Active Quaker quietists not a paradox

01/31/2019 § Leave a comment

“Quietism” has been the commonest label applied to Quakerism between about 1700 and about 1800 (with tails both before and after those times). The basic idea can be summed up in the phrase “God is most where Man is least” — that is, Quietism assumes that the initiative for spiritual growth or reconciliation is on God’s side, and we humans should strive to remove our egos, our needs & hopes, and otherwise clear away anything “worldly” that hinders our perception of The Pure. Isaac Penington speaks from this place:

Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that, and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion. And as thou takest up the cross to thyself, and sufferest that to overspread and become a yoke over thee, thou shalt become renewed, and enjoy life, and the everlasting inheritance in that.

There are plenty of Quakers (and others, of course) for whom this speaks their mind, and in very many contemplative and meditative practices, there are disciplines for stilling the mind, the shouting ego voice, the needs and anxieties of the flesh and the self, so that at least for a time we are able to feel, relatively unobstructed, the presence of the divine.  Indeed, in roughly the same era as the “quietist period” in Quakerism, there was a strong quietist movement in continental Catholicism.  Friends were very aware of this, and some Catholic quietist classics were kept in print for many years by Quaker publishers.

This movement in Quakerism was seen as a response to the achievement of religious toleration and the gradual cessation of the intense persecutions of the Restoration era in England.  Friends were grateful for the relief, and turned their energies to the elaboration and protection of a Quaker culture, and the building and maintaining of a “hedge” against the Outer World.   As the current book of Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting has it,

During this period a “Quietist” spirit dominated Friends’ worship.  Friends were less concerned with evangelism or making converts than wiht preserving good internal order.  Quaker ministers stressed introspection, silent waiting, obedience to the Divine, and avoidance of “creaturely activity” or actions based purely in human will or desire.

This condition of Friends is in stark contrast, in the usual narratives, to the heroic, prophetic, turbulent First Publishing of Truth in the period roughly 1648-1689.  It is also contrasted with the energetic, also turbulent period following, when Friends got increasingly involved with the Outside World, and under the influence of Evangelicalism or The Enlightmenment, they split into factions, and each group, one way or ‘t other, climbed over or removed the hedge, until we arrived at Modern or even PostModern Quakerism.

Yet the reflective historian will often remark that during this Quietist period, Friends were very active in many ways — in business and industry, for example, in advocacy for various causes, in the building of Quaker institutions, and even (to some degree) in science (thanks, John Dalton!).   This activity is seen as somehow presenting a paradox.   How could Friends square all this outward activity (both the self-interested and the philanthropic) with all that retirement and stillness?

I have never thought there was a paradox, myself.  In the first place you can find lots of very Quietist statements about suppressing the self and making way for God’s initiative, in the writings of some of the original band of Quaker pioneers.  Here is Nayler (from a 1653 epistle to Friends around Holderness):

And now, dear Friends, here is your peace and blessedness, that you silence all flesh, and cease from your own wisdom, and give over your imaginations about the things of God… And now stand in the light, that a separation may be made in you, the precious from the vile, that a new Saviour may arise…sink down into the sufferings and death, that you may find the door whereat to enter; for there is a vale of tears to pass through. You shall find your wellsprings in him, where you shall drink of the water of life, and find refreshment, and grow from strength to strength, till you come up to Sion.

Much similar might be found in this first generation’s writings.  Reading this kind of thing, you might be surprised at the prophetic strenuousness of Nayler and his companions (male and female) from this early time — and yet they were anything but passive.

Now, while there are important historical and cultural differences between the rugged northern pioneers of the 1650s, and the settled Friends of the early 1700s,  it’s not as though the theology was completely different. The Light they followed, the Seed into which they were exhorted to sink, were the same: Christ, alive and about the ministry of reconciliation.

And this, I think, is something that modern Friends forget, when they think about the Friends of the so-called Quietist time, and compare them to the syncretist contemplative practices many of us follow today.  Modern Friends tend to think that when we sink below our selves, “give over our own willing,” and move past words, we are coming to encounter some Divine Principle that is universal, not particular — and sometimes it seems, rather featureless, indeed.

By contrast, Early Friends, and even the Friends of Woolman’s time, humble and retiring and self-abnegating as they might be in their devotions — they were opening themselves to an active, working Someone, Christ alive, whose imperatives for us now are those of the Gospel, which is the power of God to liberation:

Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mt. 20:42-45)

and recognizably in line with the challenge of the prophets of Israel:

 Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow…(Is. 1:11-17).

If in your worship you encounter that Living One, you are in the way of being transformed as Christ is formed in you, and then sent,  in your measure and at God’s pleasure, about God’s work, which is the Lamb’s War against the Man of Sin in all its forms and disguises.  When we ‘center down,” there is in that center the swirling, fecund stillness of creation.  Some quietist practice may lead to withdrawal and non-action.  Quaker quietism, at least (and it has been true of at least some other kinds of quietists as well) cannot do  that and be faithful to its Lord.



P.S. I append here something from William Penn which may be of interest.  It is from No Cross, No Crown, and Quakers may recognize at least one bit in section XII:

XI. Nor is a recluse life, the boasted righteousness of some, much more commendable, or one whit nearer to the nature of the true cross: for if it be not unlawful as other things are, it is unnatural, which true religion teaches not. The Christian convent and monastery are within, where the soul is encloistered from sin.

And this religious house the true followers of Christ carry about with them, who exempt not themselves from the conversation of the world, though they keep themselves from the evil of the world in their conversation. That is a lazy, rusty, unprofitable self-denial, burdensome to others to feed their idleness; religious bedlams, where people are kept lest they should do mischief abroad; patience per force; self-denial against their will, rather ignorant than virtuous: and out of the way of temptation, than content in it. No thanks if they commit not what they are not tempted to commit. What the eye views not, the heart craves not, as well as rues not.

XII. The cross of Christ is of another nature; it truly overcomes the world, and leads a life of purity in the face of its allurements; they that bear it are not thus chained up, for fear they should bite; nor locked up, lest they should be stolen away: no, they receive power from Christ their captain, to resist the evil, and do that which is good in the sight of God; to despise the world, and love its reproach above its praise; and not only not to offend others, but love those that offend them: though not for offending them. What a world should we have if every body, for fear of transgressing, should mew himself up within four walls!

No such matter; the perfection of the Christian life extends to every honest labour or traffic used among men. This severity is not the effect of Christ’s free spirit, but a voluntary, fleshly humility: mere trammels of their own making and putting on, without prescription or reason. In all which it is plain they are their own lawgivers, and set their own rule, mulct, and ransom: a constrained harshness, out of joint to the rest of the creation; for society is one great end of it, and not to be destroyed for fear of evil; but sin that spoils it, banished by a steady reproof, and a conspicuous example of tried virtue.

True godliness don’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it; not to hide their candle under a bushel, but to set it upon a table in a candlestick. Besides, it is a selfish invention; and that can never be the way of taking up the cross, which the true cross is therefore taken up to subject. But again, this humour runs away by itself, and leaves the world behind to be lost; Christians should keep the helm, and guide the vessel to its port; not meanly steal out at the stern of the world, and leave those that are in it without a pilot, to be driven by the fury of evil times, upon the rock or sand of ruin.


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