[I was invited to talk about Quakers for my wife's adult Sunday school class at St Mark's Episcopal Church nearby, which I normally attend on my way to Meeting. What I told them is true and accurate to the best of my knowledge, but is not a description agreed to by any official Quaker body.
This post was short enough to read in the first week's session, together with short portions of George Fox's Journal and Pacific Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice. The next post is twice as long; I passed out copies and simply talked about it. The class has asked me back for a third presentation tomorrow in which I hope to respond more adequately to some questions raised by the first two posts.
I hope these three pieces, while far from complete, will be helpful to others trying to explain who we are and how we got this way...]
Since our beginnings in the 1640's, almost everything one could truly say about Quakers has changed. Even the name 'Religious Society of Friends' was a late afterthought, for a movement which its adherents described variously as 'Children of Light,' 'Friends of the Light', 'Friends of Truth', 'Friends', 'The Elect People of God Who in Scorn Are Called Quakers', or simply those 'in the Truth.'
With 'Continuing Revelation' among our earliest doctrines, transformations would seem quite natural, but there's more to it than that. We have evolved an organizational structure and form of worship capable of accommodating practically any imaginable content, and within those forms we disagree drastically with one another and with our founders. At one end of the spectrum of Quaker faith and practice some of the Friends' Churches can barely be distinguished from 'Conservative' protestant worship services; other Friends' Churches and Meetings incorporate periods of silent worship ranging from most of the service down to a token few minutes. There are 'Conservative Friends', often politically liberal, upholding the practices of 18th and 19th Century American Meetings. The most widespread Meetings are those of 'Liberal' Friends, which generally maintain a strict one hour period, in which silence is the norm, but anyone who feels 'led' by the Spirit to speak must do so.
Many 'Liberal', 'unprogrammed' Meetings, such as my own, have been overwhelmingly secular-humanist for a very long time; it is only in recent years that we've acquired people and organizations proudly proclaiming themselves 'Nontheist Friends.' Some of these simply object to ways that people have habitually misinterpreted the word “God”; most of them are more-or-less frankly atheist. The Meetings themselves tend to a tacit 'Don't ask; don't tell!' policy that renders us practically incapable of saying what, if anything, we collectively believe.
I am left wondering: How did the greatest outpouring of Spirit in the English Reformation turn into the obsessively solemn, ingrown Quietist sect of the 18th Century, merge disasterously with the Evangelical movements of the 19th Century and split into hostile factions, one of which produced the smug and comfortable congregations of modern Liberal Meetings? And is this how we are meant to end?
Looking at all churches as failed religious experiments – I can say that this particular failure has been remarkably fruitful and illuminating.
Why Are We So Peculiar? Should It Matter?
We've called ourselves “a peculiar people” via a 17th Century usage of the term, meaning that we considered ourselves 'a people' who were God's personal property, a 'chosen people.' At the time, like many among the early Christians, we probably considered ourselves a replacement people, a new people who were being called into existence because the previous examples hadn't worked out.
For the founders, we also represented the recreation of the apostolic Christian church, as it had been “before the Apostasy” – one of many efforts the Puritan movement made in this direction, but one which read the Christian scriptures in a radically spiritualized sense to produce a universalist Christian perfectionist sect which affirmed an entirely different foundation for doctrinal authority. The resulting position was considered radically Protestant by Catholics, while patriotic English Protestants accused us of being closet Catholics.
Our unique solution to that question of human religious authority had put us squarely on a radical third side of the Reformation. In the 19th Century the major Friends' institution shied away from the implications of this earlier doctrine, and none of the major modern divisions seem altogether comfortable with them.
Specifically, our earliest traditions locate religious authority in Christ alive within each human being, ruling in us so far as we can remain attentive and loyal to that.
This stand might be traced to the decisive moment in George Fox's religious development, after he had studied the Bible to the point of knowing it almost verbatim, and consulted with the most spiritually-illuminated advisors anyone could recommend to him -- and still found himself with no firm sense of a revelation he could trust.
In a state of near-despair, he heard a voice saying: “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition.” Despite his familiarity with the Bible and the many contemporary Puritan insights that can be traced in his journal and many epistles, this is where he found his own insights: "This I saw in the pure openings of the Light, without the help of any man, neither did I know where to find it in the Scriptures, though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it. For I saw in that Light and Spirit which was before Scripture was given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that Spirit, if they would know God or Christ or the Scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by."
In a nation haunted by expectations of Jesus' imminent return, the chief point of early Quaker experience and belief was that Christ was already here within each human soul, that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” In Cromwell's England, linked to the popular resentment against paying tithes to a national Church which had not served people in many districts for years, this movement grew rapidly, was wildly popular in some areas but was also widely feared, despised, and persecuted, as likely to undermine and destroy all social order.
The doctrine that God's Spirit lives in each human soul seems to be embedded in all world religions; and Fox had found it implied by his readings of the Bible... but most religious traditions keep it disguised. As an abstract idea, it sounds like trying to put a big box into a little one... but as intuited fact, it's perfectly commonplace.
As a principle of Church government, it's quite tricky to embody. If Christ's government comes by Christ governing each person, who has the right to tell whom what that person should or shouldn't be doing?
In 1656 James Naylor rode a donkey into Bristol, with a crowd of his admirers throwing their coats into his path, chanting "Holy, holy, holy" and clearly intending to reenact Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Soon afterwards he was arrested and tried for blasphemy -- and though his answers to the authorities clearly show that he was not claiming that "James Naylor is the Messiah", that was how the incident was generally interpreted. As Naylor had been an eloquent and prominent preacher for the Quaker movement, our opponents were eager to see him in the worst light and impose the severest punishment possible, while his rivals among us were quick to distance themselves. Most modern Friends consider that Naylor gravely mistook his leading, and that his case showed a real need for the tighter forms of Quaker organization that began around this time.
Since that date there has been a continuing tension in Friends' customs and institutions, between the sanctity of individual inspiration, and the group authority people feel more safe within.
Relying on group processes to 'discern' truth and/or to "test leadings" is itself a dubious process; there are plenty of examples, Quaker examples among them, of groups which have simply amplified the mistakes of their members. But somehow Quakers seem more inclined to trust the validity of a statement "approved" by a Meeting, as though they'd hadn't just been trying to discern God's will in a matter, but had made it official.
Walt Whitman, heavily influenced by Quakers but never a member, wrote that one should "take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or any number of men" -- and this entirely opposite feeling is also a persistent element of the Quaker message.
Next week I hope to go a little deeper into these difficulties and how they have played out in our history and practice over the centuries.