This is the third part of a weekly series of six. Here are the links to the first two parts:
Louise and I attended by Zoom a Quaker day of learning in the Plymouth meeting house, half-way through May in 2022. I made notes and wrote them up - they provide, I think, a useful guide to what we were discovering. The day was divided into four parts, as you can see from the headings below:
|Margaret Fell - a founder of Quakerism|
THE HEART OF QUAKERISM
SATURDAY 14 MAY 2022 – 10.30-16.30 – PLYMOUTH – led by
Ben Pink Dandelion and Wendy Hampton
At the beginning, there was George Fox, a 23-year-old in 1647, in search of spiritual truth in the turmoil of the English Civil War when so many radical ideas were surfacing. He experienced a connection with the divine in which he believed that ‘Christ Jesus doth speak to me and my condition’. In this direct relationship, the value of silence was vital.
Here is some of what I learned from Wikipedia about this remarkable man:
George Fox (July 1624 – 13 January 1691) was an English Dissenter, who was a founder of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers or Friends. The son of a Leicestershire weaver, he lived in times of social upheaval and war. He rebelled against the religious and political authorities by proposing an unusual, uncompromising approach to the Christian faith. He travelled throughout Britain as a dissenting preacher, performed hundreds of healings, and was often persecuted by the disapproving authorities. In 1669, he married Margaret Fell, widow of a wealthy supporter, Thomas Fell; she was a leading Friend. His ministry expanded and he made tours of North America and the Low Countries. He was arrested and jailed numerous times for his beliefs. He spent his final decade working in London to organise the expanding Quaker movement. Despite disdain from some Anglicans and Puritans, he was viewed with respect by the Quaker convert William Penn and the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.
George Fox was born in the strongly Puritan village of Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, England (now Fenny Drayton), 15 miles (24 km) west-south-west of Leicester, as the eldest of four children of Christopher Fox, a successful weaver, called "Righteous Christer" by his neighbours, and his wife, Mary née Lago. Christopher Fox was a churchwarden and relatively wealthy. He left his son a substantial legacy when he died in the late 1650s. Fox was of a serious, religious disposition from childhood. There is no record of any formal schooling but he learnt to read and write. "When I came to eleven years of age," he said, "I knew pureness and righteousness; for, while I was a child, I was taught how to walk to be kept pure. The Lord taught me to be faithful, in all things, and to act faithfully two ways; viz., inwardly to God, and outwardly to man." Known as an honest person, he also proclaimed, "The Lord taught me to be faithful in all things ... and to keep to Yea and Nay in all things."
As he grew up, Fox's relatives "thought to have made me a priest" but he was instead apprenticed to a local shoemaker and grazier, George Gee of Mancetter. This suited his contemplative temperament and he became well known for his diligence among the wool traders who had dealings with his master. A constant obsession for Fox was the pursuit of "simplicity" in life – humility and the abandonment of luxury. The short time he spent as a shepherd was important to the formation of this view. Toward the end of his life he wrote a letter for general circulation pointing out that Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David were all keepers of sheep or cattle and so a learned education should not be seen as a necessary qualification for ministry.
George Fox knew people who were "professors" (followers of the standard Church of England), but by the age of 19 he was looking down on their behaviour, in particular their consumption of alcohol. At prayer one night after leaving two acquaintances at a drinking session, Fox heard an inner voice saying, "Thou seest how young people go together into vanity, and old people into the earth; thou must forsake all, young and old, keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all."
Driven by his "inner voice", Fox left Drayton-in-the-Clay in September 1643 and moved towards London in a state of mental torment and confusion. The English Civil War had begun and troops were stationed in many towns through which he passed. In Barnet, he was torn by depression (perhaps from the temptations of the resort town near London). He alternately shut himself in his room for days at a time or went out alone into the countryside. After almost a year he returned to Drayton, where he engaged Nathaniel Stephens, the clergyman of his home town, in long discussions on religious matters. Stephens considered Fox a gifted young man, but the two disagreed on so many issues that he later called Fox mad and spoke against him.
Over the next few years Fox continued to travel around the country, as his particular religious beliefs took shape. At times he actively sought the company of clergy, but found no comfort from them as they seemed unable to help with the matters troubling him. One, in Warwickshire, advised him to take tobacco (which Fox disliked) and sing psalms; another, in Coventry, lost his temper when Fox accidentally stood on a flower in his garden; a third suggested bloodletting. Fox became fascinated by the Bible, which he studied assiduously. He hoped to find among the "English Dissenters" a spiritual understanding absent from the established church, but he fell out with one group, for example, because he maintained that women had souls:
He thought intensely about the Temptation of Christ, which he compared to his own spiritual condition, but he drew strength from his conviction that God would support and preserve him. In prayer and meditation he came to a greater understanding of the nature of his faith and what it required from him; this process he called "opening". He also came to what he deemed a deep inner understanding of standard Christian beliefs. Among his ideas were:
- Rituals can be safely ignored, as long as one experiences a true spiritual conversion.
- The qualification for ministry is given by the Holy Spirit, not by ecclesiastical study. This implies that anyone has the right to minister, assuming the Spirit guides them, including women and children.
- God "dwelleth in the hearts of his obedient people": religious experience is not confined to a church building. Indeed, Fox refused to apply the word "church" to a building, using instead the name "steeple-house", a usage maintained by many Quakers today. Fox would just as soon worship in fields and orchards, believing that God's presence could be felt anywhere.
- Though Fox used the Bible to support his views, Fox reasoned that, because God was within the faithful, believers could follow their own inner guide rather than rely on a strict reading of Scripture or the word of clerics.
- Fox also made no clear distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Religious Society of Friends
In 1647 Fox began to preach publicly: in market-places, fields, appointed meetings of various kinds or even sometimes in "steeple-houses" (churches) after the service. His powerful preaching began to attract a small following. It is not clear at what point the Society of Friends was formed, but there was certainly a group of people who often travelled together. At first, they called themselves "Children of the Light" or "Friends of the Truth", and later simply "Friends". Fox seems initially to have had no desire to found a sect, but only to proclaim what he saw as the pure and genuine principles of Christianity in their original simplicity, though he afterward showed great prowess as a religious organiser in the structure he gave to the new society.
There were a great many rival Christian denominations holding very diverse opinions in that period; the atmosphere of dispute and confusion gave Fox an opportunity to put forward his own beliefs through his personal sermons. Fox's preaching was grounded in scripture but was mainly effective because of the intense personal experience he was able to project. He was scathing about immorality, deceit and the exacting of tithes and urged his listeners to lead lives without sin, avoiding the Ranter's antinomian view that a believer becomes automatically sinless. By 1651 he had gathered other talented preachers around him and continued to roam the country despite a harsh reception from some listeners, who would whip and beat them to drive them away. As his reputation spread, his words were not welcomed by all. As an uncompromising preacher, he hurled disputation and contradiction to the faces of his opponents. The worship of Friends in the form of silent waiting punctuated by individuals speaking as the Spirit moved them seems to have been well-established by this time, though it is not recorded how this came to be; Richard Bauman asserts that "speaking was an important feature of the meeting for worship from the earliest days of Quakerism."
Fox complained to judges about decisions he considered morally wrong, as he did in a letter on the case of a woman due to be executed for theft. He campaigned against paying the tithes intended to fund the established church, which often went into the pockets of absentee landlords or religious colleges distant from the paying parishioners. In his view, as God was everywhere and anyone could preach, the established church was unnecessary and a university qualification irrelevant for a preacher. Conflict with civil authority was inevitable. Fox was imprisoned several times, the first at Nottingham in 1649. At Derby in 1650 he was imprisoned for blasphemy; a judge mocked Fox's exhortation to "tremble at the word of the Lord", calling him and his followers "Quakers". After he refused to fight against the return of the monarchy (or to take up arms for any reason), his sentence was doubled. The refusal to swear oaths or take up arms came to be much more important in his public statements. Refusal to take oaths meant that Quakers could be prosecuted under laws compelling subjects to pledge allegiance and made testifying in court problematic. In a letter of 1652 (That which is set up by the sword), he urged Friends not to use "carnal weapons" but "spiritual weapons", saying, "let the waves [the power of nations] break over your heads".
In 1652, Fox preached for several hours under a walnut tree at Balby, where his disciple Thomas Aldham was instrumental in setting up the first meeting in the Doncaster area. In the same year Fox felt that God led him to ascend Pendle Hill, where he had a vision of many souls coming to Christ. From there he travelled to Sedbergh, where he had heard a group of Seekers was meeting, and preached to over a thousand people on Firbank Fell, convincing many, including Francis Howgill, to accept that Christ might speak to people directly. At the end of the month he stayed at Swarthmoor Hall, near Ulverston, the home of Thomas Fell, vice-chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and his wife, Margaret. Around that time, the ad hoc meetings of Friends began to be formalised and a monthly meeting was set up in County Durham. Margaret became a Quaker, and although Thomas did not convert, his familiarity with the Friends proved influential when Fox was arrested for blasphemy in October. Fell was one of three presiding judges, and the charges were dismissed on a technicality.
Fox remained at Swarthmoor until the summer of 1653, then left for Carlisle, where he was arrested again for blasphemy. It was even proposed to put him to death, but Parliament requested his release rather than have "a young man ... die for religion". Further imprisonments came in London in 1654, Launceston in 1656, Lancaster in 1660, Leicester in 1662, Lancaster again and Scarborough in 1664–1666 and Worcester in 1673–1675. Charges usually included causing a disturbance and travelling without a pass. Quakers fell foul of irregularly enforced laws forbidding unauthorised worship, while actions motivated by belief in social equality – refusing to use or acknowledge titles, take hats off in court or bow to those who considered themselves socially superior – were seen as disrespectful. While imprisoned at Launceston, Fox wrote, "Christ our Lord and master saith 'Swear not at all, but let your communications be yea, yea, and nay, nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.' ... the Apostle James saith, 'My brethren, above all things swear not, neither by heaven, nor by earth, nor by any other oath. Lest ye fall into condemnation.'"
In prison George Fox continued writing and preaching, feeling that imprisonment brought him into contact with people who needed his help—the jailers as well as his fellow prisoners. In his journal, he told his magistrate, "God dwells not in temples made with hands." He also sought to set an example by his actions there, turning the other cheek when being beaten and refusing to show his captors any dejected feelings.
And so back to what we learned in Plymouth by zoom:
The emphasis in Quakerism became the spiritual journey, rather than matters of theology. A Quaker duty is to help others to be in that space where this direct relationship is possible. We are all equal, spiritually – there is no hierarchy – hence the commitment to social justice, equality, and pacifism. The need is not for outward practice – inward understanding is everything. There are around 400 meeting houses in Britain; they are useful, but not special. Historically, Quakers did not celebrate Christmas or Easter since all days are special.
Over time, the emphasis has changed from certainty to uncertainty. Quakers are connected in a process that is about journeying together, meaning they should be ready to adapt as they search for truth and understanding.
WORSHIP AND MINISTRY
When Margaret Fell listened to George Fox preaching in her Cumbrian church, she too experienced a connection with the divine which led her to an understanding that to be a Christian, saying the words is not enough; you are not anything unless you live out that teaching. Women and men have always worshipped as equals in Quakerism. We are all ministers.
Here is what I learned from Wikipedia about this remarkable woman:
She married Thomas Fell, a barrister, in 1632, and became the lady of Swarthmoor Hall. In 1641, Thomas became a Justice of the Peace for Lancashire, and in 1645 a member of the Long Parliament. He ceased to be a member from 1647 to 1649, disapproving of Oliver Cromwell's assumption of authority. Margaret and Thomas had seven daughters and one son; only Thomas and their son were not convinced to the Quaker faith perspective. Their son, John, married Margaret Cape, an English granddaughter of Emanuel Hochstetter of the Hochstetter family.
In late June 1652, George Fox visited Swarthmoor Hall. Margaret Fell met him, and later wrote that he "opened us a book that we had never read in, nor indeed had never heard that it was our duty to read in it (to wit) the Light of Christ in our consciences, our minds never being turned towards it before." A day or two later it was lecture day at the parish church, she invited Fox to attend with them; he came in after the singing and asked for liberty to speak. Over the next weeks she and many of her household became convinced. Over the next six years, Swarthmoor Hall became a centre of Quaker activity; she served as an unofficial secretary for the new movement, receiving and forwarding letters from roving missionaries, and occasionally passing along admonitions to them from Fox, Richard Hubberthorne, James Nayler, and others. She wrote many epistles herself and collected and disbursed funds for those on missions. After her husband's death in 1658, she retained control of Swarthmoor Hall, which remained a meeting place and haven from persecution, though sometimes, in the 1660s, raided by government forces.
Because she was one of the few founding members of the Religious Society of Friends who was an established member of the gentry, Margaret Fell was frequently called upon to intercede in cases of persecution or arrest of leaders such as Fox. After the Stuart Restoration, she travelled from Lancashire to London to petition King Charles II and his parliament in 1660 and 1662 for freedom of conscience in religious matters. A submission signed by George Fox and other prominent (male) Quakers was made only subsequently in November 1660. While the structure and phraseology of these submissions were quite different, the import was similar, arguing that, although Friends wished to see the world changed, they would use persuasion rather than violence towards what they regarded as a "heavenly" (i.e. spiritual) end.
In 1664 Margaret Fell was arrested for failing to take an oath and for allowing Quaker Meetings to be held in her home. She defended herself by saying that "as long as the Lord blessed her with a home, she would worship him in it". She spent six months in Lancaster Gaol, whereafter she was sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of her property. She remained in prison until 1668, during which time she wrote religious pamphlets and epistles. Perhaps her most famous work is "Women's Speaking Justified", a scripture-based argument for women's ministry, and one of the major texts on women's religious leadership in the 17th century. In this short pamphlet, Fell bases her argument for equality of the sexes on one of the basic premises of Quakerism, namely spiritual equality. Her belief was that God created all human beings, therefore both men and women were capable of not only possessing the Inner Light but also the ability to be a prophet.
Having been released by order of the King and council, she married George Fox in 1669. On returning to Lancashire after her marriage, she was again imprisoned for about a year in Lancaster for breaking the Conventicle Act. Shortly after her release, George Fox departed on a religious mission to America, and he too was imprisoned again on his return in 1673. Margaret again travelled to London to intercede on his behalf, and he was eventually freed in 1675. After this, they spent about a year together at Swarthmoor, collaborating on defending the recently created organisational structure of separate women's meetings for discipline against their anti-Fox opponents.
George Fox spent most of the rest of his life thereafter abroad or in London until his death in 1691, while Margaret Fell spent most of the rest of her life at Swarthmoor. Surviving both husbands by a number of years, she continued to take an active part in the affairs of the Society including the changes in the 1690s following partial legal tolerance of Quakers, when she was well into her eighties. In the last decade of her life, she firmly opposed the effort of her fellow believers in Lancashire to maintain certain traditional Quaker standards of conduct (for example, in matters of dress). She died aged 87, on the 23rd of April 1702. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Society of Friends' burial ground at Sunbrick, to the south of Birkrigg Common.'
Back again to what we learned in Plymouth, by zoom:
Each meeting becomes an experiment in which the silence is critical – a radical development in Christian understanding! Quakers have adapted over time – initially the meetings lasted at least three hours. Attendance at the meeting needs preparation – Quakers come with heart and mind prepared, ready for the encounter with the divine – calm and relaxed, quiet, and ready to delve down into deeper matters, losing the self and becoming part of the group, holding everyone in the light. It may be that a vocal ministry happens in which a Friend stands and speaks the words prompted by the Spirit at that moment.
There should be no self-centred judging.
The Clerk and the Elders have specific responsibilities which depend on discernment.
|Some synonym assistance|
George Fox said in 1656: ‘Be examples in all … places … then you will come to walk cheerfully all over the world, answering that of God in everyone’.
But if Quakers say that we are a group led by the Spirit, how do we know? For around 370 years, Quakers have faced this question – there was remarkable unanimity and adherence in the early years but quite soon the notion of a Concern became part of the Quaker vocabulary. Quaker decision-making happens within the meeting for worship. The good Clerk will get the meeting to focus on one question which will lead Friends to open themselves up to all possibilities. Back in 2009, unanimity was achieved in the controversial area of same-sex marriage by deep reflection, overcoming fixed opinions. More recently, an anti-fracking position was reached first at the local Meeting, and then at the Area and finally the National level.
The Clerk discerns feelings – when unanimity is not achieved, the matter is postponed.
Being discerning means recognising that we all have different skills – we don’t need everyone to be involved in every question.
This gathered worship works well with 4 or 5 Friends, or 40 or 50, or more.
|Useful insights from a Presbyterian perspective|
LIFE AS A QUAKER
The experiences of Friends in worship do not leave them untouched – they are left with a new way of looking at the world. They have a new energy, encouraged to live out their beliefs. In the past, Quakers did not swear oaths, they refused to doff their hats, they did not pay tithes, they dressed differently. Nowadays, some wear a badge with ‘Q’ on it, or ‘I’m a Quaker - ask me why?’.
Wendy referenced her decision not to stand with others when Charles Windsor entered the room; Ben talked about not standing for the national anthem at his graduation ceremony. Ben presented the issue through the filter of the Amish question: ‘Does this action build community?’ He referenced his own American Greyhound bus moment of enlightenment which has led him to a life in which he always strives to do the right thing.
Importantly, Quakers recognise that Friends may need help in their everyday discernments. Wendy spoke of the value of the Meeting which reinforces faith and practice and explained how step by step her environmental impact has lessened, and how she has sought to become gentler and kinder, seeing the goodness in other people and learning to trust.
Friends hold each other in the Light, being helpful, affirming, and creative. They live life in peace, and with integrity. They strive to live more simply – and more caringly - in community with others, recognising the equality that binds them together. Quakers strive to live the Gospel.
I hope you have found much food for thought here.
Next week, my focus turns to our human nature as a species: homo sapiens.