The Quaker Art of Dying?

Hopewell Ceme­tery, Winslow Town­ship N.J. One of the many South Jer­sey Quak­er bur­ial grounds on long-bypassed coun­try roads. The meet­ing­house that was here is long gone.

We’re now cast­ing about for arti­cles for a Friends Jour­nal issue on “The Art of Dying and the After­life.” I’m inter­est­ed to see what we’ll get. Every so often some­one will ask me about Quak­er belief in the after­life. I’ve always found it rather remark­able that I don’t have any sat­is­fy­ing canon­i­cal answer to give them. While indi­vid­u­als Friends might have var­i­ous the­o­ries, I don’t see the issue come up all that often in ear­ly Friends the­ol­o­gy.

As extreme­ly atten­tive Chris­tians they would have signed off on the idea of eter­nal life through Christ. Since they thought of them­selves as liv­ing in end times, they total­ly emu­lat­ed New Tes­ta­ment mir­a­cles. George Fox him­self brought a man back from the dead in a town off Exit 109 of the Gar­den State Express­way. Strange things afoot at the Cir­cle K!

Fox’s biog­ra­phers quick­ly scaled back the whole mir­a­cle thing. Appar­ent­ly that was an odd­ness too far. The cut-out parts of his biog­ra­phy have been repub­lished but even the repub­lish­ing now appears out of print (nev­er fear: Ama­zon has it used for not too much).

But Friends has folk cus­toms and beliefs too. The deceased body wasn’t undu­ly ven­er­at­ed. They recy­cled grave plots with­out much con­cern. I can think of a cou­ple of his­toric Quak­er bur­ial grounds in Philly that have been repur­posed for activ­i­ties deemed more prac­ti­cal to the liv­ing. The phi­los­o­phy of green bur­ial is catch­ing up with Quak­ers’ prac­tice, a fas­ci­nat­ing coming-around.

It also seems there’s a strong old Quak­er cul­ture of face imped­ing death with equa­nim­i­ty. That makes sense giv­en Friends’ mod­esty around indi­vid­ual achieve­ments. There’s a prac­ti­cal­i­ty that I see in many old­er Friends as they age. I’d be curi­ous to hear from Friends who have had insights on aging as they age and also care­tak­ers and fam­i­lies and hos­pice chap­lains who have accom­pa­nied Friends though death.

Writ­ing sub­mis­sions for our issue on “The Art of Dying and the After­life” are due May 8. You can learn about writ­ing for us at:

https://​www​.friend​sjour​nal​.org/​s​u​b​m​i​s​s​i​o​ns/

How do Friends approach the end of life? We’re liv­ing longer and dying longer. How do we make deci­sions on end-of-life care for our­selves and our loved ones? Do Quak­ers have insight into what hap­pens after we die? Sub­mis­sions due 5/8/2017.

ps: But of course we’re not just a dead tra­di­tion. There are many heal­ers who have revived ideas of Quak­er heal­ing. We have a high pro­por­tion of main­stream med­ical heal­ers as well as those fol­low­ing more mys­ti­cal heal­ing paths. If that’s of inter­est to you, nev­er fear: Octo­ber 2017 will be an issue on heal­ing!).

Bring people to Christ / Leave them there

It’s one of those quotes we fre­quent­ly hear: that George Fox said a minister’s job was “to bring peo­ple to Christ, and to leave them there.” But when I go to Google, I only find sec­ond­hand ref­er­ences, sand­wiched in quote marks but nev­er sourced. It turns up most fre­quent­ly in the works of British Friend William Pol­lard, who used it as kind of a catch phrase in his talks on “An Old Fash­ioned Quak­erism” from 1889. Sus­pi­cious­ly miss­ing is any search result from the jour­nal or epis­tles of Fox him­self. It’s pos­si­ble Pol­lard has para­phrased some­thing from Fox into a speech-friendly short­hand that Google miss­es, but it’s also pos­si­ble it’s one of those passed-down Fox myths like Penn’s sword.

London Yearly Meeting, 1865.
Lon­don Year­ly Meet­ing, 1865.

So in mod­ern fash­ion, I posed the ques­tion to the Face­book hive mind. After great dis­cus­sions, I’m going to call this a half-truth. On the Face­book thread, Allis­tair Lomax shared a Fox epis­tle that con­vinces me the founder of Friends would have agreed with the basic con­cept:

I’m guess­ing it is para­phrase of a por­tion of Fox’s from epis­tle 308, 1674. Fox wrote “You know the man­ner of my life, the best part of thir­ty years since I went forth and for­sook all things. I sought not myself. I sought you and his glo­ry that sent me. When I turned you to him that is able to save you, I left you to him.”

Mark Wut­ka shared quo­ta­tions from Stephen Grel­let and William Williams which have con­vince me that it describes the “two step dance” of con­vince­ment for ear­ly Friends:

From Stephen Grel­let: “I have endeav­oured to lead this peo­ple to the Lord and to his Spir­it, and there is is safe to leave them.” And this from William Williams: “To per­suade peo­ple to seek the Lord, and to be faith­ful to his word, the inspo­ken words of the heart, is what we ought to do; and then leave them to be direct­ed by the inward feel­ings of the mind;”

The two-step image comes from Angela York Crane’s com­ment:

So it’s a two step dance. First, that who we are and how we live and speak turns oth­ers to the Lord, and sec­ond, that we trust enough to leave them there.

But: as a pithy catch phrase direct­ly attrib­uted to Fox it’s anoth­er myth. It per­haps bor­rowed some images from a mid-19th cen­tu­ry talk by Charles Spur­geon on George Fox, but came togeth­er in the 1870s as a cen­tral catch phrase of British reformer Friend William Pol­lard. Pol­lard is a fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure in his own right, an ear­ly pro­po­nent of mod­ern lib­er­al­ism in a Lon­don Year­ly Meet­ing that was then large­ly evan­gel­i­cal and mis­sion­ary. Even his pam­phlet and book titles were telling, includ­ing Prim­i­tive Chris­tian­i­ty Revived and A Rea­son­able Faith. He had an agen­da and this phrase was a key for­mu­la­tion of his argu­ment and vision.

He is hard­ly the first or last Friend to have lift­ed an inci­den­tal phrase or con­cept of George Fox’s and giv­en it the weight of a mod­ern tenet (“That of God” springs to mind). More inter­est­ing to me is that Pollard’s work was fre­quent­ly reprint­ed and ref­er­enced in Friends Intel­li­gencer, the Amer­i­can Hick­site pub­li­ca­tion (and pre­de­ces­sor of Friends Jour­nal), at a time when Lon­don Friends didn’t rec­og­nize Hick­sites as legit­i­mate Quak­ers. His vision of an “Old Fash­ioned Quak­erism” rein­cor­po­rat­ed qui­etism and sought to bring British Friends back to a two-step con­vince­ment prac­tice. It paved the way for the trans­for­ma­tion of British Quak­erism fol­low­ing the trans­for­ma­tion­al 1895 Man­ches­ter Con­fer­ence and gave Amer­i­can Friends inter­est­ed in mod­ern lib­er­al philo­soph­i­cal ideals a blue­print for incor­po­rat­ing them into a Quak­er frame­work.

The phrase “bring peo­ple to Christ/leave them there” is a com­pelling image that has lived on in the 130 or so odd years since its coinage. I sus­pect it is still used much as Pol­lard intend­ed: as a qui­etist brak­ing sys­tem for top-down mis­sion­ary pro­grams. It’s a great con­cept. Only our tes­ti­mo­ny in truth now requires that we intro­duce it, “As William Pol­lard said, a Quak­er minister’s job is to…”

And for those won­der­ing, yes, I have just ordered Pollard’s Old Fash­ioned Quak­erism via Vin­tage Quak­er Books. He seems like some­thing of a kin­dred spir­it and I want to learn more.

Trust, direct revelation and church teachings

A response to  a post by Jess East­er on Quak­erQuak­er, “My Quak­er Rela­tion­ship with Jesus”:

It’s not anti-Christian to say you have doubts about your rela­tion­ship with Jesus. It’s per­fect­ly human. Most of us would get bogged down in the intel­lec­tu­al­ism if we tried to map out a pre­cise God/Christ rela­tion­ship. One thing I’ve always liked about Friends is our rad­i­cal hon­esty in this regards. A priest in a strict­ly ortho­dox litur­gi­cal tra­di­tion is expect­ed to preach on top­ics on which they have no direct divine expe­ri­ence and to base their words on church teach­ings. When a Friend ris­es in min­istry they are expect­ed to be speak from a moment of direct rev­e­la­tion.

We also have church teach­ings of course. Robert Bar­clay is our go-to guy on many the­o­log­i­cal mat­ters, and cer­tain jour­nals have become all-but-canonized on the way we under­stand our­selves and our tra­di­tion. It’s just that this second-hand knowl­edge needs to be pre­sent­ed as such and kept out of the actu­al wor­ship time. As my Quak­er jour­ney has pro­gressed, I’ve direct­ly expe­ri­enced more and more open­ings that con­firm the tenets of tra­di­tion­al Quak­er Chris­tian­i­ty. That’s built my trust.

I’m now will­ing to give the ben­e­fit of the doubt to beliefs that I haven’t myself expe­ri­enced. If some­one like William Penn says he’s had a direct rev­e­la­tion about a par­tic­u­lar issue, I’ll trust his account. I know that in those cas­es where we had sim­i­lar open­ings, our spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences have matched. I won’t min­is­ter about what he’s said. I won’t get defen­sive about a point of doc­trine. I’ll just let myself open to the pos­si­bil­i­ty that even the more intel­lec­tu­al­ly out­landish parts of ortho­dox Chris­t­ian doc­trine just might be true.

It’s tempt­ing to go to “holy” sites to expect some spe­cial rev­e­la­tion. In her post, Jess reports feel­ing a sense of feel­ing “bored and indif­fer­ent” when vis­it­ing the West­ern Wall and the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane. I think this is per­fect­ly nor­mal. There’s the sto­ry of the Quak­er min­is­ter trav­el­ing through the Amer­i­can colonies with a local Friend as guide. They come to a cross­roads and the local Friend points to tree stump and proud­ly pro­claims that George Fox him­self tied his horse to that tree when it was alive. The trav­el­ing min­is­ter dis­mounts his horse and walks to the stump. He stands there silent­ly for awhile and walks back to his trav­el­ing com­pan­ion with a sober look. The local is excit­ed and asks him what he saw. The trav­el­ing min­is­ter replied: I looked into the face of idol­a­try.

The Holy Spir­it is not con­fined or enshrined in any place – be it the West­ern Wall, the gild­ed steepled church or the tree George Fox sat under. Jesus’ death tore the Tem­ple shroud in two and His spir­it is with us always, even when it’s hard to feel or see. I think the bore­dom we expe­ri­ence in “holy” sites or with “holy” peo­ple is often  a teach­ing gift – a guid­ance to look else­where for Spir­i­tu­al truth.

Max Carter talk on introducing the Bible to younger Friends

Max Carter gave the Bible Asso­ci­a­tion of Friends this past week­end at Moorestown (NJ) Friends Meet­ing. Max is a long-time edu­ca­tor and cur­rent­ly heads the Quak­er Lead­er­ship Schol­ars Pro­gram at Guil­ford Col­lege, a pro­gram that has pro­duced a num­ber of active twenty-something Friends in recent years. The Bible Asso­ci­a­tion is one of those great Philadel­phia relics that some­how sur­vived a cou­ple of cen­turies of upheavals and still plugs along with a mis­sion more-or-less craft­ed at it’s found­ing in the ear­ly 1800s: it dis­trib­utes free Bibles to Friends, Friends schools and any First Day School class that might answer their inquiries.

Max’s pro­gram at Guil­ford is one of the recip­i­ents of the Bible Association’s efforts and he began by jok­ing that his sole qual­i­fi­ca­tion for speak­ing at their annu­al meet­ing was that he was one of their more active cus­tomers.

Many of the stu­dents going through Max’s pro­gram grew up in the big­ger East Coast year­ly meet­ings. In these set­tings, being an involved Quak­er teen means reg­u­lar­ly going to camps like Catoctin and Onas, doing the FGC Gath­er­ing every year and hav­ing a par­ent on an impor­tant year­ly meet­ing com­mit­tee. “Quak­er” is a spe­cif­ic group of friends and a set of guide­lines about how to live in this sub­cul­ture. Know­ing the rules to Wink and being able to craft a sug­ges­tive ques­tion for Great Wind Blows is more impor­tant than even rudi­men­ta­ry Bible lit­er­a­cy, let alone Barclay’s Cat­e­chism. The knowl­edge of George Fox rarely extends much past the song (“with his shag­gy shag­gy locks”). So there’s a real cul­ture shock when they show up in Max’s class and he hands them a Bible. “I’ve nev­er touched one of these before” and “Why do we have to use this?” are non-uncommon respons­es.

None of this sur­prised me, of course. I’ve led high school work­shops at Gath­er­ing and for year­ly meet­ing teens. Great kids, all of them, but most of them have been real­ly short­changed in the con­text of their faith. The Guil­ford pro­gram is a good intro­duc­tion (“we grad­u­ate more Quak­ers than we bring in” was how Max put it) but do we real­ly want them to wait so long? And to have so rel­a­tive­ly few get this chance. Where’s the bal­ance between let­ting them choose for them­selves and giv­ing them the infor­ma­tion on which to make a choice?

There was a sort of built-in irony to the scene. Most of the thirty-five or so atten­dees at the Moorestown talk were half-a-century old­er than the stu­dents Max was pro­fil­ing. I pret­ty safe to say I was the youngest per­son there. It doesn’t seem healthy to have such sep­a­rat­ed worlds. 

Con­ver­gent Friends

Max did talk for a few min­utes about Con­ver­gent Friends. I think we’ve shak­en hands a few times but he didn’t rec­og­nize me so it was a rare fly-on-wall oppor­tu­ni­ty to see first­hand how we’re described. It was pos­i­tive (we “bear watch­ing!”) but there were a few minor mis-perceptions. The most wor­ri­some is that we’re a group of young adult Friends. At 42, I’ve grad­u­at­ed from even the most expan­sive def­i­n­i­tion of YAF and so have many of the oth­er Con­ver­gent Friends (on a Face­book thread LizOpp made the mis­take of list­ed all of the old­er Con­ver­gent Friends and touched off a lit­tle mock out­rage – I’m going to steer clear of that mis­take!). After the talk one attendee (a New Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship reg­u­lar) came up and said that she had been think­ing of going to the “New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends” work­shop C Wess Daniels and I are co-leading next May but had second-thoughts hear­ing that CF’s were young adults. “That’s the first I’ve heard that” she said; “me too!” I replied and encour­aged her to come. We def­i­nite­ly need to con­tin­ue to talk about how C.F. rep­re­sents an atti­tude and includes many who were doing the work long before Robin Mohr’s Octo­ber 2006 Friends Jour­nal arti­cle brought it to wider atten­tion.

Tech­niques for Teach­ing the Bible and Quak­erism

The most use­ful part of Max’s talk was the end, where he shared what he thought were lessons of the Quak­er Lead­er­ship Schol­ars Pro­gram. He

  • Demys­ti­fy the Bible: a great per­cent­age of incom­ing stu­dents to the QLSP had nev­er touched it so it seemed for­eign;
  • Make it fun: he has a newslet­ter col­umn called “Con­cor­dance Capers” that digs into the deriva­tion of pop cul­ture ref­er­ences of Bib­li­cal phras­es; he often shows Mon­ty Python’s “The Life of Bri­an” at the end of the class.
  • Make it rel­e­vant: Give inter­est­ed stu­dents the tools and guid­ance to start read­ing it.
  • Show the geneal­o­gy: Start with the parts that are most obvi­ous­ly Quak­er: John and the inner Light, the Ser­mon on the Mount, etc.
  • Con­tem­po­rary exam­ples: Link to con­tem­po­rary groups that are liv­ing a rad­i­cal Chris­t­ian wit­ness today. This past semes­ter they talked about the New Monas­tic move­ment, for exam­ple and they’ve pro­filed the Sim­ple Way and Atlanta’s Open Door.
  • The Bible as human con­di­tion: how is the Bible a sto­ry that we can be a part of, an inspi­ra­tion rather than a lit­er­al­ist author­i­ty.

Ran­dom Thoughts:

A cou­ple of thoughts have been churn­ing through my head since the talk: one is how to scale this up. How could we have more of this kind of work hap­pen­ing at the local year­ly meet­ing lev­el and start with younger Friends: mid­dle school or high school­ers? And what about bring­ing con­vinced Friends on board? Most QLSP stu­dents are born Quak­er and come from prominent-enough fam­i­lies to get meet­ing let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion to enter the pro­gram. Grad­u­ates of the QLSP are fun­neled into var­i­ous Quak­er posi­tions these days, leav­ing out con­vinced Friends (like me and like most of the cen­tral Con­ver­gent Friends fig­ures). I talked about this divide a lot back in the 1990s when I was try­ing to pull togeth­er the mostly-convinced Cen­tral Philadel­phia Meet­ing young adult com­mu­ni­ty with the mostly-birthright offi­cial year­ly meet­ing YAF group. I was con­vinced then and am even more con­vinced now that no renew­al will hap­pen unless we can get these com­ple­men­tary per­spec­tives and ener­gies work­ing togeth­er.

PS: Due to a con­flict between Feed­burn­er and Dis­qus, some of com­ments are here (Wess and Lizopp), here (Robin M) and here (Chris M). I think I’ve fixed it so that this odd spread won’t hap­pen again.


PPS: Max emailed on 2/10/10 to say that many QLSPers are first gen­er­a­tion or con­vinced them­selves. He says that quite a few came to Guil­ford as non-Quakers (“think­ing we had “gone the way of the T-Rex”) and came in by con­vince­ment. Cool!

Quaker video outreach, a talk with Raye Hodgson

An inter­view with Raye, a mem­ber of Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive who serves on their Elec­tron­ic Out­reach Com­mit­tee. You can also watch it on Quak­erQuak­er: Quak­er Video and Elec­tron­ic Out­reach.

Raye: Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing holds our year­ly meet­ing in Bar­nesville Ohio – some peo­ple know us as those Bar­nesville folks. We have an elec­tron­ic Out­reach Com­mit­tee and that includes the over­sight and min­istry asso­ci­at­ed with our web­site. We spend time think­ing about how to open up to peo­ple who might be inter­est­ed in Friends’ ways and might want to know more about us whether or not they’ve ever read the Jour­nal of George Fox. We’re try­ing to expand our wit­ness, if you will.

One of the ques­tions that has come up in this elec­tron­ic out­reach group is: what types of com­mu­ni­ca­tion or video are use­ful for some­one to get to know us but also respect­ful of the fact that we do wor­ship and that wor­ship is a spir­i­tu­al­ly inti­mate time. We’re try­ing to bridge and deal with respect­ing the wor­ship­pers, the Friends them­selves, to not put on a per­for­mance and yet to try to com­mu­ni­cate what it is that is edi­fy­ing in prac­tice and wor­ship.

Mar­tin: How do you give new­com­ers a taste of Quak­ers with­out direct­ing it too much? If you just have that silent emp­ty box it’s hard for new­com­ers to know what should be fill­ing that box.

Raye: One of the things Friends have done for hun­dreds of years is to pub­lish, to keep jour­nals and to share that. But that’s not all there is to the Friends expe­ri­ence. There are those qui­et times and those moments of min­istry that we believe are Spirit-inspired. Many of us wish we could give peo­ple a lit­tle taste of that because that doesn’t show up in a lot of pub­lished writ­ings. That spon­ta­neous and time­ly, and at times prophet­ic, wit­ness that we see in our Meet­ings. We have con­sid­ered dig­i­tal video as a way to do that.

Mar­tin: I love the video pos­si­bil­i­ties here. Video can be a way of reach­ing out to more peo­ple.

Raye: It’s not just any­thing that can be writ­ten. Cer­tain­ly the writ­ings that have been pub­lished are very help­ful in get­ting some sort of a glim­mer of where we have been, or in some cas­es where we are head­ed or where we are. But there is noth­ing like that expe­ri­ence of being with Friends in meet­ing. It doesn’t always hap­pen but there are these moments called a cov­ered meet­ing or a gath­ered meet­ing where every­body seems to be in the same place spir­i­tu­al­ly and when seems to be mes­sages and gifts com­ing through peo­ple. That’s dif­fi­cult to get across.

We’re hop­ing that with video we can dis­cuss these kinds of things after the fact. We don’t want to turn it into a spec­ta­tor sport or per­for­mance.

Mar­tin: Authen­tic­i­ty is a key part of the Quak­er mes­sage. You’re not prac­tic­ing what you’re going to say for First Day or Sun­day. You’re sit­ting there and wait­ing for that imme­di­ate spir­it to come upon you.

Raye: We don’t know when that will hap­pen. There are meet­ings where every­body is very qui­et, where there’s a sense of that spir­it and uni­ty but it may be an out­ward­ly qui­et meet­ing. I have been in meet­ings where some­one stood up and began to sing their mes­sage or a psalm or some­one had a won­der­ful ser­mon that was per­fect for the moment. These things hap­pen but we don’t know when they will.

The peace of Christ for those with ears to hear

Over on Quak­er Oats Live, Cherice is fired up about tax­es again and propos­ing a peace wit­ness for next year:

My solu­tion: Quak­ers, Men­non­ites, Brethren, and whomev­er else wants to par­tic­i­pate refus­es to pay war tax­es for a few years, and we suf­fer the con­se­quences. I think we should cam­paign for a war-tax-free 2010 in all Quak­er meet­ings and Mennonite/Brethren/etc. com­mu­ni­ties. What are they going to do – throw us all in jail? Maybe. But they can’t do that for­ev­er. No one wants to pay their tax­es for a bunch of Quak­ers and oth­er paci­fists to sit in jail for not pay­ing tax­es. It doesn’t make sense.

A com­menter chimes in with a warn­ing about Friends who were hit by heavy tax penal­ties a quar­ter cen­tu­ry ago. But I know of some­one who didn’t pay tax­es for twen­ty years and recent­ly vol­un­teered the infor­ma­tion to the Inter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice. The col­lec­tors were non­cha­lant, polite and sym­pa­thet­ic and set­tled for a very rea­son­able amount. If this friend’s expe­ri­ence is any guide, there’s not much dra­ma to be had in war tax resis­tance. These days, Cae­sar doesn’t care much.

What if our wit­ness was direct­ed not at the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment but at our fel­low Chris­tians? We could fol­low Quak­er founder George Fox’s exam­ple and climb the tallest tree we could find (real or metaphor­i­cal) and begin preach­ing the good news that war goes against the teach­ings of Jesus. As always, we would be respect­ful and char­i­ta­ble but we could reclaim the strong and clear voic­es of those who have trav­eled before us. If we felt the need for back­up? Well, I under­stand there are twenty-seven or so books to the New Tes­ta­ment sym­pa­thet­ic to our cause. And I have every rea­son to believe that the Inward Christ is still hum­ming our tune and burn­ing bush­es for all who have eyes to see and ears to lis­ten. Just as John Wool­man min­is­tered with his co-religionists about the sin of slav­ery, maybe our job is to min­is­ter to our co-religionists about war.

But who are these co-religionist neigh­bors of ours? Twen­ty years of peace orga­niz­ing and Friends orga­niz­ing makes me doubt we could find any large group of “his­toric peace church” mem­bers to join us. We talk big and write pret­ty epis­tles, but few indi­vid­u­als engage in wit­ness­es that involve any dan­ger of real sac­ri­fice. The way most of our estab­lished bod­ies couldn’t fig­ure out how to respond to a mod­ern day prophet­ic Chris­t­ian wit­ness in Tom Fox’s kid­nap­ping is the norm. When the IRS threat­ened to put liens on Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing to force resis­tant staffers to pay, the gen­er­al sec­re­tary and clerk said all sorts of sym­pa­thet­ic words of anguish (which they prob­a­bly even meant), then docked the employee’s pay any­way. There have been times when clear-eyed Chris­tians didn’t mind loos­ing their lib­er­ty or prop­er­ty in ser­vice to the gospel. Ear­ly Friends called our emu­la­tion of Christ’s sac­ri­fice the Lamb’s War, but even sev­en years of real war in the ancient land of Baby­lo­nia itself hasn’t brought back the old fire. Our meet­ing­hous­es sit quaint, with own­er­ship deeds untouched, even as we wring our hands won­der­ing why most remain half-empty on First Day morn­ing.

But what about these emerg­ing church kids?: all those peo­ple read­ing Shane Clai­borne, mov­ing to neigh­bor­hoods in need, orga­niz­ing into small cells to talk late into the night about prim­i­tive Chris­tian­i­ty? Some of them are actu­al­ly putting down their can­dles and pre­ten­tious jar­gon long enough to read those twenty-seven books. Friends have a lot of accu­mu­lat­ed wis­dom about what it means the prim­i­tive Chris­t­ian life, even if we’re pret­ty rusty on its actu­al prac­tice. What shape would that wit­ness take and who would join us into that unknown but famil­iar desert? What would our move­ment even be called? And does it mat­ter?

—–

Any­one inter­est­ed in think­ing more on this should start sav­ing up their loose change ($200 com­muters) to come join C Wess Daniels and me this Novem­ber when we lead a work­shop on “The New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends” at Pen­dle Hill near Philadel­phia. Methinks I’m already start­ing to blog about it.

Margaret Fell’s Red Dress (2004)

I wrote this in Eighth Month 2004 for the Plainand­mod­est­dress dis­cus­sion group back when the red dress MacGuf­fin made it’s appear­ance on that board.

I won­der if it’s not a good time for the Mar­garet Fell sto­ry. She was one of the most impor­tant founders of the Quak­er move­ment, a feisty, out­spo­ken, hard­work­ing and polit­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful ear­ly Friend who lat­er mar­ried George Fox.

The sto­ry goes that one day Mar­garet wore a red dress to Meet­ing. Anoth­er Friend com­plained that it was gaudy. She shot back in a let­ter that it was a “sil­ly poor gospel” to ques­tion her dress. In my branch of Friends, this sto­ry is end­less­ly repeat­ed out of con­text to prove that “plain dress” isn’t real­ly Quak­er. (I haven’t looked up to see if I have the actu­al details cor­rect – I’m telling the apoc­ryphal ver­sion of this tale.)

Before declar­ing her Friend’s com­plaint “sil­ly poor gospel” Mar­garet explains that Friends have set up month­ly, quar­ter­ly and year­ly meet­ing struc­tures in order to dis­ci­pline those walk­ing out of line of the truth. She fol­lows it by say­ing that we should be “cov­ered with God’s eter­nal Spir­it, and clothed with his eter­nal Light.”

It seems real­ly clear here that Mar­garet is using this exchange as a teach­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty to demon­strate the process of gospel order. Indi­vid­u­als are charged with try­ing to fol­low Christ’s com­mands, and we should expect that these might lead to all sorts of seemingly-odd appear­ances (even red dress­es!). What mat­ters is NOT the out­ward form of plain dress, but the inward spir­i­tu­al obe­di­ence that it (hope­ful­ly!) mir­rors. Gospel order says it’s the Meeting’s role to double-guess indi­vid­u­als and labor with them and dis­ci­pline them if need be. Indi­vid­u­als enforc­ing a dress code of con­for­mi­ty with snarky com­ments after meet­ing is legal­ism – it’s not gospel order and not prop­er Quak­er process (I would argue it’s a vari­ant of “detrac­tion”).

This con­cern over legal­ism is some­thing that is dis­tinct­ly Quak­er. Oth­er faiths are fine with writ­ten down, clearly-articulated out­ward forms. Look at creeds for exam­ple: it’s con­sid­ered fine for every­one to repeat a set phras­ing of belief, even though we might know or sus­pect that not every­one in church is sign­ing off on all the parts in it as they mut­ter along. Quak­ers are real­ly stick­lers on this and so avoid creeds alto­geth­er. In wor­ship, you should only give min­istry if you are active­ly moved of the Lord to deliv­er it and great care should be giv­en that you don’t “out­run your Guide” or add unnec­es­sary rhetor­i­cal flour­ish­es.

This Plain and Mod­est Dress dis­cus­sion group is  meant for peo­ple of all sorts of reli­gious back­grounds of course. It might be inter­est­ing some time to talk about the dif­fer­ent assump­tions and ratio­nales each of our reli­gious tra­di­tions bring to the plain dress ques­tion. I think this anti-legalism that would dis­tin­guish Friends.

For Friends, I don’t think the point is that we should have a for­mal list of accept­able col­ors – we shouldn’t get too obsessed over the “red or not red” ques­tion. I don’t sus­pect Mar­garet would want us spend­ing too much time work­ing out details of a stan­dard pan-Quaker uni­form. “Legal­ism” is a sil­ly poor gospel for Friends. There’s a great peo­ple to be gath­ered and a lot of work to do. The plain­ness with­in is the fruit of our devo­tion and it can cer­tain­ly shine through any out­ward col­or or fash­ion!

If I lived to see the day when all the Quak­ers were dress­ing alike and gos­sip­ing about how oth­ers were led to clothe them­selves, I’d break out a red dress too! But then, come to think about it, I DO live in a Quak­er world where there’s WAY TOO MUCH con­for­mi­ty in thought and dress and where there’s WAY TOO MUCH idle gos­sip when some­one adopts plain dress. Where I live, sus­penders and broad­falls might as well be a red dress!

When Isaac Penington, Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Bathurst join the reading group

Not some­thing I’ll do every day, but over on Quak­erQuak­er I cross-referenced today’s One Year Bible read­ings with Esther Green­leaf Murer’s Quak­er Bible Index. Here’s the link to my post about today: First Month 20: Joseph ris­es to pow­er in Egypt; Jesus’ para­ble of wheat & tares and pearls. It’s a par­tic­u­lar­ly rich read­ing today. Jesus talks about the wheat and the weeds aka the corn and the tares, an inter­est­ing para­ble about let­ting the faith­ful and the unfaith­ful grow togeth­er.

As if know­ing today is Inau­gu­ra­tion Day, Isaac Pen­ing­ton turned it into a polit­i­cal ref­er­ence: “But oh, how the laws and gov­ern­ments of this world are to be lament­ed over! And oh, what need there is of their ref­or­ma­tion, whose com­mon work it is to pluck up the ears of corn, and leave the tares stand­ing!”

Mar­garet Fell sees the wheat and tares as an exam­ple of jeal­ousy and false min­istry: “Oh how hath this envi­ous man got­ten in among you. Sure­ly he hath come in the night, when men was asleep: & hath sown tares among the wheat, which when the reapers come must be bound in bun­dles and cast into the fire, for I know that there was good seed sown among you at the first, which when it found good ground, would have brought forth good fruit; but since there are mixed seeds­men come among you & some hath preached Christ of envy & some of good will, … & so it was easy to stir up jeal­ousy in you, you hav­ing the ground of jeal­ousy in your­selves which is as strong as death.”

We get poet­ry from the sev­en­teen cen­tu­ry Eliz­a­beth Bathurst (ahem) when she writes that “the Seed (or grace) of God, is small in its first appear­ance (even as the morn­ing -light), but as it is giv­en heed to, and obeyed, it will increase in bright­ness, till it shine in the soul, like the sun in the fir­ma­ment at noon-day height.”

The para­ble of the tares became a call for tol­er­ance in George Fox’s under­stand­ing: “For Christ com­mands chris­t­ian men to “love one anoth­er [John 13:34, etc], and love their ene­mies [Mat 5:44];” and so not to per­se­cute them. And those ene­mies may be changed by repen­tance and con­ver­sion, from tares to wheat. But if men imprison them, and spoil and destroy them, they do not give them time to repent. So it is clear it is the angels’ work to burn the tares, and not men’s.”

A cen­tu­ry lat­er, Sarah Tuke Grubb read and wor­ried about reli­gious edu­ca­tion and Quak­er drift: “But for want of keep­ing an eye open to this pre­serv­ing Pow­er, a spir­it of indif­fer­ence hath crept in, and, whilst many have slept, tares have been sown [Mat 13:25]; which as they spring up, have a ten­den­cy to choke the good seed; those ten­der impres­sions and reproofs of instruc­tion, which would have pre­pared our spir­its, and have bound them to the holy law and tes­ti­monies of truth.”

I hope all this helps us remem­ber that the Bible is our book too and an essen­tial resource for Friends. It’s easy to for­get this and kind of slip one way or anoth­er. One extreme is get­ting our Bible fix from main­stream Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian sources whose view­points might be in pret­ty direct oppo­si­tion from Quak­er under­stand­ings of Jesus and the Gospel (see Jeanne B’s post on The New Calvin­ism or Tom Smith’s very rea­son­able con­cerns about the lit­er­al­ism at the One Year Bible Blog I read and rec­om­mend). On the oth­er hand, it’s not uncom­mon in my neck of the Quak­er woods to describe our reli­gion as “Quak­er,” down­grade Chris­tian­i­ty by mak­ing it option­al, unmen­tion­able or non-contextual and turn­ing to the Bible only for the oblig­a­tory epis­tle ref­er­ence.

This was first made clear to me a few years ago by the mar­gins in the mod­ern edi­tion of Samuel Bow­nas’ “A Descrip­tion of the Qual­i­fi­ca­tions Nec­es­sary to a Gospel Min­istry,” which were pep­pered with the Bib­li­cal ref­er­ences Bow­nas was casu­al­ly cit­ing through­out. On my sec­ond read­ing (yes it’s that good!) I start­ed look­ing up the ref­er­ences and real­ized that: 1) Bow­nas wasn’t just mak­ing this stuff up or quot­ing willy-nilly; and 2) read­ing them helped me under­stand Bow­nas and by exten­sion the whole con­cept of Quak­er min­istry. You’re not read­ing my blog enough if you’re not get­ting the idea that this is one of the kind of prac­tices that Robin, Wess and I are going to be talk­ing about at the Con­ver­gent work­shop next month. If you can fig­ure out the trans­port then get your­self to Cali pron­to and join us.