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The Quakers, Past and Present

The Quakers, Past and Present
Title: The Quakers, Past and Present
Release Date: 2018-08-19
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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“The Quaker religion ... is something whichit is impossible to overpraise.”

William James:

The Varieties of Religious

214-220 EAST 23rd STREET


The following chapters are primarily anattempt at showing the position of theQuakers in the family to which they belong—thefamily of the mystics.

In the second place comes a considerationof the method of worship and of corporateliving laid down by the founder of Quakerism,as best calculated to foster mysticalgifts and to strengthen in the communityas a whole that sense of the Divine, indwellingand accessible, to which some few of hisfollowers had already attained, and ofwhich all those he had gathered round himhad a dawning apprehension.

The famous “peculiarities” of the Quakersfall into place as following inevitably fromtheir central belief.

The ebb and flow of that belief, as it isfound embodied in the history of the Societyof Friends, has been dealt with as fully asspace has allowed.

My thanks are due to Mr. Norman Penney,F.S.A., F.R.Hist.S., Librarian of the Friends’Reference Library, for a helpful revision ofmy manuscript.

D. M. R.



  NOTE 96



The Quakers appeared about a hundredyears after the decentralization of authorityin theological science. The Reformers’dream of a remade church had ended ina Europe where, over against an alienatedparent, four young Protestant communionsdisputed together as to the doctrinal interpretationof the scriptures. Withinthese communions the goal towards whichthe breaking away from the Roman centrehad been an unconscious step was alreadywell in view. It was obvious that theseparated churches were helpless againstthe demands arising in their midst for theright of individual interpretation wherethey themselves drew such widely differingconclusions. The Bible, abroad amongstthe people for the first time, helped on theloosening of the hold of stereotyped beliefs.Independent groups appeared in everydirection.

In England, the first movement towardsthe goal of “religious liberty” was madeby a body of believers who declared that anational church was against the will ofGod. Catholic in ideal, democratic in form,they set their hope upon a world-wideChristendom of self-governing congregations.They increased with great rapidity,suffered persecution, martyrdom, and temporarydispersal.[1]

Following on this first challenge came theearliest stirring of a more conservativecatholicism. Fed by such minds as that ofNicholas Farrer, grieving in scholarly seclusionover the ravages of the Protestantisms,it found expression in Laud’s effort to restorethe broken continuity of tradition inthe English church, to reintroduce beautyinto her services, and, while preserving heridentity as a developing national body, tokeep open a rearward window to the lightof accumulated experience and teaching.But hardly-won freedom saw popery inhis every act, and his final absolutism, hisdemand for executive power independent ofParliament, wrecked the effort and costhim his life.

These characteristic neo-Protestantismswere obscured at the moment of the appearanceof the Quakers by the opening in thiscountry of the full blossom of the Genevantheology. The fate of the Presbyteriansystem, which covered England like a network,and had threatened during the shiftingpolicies of Charles’s long struggle for absolutemonarchy to become the establishedchurch of England, was sealed, it is true,when Cromwell’s Independent army checkedthe proceedings of a Presbyterian House ofCommons; but the Calvinian reading of thescriptures had prevailed over the popularimagination, and in the Protectorate Churchwhere Baptists, Independents, and Presbyteriansheld livings side by side with theclergy of the Protestant Establishment,where the use of the Prayer-Book was forbiddenand the scriptures were at lastsupreme, the predominant type of religiousculture was what we have since learned tocall Puritanism. In 1648 Puritanism hadreached its great moment. Its poet[2] wasgrowing to manhood, tortured by the uncertaintyof election, half-maddened by hisvision of the doom hanging over a sin-stainedworld.

But far away beneath the institutionalconfusions and doctrinal dilemmas of thispost-Reformation century fresh life waswelling up. The unsatisfied religious energyof the maturing Germanic peoples, gropingits own way home, had produced Boehmeand his followers, and filled the by-ways ofEurope with mystical sects. Outwards fromfree Holland—whose republic on a basis ofreligious toleration had been founded in1579—spread the Anabaptists, Mennonites,and others. Coming to England, they reinforcedthe native groups—the Baptists,Familists, and Seekers—who were preachingpersonal religion up and down the countryunder the protection of Cromwell’s indulgencefor “tender” consciences, and foundtheir characteristically English epitome andspokesman in George Fox.

Born in an English village[3] of homelypious parents,[4] who were both in sympathywith their thoughtful boy, his genius developedharmoniously and early.

Until his twentieth year he worked witha shoemaker, who was also a dealer in cattleand wool, and proved his capacity for businesslife. Then a crisis came, brought aboutby an incident meeting him as he wentabout his master’s affairs. He had beensent on business to a fair, and had comeupon two friends, one of them a relative,who tried to draw him into a bout of health-drinking.George, who had had his oneglass, laid down a groat and went home ina state of great disturbance, for he knewboth these men to be professors of religion.He grappled with the difficulty at once.He spent the hours of that night in pacingup and down his room, in prayer and cryingout, in sitting still and reflecting. In thelight of the afternoon’s incidents he saw andfelt for the first time the average daily lifeof the world about him, “how youngpeople go together into vanity, and old peopleinto the earth,” all that gave meaning tolife for him had no existence in their lives,even in the lives of professing Christians.He was thrown in on himself. If God wasnot with those who professed him, wherewas He?

The labours and gropings of the nightsimplified before the dawn came to thesingle conviction that he must “forsake all,both young and old, and keep out of all,and be a stranger unto all.” There was nohesitating. He went forth at once andwandered for four years up and down theMidland counties seeking for light, fortruth, for firm ground in the quicksands ofdisintegrating faiths, for a common principlewhere men seemed to pull every wayat once. He sought all the “professors”of every shade and listened to all, but wouldassociate with none, shunning those whosought him out: “I was afraid of them, forI was sensible they did not possess whatthey professed.” He went to hear thegreat preachers of the day in London andelsewhere, but found no light in them. Nowand again amongst obscure groups to whichhope drew him one and another were struckby his sayings, and responded to him, buthe shrank from their approval. The clergyof different denominations in the neighbourhoodof his home, where he returnedfor a while in response to the disquietudeof his parents, could not understand hisdifficulties. How should they? He wasperfectly sound in every detail of theCalvinian doctrine. They could makenothing of a distress so unlike that ofother pious young Puritans. Orthodox ashe was, there is no sign in his outpouringsof any concern for his soul, not a word offear, nor any sense of sin, though he heartilyacknowledges temptations, a divided nature,“two thirsts.” He begs the priests to tellhim the meaning of his troubled state—notas one doubting, but rather with therestiveness of one under a bondage, keepinghim from that which he knows to beaccessible.

One minister advised tobacco and psalm-singing,another physic and bleeding. Hisfamily urged him to marry.

His distress grew, amounting sometimesto acute agony of mind: “As I cannot declarethe great misery I was in, it was sogreat and heavy upon me, so neither can Iset forth the mercies of God unto me in allmy misery.” Brief intermissions there werewhen he was “brought into such a joy thatI thought I had been in Abraham’s bosom.”

But on the whole his wretchednesssteadily increased. None could help. Thewritten word had ceased to comfort him.He wandered days and nights in solitaryplaces taking no food.

Illumination came at last—a series ofconvictions dawning in the mind that truthcannot be found in outward things, and,finally, the moment of release—the sense ofwhich he tries to convey to us under thesymbolism of a voice making his heart leapfor joy—leaving him remade in a newworld.

Two striking passages from his Journalmay serve to illustrate this period of hisexperience: “The Lord did gently lead mealong, and did let me see His love, whichwas endless and eternal, and surpasseth allthe knowledge that men have in the naturalstate, or can get by history or books ...and I was afraid of all company, for I sawthem perfectly where they were, throughthe love of God which let me see myself”;and, again, as he struggles to express thechange that had taken place for him: “NowI was come up in spirit through the flamingsword into the paradise of God. All thingswere new; and all the creation gave anothersmell unto me than before beyond whatwords can utter.”

Two years of intense life followed. Hecame back to the world with his message forall men, all churches, with no new creed topreach, but to call all men to see theircreeds in the light of the living experiencewhich had first produced them, to live themselvesin that light shining pure andoriginal within each one of them, the lightwhich wrote the scriptures and founded thechurches; to refuse to be put off any longerwith “notions,” mere doctrines, derivativetestimonies obscuring the immediatecommunication of life to the man himself.

This message—the message of the innerlight of immediate inspiration, of theexistence in every man of some measureof the Spirit of God—the Quakers laid, asit were, side by side with the doctrines ofthe Puritanism amidst which they wereborn. They did not escape the absolutedualism of the thought of their day. Theybelieved man to be shut up in sin, altogetherevil, and they declared at the sametime that there is in every man that whichwill, if he yields to its guidance, lift himabove sin, is able to make him here and nowfree and sinless. The essential irreconcilabilityof the two positions does notappear to have troubled them.

This belief in the divine light within theindividual

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