As a kid growing up in holiness-influenced Indiana Quakerism, Max Carter was taught to avoid a long list of sins, including soft drinks—“which led to hard drinks!“—and dancing—“a vertical expression of a horizontal desire!”
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When I was teaching at Guilford College, looking the way I do–I wear a straw hat, I don’t have collars, I wear gray and all that–people ask me about my upbringing: “Were you born Quaker? Have you always been a Quaker?” And it’s a complicated story.
Growing Up Quaker in Indiana
My name is Max Carter and I live in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I recently retired from teaching at Guilford College. I’m a member of New Garden Friends Meeting which is jointly part of Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting.
I was born into a Quaker family, 11 generations. I was born into a Quaker community, Quakers had settled that part of Indiana in the 1840s. But the Quakerism I was born into in 1948 was an assimilated Quakerism that after the Civil War had taken on more and more Protestant trappings.
My “Plain Quaker” Ancestors
My great-great grandparents on my mothers side—Robert and Elizabeth Johnson—were plain Friends living in New London, Indiana. My great-great grandparents on my father’s side were Fleming and Rachel Johnson (inbred!) who were also from New London, Indiana. They were all plain Friends. The photographs we have of them show them even in the early 1900s in broad brim hats, bonnets, plain clothes. Both of them attended the New London Meetinghouse, which is a plain, divided meetinghouse after the Civil war: still women on one side, men on the other because of the business meeting structure, with a partition down the middle. Silent meetings. Old, plain Quaker culture.
My great-great-grandparents were ministers in that meeting, adhered to that old, plain Quakerism.
The Influence of Holiness Revivals
Post-Civil War the revivals came through. By 1865 there was a Quaker meeting in Indiana that had already adopted pastoral worship. By the 1870s the revivals were so widespread that many Quakers were beginning to adopt more Protestant traditions of prepared sermons and music and hymns and alter calls. Many people were being converted in these revivals were coming into the Religious Society of Friends from outside the culture.
New London held firm. My great-great-grandparents resisted this enthusiastic religion of the revivalists, but one night the caretaker of the meetinghouse (who was a revivalist in sympathies) “inadvertently” left the basement door unlocked and the revival preacher came in and held a rip-roaring revival in the old Quaker meetinghouse. Many people in the community were converted. The only church in the community was the old Quaker meeting and so they came into membership there and within a decade, it was a programmed, pastoral Quaker meeting and my great-great-grandparents were pastors essentially in that meeting.
Assimilation into the Protestant Mainstream
It happened rapidly, this assimilation into the Protestant mainstream. By the time I was born, you still had Quakers in my meeting (they were called churches by that time) who remembered the old style of Quakerism. Their grandparents were plain and still used the plain speech. They didn’t anymore, but they remembered that style of Quakers and revered their ancestors. But more and more influence came from the revivals, from the Holiness movement, and from a type of Christianity that emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus: a personal conversion, an alter call experience. There were enough similarities to early Quakerism—his devout and holy life, the possibility of perfection—that it was readily accepted by many Friends.
Quaker Distinctions, Evangelical Theology
When I was growing up our meetinghouse was still quite plain but it was beginning to adopt Protestant-ish trappings. We didn’t have any symbols inside the worship room—no crosses, no stained glass—but we had a pulpit, a choir loft, organ, piano, pews facing forward. Worship was very standard Protestant, but with no baptism, no communion, and women in leadership. And so we saw ourselves as distinctive from the Baptists and the Methodists and the other Christians in town. But the way we expressed our Christian life was quite evangelical, almost fundamentalist.
The Holiness Understanding of Sin
One of the things I often shared with my students was that I grew up in abject fear of prairie sunsets, because prairie sunsets out in Indiana often looked like the paintings of the Second Coming: shafts of light coming through billowing clouds and soon Jesus would be descending on clouds of glory for the great final judgement. In the Quakerism I was raised in, influenced by that Holiness movement, you were always that close to frying eternally for whatever sin you had committed.
The long list of Holiness sins filled pages. Seriously, it was a sin if you said heck or darn, because those were euphemisms for swear words and “swear not at all” is how we understood that. So if you said heck or darn and Jesus came, you were done for eternity. Card playing, because it led to gambling. Theaters, movies because the world’s people went to those sorts of things. Dancing, a “vertical expression of a horizontal desire.” No soft drinks because that was the gateway drug to the hard drinks. All of this was carefully maintained by the culture, by your Sunday school teachers and the preachers, many of them coming out of Holiness backgrounds themselves.
A Quaker Overlay
So while I was raised Quaker, it was of a fundamentalist, evangelical style, deeply influenced by social and religious movements of the late 1800s through. early 1900s. But there was still a Quaker overlay of that. So I became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War period because that was biblical: that was what Jesus would have me do if I believed in the Bible and those preachings of the Sermon on the Mount, but as I often told my students: because I was raised in that strict, Holiness Quakerism of my childhood, I went to college from 1966 to 1970 and can remember it—because I never did drugs or used alcohol or engaged in those other activities that were so typical of the freewheeling sixties because doing any of that stuff, if Jesus returned then, you were a goner.
- Have you been to a Quaker Meeting like the one Max is describing from his childhood? What was your experience of it?
- Max Carter describes a relationship with sin in his upbringing that included a long list, which was essentially a rulebook enforced by church and community elders. What is your understanding of sin? Does it feel like a useful spiritual concept to you?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.