The Reform Druids of North America is a classic example of what can happen when creative, yet generally rule following, college students are forced into a situation that goes against their own moral understandings of the world.
In 1963 at the small Carleton College in Northfield Minnesota, there was just such a rule. It required that all students attend a church service of their choice (Bonewits 84). Those who did not have a declared religion were expected to attend the service at the chapel on campus. Those whose needs were better met at a religious organization off campus were permitted to do so. This small group of creative people did not agree with the rule. This was a secular and technical college; they did not understand or agree that the college had the right to demand its students to attend religion services of any kind.
One of the members, a young man named David Fisher, of this small group had some knowledge of the Ancient Celtic Druids and perhaps of some knowledge about Fraternal/Revival Druidry as well. They called themselves "Reform" as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Reform Christian and Jewish churches and organizations and also to make it clear they would not be performing blood sacrifices (Bonewits 84-5).
Over time these services became more and more popular. Many students enjoyed the playful spirit and meaningful meditations. Since day one the religious services of the Reform Druids was meant to be a sarcastic look at organized religion but unwittingly the founders created a meaningful and heartfelt spiritual system that appealed to many more people than they ever expected.
Also unexpected by the founders, the protest worked. After two years of the Reform Druid rituals Carleton College quietly dropped its requirement of religious service attendance. Perhaps even more unexpected by the College, and the founders, even after the rule had been dropped many people wished for the Druid rituals to continue. Many found that it had become an important part of their religious lives (Bonewits 86-7).
As members of the Reform Druids began graduating and moving around the country some of them took their Reform Druid ideas with them forming more groups along the way. One such was Robert Larson who found himself in Berkeley California and met a young man who was already considering himself a Neopagan, Isaac Bonewits. Larson introduced Bonewits to the RDNA concepts and they formed a Grove, a Druidic term for congregation, that combined the ideas of Neopagan expression and RDNA spirituality. Some other members of RDNA were not fond of their Reform being understood as expressly Neopagan and took exception to the methods Bonewits was using. To them RDNA was a philosophy or way to look at the world and not a Neopagan religious expression.
Isaac Bonewits was very adamant. As he writes in his book Bonewits's Essential Guide to Druidism "I took one look at the group and said to myself ‘Self, they are worshipping the Earth-Mother, singing hymns to old gods and goddesses, and doing rituals out in the woods. Sure looks Pagan to me!'" (89). In 1974 Bonewits and Larson created the New RDNA which was an organization with clearer Neopagan expression than the original Reform Druids (Bonewits 89) and later Bonewits formed the Schismatic Druids of North America that was distinctly Neopagan in expression.
Eventually Bonewits became frustrated with Reform Druidry. Many members continued to reject the concept of Reform Druidry as a distinct form of Neopaganism, for many Reform Druidry was a philosophy or world view but not a separate religious outlook. Bonewits left the organization in 1982 (Bonewits 99). RDNA continued and has raised and lowered in popularity throughout the years. About 40 groves continue to today (Bonewits 87).
Some years later Bonewits decided, at the urging of friends, to try again, this time from scratch. He had been inspired by an Irish language teacher who had turned him on to scholarly works about the ancient Celts and other Indo-European cultures. He started with an APA (amateur press association) specifically about his visions for a future Druidic movement and invited others to join in the discussion. This APA was called The Druids Progress** (Bonewits 109-11). In time a proper organization was formed and Bonewits served as its Archdruid until failing health forced his resignation in 1996 (Bonewits 111). This organization was, of course, our much beloved Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship otherwise known as ADF.
In ADF we continue the traditions of the Reform Druids in many ways; honoring always the Earth Mother near the beginning of our rites, partaking as a people of the waters of life, and our reverence for the natural world. Some aspects of our liturgy can be attributed to the RDNA as well; the procession of the folk into the ritual space and the singing of songs and chants in our rites for instance.
I wonder at times what those few, creative college kids would have thought of to learn how their small and fun-filled protest would lead to one of the largest Druid organizations in the world and inspire thousands along the way.
Now these are the records which have been made to the glory and honor of the Earth-mother. Praise be to the Earth-mother for the beauty which is in her in the earth and in the sky; all the birds of the air and the animals of the ground are a testimony to her excellence. Even as the dawn of the new day brings new light, is there new hope.
– Verse 10, Chapter the SEVENTH, The Early Chronicles, "A Reformed Druid Anthology"
Bonewits, Isaac. Bonewits's Essential Guide to Druidism. Citadel Press Books: New York, 2006
* "A Reformed Druid Anthology" can be found in its entirety at: https://orgs.carleton.edu/druids/ARDA/
** ADF members can read past "The Druids Progress" at: /members/publications/druids-progress/index.html