Bring people to Christ / Leave them there: One thing I love to do is track back on cultural Quaker turns of phrase. Here I looked at a phrase sometimes attributed to George Fox and find a largely forgotten British Friend who laid much of the groundwork for Quaker modernism and the uniting of American Quakers.
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.
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:
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!).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.