liability?

Quakerism isn’t formless at all. Yes, it’s called a “religion without dogma,” but not a “religion without content,” and even if Germany’s Quakers have indeed been experiencing something of an identity crisis since the 1980s, I’m certain this will change. As a matter of fact, Quakerism offers a very special “form” that I personally find extremely appealing: A unique form of devotion, coming together, and worship, namely silent meditation. Then there are many other forms that outsiders never hear about: Certain hierarchies, strictly regulated meetings for business, complicated official structures, and ritualized forms of behavior. One of my theories is that despite the mantra-like claim that Quakers “reject all dogmas,” “firm forms” have been slipping through the back door the whole time. In sociological terms, this is a perfectly normal process: In 1925, Quakerism was refounded here in Germany in an atmosphere of great hope and the thirst for freedom. In the second and third generation, it was probably inevitable that regression and rigidity would set in. It was the same in England. And yet, this process contains within it the seed of a new beginning – of a “re-formation.” As Heraclitus once put it, Potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin, hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei – “Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers."

The early Friends were true revolutionaries in an England and America afflicted with systemic injustice, near constant conflict, and chattel slavery. While human nature hasn’t changed, their ideas have become mainstream. What kind of chance does Quakerism have to survive in Western societies where many of the principles it preaches, such as peace, social and sexual equality, justice, and the elimination of rigid class boundaries, are generally accepted, if not universally practiced?

That’s putting the cart before the horse. Peace, equality, and societal achievements of various kinds are not the cause of Quaker action, but rather a result of it. It’s the source that counts! What I mean to say is that the Friends are united by their action (or, as the case may be, their inaction) from a spiritual standpoint. They act from an inner strength after listening to the voice within. What comes out of this is secondary. Buddhists would say: The intention is decisive. I am convinced that there will always be people who want to act from inner strength, who believe that God isn’t just hovering out there somewhere, as deists think, but that human beings contain a divine core that can lead them, that can make them calm, peaceful, and contented. I find this thought to be just as attractive today as it was in ancient times when it was first discovered, as in the Buddhist notion of Bodhisattva, and later in the experience of George Fox, when he learned that God – Jesus – was speaking to him directly. That will live on, no doubt about it.

American popular culture doesn’t quite know what to do with Quakers, and I don’t just mean their quaint “Quaker Oats” image. In Hollywood films – specifically in High Noon and Friendly Persuasion, Quakers are depicted as loveable but ultimately hopeless idealists and pacifists who end up reaching for their guns in the last reel. But this can’t be the whole story, can it? What is the Friends’ “peace testimony” really about?

“Hopeless idealists”? I have a different take. I wouldn’t call them “hopeless,” but rather “hopeful” idealists. In my opinion, the peace testimony is completely overrated, and today it is nearly the lowest common denominator within an otherwise individualized and fragmented community. The peace testimony is more an issue from the past, particularly in Germany. On a purely surface level, there’s nothing particularly special about it. Today, millions of Germans are pacifists, but there are only around 200 formal members of the Society of Friends. In any case, there are other testimonies, meaning principles, that I find considerably more interesting. For example, there is the “social testimony,” the exercise of which makes it possible for peace to develop in the first place. In the future the peace testimony will continue to lose in importance, and people will have to look to new areas, for example, inter-personal mediation, education for peace, and such issues as “peaceful online behavior.” The latter issue contains a lot of potential, don’t you think?

  Susan B. Anthony

“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” Quaker and reformer Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

Quakers reject many elements of traditional Christianity. That being the case, what is still “Christian” about Quakerism?

I have to answer that in a personal way. For many years I was torn between Quakerism and and Buddhism. Quakerism has long fascinated me as a scholar: I’ve written more than ten books and hundreds of scholarly articles about it. And I have enough material and ideas for at least ten more books! However, the German Quakers’ social and leisure life appeals to me less. I feel differently about Buddhism. I would never (with one modest exception) write an essay, let alone a book about Buddhism – others can do that much better than I could. And yet I’ve developed great affection for the Buddhist community. Buddhists are some of the best Quakers you’re ever likely to meet.

I think most Christians would deny that one can reconcile Christianity and Buddhism.

For me, one thing is for sure: Jesus was a Buddhist. He likely spent time in India between the ages of thirteen and thirty. Even though he didn’t really understand Buddhism, he nevertheless imported important articles of the faith to the West: Non-violence, meditation, and particularly the idea of reincarnation.


Reincarnation. Just look at what Jesus says in John 3:7 –  “Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again” – which you can interpret in a totally different way from the one the theologians have been selling us all these years. The original version of the Bible and the non-canonical texts contained many indications of reincarnation. It wasn’t until the Second Council that the theologians yielded to pressure from Emperor Constantine to erase many of these passages from the Bible. But some traces still remain.

For me, Jesus has less to do with Judaism than with the wisdom of the East. By the way, according to one tradition, following his resurrection Jesus returned to Kashmir and is buried in Srinagar. Now, it is just as hard to prove a story like that “scientifically” as it is to verify the burning bush or Jesus’s and the Virgin Mary’s physical ascension into heaven. But as a Quaker, I claim the right to follow my own conscience when it comes to matters of faith.

Quaekerhaus Bad Pyrmont

The Quäkerhaus in Bad Pyrmont, a center of early German Quakerism 

So, you’re saying that Quakerism and Buddhism are creating a new religion called Quaker-Buddhism?

You could say that, although I don’t see any real need to create a new subgroup, and I would be hopeless as a cult leader. But the Anglo-American world contains many Quaker-Buddhists. I had close contact with some of them while presenting a seminar on this topic in Woodbrooke, England. My colleague Ben Pink Dandelion discovered that currently around 15% of English Quakers derive their spirituality from Buddhism. So a symbiosis is completely normal. In any case, the notion of “pure” religion is pure fiction. Christianity itself is a crude blend of elements drawn from Judaism, the Gnostic tradition, and the Mithras cult. Nor should we forget the contribution of Sol Invictus, a late-Roman soldier religion that worshiped its god - whose birthday happened to be December 25 - on “Sunday.” Or let’s look at Hinduism, which has been cobbled together from an endless number of local cults and gods – sometimes more, sometimes fewer.

Even though Quaker organizations have fed thousands of people overseas, Quakerism per se hasn’t set down very deep roots there. How can you explain this lack of interest?

Anybody who can answer that question will be rewarded with a handsomely-paid job as a Quaker missionary in Germany. It can’t be due to the religion’s content, because modern Quakerism offers many things that are in heavy demand today: A healthy blend of calm and activity, self-responsibility, personal experience of God, and human sympathy. At least, that’s their promise. I personally believe that the German Quakers have simply never reached a critical mass. Today there are only 250 members in Germany and Austria combined – Seattle and Des Moines each have more. 

A kind of mission phobia has seen to it that the number of members hasn’t grown to anything more than an extended family, with all the disadvantages that entails: Petty-mindedness, the usual “skeletons in the closet,” and close personal relationships that suck out the air that new members need to breathe. I personally don’t believe that so-called “inreach” measures will have any effect. What the movement needs is new energy from the outside, or else we can just switch off the lights and be done with it. The interest and the willingness to contribute is great: At a typical Quaker meeting, you’ll find just three Quakers, but there are usually ten visitors present too. What they need isn’t just a “welcome culture,” but also a “stay there culture” that mustn’t come to an end the day these people become members.

 James Nayler

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. {...} I found it alone, being forsaken.” Last words of Quaker evangelist and convicted "blasphemer"  James Nayler (1616-60)

In earlier times, Quakers were regularly denounced and hanged as the most vicious kind of heretics. What’s it like in Germany today? Have you ever encountered prejudice from members of the semi-established Catholic and Protestant churches here? 

No Quakers were hanged in Germany, fortunately enough, simply because there were too few of them. In the seventeenth century, an English Quaker called William Caton was beaten up by a Catholic priest in Frankfurt Cathedral for refusing to take off his hat in a “house of God.” Otherwise, Quakers have enjoyed a very good reputation in Germany, to the extent that people know about them at all. This is largely due to the Quaker food relief program following the two World Wars and the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to the British and American Friends relief committees in 1947. If you look more closely, however, you can indeed see some subtle discrimination: Quakers are not permitted to teach religion classes in public schools, a privilege accorded to the established churches, and they are still banned from working for large Church-run charitable organizations like the Catholic Caritas and the Protestant Diakonisches Werk, even though the government underwrites these institutions with our tax money.

And here’s an oddity which is probably unique to Germany: According to a resolution passed back in 1803 – yes, in 1803! – the Catholic and Protestant Churches are still directly receiving billions of tax euros from people who aren’t even members of these churches – and they’ll likely continue receiving this money till hell freezes over! To take just one example, Catholic and Protestant bishops receive a monthly paycheck from the state – and it’s a hefty one, too. Quakers, Mennonites, Baptists, and many others don’t get a penny. But perhaps that’s a blessing in disguise. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, also known as the German Pope, told a journalist in 2011: “Do you know what the German Catholic Church’s biggest problem is these days? It has too much money.”


Quakers have always placed a premium on non-violence. This sets them apart from many other denominations, as exemplified by this illustration from a Christian fundamentalist children's book. 

Can you imagine that Quakerism, whose numbers are stagnating globally, could one day start to grow again?

I can imagine a great deal. Perhaps Quakerism will become the first global religion! Or maybe it will die out entirely in Germany, which has already occurred twice in the past – in 1720 and 1890. Predictions are always risky – especially about the future! But if you will permit me to dream, I think a world containing only Quakers would be better, more peaceful, more just, and more relaxed.

You can not only dream, you can also prophesy: What will Quakerism look like in fifty years?

Well, we won’t be around to see in fifty years – or perhaps we can continue this interview in a future life. Or we’ll meet in Heavenly Jerusalem, sitting around a table with Willliam Penn, George Fox, and Margaret Fell. Now that would be interesting – I would ask them a hundred questions… But as an historian, I’m really not much of a forecaster. A Quaker reformer could show up tomorrow and set a fire under our feet. And I’d say “amen” to that.

But here’s what I can tell you: As the global population grows, “silence” will become more and more of a luxury article, a precious resource that the Quakers should try to make accessible to all. Virtual identities and other media practices will gain in importance over the next fifty years, while Quakerism will – I hope – continue to define itself through personal encounters. The various currents of Quakerism – which we haven’t even touched on here, but which range from conservative to evangelical with many gradations in-between – will no longer be geographically divided, but will be present everywhere. As for Germany, there will be a second, evangelical Yearly Meeting in 2060 or 2080.

Wer mit dem licht tanzt

Bernet's new book "Dances With Light: Quaker Wisdom From Across 350 Years" 

You just published a book of Quaker wisdom – Dances With Light – plus a book about the Quaker author Rufus Jones and also a biographical lexicon of Quakerism. What drives you to do this kind of research?

Well, I’ve been very lucky with this topic. When I first became acquainted with Quakerism twenty years ago, there was virtually no scholarly research on Friends in Germany, and most of the sources were completely unknown. For example, I was able to research George Fox’s trip to Germany in the seventeenth century, and explore an American Quaker settlement in Germany a century later. I also uncovered a number of Quakers who were also Nazis, sad to say. This was genuine pioneer work that gave me great joy. In the USA or England, where there are already many Quaker scholars, this would have been impossible.

What’s up next?

The main questions remain to be answered. As a social worker by day, doing casework on the streets of the capital, it’s hard to find the energy to research Quaker history by night. My dream would be to develop a theory of Quakerism, which will cost a lot of time and energy – and nerves. Right now I’ve got a biography of Lili and Manfred Pollatz in the pipeline – this German couple rescued Jews from the Nazis in Holland during World War II. Then, finally, there will be a new German Quaker history, since the previous one by Heinrich Otto from 1972 is totally outdated in regards to language and content. In addition, my book Quakers of the East is nearly finished. In it, I describe the difficult conditions faced by East German Quakers – both positive stories and also some less uplifting ones about the contacts some of them had with the Stasi and their coooperation with the communist dictatorship. And I’ve also got a fun project going: For years I’ve been collecting Quaker jokes, and one of these days I’ll going to publish a small volume of Quaker humor.

Quaker jokes? Let’s hear one!

Just like that…? Okay, but don’t forget that for Friends, humor has traditionally been no laughing matter. Of course, things have changed since the old days, and I have to be careful here, since not all of my jokes have a G-rating. But here goes:

After a top-level government dinner in England for government officials and their spouses, the various participants are driven to their accommodations. One rather stuffy government minister and his wife are driven to Jordan’s Hostel, a Quaker-run guesthouse. When they arrive there shortly after midnight, the receptionist takes a close look at the couple and asks: “Are you Friends?” The minister is struck speechless for a moment, before responding testily: “No, madam. We are married.”

Well, if that’s the quintessence of Quaker humor…

…yes, but it was told by a genuine German Quaker! But getting back to your question about American popular culture, mostly jokes have been made about the crazy Quakers. In the late nineteenth century, Quakers were repeatedly lampooned on stage, and a play called “The Quaker” was the hit of 1910 in Berlin. But remember: Media fictions of this kind have nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of Quakerism. The fact is, it is much easier to confirm one’s biases at the movies or via Google rather than to embark on a journey of genuine human experience. And that is the whole story of Quakerism. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth.” George Fox’s mission was not to create a new religion, but rather to combat the dead letters and prejudices of his era. Four centuries later, we Quakers are still at it.

Mr. Bernet, thank you for this discussion.

Claus Bernet maintains a blog on contemporary Quakerism at http://quaekernachrichten.blogspot.de/

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Maybe the world needs a Quaker Pope this time around...?
An interesting, timely interview.
Hey Friend- thanks for the great history. As a person who was Quaker a long time (not renounced, just not attending), and consider myself Buddhish by spirit, I resemble his remarks. If anything, my introduction to quakerism in college (despite having a famous quaker, Elias Hicks, in the family we were Episcopalian) is what laid the groundwork for my spiritual growth. Sitting still, waiting for the light .... transformed to sitting still, waiting for nothing- or everything... stay in the moment, live in simplicity, be truthful, avoid unethical business, (I don't like oatmeal). I have had some divine inspiration with quakers, and in many ways miss the community spirit. There have been moments so rich in meeting we did tremble, and quake a little.

When I lived in Denmark, I was more an "active" quaker except there really was no quaker meeting (this was in the 90s, not much internet for me yet). On the form at the kommune, you filled out your religious preferences. When it came time for taxes, a certain percentage of your taxes were given to your church. Church of Denmark was the default position, unless you chose another. I wrote out quaker, the woman had never heard of it. Qvaker. She looked it up. "Oh, you won't be paying taxes"she said, as she entered it into the computer. :)

It seems true, how ever, how difficult it is for many to accept the "formless" rules, I did as well early on until my own "light" moments. After 9/11 our meeting was flooded for about a year or so with seekers, people who wanted a spiritual community without the *christianity*. They would go online to the beliefnet.org site, take the test, and find out their most likely religion and quakers would be in their top three and they would come. "No war, everyone equal, be truthful, no dogma"... and few would stay. Not enough rules, no one yelling out for punishment, gray haired ladies and men with dubious fashion choices spending time protesting death penalty, marching for latino rights, etc. One woman asked me, after 60 minutes of silence, some questions about the whole thing. We chatted a little, and she asked me How, if we had no book and no minister, were we to know the difference between right and wrong? And I looked at her and said, I think we all know the difference between right and wrong, it's up to us to decide how we will act. I might as well have slapped her from the look of surprise and disgust on her face. Sigh.
Clearly my post does not reflect the quaker silence of meeting for worship, but the quaker verbosity enjoyed during meeting for fellowship, with juice and cookies.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Oryoki. That woman's response just goes to show how little regard many people have for the concept of freedom. It's rather frightening when you think about it.
[r] when I first moved to NYC a friend told me that the Friends' elementary school was the best school in the City!

Another superlative interview. when I read your intro I thought you had written in this "rabidly" not rapidly changing world!

As Midler sang, "Ya Got To Have Friends!!!!" best, libby
I have organized and participated in many antiwar protests over the last three and half decades. I always received the strongest and most sustained support from Quakers.
Thanks, Dr. Stuart Jeanne.

"Rabidly changing" is right!!
let's begin by referring to them as 'friends. 'quaker' insinuates disrespect. but i do think they could move into some branch of buddhism easily and be the better for it.
Great interview of an important man.

I almost became a Quaker during the Viet Nam War since they were on the "approved" list and you could get a a deferral as a conscientious objector. I know many did, but felt it would be hypocritical since I didn't know much about the faith at the time.

Now I do, and it wouldn't have been a problem, though I formally coverted to Zen Buddhism in 2000. It's important to note not all forms of Buddhism are the same, and hardly pacifist. Witness the recent war in Sri Lanka.

One other addition I make is this: Quakerism with its format for meetings and idea of the "group conscience" where leadership is shared forms the basis for 12 Step Programs that have proven one of the most successful in the treatment of addiction throughout the world. Not a small advance in human consciousness.
How's this for a Quaker joke:

Yes, Richard Nixon was a Quaker.
I would suggest that the experience of sitting a Friend's First Day Meeting is a nice way to understand the power of quiet and communion.