A recent Friends Journal issue (August 2017) has as its theme “The art of dying and the afterlife.” There were two moving first-person accounts from Friends of their ideas and experiences relating to the afterlife, but the general tenor of the issue is not concerned with that aspect of death and dying. This is very much in keeping with the modern Quaker narrative, which is that “we don’t pay much attention to that kind of thing. ” We resonate with the famous story, told in many forms (here quoted from a curious tome, That unknown country; or, what living men believe concerning punishment after death):
A mediaeval story runs that a venerable bishop met in the streets of the city a woman, with a face of fierce but solemn determination, and a rapid step, bearing in one hand a pan of burning coals and in the other a bucket of water. To the bishop asking her whither she was going she answered, ” With this fire to burn up heaven and with this water to quench hell, that men may learn to serve God for himself alone.”
The FJ issue put me in mind of an incident in my own life from a few years ago. A member of a local meeting, at an advanced age, though not (as far as I know) in ill health, decided that the time had come for her to withdraw from life. She adopted the method that Scott Nearing had used, ceasing to eat and then allowing the lack of nourishment to gradually enfeeble herself until death. The Friend told her family, and her meeting. Although (as I recall) the meeting sought to dissuade her, she was quite clear, and in a sense very positive about the prospect. She expected to be less and less engaged with people as the process continued, but she invited individuals to come keep her company during the last few weeks.
A friend of ours, not a Quaker but a practitioner of another path, volunteered to take a turn or two sitting with the Friend, and during the same time, expressed a desire to go with Darcy and me to worship at our meeting. During the trip there, she expressed some strong discomfort with our Friend’s decision to cease living, and wanted to know the Quaker attitude towards such an action. She also asked what the Quaker doctrine of the afterlife is. Darcy and I did our best to explain that the Quaker focus is on the quality of the life now, and that the afterlife would take care of itself. Something like that.
But the query got me wondering: Is this lack of interest (or belief) in life after death and its nature a modern thing? A liberal thing? An American thing? Following my instinct on all such occasions to run ad fontes! (go to the sources! as we used to say in the Renaissance), decided to explore early Quaker attitudes. Many are familiar with the beautiful passages on death and the afterlife in William Penn’s Fruits of solitude (some of which even appears as an epigraph to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). One can occasionally find statements in controversial tracts, often written to prove Quakers’ essential orthodoxy against hostile accusers. For example, George Fox the Younger (one of the First Publishers of Truth) writes: I do steadfastly believe that there is a glorious state to be entered into after this life, by all them that shall be found in the Immortal Seed, wherein they shall be swallowed up of Life, Glory, and Immortality [and] I do certainly believe that there is a woful [sic] dreadful, horrible state to be entered into after this life, by all them that shall be found in the Seed of the Serpent, wherein they shall be swallowed up of perpetual Torment and Misery, where the Worm dyeth not, but shall gnaw everlastingly, and the Fire goeth not out. (written from prison in 1661; In A Collection of the several books and writings…(2nd edition), 1665, pg 197. The original typography is much more exciting than I can reproduce here.)
But it is often the case that Quaker truth was expressed very differently to those gathered with the Children of Light than it was in controversies with the unsympathetic. I decided to look at Quaker sermons from the first few generations of Friends (before 1700). There are more of these, taken down for the most part by anonymous inquirers with the gift of short-hand, than you might think – several by Fox, for example, and at least 32 by Stephen Crisp. These were all sermons given at Friends’ meetings (most often at Gracechurch Street), and not primarily for “the world.” This gives some sense, therefore, of how Friends communicated within the fold, so to speak, and where they placed their emphasis
I did a sort of random selection from collections in my possession (references at the end for the curious), looking at 41 pre-1700 sermons by a variety of Friends, including 5 by Crisp, 9 by Fox, 9 by Penn, and also by Barclay, Dewsbury, Marshall, Stamper, and others. (These collections contained no sermons by women.)
A. In 27 of these I found references to heaven, eternal life, or the expectation of judgment after death. In short, early Friends could be said to hold to the testimony of the New Testament authors.
B. There is very rare mention of, or warning about, damnation. One example is found in a remarkable wedding sermon by William Penn, delivered Oct 3, 1694:
. We see God’s visible care over all the works of his hands. Here in this world, his goodness is extended to all, both good and bad: he is kind to the unthankful; he causeth the sun to rise upon the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust; but in the other world, there is no shining of the Sun of righteousness upon the wicked and ungodly; no comforts of the Holy Ghost, no manifestations of love vouchsafed to them; but there is a revelation of wrath, and the fiery indignation of the Almighty. (in Harmony pg. 103)
In the sermons there are lots of references to eternal life, or life everlasting, or salvation, but —and this message is familiar to modern Friends — the general tenor of these is such that they are linked rather with the invitation to live NOW under the guidance of the Spirit, in unity with Christ, and with the things making for spiritual death expunged by the inward work of Christ’s spirit and light. So also did Robert Barclay teach, when he wrote in the Apology about the “day of visitation” that each of us is given — the days of our lives, in which we are to work the works of God, for “the night is coming when no man worketh.” (John 9:4)
We have become accustomed to talk about the first Friends as being “apocalyptic,” as the first Christians were, living in a high pitch of focus and moral clarity in the expectation of the imminent arrival of the End of the World and the final victory of Christ over death and evil. Large scale.
But just as frequently — and in these sermons, far more frequently — the emphasis is on this “day of visitation,” for me or you, our own personal apocalypse. The point is the reminder that every day we have an opportunity to choose the way of life or the way of death, and (to quote Johnson) “Who knows if Jove, who holds the score, will toss us in a morning more?” Whether you hold with the traditional view of heaven and hell (I don’t!), the essential Quaker message still carries power: The Spirit says come! Now is the time to “be found in the Immortal Seed.”
That thy candles may always be burning: Nine pastoral sermons of George Fox. Edited by M. Skinner and G. Stillwell, published by the New Foundation.
The harmony of the living and heavenly doctrine demonstrated in sundry declarations…preached at the Quakers’ meetings in London, by William Penn and others. New York. 1822, published by Refine Weeks.
The concurrence and unanimity of the people called Quakers as evidenced by some of their sermons. (2010) edited by P. Burnes and THS Wallace. A New Foundation Publication. Note that this collection is not the same as the previous one, whose title is perhaps modelled on this, originally published in 1694 by Andrew (and Tace) Sowle.
Scripture truths demonstrated in thirty-two sermons; or declarations of Stephen Crisp. 1787. Philadelphia: Joseph James.
An appendix to the foregoing
Some years ago, having agreed to offer some comments on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I had to confront the question of the afterlife, since Paul makes it so important a part of his Gospel message. I had never been put on the spot about this before, and it caused me some inward labor. I finally came to a resolution which more or less still speaks my mind:
In a world where power resided in kings and priests, and in their subordinates and hangers-on, Jesus told us that we are all kings, all children of the only king that matters. This kingdom is not exclusive, nor is it rare, or localized. It is pervasive, like yeast in a loaf, or weedy mustard, and although it is all around us, it is hard to see because we look in the wrong places. You cannot achieve greatness in this kingdom except by service, but laborers who work all day may get no more reward than latecomers who barely break a sweat. Fairness is not a value there.
In fact, the poor, the weak, the sorrowing — their world is where God rules. It is somehow also inhabited by the merciful, by those who do not claim their rights, by those who seek concord where discord arises when they might avoid it or exploit it to their advantage. This kingdom is full of unsavory characters, and is very near to the land where death and life run side by side, and in fact entering it fully requires you to shed decisively the shape of life as common sense has built it up.
Even the inborn structures from which we build society, which can mediate love and right action, have a different meaning in this kingdom; you can’t hold on to father and mother, spouse or children in the same ways, because they, too, are subject to rule by the Father in this kingdom, and we do not own them anymore (as if we ever did).
Yet despite its furtive character, the kingdom may be found, if you seek it, and in it there is great joy, for we find that every loss is recompensed with gain, and all the things that matter to us are restored to us. There is nothing so small that is not priceless, and all is meant for joy. It is true that all the structures that make for security and self-assurance are of no avail in this kingdom, but then in the end they are of no avail in the unredeemed world, either. And in the new world, we can find salvation…. Salvation is not an event, it is a place, it is something that is ever happening anew, and yet it’s a place to reside. When I find the center, when I am still and open, I find myself in God’s harmony, and since time is not a property of God, when I am there I am adjacent to eternity, and if that is what is waiting for me when my body falls away, I am eager for it, and I know it will seem familiar.