Thursday, November 17, 2011

Quaker History Lesson

I wrote this specifically for my Meeting, but a few of you might find this interesting. Apologies in advance for typos. This is part of what I do with my day.

Hello Friends,

Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading the book Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience. The work is written by Douglas Gwyn and published by Pendle Hill Press. My desire to take on this task was motivated partially out of an active curiosity to best understand our formation. In the beginning, I merely wanted to find out the precise reason why Friends developed unprogrammed worship. But as I've read more and more, I've been engaged in seeking parallels between the Occupy activists of today and the nascent Quaker movement of the past. I do hope you find this interesting, even useful.

In the course of reading, I've learned lots of interesting information, so much so that I hardly know where to start. Here, I will talk directly to what I perceive to be the strengths and the limitations of the Occupiers. What seems to have ensured the eventual success of the Quaker movement, in part, was the early establishment of wealthy supporters and a base of operation. In this case, I am speaking of Margaret Fell, the Mother of Quakerism, and Fell's first husband Thomas. Their wealth and influence in 1650's England was invaluable. Thomas Fell had been a Member of Parliament but resigned in protest when Oliver Cromwell took control as Lord Protector.

The Fell estate at Swarthmore Hall became the epicenter of Quakerism for years. The Fells themselves had regularly been drawn to radical Protestant thought well before, but their Convincement as Quakers legitimized the Society of Friends in the eyes of many. Prior to that, most converts came from the rough-and-tumble North of England, a good place to find and foment radicalized thought, even while it possessed its own severe limitations.

The more affluent, influential, and powerful South, however, took a while to win Friends. Southern Quakerism adopted a very different form when conversion did go forward. London Friends were far removed from Yorkshire Friends, for instance. Even so, Fox and the other leaders are to be commended for drafting successful strategies to put in place for each region, recognizing rather than resisting unique cultural dynamics. Northern Quakerism remained more radicalized and more reactionary. Southern Quakerism, to cite another example, made sure to leave room for women's voices in the leadership structure; the book implies that Northern Friends would not have acted in kind otherwise.

Gwyn writes on the subject of relative uniformity in Quaker belief. He states,

But of course there is no such thing as pure experience. We frame all experience within certain assumptions and expectations.

...As time went on, Quaker rhetoric increasingly sounded themes of consistency of faith and practice, the unity of Friends in faith and practice, and the need to verify individual truth-claims according to methods of corporate discernment. For instance, during the 1660s, when the Restoration regime feared Quakers as plotters of armed insurgency, Friends began to articulate their pacifist position more clearly, emphasizing that they had submitted peacefully to persecutors [a decade before] and would continue to live consistently in this manner of obedience to Christ's teaching and example.

Rifts sometimes existed within Friends. This included charismatic London minister James Nayler and his cult of personality, which would ultimately end in tragedy. That particular story is well known with Friends. For a time after the Nayler debacle, Quaker energies were devoted to disrupting individual Meetings within Friends rather than churches and steeplehouses of other Christian groups. Sometimes the temptation for a circular firing squad is prominent. However, the schism did heal with time.

A major distinction of supreme importance in the early days took into account a precise definition of the movement itself. Some wished to embrace the notion of the invisible church, whereby individual group identity was less important than solidarity with other religious groups. In some ways, this might be roughly analogous to the liberal inclination for interfaith work. Some believed in the notion of the visible church, where distinct identity and strict separation from other faith groups was necessary. To speak out against persecution, it is necessary to adopt a unified identity and front.

In the end, however, basic pragmatism allowed Quakerism to flourish and persist when many faith and political groups did not. Fox and other leaders were aware that their new faith would need to change with the passage of time and to take into account prior mistakes and missteps. Other groups, among them Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Seekers, and Fifth Monarchists eventually ceased to be. Often, their own stubborn inability and inflexibility to adapt spelled the end. Though Friends did not reach a fully formative state for at least two decades, their membership grew steadily from the beginning, in some areas quite rapidly. George Fox, in large part, helped orchestrate a successful, closely defined leadership structure once membership grew sufficiently large enough to require it.

350 years later, here we are today.

In the Light,


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