Nurturing ministers, Case study #1
12/28/2018 § 6 Comments
Case Study #1: Isaac Alexander predicts a great mortality
My first case study is drawn from the Journal of Samuel Bownas. Early in his ministry, which began around 1696, Samuel Bownas developed a strong sense of kinship with Isaac Alexander (1680-1705), who “appeared in the ministry” about the same time as Bownas did. Bownas’s journal portrays them learning about their work in the ministry, and comparing notes with each other.
In Bownas’s account, early in their ministry, Isaac goes to a “yearly meeting” (see here for some background on this term), and finds himself led to offer challenging ministry. He forthrightly accused them of slackness and unfaithfulness. This message in itself might have been unsettling or irritating, but would not have been unusual, as Friends since the Toleration act (1689) had responded to the (mostly) end of persecution by building lives and doing business, and the militancy of prior years faded. Isaac, however, felt led to predict that continued unfaithfulness would bring on calamity, and Bristol Friends were taken aback.
Isaac [Alexander] went to Bristol yearly meeting, and was very zealous against unnecessary fashions and superfluities in both sexes; insomuch, that some thought he did, in his words against them, exceed the bounds of modesty:the chief objection was, concerning his prophesying of a great mortality, which the Lord was about to bring as a judgment upon the people, for their pride and wickedness; which he thought it his duty to deliver in their yearly-meeting, as a warning for all to mind their ways, lest being taken unprepared, their loss should be irreparable: which he did in such strong and positive terms, that Friends were afraid he was too much exalted in himself…
The intensity and certitude with which Isaac spoke moved some elders to wonder about the source of the message, and so they undertook to explore the question with Isaac. Note that they came to him with an attitude of caution, but also of inqury. What would that conversation have been like? I imagine that there would bave been a spoken and an unspoken element.
Aloud, they would be asking him questions about the message itself but even more about how he felt before, during, and after the message. Was there a moment during the preaching when he felt himself pushing beyond what was given to him? Did he feel any uneasiness when this material arose? Was he feeling anger, or disdain, or some other judgmental condition, or did he feel rtuly that he was remaining in the cool stream of divine love which should be present at the heart of a message? When he sat down, did he feel the reward of peace, or did he rather feel some sense of discomfort or rebuke? Were his answers open, or defensive?
The unspoken part of the conversation would be a careful feeling after the young man’s condition. They would probably have felt, as Luke Howard wrote about Job Scott, that a minister, espeially a yonug one, might show
a perceptible excess on the side of the imagination and the feelings [as] had been the case with many good and useful men before him: and such a temperament makes a minister faithful, or courageous and energetic in the discharge of duty‚ but in measure disqualifies him from being a competent judge of doctrine and controversies.
Thus, they may well have felt that Isaac was on the whole a promising young minister, in need not of suppression, but of guidance towards a better understanding, and thus usefulness in the important work of the ministry. They reached clarity that he was not at that time in a safe condition, and that he had wandered from th e leading which brought him to Bristol . Accrodingly, they sent him home, no doubt annotating his travel minute or otherwise communicating with the ministers and elders there about their sense of this painful event:
some of the elders thought proper to converse with, and examine him concerning this extraordinary message which he had delivered ; but what he said to them not being satisfactory, they advised him to proceed no farther on his journey, but to return home; which he did under great trouble…
When he got home, interestingly, Isaac was not in the dog house. Having returned to the meeting that had care of him, and that had reognized his gift, he took up his life and work as before.
he was there received in much love and tenderness, and appeared in his gift very excellent, and grew in Divine wisdom and power, being of great service in the ministry wherever he came.—
This was a time when the meetings of ministers (increasingly augmented by the addition of elders) would engage in explicit conversations about the ministry offered in the meeting, based on a spirit of watchfulness for the presence of “life” in what was offered. This, I think, should be inferred in the background from the next episode in the story. Isaac once again felt a leading to travel in the ministry. He spoke to some of the meeting’s elders. They cautioned him not to go — not categorically, but not until they could consult with Friends in Bristol. They examined Isaac again, and heard how the event felt to him, and then wrote to Bristol:
And he having a concern to visit the churches abroad, and acquainting some of our elders therewith, they thought it not proper for him to go, till something was done to satisfy the Friends of Bristol; and upon their enquiry of Isaac, he gave them a single and honest account how it was with him at that time, respecting his concern : so Friends took it in hand, and wrote to Bristol, neither justifying nor condemning him, but recommended charity and tenderness towards him.
They would not have “recommended charity and tenderness” if their experience of him in the meeting since his return from Bristol had caused any uneasiness in their minds. The Bristol Friends returned a message
that with open arms they could receive him, believing him to be a sincere young man, who intended very well; and they were glad he took their admonition right, and had owned it had been of service to him.
Bownas’s summary of the event is interesting. Isaac in retrospect at the time he did not think that he had mistaken his leading, at least not in the sense of putting too much of self or misplaced zeal into the warnings he uttered. Yet he nevertheless felt that Briston Friends had treated him appropriately, and he felt he had been treated well, and trusted their discernment. In the event, he was settled more firmly in his gift and service.
Thus ended this affair, and Isaac said he could not think hard of his brethren in doing what he did, though he could not then see that he had missed his way, in delivering that prophecy: thus shewing forth a lively instance of a warm zeal, tempered with a due regard to the sense and advice of his brethren and elders, and the unity of the church, which doubtless tended to his comfort and preservation.
This story has a sequel, which will be the subject of the next case study. I will note here a few points of interest in conclusion:
- Isaac was exercising his gift as openly, and we might say passionately, as he could — perhaps pushing boundaries to explore the extent of his capacities at this time.
- He was not surprised that the elders of the meeting he was visiting exercised oversight of his ministry. The brief account suggests that they were not censorious, but when something made them uneasy, they felt it their place to inquire more attentively.
- A point to note here is that in the “apostolie era” of Quakerism, public Friends were considered to be members of the meetings they visited. This notion continued into the era of separations later, and alas was abused in the midst of controversy. In our case, however, Isaac did not object that the elders of Bristol would have the same care of him as would those in his home meeting, and the Bristol elders exercised their responsibility. Their caution suggested some understanding that a visiting minister might bring messages, or speak in a manner, to which they were unaccustomed and in a way that is part of the “point” or benefit of such visits, when done in the Spirit).
- The “elders” at this time (around 1700) would not necessarily have been “elders” in the sense we know it (that is, occupying a specific, identified office). Perhaps Bristol minutes could provide guidance on this point, but it is likely that the term still had the connotation of someone “well grown in the truth.”
- Isaac maintained a sense of freedom to follow his calling — there is no sense from the account that he came home and kept silent. He carried on with a ministry that was not abrogated by one possible mistake — but I think that if he had responded to the Bristol elders with disrespect, or if he had returned and spoken in anger or defensiveness, the meeting would have seriously questioned whether in that condition he could rightly discern his way.
In the next case, we will see how this one event had ripple effects in Samuel Bownas’s growth as a minister.