Library: Penn’s “Rise and Progress”

04/10/2016 § Leave a comment

Here is another Library installment: Penn’s Rise and Progress.
Originally written as an introduction to Fox’s Journal, this essay has been reprinted many times since the 1690s as a separate booklet. In recent years, Friends United Press has kept some version of it in print (my own copy is pretty beat up by now), but FUP’s website is under construction or inoperative.  Print on demand copies are also available.  I’ve added a public domain copy of the text to my library for your use.

There are three reasons that, in my opinion, make this text worth reading for just about any Friend.

First, of course, is the affectionate and lively portrait Penn gives of George Fox.  As historians (such as Larry Ingle) make clear, there are many reasons to criticize Fox, and be skeptical of his version of some events.  However, he was beloved by many in his day, and had a tremendous impact on his time.  Penn, a younger man, from a higher class and more education, give us a glimpse of what made him so appealing, and so inspiring to many of his contemporaries.

Second, Penn’s is an account of the Quaker movement as he experienced it, and heard about it from his elders.  When first I read this piece, I was struck by how Penn situates the Quaker movement, with all its peculiarities, in the broadest possible sweep of history.

Third, Penn writes with real insight about the nature of Quaker ministry, including its educative, pastoral, and prophetic roles with the Quaker world, and beyond, in publishing Truth to the world at large.  He exhorts his brother and sister ministers to keep close to their first love, the life of God in all:

…first, as to you my beloved and much honoured brethren in Christ, that are in the exercise of the ministry: O! feel life in your ministry. Let life be your commission, your well-spring and treasury on all such occasions; else, you well know, there can be no begetting to God: since nothing can quicken or make people alive to God, but the life of God; and it must be a ministry in and from life, that enlivens any people to God.

But then he goes on to remind them that they have a role in noticing and answering that divine life not only in “official” settings, e.g. meetings for worship, but also in all other facets of people’s lives, where that sense of Presence has healing and consoling power, as well as educative and challenging:

I beseech you, that you would not think it sufficient to declare the word of life in their assemblies, however edifying and comfortable such opportunities may be to you and them: but, as was the practice of the man of God [Fox] before mentioned, in great measure, when among us, inquire the state of the several churches you visit; who among them are afflicted or sick, who are tempted, and if any are unfaithful or obstinate; and endeavour to issue those things in the wisdom and power of God, which will be a glorious crown upon your ministry. As that prepares your way in the hearts of the people… so it gives you credit with them to do them good by your advice in other respects; the afflicted will be comforted by you, the tempted strengthened, the sick refreshed, the unfaithful convicted and restored, and such as are obstinate, softened and fitted for reconciliation; which is clinching the nail, and applying and fastening the general testimony, by this particular care of the several branches of it, in reference to them more immediately concerned in it.

After all, “prophecy” can bring consolation and hope, as well as denunciation, warning, or reproof — and perhaps even more so, because the aim of prophecy is a faithful people, and many people’s faithfulness is weaker than they’d like because of the travails and confusions of day to day living.

In the edition I have posted, Penn’s essay is about 37 pages long, written in Penn’s most winning style.  In many ways William Penn the author feels more accessible than Fox, Fell, Pennington, or Barclay— the parts of him that hint at the emerging Enlightenment lend his writing a grace that  also makes him an effective spokesperson for his elders, whose world view is more alien to the modern mind.

Penn’s reflections on ministry and its role in a vital religious movement are well worth revisiting from time to time, and for any and all of the three “themes” I have raised up, the Rise and Progress would be a very suitable text for group study, whether in an informal group, or as part of the work of your Meeting on Ministry and Counsel.


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