Nurturing ministers: Case study #2
01/07/2019 § 2 Comments
Case Study #1 (here) dealt with an experience of Isaac Alexander, a young minister who was a friend of Samuel Bownas’s. As we shall see in a future case study, the two young men were friends but also felt themselves close companions in the ministry.
Thus, Samuel took Isaac’s experience of concern and eldering very seriously, as he recounts:
When I heard of this affair, I took it so much to heart that it was almost too much for me, and a concern came upon me to go to London with the like message, but with this caution; first, to advise with some faithful brethren before I delivered it: and I wrote to Isaac to let him know it, which gave him great ease.
Isaac’s vision of a “great mortality” as punishment for the nation’s unfaithfulness reflected a sentiment then growing among Friends that people, especially Friends, were “degenerating” — falling away from the righteousness of former times. Young Friends at this time, indeed, would have had parents or grandparents who’d suffered in the great storms of persecution of the 1660s-1680s. A few of the First Publishers of Truth would have been known or knowable to Isaac (born 1680) and Samuel (born 1676) — William Dewsbury died in 1688, Fox in 1691, and John Burnyeat and Stephen Crisp about the same time; George Whitehead and Margaret Fell were still living.
Compared with the heroic age of the movement, Quakers around 1700 were able to drowse if so inclined (and Samuel himself was an example of this in his youth). Some concerned Friends who saw and deplored this shift in spiritual temper responded with an increasing emphasis on right practice, on community accountability and oversight. Straighten up, Friends, and fly right! *
This call for rigor might well have resonated powerfully with young Friends longing for the experience of the Spirit’s power. If a respected companion (in this case Isaac) found their concern crystallizing in a mood of prophetic warning, this might well strike another young Friend (Samuel) as a fresh realization of the truth of the situation, a truly prophetic challenge.
Samuel was nothing if not level-headed and reflective, however. He felt the leading strongly enough that he was drawn to move with it. He wrote to Isaac (who was abiding under the guidance of his meeting, but did not see that he was wrongly led), to let him know that his friend seemed led in a similar way — but mindful of Isaac’s experience, he decided to consult more experienced Friends first, before crying Woe! on London.
Accordingly I went to London, and got sundry brethren together, viz. James Dickinson, John Bowstead, Peter Fearon**, Benjamin Bangs, Robert Haydock, and some others, and gave them a plain and honest account how it came upon me, which was not till after I heard how my dear companion was returned home from Bristol; adding, that I had acquainted Isaac how it was with me, that he might know my sympathy with him.
Often, when Bownas refers to “the brethren,” he means ministers. This list of advisors is all ministers, and some of them (Dickinson, Fearon) came to Friends and public service during the times of persecution. They would have had long experience with the challenge of discernment that all Friends know, but which is particularly sharp for the minister. On the one hand, it is important not to do anything to damage people’s faith in the gospel, by extravagance or the indulging of strictly personal impulses (How often did ministers quote, to themselves or others, passages such as “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran; I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.” Jer 23:21)
On the other hand, a minister must always be ready to be sent on an errand of a different kind than they have been given before, that may be a stretch and a sign of new growth — and discomfort to both the speaker and the hearer may (or may not!) be evidence of Truth striking home. You have to bear in mind the temptation not to rock the boat, to listen to the voices of ease that “say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits.” (Is. 30).
So these experienced ministers would know the dilemma that Samuel was encountering (self or the Spirit?), and the many possible sources of a message — and would regard it both with rigor and with sympathy, taking care that the young minister’s growth not be harmed by ill-doing or by unfair or harsh rebuke — and also that Friends and society at large not be harmed by a mistaken Cassandra. The warning Samuel was feeling nudged to give might, of course, be just what is needed, a mark of God’s concern for an erring people. But how to tell the true from the false leading?
The Friends… found there was a strong sympathy between us, and very justly supposed that to be the moving, if not the only, cause of the concern I was under, and very tenderly advised me to keep it in my own breast till I found how the Lord would order it; for, if he were the author, I should find more of it; if not, it would die of course [i.e. in due course]: but if I found it grew upon me, I should let any of them know it, and they would consider what steps to take in a matter of so great consequence, as going forth in a prophecy of that nature.
The guidance the brethren was designed both to address the question on point (“Shall I go prophecy an impending divine punishment or not?”) and to help Samuel understand some of the dimensions of the challenge of boldness vs. meekness that is the living minister’s lot. Sympathy between ministers was a well-known phenomenon, and often it was a source of strength and daring, but it could also be a source of mistakes, if the F(f)riends happen to reinforce each others’ wrong ideas.
They brought the leading to the test that Gamaliel recommends in Acts 5:
if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought. But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.
In other words, they recommended watchful patience. Hugh Barbour, in his tract “Five tests for discerning a true leading” (you can get it here), writes:
Patience. As a second test, elders warned Friends to sit with their leadings for a while in patience. Self-will is impatient of tests. Fox wrote, “Be patient and still in the power and still in the light that doth convince you, keep your minds unto God . . . If you sit still in the patience which overcomes in the power of God, there will be no flying.”
The story does not end with the giving of advice. They kept watch with the young minister, so as to support his discernment:
the fatherly kindness they shewed me was very affecting to me, one or other of them making it their business to visit me every day; and, as they said, I found the concern went off, and I became easy without publishing it.
The Quaker journals in many places point out the danger that can come of encouraging a Friend to “come along” faster than they are ready to, to take on more responsibility or status than they have yet grown into (as John Griffith said, the effect on him, in his early ministry was to make him like a tree that grows too much in the crown, with too little in the root). On the other hand, you don’t want to thwart the work of the Spirit, and harm someone’s service (“A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench.” Is. 42). So patience and watchfulness are virtues as important for the community as for the individual. As Lewis Benson wrote, “the work of the ministry is real work” — for the meeting as well as the individual.
It is probably not coincidental that Samuel Bownas, treated with direct and sensitive guidance in his infancy as a minister, carried all his life a tender concern to encourage other ministers, so that their service was as helpful, wholesome, living, as possible.
I conclude this long meditation with a few lines from William Penn:
my beloved and much honoured brethren in Christ, that are in the exercise of the ministry: Oh! feel life in your ministry — let life be your commission, your well-spring and treasury… 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. …and Oh! that there were more of such faithful laborers in the vineyard of the Lord! Never more need since the day of God.
- * It occurs to me to wonder if this appeal to orthopraxy has anything in common with the widespread idea nowadays (at least among liberal Friends) that it is Quaker practices that are our unifying characteristic, rather than our faith, in a time of pluralism and confusion. Is this our Stillstand?
- ** Peter Fearon was the husband of another valued minister, Jane Fearon. She features in the strange episode entitled “A memorable instance of divine guidance and protection,” in which she and James Dickinson (note his presence in Samuel’s story) were nearly captured and cannibalized in the wilds of Scotland. I will post the story soon, though an exciting version can be found in L. V. Hodgkin’s
Sparks among the stubble, a companion to her Book of Quaker Saints.