I was at a meeting of regional Monthly Meeting representatives a couple of weekends ago. We always start with a period of silence to settle in before business meetings, and our clerk likes to pick a short reading beforehand. I was really struck with how his choice captured the essence of Quakers and the unique genesis of our practice.
|Flogging on the way to the stocks|
The Religious Society of Friends came into being in the middle of the seventeenth century. Though George Fox was the leader of those “persons called Quakers” (so named because some trembled or “quaked” when overflowing with the Spirit within), he cannot be said to have founded the Society of Friends. Rather it formed itself almost spontaneously as more and more people accepted the professions and practices of George Fox, having discovered in them the means by which they could bring their lives into closer accord with God.Friends in those first fifty or so years were a fiery bunch. Undoubtedly, we would call them fanatics in our times. They spoke out loudly at markets, interrupted Church of England services to scold the orthodox, flaunted their equality before their aristocratic overlords, and paid for all of it with treasure, bruises, lives, and broken health. While twenty-first century Friends do not need to endure those trials, we also live for that purpose, coming to terms with ourselves and working to understand that ineffable Spirit.
Nor did George Fox himself have any idea of “founding” a church. A church, to his mind, was simply a group of people whose common purpose it was to relate themselves in love to God and with each other. Such a group cannot be founded. But such a group can begin and grow and its members can develop characteristics sufficiently alike to justify their being called by a like name.
The birth and rapid growth of the Religious Society of Friends in the mid-part of the seventeenth-century hinged: first of all, upon the God-hungriness of the seventeenth-century individual; upon the conviction that to have missed in life a right relationship with God was to have missed what was most important in life. It is almost impossible for a twentieth -century world to understand the passionate seriousness with which the seventeenth-century people addressed themselves to this hunt for God. The books they read, the preachers they listened to, the controversies they entered and they prayers the made: all were done with one purpose – to know God. [Jessamyn West, Introduction to The Quaker Reader]