The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism

The challenge

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The ChallengeEdit

On 1 January 1964 Kenneth Boulding, an American Quaker and Economics Professor, delivered the first James Backhouse lecture on the occasion of the establishment of Australia Yearly Meeting. (Prior to that, Australian Quakers had been members of London (now Britain) Yearly Meeting.) Kenneth Boulding’s lecture, titled ‘The Quaker Mutation’, was published as ‘The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism’, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 136. This pamphlet can be downloaded in 'booked' format (to be printed and folded as a book) or as sequential PDF pages.

Boulding argues that the scientific history of the Universe can largely be written in terms of three great concepts – equilibrium, entropy and evolution. Periods of equilibrium are succeeded by historical change governed by two apparently opposing processes. A ‘running down’ process associated with increasing entropy and a counterbalancing ‘building up’ process associated with evolution. The second law of thermodynamics states that whenever work is performed entropy increases. Boulding generalizes this into a ‘law of decreasing potential’ which states that ‘whenever anything happens it is because the system had a potential for change but when something happens part of that potential is used up’ (Boulding, 1964: 20).

He argues that a nation or a religious society has its origins in the creation of social potential. As its history unfurls this potential is used up and unless it can be renewed the organisation likewise matures, ages and dies. ‘There is however another process at work in the Universe which is creative rather than destructive, which builds up rather than tears down, which makes for diversity rather than uniformity and for the complexity of structure rather than for the simplicity of chaos… This of course is the process to which we give the name evolution’ (Boulding, 1964: 6)It is the combination of mutation and selection which gives rise to the evolutionary process and evolutionary potential. The development of the human nervous system and human culture enabled culture to operate through social learning, as well as biological change.

According to Boulding, Quakerism is a mutation from the Christian phylum, not from the phylum of Buddhism or Islam. Specifically, it is a mutation from English Protestant Puritan Christianity. The gap dividing Quakers from those most like them, who were undoubtedly Baptists, is much larger than that which divides Baptists from the Congregationalists or Independents. The magnitude of the Quaker mutation gives it an unusual historical interest. It represented a change from existing beliefs and practices in a considerable number of important religious and cultural elements. In Boulding’s opinion, the most important of these is that the Quakers were perfectionists. They believes that life without sin could be lived in earth, and they organised a society to do this. ‘A second very important strand in the Quaker mutation might be called “experimentalism”. This is the insistence on first-hand experience as the only true source of religion (Boulding, 1964: 12)

Quakers played a disproportionate role in the rise of modern science and technology and in eighteenth century industrial revolution in England, and Boulding explores how this related to the religious characteristics of the Society of Friends, and it’s ideals of perfectionism and experimentalism.

Boulding proposed that the evolutionary potential of Quakerism is still very high. He thought ‘Quakerism is an example of a mutation which was in a sense premature before its time’ (Boulding, 1964: 20)In 1964 he regarded ‘both the religious experience, and also the ethical conclusions and the type of culture derived from the experience which are particularly characteristic of the Quaker mutation as having more relevance in the world to which we seem to be moving than in the world we are leaving behind’ (Boulding, 1964: 20). Now we are in a position to examine Boulding’s proposal in the light of nearly 50 years of recognising that of God in all and living experimentally. That is project for this web site


Boulding, K. E. (1964). The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism. Wallingford: Pendle Hill Publications.

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