Not Just Novelties

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

July 7, 2019


Galatians 5:13-15 (NRSV)

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

[Please note much of this sermon recounts history we learned while on our Quaker Affirmation Trip to Philadelphia. Some of it was also backed-up and quoted in an article, Why Quakers did not celebrate the Fourth of July on the LA Quaker blog and the book The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History by James Juhnke and Carol Hunter.]


It is good to be back with all of you after a wonderful Affirmation trip to Philadelphia with our youth and chaperones. I bring greetings from Race Street Friends Meeting which meets at the Friends Center in Philadelphia where American Friends Service Committee and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is housed.  We worshipped last Sunday with them and had a completely silent Meeting for Worship. We were told it was the first all-silent meeting they have had in quite some time. (I guess you could say that our presence made them speechless.) We stayed to meet and greet during their fellowship hour and it was a wonderful time of greeting new Friends.   


The timing of our trip to Philadelphia was quite interesting, being that it was the week leading up to the Fourth of July in the very town that our independence was formed and secured. I also find it interesting that over the years, the Fourth of July holiday has continued to grow to a week (or two) of celebrating.  Actually, as we crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge from our dinner in New Jersey back into Philadelphia last Saturday night, we were able to see two or three different fireworks celebrations taking place around Philadelphia (days before the actual celebration). It was a beautiful and unique site from the bridge.


Since our trip was both filled with Quaker history and American history, we found ourselves spending a great deal of time processing all that we were learning, including some things that many of us never knew, or had learned in a slightly different way. Often, we said, “That isn’t what I was taught.”


As we stood in the actual room where the Declaration of Independence was signed, we were told by the park ranger that we celebrate Independence Day on the wrong day. (Did you know that?) It was actually July 2, 1776, when Congress, after succumbing to the demand by South Carolinian delegates to cut an anti-slavery passage out of the drafted Declaration of Independence, that they unanimously voted on Virginian Richard Lee’s resolution that,


“These united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.”


Over the next two days they did final revisions and edits and when it went to the printing press, the printer simply put that day’s date at the top, as was custom.  So, the printing declared it to be on July 4, but that was simply the date of printing – our Independence Day was really July 2.


And it was because of an almost prophetic letter John Adams sent to his wife, Abigail, back home in Massachusetts on July 3 that we celebrate our independence each year the way we do.  He wrote to her,


“It (our independence) ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”


Actually, the first official Fourth of July celebration did not happen until 1781, but history notes that there was a celebration on July 4th, 1776 in Philadelphia.  And in 1777 there were even more than the first year – it was already growing into something much bigger one year out.  


But what you may not have heard was that on that July 4th in 1777 there was great violence happening to Quakers in the midst of the celebration.  Many Quaker homes were vandalized or burned, and many Quakers themselves were being shunned because they were not patriotic enough.


Now, history notes the early American Quakers did not celebrate holidays – all days were considered equal and sacred.  But even as Fourth of July became more and more standard practice in our country, Quakers (early on) refused to celebrate the Fourth of July because of their religious beliefs. You see, the Quakers made it clear that they would not celebrate holidays, especially if they commemorated military victories.  


Later when the National Anthem was introduced many Quakers would not stand or sing it because of the line, “the bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” As well, many refused to stand or recite the Pledge of Allegiance to a symbol the flag.  


Before Colin Kaepernick took a knee in our era, our Quaker ancestors “took a knee” at the founding, development, and celebration of our own country.  They too were told they were unpatriotic, un-American, they were harassed, threatened, jailed, thrown out, even killed for their beliefs.     


Folks, I think we need to recognize that our history still includes the Quakers because of their radical and non-conformist nature (that was clear in every presentation we encountered while in Philadelphia.)  Because the Quakers took a stand, because they did not conform to society, because they refused to participate in war or it’s celebration, they are remembered today. 


On our trip, we learned that the Philadelphia Quakers sent emissaries to try and negotiate with the British to prevent a war. They also refused to accept tea that had been taxed, and instead of throwing it into the Delaware River and making a huge scene like in Boston, they quietly paid the British merchants to take the tea back to England. The Quakers worked diligently to avoid war and violence at all costs. 


What our youth, our leaders, and I, myself, continued to process on the trip was, “What has happened to the Quakers?” What has happened to our ideals and distinctives and our bold testimony of taking a stand for peace? Where has our radical-ness gone? Where are the Quaker’s coming together to make their voices heard, today? 


We had to ask, why were so many of our guides and the park ranger at Independence Hall so surprised that we were Quakers, that we had youth, that we were proud of our heritage?  As we wrestled with this after we returned, Beth said to me in the office on Wednesday, it was almost like we were treated as if Quakers were a novelty. Is that what we have become?  Is that why everyone is surprised that we still exist?  We have become a novelty instead of voice and force for change? 


Novelties are easily forgotten, even laid down.      


After returning from our trip, I have been kind of haunted by all of this.  I have been running some “What if” scenarios through my mind.  In an article titled, “Why Quakers did not celebrate the Fourth of July” the author quotes the Quaker historian and theologian Howard Brinton, who wrote an article called, “What if,” imagining what might have happened if the Quaker emissaries had been successful and the Americans hadn’t fought the British. He says,


“We cannot know for sure how history might have unfolded absent “the shot heard round the world,” but Brinton imagines the world might have been more peaceful if the Americans and British had stayed on more congenial terms.  Perhaps slavery could have been abolished without a Civil War. And perhaps the Germans would not have launched the Great War if the English and Americans were more closely allied. One thing I know for certain:  Francis Scott Key would never have written a national anthem about “bombs bursting in air.”


What if?  What if Quakers again spoke up, took a stand, stopped celebrating war and violence? 


What if, we worked to negotiate on congenial terms?

What if, we worked at reconciliation and teaching non-violence or respect and speaking truth?

What if, instead of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of our own happiness – it was Life, Liberty, Justice and the pursuit of a mutual happiness together – caring for our neighbors and the world around us – instead of conquering and controlling through wars and power?  


Don’t get me wrong, I know there are some great people out there who consider themselves Quaker who are doing just that…but what if more of us really believed that we could make a change? 


I don’t think we would be laying down meetings in our Yearly Meeting or throughout this country and world…

I don’t think people would think that Quakers are a novelty or a thing of the past…

I don’t think we would buy into the fear mongering and the American church machine that is married to patriotism and celebrating war…


Just maybe that would look a little bit like Job in the Bible…who said,


I rescued the poor who cried out for help

And the fatherless who had none to assist him;

The man who was dying blessed me;

I made the widows heart to sing.

I put on righteousness as my clothing;

Justice was my robe and turban.

I took up the case of the immigrant

I broke the fangs of the oppressor.


That is what being Quaker is about…and if we did that, it would be about celebrating the people of God and the call to Freedom that we have together. Or as the scripture for this morning stated:

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

If there is one take away, I had from our trip to Philadelphia, it was the fact that we need the Quakers to be Quakers, again in our world!  Now is our time.