One of the things Joan and I have always enjoyed is antiquing, so when we renovated her family’s farmhouse, and had to furnish it, we went to Gilley’s Antique Mall in search of a chest of drawers for the downstairs bedroom. We found a beautiful handmade chest with a hidden drawer and purchased it. When we got it home, I was going over it and found the signature of the man who’d built it. He’d signed his name on the inside of a drawer. Thomas Newby, New Castle, Indiana, 1832.

What a wonderful discovery! I suspected Thomas Newby had been a Quaker, Newby being a common Quaker surname in that era and location, but I wasn’t sure, so I called Tom Hamm, one of the world’s finest scholar on all things Quakerism, who is with us this morning, to see if he knew anything about this man, and it turns out he did. Thomas Newby had been a local cabinetmaker who had gotten his start making furniture by hand then opening a factory to produce furniture, had become very successful, then had done something so inexplicably evil that he was read out of meeting, or disowned. It was a tragic story, a spectacular fall from grace. He’d fallen in love with a Methodist and married her. I don’t know what would possess a man of Newby’s stature to do that, but there you go. Sometimes you think you know a person, and then they go crazy and marry a Methodist. But these things happen.

I’ve made no secret of my affection for Quakerism, but in recent messages I’ve been reflecting on our less stellar moments. We’ve called this series What In the World Were We Thinking? Surely one of our less thoughtful customs was our propensity for expelling those Friends who married outside the Quaker faith. Their intentions were good. Friends believed confining marriage to a fellow Quaker enhanced the chances for marital happiness and success. Each person would meet with their respective meeting who would help discern their readiness and suitability for marriage. Today, this function is largely left to the pastor in those meetings which have pastors, but before we had pastors it was a function of the meeting. In some unprogrammed Quaker meetings, it is common for couples to have what is called a meeting for clearness for the purpose of marriage. Friends no longer disown someone for marrying outside our faith, though we do require them to buy the pastor a new car.

A few interesting historical tidbits: In Quaker meetings in Pennsylvania, from the years 1682-1776, 4,925 Quakers were disowned for marrying contrary to our discipline. It was far and away the most common violation, followed by 1,311 cases of persons fornicating with their fiancé, followed by 727 cases of other types of fornication. Never let it be said life in a Quaker meeting was boring. Other offenses included the use of profanity, excessive debt, lying, enslaving, quarreling, fraud, and theft. Twenty-two Friends were disowned for holding public offices that entailed activity contrary to Quaker ethics.

While we Friends no longer forbid mixed religious marriages, it is still a common practice among many faiths, resulting in expulsion or penalty for the offenders. I stand on the side of self-regulation, not church-regulation. Grown adults should be free to choose their life partners. When I began dating Joan 42 years ago, I was counseled by our pastor against marrying her. I thanked him for his concern, but married her anyway, to my great benefit. To be fair, Joan’s mother had the same misgivings about Joan marrying me.

Self-regulation, choosing our relationships carefully and thoughtfully. And not just our marriage relationships, but also our friendships. When we moved back to Danville 26 years ago, I bumped into people I’d known growing up, some of whom wanted to resume our friendship, which I was happy to do. But I soon realized some of them were still infected with the same racism, homophobia, and sexism that had poisoned our earlier lives, so I would discuss that with them. Some of them took it to heart, others of them didn’t, and it became clear to me whose friendship I wanted, and whose friendship I could do without.

I saw an article this past week that showed dogs and their owners, noting the similarities in their appearance. It advised us to choose our pets carefully because after awhile we start looking like them. I think it’s more likely that we start to look like and think like our friends, that after awhile their mindset becomes our mindset, their virtues our virtues, their vices our vices.

I have seen many marriages that checked every box in religious compatibility, which carried the church’s seal of approval. But in many of those marriages, I saw women diminished and degraded, children stunted and deprived, and men misshaped by unchecked power and authority.

Here is the real effect of our Quaker campaign for marital conformity: For nearly a hundred years, we weeded from our ranks the bravest and wisest persons. We punished Friends whose only fault was love, and rewarded the docile, the compliant, the conformist. I believe this decision had such a grievous effect on Quakerism that we suffer from it still, for no great and lasting movement has ever been built on the cornerstones of compliance and coercion. This is why, should you decide to become a member of this Quaker community, if you wish to “marry” us, we will not require your assent to a creed or your “yes” to a set of beliefs. We will not insist you believe a certain thing about Jesus. We ask only that you commit yourself to your moral and ethical growth, and the moral and ethical growth of our beloved community. We do not ask you to marry the right person, we ask you to be the best person you can be—the best friend, the best partner, the best parent, the best child. We ask only that you love one another, and thereby fulfill the law.

It was a sad day in Quakerism when Thomas Newby was disowned for loving a Methodist. How much better it would have been if his fellow Friends had affirmed his marriage, shared his joy, and commended his decision to love.