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On Loss

Mary Klein
On Loss (May 2023)

Many Friends in the West today trace our religious ancestry back to the arrival of Joel and Hannah Bean in California in 1882. The monthly meeting that the Beans enlivened in San Jose eventually became the root stock of three new yearly meetings – Pacific, North Pacific, and Intermountain (to oversimplify). Thirty years earlier, Joel and Hannah had traveled with the pioneer “Bean wagon train” that relocated dozens of Beans from New England to the brand new “free state” of Iowa. The Beans were central in the formation of Iowa Yearly Meeting, and Joel and Hannah clerked its two constituent meetings (men’s and women’s) for about ten years.

However, at the same time, the Holiness Movement was transforming the Society of Friends. While “Conservative” Friends like the Beans continued adhering to their traditional practice of silent waiting worship (often filled with painful personal insights), the “Holiness” Friends advanced a doctrine of “Entire Sanctification” that claimed an individual might be purified instantaneously through a “Second Act of Grace.”

In the late 1800s, several U.S. yearly meetings split over this new doctrine. Joel Bean published an article about the controversy in The British Friend (March 1, 1881). Concerning the doctrine of Entire Sanctification, he wrote, “A theory of salvation is widely taught and accepted in which repentance and works of any kind seem to have no necessary part. . . It requires but little insight to perceive how inefficient and superficial such a [theory] must prove for the world’s regeneration.”

Those were taken as fighting words by Holiness Friends, and they “came upon the stage” during Iowa Yearly Meeting that summer and attacked Bean “by such browbeating as [they are] capable of . . . [adding] harsh and bitter words. . . I stand rejected for what? . . . I have written an article . . .” (To Timothy Nicholson, September 1881)

A sense of betrayal is a particularly excruciating sense of loss. For although all forms of loss require one to abandon prior assumptions about the future (pretty much always distressing), betrayal also requires one to abandon assumptions about the intentions of other people in the past and the present. If one’s prior sense of solidarity with another person turns out to have been mistaken, one’s current general sense of human solidarity is also shaken.

The Beans were reluctant to continue clashing publicly with other Friends. At one point, Joel wrote, “I said nothing on the subject, and felt I did not need to. Having been the victim of personal assault in these cowardly ways, I left it to Friends to decide . . .” (September 1881) Even so, the question of whether to leave Iowa Yearly Meeting was a thorny one. As Joel laid it out, “When a portion of [the Friends in a meeting] . . . find themselves and their message rejected, . . . the question becomes a serious one: Whether . . . the truth as they believe it would not require a withdrawal . . . [Or can] we best serve [God] by remaining at our posts . . . ? The paramount consideration is not our own ease and comfort, but what amid the commotions and conflicts of our day is our duty.(March 1, 1881) The Beans’ ultimate conclusion that their duty lay someplace other than Iowa was verified by the resulting growth in West Coast meetings that they helped nurture.

As the contentious issues of our own time transform our world, we too face thorny questions about our duties as Friends – our duties towards each other and towards our wider world. Apparently irreconcilable differences do exist among Friends today, including disputes about the limits of nonviolence, the spectrum of human sexuality, the root causes of addiction, the bounds of reproductive healthcare, the legitimacy of capitalism, and what the hell to do about all the poisons we’ve thrown into our oceans and atmosphere and all creatures on our planet. The duty of the “Religious Society of Beanite Friends” is to sidestep easy answers. It is to step instead toward a model of a way of life that helps us better support each other in discovering our proper places in this life and how to live into them.  ~~~


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