Observations on the Sermons of Elias Hicks
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OBSERVATIONS ON THE SERMONS OF ELIAS HICKS
TO THE JUNIOR MEMBERS OF THE SOCIETY OF FRIENDS.
The situation in which the Society of Friends has of late beenplaced, has, I have no doubt, attracted the attention of all itsmembers; and that even those among you who have not been inthe habit of attending its meetings for discipline, are no strangersto their proceedings, although you have not yet felt it your dutyto take any part in them. And to you more especially I submitthe observations contained in the following letters.
When in my early days I sometimes attended these meetings,my mind was filled with admiration at the harmony and prudencewith which their affairs were conducted, and that genuine christianforbearance, one with another, which enabled them to triumphover all the difficulties which are imposed by conflicting opinions,and generally to unite in the adoption of such measures as truewisdom dictated; and it was gratifying to me to observe that itwas, to other sects, a subject of wonder, how any numerous associationcould conduct their business without the intervention ofvotes or other substitutes, to ascertain the opinions of the majorityof the assembly.
The form is, I have no doubt, yet preserved, and the languageof forbearance and humility retained by many who in their heartsentertain far different feelings; and the proceedings have in severalinstances proved, that the spirit which formerly pervadedthese assemblies, no longer prevails in some of them.
Why this great change has taken place, will no doubt be ascribedto different causes by the parties more immediately interested:an impartial spectator may form conclusions different frommany of them, and may be permitted to ask, whether the leadingcauses may not have been produced by some of that class, to4whom the great majority of the members of the society look forinstruction.
The situation of a christian teacher is of awful responsibility,and in the Society of Friends peculiarly beset with dangers, notonly because of the high claim on which their ministry is founded,and which seems to require a degree of unremitting watchfulnesswith which it is difficult for man to comply; but also,because it requires a constant attention to keeping the mind inthat state of lowliness and humility, which can alone preservethem from mistaking the wanderings of the imagination for a callof duty; and from those feelings which lead them to seek afterthe applause of men. Hence it must necessarily follow, that butfew among them are always preserved in such a state of mind, asnot to require the caution and advice of their friends: and consequently,that some portion of the society must be selected to watchover their conduct; and as this is an office of the greatest importanceto their well being, the greatest care ought to be observedin the appointment. The elders are the depositaries of this power,so essential to the very existence of the society; and as the mostprudent and cautious use of it cannot always prevent the objectsof their attention from feelings of resentment, so it will naturallyfollow, that those to whom the exercise of it is most necessary,will always be the most zealous in abridging it.
This impatience of control is increased by a ranting spiritwhich seems of late to have infected a portion of the society, andwhich, in its consequences, is always more injurious than infidelityitself; and generally arises from a restlessness of disposition,which not content with the measure of light which mayhave been imparted, is always aspiring after greater things. Itarises from a desire after distinction; and as this disposition mustprevent a growth in genuine religion, the delusions of self-loveeasily enable a man to substitute his own imaginations for revelations;and as every passion is strengthened by indulgence, heproceeds from one step to another, until he fancies himself underthe constant and peculiar guidance of the spirit, not only in hisreligious duties, but in all the temporal concerns of life. It naturallyfollows, that when he has persuaded himself that he isthus gifted and endowed, he will feel himself above the adviceof men, and regard all regulations which may have a tendency5to restrain his wanderings, as obstructing him in his duties, andit will be one of his favourite objects to relieve himself from allcontrol. How individuals actuated by such passions can subjectthe minds of others to their illusions, would indeed be wonderful,did not history furnish sufficient proof that it is difficult to calculatetoo largely on the credulity of a portion of mankind.
Whenever this disposition of mind is discovered, especially inany part of the ministry, every reflecting member of society mustperceive the necessity of adopting means to prevent the injuriousconsequences of it; and as that duty more especially devolves onthe elders, (who are, and always have been, the true and efficientsupport of the society,) they soon become objects of dislike tothe sublimated spirits opposed to them, and the diminution oftheir power and authority, the first and favourite scheme.
That they will not succeed, I am fully persuaded; because Ithink it must be evident to every unclouded mind, that withoutsuch salutary interference as they often find it necessary to exercise,all order and propriety would be banished from the society.
Cunning is not more inconsistent with fanaticism, than it iswith lunacy; for however perverted the mind may be in relationto particular subjects, we often see individuals in both situations,adopting the most plausible means for the accomplishment of themost irrational objects. It is not therefore to be expected thatany attempts will be made totally to abolish the eldership: sucha proposal would hardly be successful; but if means are found torender that body less independent, and to diminish the weightand authority which they have long and deservedly possessed, itmay subserve the cause, and lead to ultimate success in their projects:and here, if any where, the danger seems to be.
6It is with this disposition that such extraordinary solicitudehas been manifested, to induce the youth of the society andothers of its members, who had before silently attended to itsproceedings, to take part in its deliberations, and to flatter theminto a belief that they are qualified to administer to its affairs anddirect its proceedings; instead of recommending an endeavour todiscipline the mind to the weighty business of the society, andcautioning them against indulging a spirit of judging without aserious and solemn consideration of the subject; and against interruptingthe business by their councils, unless it is under asolemn impression of duty.
The effect has been such as might be expected, and was probablyintended. Individuals who had before taken no part in thedeliberations of the society, and who, (however respectable inlife,) had never evinced that disposition of mind which had beforebeen thought a necessary qualification of an active member, arenow among the most busy; and some of the younger portion ofthe society forgetting that modesty is the most becoming ornamentof youth, are found opposing their unripe notions with unhesitatingpertinacity, to the wisdom and experience of age.
Under these circumstances is it not proper for you to considerwhether you have not a part to act? When you look back to thehistory of your society and consider its admirable organization;and when you reflect on the respectable standing, to which theunostentatious propriety by which all its transactions have beengoverned, has raised it; you must be impressed with an honestzeal for its welfare; and that reverence which every ingenuousmind feels for the institutions and practices of their ancestors,strengthened as it is in this case by the best of all tests, a longexperience, must induce you to oppose the innovations of therestless agitators of the present day: and your good sense will,I trust, enable you to distinguish between true religion and fanaticism,7and not permit you to lose your reverence for the one,in contemplating the wild deformity of the other.
And perhaps you may be induced to believe that your attendanceat the meetings for discipline, may not be without its use;that your presence may give additional strength and encouragementto the long tried standard bearers, and though you may notfeel yourselves called upon to take a very active part in theirdeliberations, your example may be of use to some of those frowardspirits, who, whatever may be their exterior appearance,are less qualified for the important business than many of yourselves.
I know there are individuals in every stage of life, who judgeof preaching as others do of music, by the concord of sweetsounds; and who are convinced more by the harmony of a wellturned sentence, than by the sentiment it is intended to convey;whose religion is founded on sensation rather than reflection, andis an affair of feeling instead of a deliberate sense of duty. Tothese I have nothing to say. My endeavour has been to showthe inconsistencies into which men are led, by unfounded pretensionsto a state of perfectability, and an acquaintance with theinscrutable workings of Providence, (which all experience provesto be unattainable by man;) to show that such lofty aspirationsare not in accordance with the genuine principles of the religionof Jesus Christ; and that it is by a submissive acquiescence in themeasure of knowledge communicated, and an anxious endeavourto fulfil the obligations it imposes, rather than by curious researchesinto hidden things, that we best perform our duties here;and as no intelligent mind among you can believe that the suggestionsof infinite wisdom are ever contradictory, it was part ofmy plan to show the inconsistencies in the doctrines of the greatleader of the illuminati of your society.
8If I have succeeded in this, and to your deliberate examinationI submit it, my task is accomplished; for if we are permitted tojudge of the sermons as the arguments of a simple individual, sureI am, there are none among you habituated to reflection, whowill not discover that they abound with inconsistencies, and aretotally irreconcileable with reason, and the authority of the Scriptures.And you must unite with me in lamenting the strangeillusion which induced the author of such discourses to declarethat "he dare not speak at random, otherwise he should showthat he departed from God's illuminating spirit."
When I some time since addressed you, I expressed an anxiouswish that you would submit to the consideration of your friends,your scheme of religion, in such a form as would enable them toexamine it with deliberation; because I did believe that