Our way of doing business, requiring unity but no voting, requires us to listen carefully to each other. In practice, this can be difficult, especially if someone opposed to a proposal refuses to speak up or speak fully or, perhaps more serious, refuses to attend the business sessions where the matter is being considered.
I didn’t clearly perceive this revolutionary foundation until two seemingly disconnected utterances arose in the midst of open worship a week apart. The first, from John 15:14-15, is where Jesus elevates his faithful followers from the status of servants and declares they are his friends. Among Quakers, it’s a central quotation, giving us our formal name as the Religious Society of Friends. On the surface, it’s a feel-good line of goodwill and invitation.
The second message however, based on Luke 9:23-25, is one that many ministers would prefer to avoid proclaiming. Here Jesus declares that each of his followers must deny himself and take up his own cross. The content is harsh and rebuffing. There’s no way to soften its directive:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
It was a passage I hadn’t considered for several years, but revisiting it now came as a jolt. I wondered what was going through the minds of others in the room, especially those who had never before encountered it.
George Fox’s time of sitting “in hollow trees and lonesome places,” and his recognition that among the priests and preachers he consulted, “there was none among them that could speak to my condition,” and his eventual proclamation of “the pure knowledge of God and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing,” the vital fact remains that he was stimulated by early dialogue all the same and, once he’d experienced Divine Revelation, did not keep it to himself but was instead drawn out to others who were having similar transformations.
I would point, too, to the spiritual support he received initially from Elizabeth Hooten (who, incidentally, came in her advanced age to Dover to minister among Friends here) and later from Margaret Fell.
As Margaret Fell remembered hearing George Fox preach in 1652:
You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?
That is, meld spiritual truth into all dimensions of personal daily action and awareness, with an ideal of producing a life of integrity instead of a life of expediency.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges — the forerunner of America’s Bill of Rights — the colonial Assembly of Pennsylvania approved the purchase of a great bell for the statehouse, which is today known as Independence Hall.
In 1751, Quakers still formed the majority of the Assembly, and its speaker chose the inscription from Leviticus 25:10, which begins “Ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land” in its King James translation.
The bell itself was widely known as the Great Quaker Bell until July 8, 1776, when it was rung to celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and became known as the Liberty Bell.
Here is Everett Fox’s translation of the text:
You are to hallow the year, the fiftieth year,
proclaiming freedom throughout the land and to all its inhabitants;
it shall be a Homebringing for you,
you are to return, each-man to his holding,
each-man to his clan you are to return.
This, the jubilee year, introduces a revolutionary concept of redistributing all the land’s wealth every 50 years. Likewise, Penn’s Charter was a revolutionary recognition of the rights of individual conscience. And the event celebrated on this day honors a third revolution in human society. All, to be hallowed.
On your own, discover just how hard it is to continue even an outward practice. Maintaining a witness is no less difficult. Moreover, it’s hard to keep from being overwhelmed by the negative influences around us. Maybe part of the restorative answer is right in front of us all along – Society of Friends, plural.
Trying to define Truth, I leap to its opposites: lies, Satan (the “author of lies”), discord, disorder, untrustworthiness, chaos – and unexpectedly embrace so much I hold dear, in harmony, structure, reliability, and order. How often, too, do Truth and worldly power appear to be in an inverted relationship! I cheer for the underdog to bring political or economic injustice to bay.
In short, I uncover a buried passion for Truth.
I’m always startled to hear people say they can pursue spirituality without any teacher or community. Nothing in my experience, as a yogi or a Christian, supports that.
One reason we need community to accompany our spiritual deepening and expansion comes in the ways it can counter tendencies toward self-deception, human weakness, laziness, or distraction. In the practice of our faith, we instruct, encourage, acknowledge, embrace, correct, inspire, comfort, guide – even rebuke – one another. These are matters the New Testament points tp as discipleship.
Lloyd Lee Wilson has reminded us there are no Quakers apart from the meeting, which is another way of saying each Friend needs to be part of this interactive dynamic.
The library in many Friends meetinghouses may have a few shelves like this. From a similar bookcase in Ohio I once borrowed Joseph Besse’s 1753 two-volume A collection of the sufferings of the people called Quakers, for the testimony of a good conscience from the time of their being first distinguished by that name in the year 1650 to the time of the act commonly called the Act of toleration granted to Protestant dissenters in the first year of the reign of King William the Third and Queen Mary in the year 1689. Alas, we don’t have that one in our collection – those big books are a genealogical treasure. We still have plenty for a serious scholar or bibliophile to engage. It’s likely that many of the authors visited Dover as travelling ministers.