Being Moved by the Wild: A Study of Wilderness Spirituality and the Outdoors as a Tool for Retention and Recruitment in Quaker Communities

May 1, 2020   /  

Student: Elise M. Nikolich
Major: Religious Studies
Minors: Chemistry, Environmental Studies
Advisors: Jeremy Rapport, Mark Graham

Elise NikolichIn order to investigate how Quakers employ the outdoors as a retention and recruitment tool in a period of overall decline in religiosity, academic sources, survey data, and interviews were compiled. A survey targeting Quakers and those who have participated in Quaker communities or those based in Quakerism, asked respondents (~250) how the Quaker testimonies and history support outdoor engagement and how this influences their experience of the faith. Interviews were conducted with select leaders from organizations creating experiences of Quaker testimonies in the outdoors to determine how the institutions that shape these experiences interpret the intended purpose of such experiences. This multisystem approach found that experiences of Quakerism in the outdoors contribute to increased participation and identification with Quakerism. Further application of these findings is discussed in the context of Wilderness Spirituality, to which more definition is offered based on the findings and interpretations given by surveyees and interviewees.


Having experienced religious practice in the outdoors myself, as well as the benefits of the outdoors in and of themselves, I set out to see if my experiences were shared by others. I chose to focus on Quakerism for its inherent connection to the earth and nature because of the focus on Stewardship and Community in the religions core values or testimonies, as they call them. In the summer of 2019, I released a survey on Facebook that asked Quakers and those who had experienced Quaker practice and values in the outdoors to reflect on their experiences and the impact of them on their religious and personal life. I went on to conduct interviews with the individuals who create experiences of Quakerism or Quaker practice through summer and year-round programming, in order to gauge the initial goals of such opportunities. I found that engaging in these experiences of Quakerism in the outdoors greatly increased the probability that individuals would identify as Quaker, as well as increasing the probability that they would continue to engage with the faith. From the survey results and interviews, I also propose an indicating framework for experiences of wilderness spirituality, which is understood to be a heightened probability of spiritual or religious moments to occur in nature or the outdoors. The three part framework for identifying experience of wilderness spirituality, identified using a multisystem approach looking at surveys, interviews, and previous literature is 1) a description of the spaces in which such experiences take place, 2) an identification of the relationship between such experiences with self, and 3) an identification of the benefits of such experiences, both in- and extrinsic. This framework, compared to previous definitions, allows for a greater diversity in experiences, access, and personal background over the more rigid definitions previous definitions offered These in turn shape people’s experiences of and identification with particular religious and spiritual movements, such as Quakerism.

Elise will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

40 thoughts on “Being Moved by the Wild: A Study of Wilderness Spirituality and the Outdoors as a Tool for Retention and Recruitment in Quaker Communities”

  1. Great work Elise! Do you know if Quakers in urban areas experience nature differently than those in more rural areas?

    1. Hello Audrey, thank you for your kind words. When asked what experiences of Quakerism in the outdoors look like to them, survey respondents suggested that this may have looked like camps, outdoor meeting spaces, retreats, conferences, flowers at the center of a meeting circle, grade school, college, amongst many others.

  2. What an interesting project, Elise! In the course of your work did you have a chance to explore your model and findings with Dr. Susan Clayton? I imagine several points of connection to her work, e.g., on rewilding:

    Clayton, S. (2019). The psychology of rewilding. In N. Pettorelli, S. Durant, & J. du Toit (Eds.), Rewilding (pp. 182-200). New York: Cambridge.

    Your project also reminds me of interesting points about spirituality, the natural world and belongingness in a now-classic review article:

    Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

    Thank you for much food for thought today.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words.

      I never did have a chance to discuss my work with Dr. Clayton, though I do see some overlap. I took a class with her in Fall 2019, and it certainly gave me much to think about as I wrote my IS.

      Thank you for the link for the article from Baumeister and Leary, it looks interesting indeed!

  3. Hi Elise! I enjoyed seeing how you combined your interests for this project. I would like to know more about how Quakers experience wilderness spirituality other than by holding meetings outdoors. In particular, what sorts of programming serve as recruitment, especially for children and young adults?

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Dr. Faust, as well as the moments of learning that we had together over the course of my time at the college. When asked what experiences of Quakerism in the outdoors look like to them, survey respondents suggested that this may have looked like camps, outdoor meeting spaces, retreats, conferences, flowers at the center of a meeting circle, grade school, college, amongst many others. Particularly camps and schools serve as recruitment for children and young adult, and it is often in these spaces that collective effervescence and affective bonding come into play.

  4. Great to see your work here, Elise! It gets more impressive each time I see it!

    1. Thank you so much for you guidance and wisdom throughout this project!

  5. Great job in highlighting such an interesting topic. Congrats, Elise!

  6. Interesting research Elise! Thank you for sharing. It seems like there are many potential avenues for future exploration. What did you find most compelling as you compiled your results?

    It has been great to share in part of your time at Wooster since FYS and I wish you the best as you begin the next chapter!

    1. Thank you so much Dr. Sobeck.

      I think what I found most compelling were the personal accounts that people offered and shared through the surveys and interviews. People were willing to be very vulnerable about their experiences with Quakerism and of spirituality. It was very touching and interesting to read and put together. There truly are so many opportunities for future research throughout, as well as opportunities to connect, understand, and delve deeper into supportive communities.

      Thank you so much for your well wishes, and guidance and help throughout my time at Wooster. I cherish so many of the lessons, from FYS to Physical Chemistry.

  7. So proud of you Elise! Your interdisciplinary research is such a testament to your knowledge and wisdom. Lucky we got to learn and grow together at Wooster 🙂

    1. Thank you so much Ellie. I have loved every opportunity we have had to learn together! I can’t wait to see where postgrad takes you and to continue to grow together.

  8. As somebody who volunteer-organizes with a local sustainability community group, I love the phrase “collective effervescence” to describe community-building in nature! Thanks so much for sharing your research on how outdoor experiences support Quaker community-building. Great work here!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I am glad that you found my project interesting. The term collective effervescence originally came from Emile Durkheim. I used it heavily in my discussion and results as many respondents spoke to community as a contributing factor of their continued engagement with Quakerism.

  9. Elise, I was very interested in your findings. I just finished a novel you might enjoy, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, which explores the impact of trees, especially old growth forests, on various characters. I am very interested in community building, especially for interfaith groups, and think your research supports the idea of nature retreats for groups seeking to establish deep connections and relationship building. Thanks for this work! Diane Frankle, Trustee, College of Wooster

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Diane. I’ve been meaning to read The Overstory. I’m glad you found my project interesting and were able to engage with it.

    1. Thanks, Olive! Can’t wait to see what you present in two short years!

  10. Congratulations, Elise, on this great achievement! I remember your mid-year report of your I.S. at one of the RS roundtables, and I’m impressed by the ways it has evolved since then. Great works!

  11. Hi, Elise, (from the mom of a COW alum). Your research has enriched my knowledge of Quakerism and the concept of wilderness spirituality. Prior to this my knowledge of Quakerism was limited to the writings of Parker Palmer. I imagine there are millions of people who are Quakers at heart and do not even realize it.

    Thank you for your enlightening research. Congratulations on a job well done!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Bambi! I am glad that my work enabled you to expand your knowledge. Parker Palmers writings are indeed interesting and informative, but does not encapsulate the views of all Quakers, as no one person ever can.

  12. Hi Elise,
    This is a great presentation of your work! Congratulations on your excellent work, thank you for contributing your IS to this symposium, and thank you specifically for presenting it in this form.

    1. Thank you Professor graham, for both your kind words and the kindness and wisdom you have offered me along the crazy journey that is college.

  13. Great work Elise, it was really interesting to learn more about the importance Quakers place on the environment. I can definitely relate to feeling that outdoor spaces are spiritual and hold special meanings. I’m curious if outdoor recreation (ie hiking, climbing, etc) is ever a part of Quaker retention and recruitment efforts?

    1. Hi Anna, thank you so much! Congrats on completing no only IS, but college as well! Part of many outdoor communities include those outdoor recreation activities, but they also act as a tool to deepen such connections.

  14. Hi Elise! It’s wonderful to see this presentation of your IS. You’ve made some very interesting connections between faith, community, and the natural world. Your broadened framework for outdoor religious/spiritual experiences is particularly interesting to me because it’s the first time I’ve ever seen an articulation of moments that are difficult to express in words; indeed, I had no idea that there was a whole scholarship associated with them! Congratulations on producing such a fascinating and thoughtful IS!

  15. Congratulations, Elise!! This is an incredibly interesting and important topic that you’ve presented beautifully. I’m so impressed by everything that you’ve done. I’m so proud of you! <3

    1. Thank you so so much dear! Thank you for all your help, and I cannot wait to see what you present for symposium in two years time!

  16. Elise,
    I haven’t had the chance to read your IS yet (forgive me), but in your presentation of your work I am impressed by the tension between humankind as separate from Nature (thus perhaps needing re-integration with Nature through wilderness activities and education) and humankind as a part of Nature (in the Quaker worldview, “the Light” present in all things). This tension could possibly be seen reflected in the contrast of wilderness experience as a recruitment/retention tool into Quakerism versus simply being in Nature/wilderness in a direct experience of spiritual and communal connection. In your interviews with living Quakers was this tension evident, or were the individuals predisposed to one or the other?

    I hope its okay for your dad to ask a question in this forum. So proud of your work after your very interesting academic journey!

  17. Congratulations, Elise.
    This is such a neat topic. Thanks for sharing here. I am interested in your mention of age, as I wonder if there is a generational difference of opinion on the wilderness among the participants in your study. Did your respondents mention Quaker schooling as an influence on their perspective on the wild? Thanks!

    1. Thank you so so much Ryan! I really enjoyed working on this project. Many respondents did describe their experiences of Quakerism in the outdoors in being connected to either Quaker grade schools, semester schools, or college programming.

  18. Thanks for sharing your project with us! What a fascinating project, especially at a time when we are all becoming more aware of our surroundings and the importance of stewardship of nature and community.
    Best wishes as you move into your life beyond Wooster!

    1. Thank you so smooch. These topics have certainly been on my mind in this time.

  19. Hi Elise! First of all congrats on your awesome project! I really liked your presentation and it’s evident that you put a lot of work into it.
    I’m a prospective incoming freshman, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I was looking through the schedule for today, but yours immediately jumped out to me. I grew up in a Quaker family and have attended/worked at outdoor Quaker camps since I was 9. I really enjoyed reading the findings of your research, as it offered me a new and very in-depth perspective not only on the Quaker relationship with nature, but also wilderness spirituality, two things I feel have defined a lot of who I am because of my camp experience. Would you mind if I shared some of your research with some friends and family? I have a few folks in mind who I think would find this fascinating. 🙂
    Thanks so much, and congratulations again!

    1. Hi Margaret, much of my research was inspired by my own camp experiences and those of the people whose stories I heard. Please feel free to share this page, it will be up permanently (at least I’m pretty sure.) I hope you continue to engage in such experiences, they are truly magical!

  20. It was amazing to work with you and I am so glad you shared this!!! Nature is so important for all of us ❤ ❤❤❤

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