|A Quaker Meeting in the early |
We have begun to see how with the suppression of bishops in 1646 the English Church began to fracture with the official government (the Republic/Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell) Church being what we would call today “Congregational,” but with a myriad of other sects of varying orthodoxies emerging among those for whom the presbyterian worship and polity of the government-sanctioned Church was still to “Romish” or at least not sufficiently reformed.
We looked at the Baptists and the Seekers—a group who rejected not only any structured worship but creeds and even the idea of sacraments or ordinances. Next we should look at the Quakers—a religious tradition that, unlike the Seekers, survives today (and with great credibility) but was to some extent rooted in the Seeker movement.
Quakerism is ascribed to the religious insights of George Fox (1624-1691). Fox was from Drayton-in-the-Clay Leicestershire. His family background was strongly puritan and he himself from his youth was deeply religious—so deeply religious that some thought he should be sent on for the clergy. His parents were known for their integrity and were themselves deeply religious; moreover they had the funds to send George on to University (the path that to the clergy) but for some reason he did not go on for higher education but was apprenticed to a dairyman/sheepfarmer. George was given huge amounts of time in his youth to spend in the pastures watching over the animals. This solitary and even bucolic life seems to have encouraged a natural strain of mysticism in the young man and he burned with religious interest and questions. Through reading the scriptures in his solitude he came to identify with biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Amos, all of whom the scripture records as being keepers of animals.
As he grew older, George began to search out clergy to carry on conversations and to learn more about the bible from them, but he found most of the clergy to be more interested in their tithes and rents than in their spiritual lives. He also was turned off by what he perceived to be an endless contentiousness over the minutiae of the current doctrinal controversies. In the end he decided that clergy were not only useless but a hindrance for one’s spiritual growth and, believing in the universal priesthood of all believers (a key Reformation doctrine), he judged that each person could come to religious truth himself or herself without the mediation of an ordained clergy. He also had a natural respect for women and perceiving the interest of women in religious experience, made no distinction between the roles of women and men in religion.
His reading the Bible gave Fox a conviction for simple living and the avoidance of any excess. In this same vein he developed an abhorrence for tobacco (for which he also had a natural dislike) and alcoholic beverages which he had seen had led too many men down the wrong paths in life. In 1647 Fox wrote of his religious experience and where it led him:
as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition"; and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall let (i.e. prevent) it? And this I knew experimentally.
From his religious convictions Fox developed the following principles:
1. God “dwelleth in the hearts of his obedient people” not in buildings made by man and God can be given true worship anywhere that his saints gather—meadows, orchards, private homes, meeting houses.
2. For those have experienced a true conversion to Christ, rituals have no real significance
3. True communion is spiritual and not in bread and wine.
4. The word “church” should not be applied to a building; such buildings are “steeple houses.”
5. One is called to ministry by the Holy Spirit—university degrees or ecclesiastical studies are of no consequence; everyone—including women and children—who is called by the Holy Spirit is qualified to minister the Word.
6. Because God dwells within the heart of his faithful people, one’s inner guide is at least as important as scripture.
In addition to these principles it should be noted that Fox was, at least practically, a unitarian in as that he did not distinguish between the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity: Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit were more or less manifestations of the same Oneness.
In or about 1647 Fox began itinerant preaching and gathered many followers. His message, while positive, was not all sweetness and light and he was a very strict moralist who made no tolerance for the weaknesses of the flesh. He scored not only alcohol and tobacco but gaming and even such traditional recreations as dancing and the maypole. Nevertheless he was very popular and won many followers. In particular his opposition to the clergy—and the mandatory paying of tithes to support the clergy—as well as his emphasis on individual religious experience won him many followers. In 1652 he had a mystical experience convincing him of the eventual fruitfulness of his mission.
As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.
His popularity threatened to be his undoing. His preaching challenged the official Church and persecution of Fox and his followers followed. He was arrested several times and sometimes imprisoned at some length. During a 1650 arraignment he told the Judge that he should “tremble before the Word of the Lord.” The judge, mocking Fox and his followers, ascribed the name “Quakers” to them, a name that stuck and not to Fox’s displeasure. Fox’s condemnation of war—and remember, England was in the midst of a civil war between Cromwell’s forces and the monarchy—and his refusal to sanction fighting or the taking of an oath of loyalty to the government (at that time Cromwell’s) led to several arrests. He was brought before Cromwell in 1655, however, and the depth of their spiritual conversation left Cromwell very moved and put Fox in good favor with the Lord Protector, though not making a convert of him. At a second meeting in 1656 Fox urged Cromwell to “lay down your crown at the feet of Jesus.” Cromwell declined but continued to hold Fox in good regard.
The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 put Fox and his movement in a dangerous situation as Charles II was re-establishing the traditional Church with its bishops and suppressing all non-conformists. But once the dust settled and the Crown was again secure, since Fox and his followers were committed to non-resistance they were more or less left in peace though several times through the following decades Fox was arrested and Quakers imprisoned for refusing to take loyalty oaths. With the overthrow of James II and the accession of William and Mary, official tolerance was granted to non-conformist groups such as the Quakers.
It is difficult to say when exactly the format of Quaker worship—the silent meeting in expectation of the Spirit giving an utterance through a believer—emerged. Even today there are Quaker meetings where there is hymn singing and scripture reading, but classic Quaker worship is silent assembly waiting for one or more participants to speak under the guidance of the Spirit. There are, of course, no rituals or sacraments. Quaker meeting houses are generally plain rooms with benches arranged so that the worshippers sit facing one another in concentric rings. The lack of a common creed makes Quaker beliefs hard to categorize and there is a wide spectrum of belief among them. While most Quakers would still consider themselves Christian, their Christology generally tends towards the Arian and their theological perspective is, in general, more in the Unitarian/Universalist direction than classic Christianity. However there are meetings whose members confess the Divinity of Christ and there are, on the other end of a spectrum, those who find their spiritual inspiration in other religious traditions. There is more or less an agreement to disagree on specific doctrines.