Its Context and Implications
by Milford Q. Sibley
This hitherto unpublished essay was found among the
papers of Mulford Q. Sibley. According to a handwritten note on
the manuscript, it was prepared for a conference on mysticism
held in 1979. Although Sibley's fields as a teacher were
political science and American studies, he maintained a lifelong
interest in psychic phenomena and mystical experiences.
With his wife Marjorie, Sibley was an early member of
Twin Cities Friends Meeting and a guiding light among
Minnesota Quakers until his death in 1989. During his long academic
career at the University of Minnesota he received many
scholarly honors and published several books, but he was best known
and best loved as a teacher. In the early 1960s he drew
nationwide attention for his unwavering stand in defense of
academic freedom. Local and national publications attacked him
for insisting that proponents of unpopular doctrines such
as communism, atheism, or nudism should be allowed to
teach, and at one point he was refused entry into Canada as a
possible "subversive." An informal newspaper poll conducted in
January, 2000, listed him among the 100 most influential Minnesotans
of the 20th century.
Rhoda R. Gilman
Its Context and Implications
Any account of Quaker mysticism must refer both to
the meaning of mysticism in general and to its
particular manifestations in the experience of that religious group
known as the Society of Friends. We first remind ourselves of
what mysticism is and what it is not. Then we turn to the
mystical elements in Quakerism. Finally, we suggest some of
the implications of Quaker mysticism for religious and
social experience as a whole.
In the words of Coventry Patmore: "What the world,
which truly knows nothing, calls `mysticism' is the science of
ultimates, ... the science of self-evident Reality, which cannot be
`reasoned about,' because it is the object of pure reason or
perception."1 He is suggesting that the mystical experience has as its point
of departure the ancient problem of the real and the unreal,
the true versus the mere appearance.
Most of us have known a tension between the universe
of sense experience the world as it appears to our sight,
touch, smell, taste, and hearing and our occasional glimpses of
a world that seems to be beyond sense a world, indeed,
whose meanings we bring to the interpretation of sense experience
itself. Many of our religious and philosophical traditions tell us
that the hidden universe is the Real and the one perceived by
our senses is, at best, only a kind of shadow reality. In the
Platonic tradition, we may eventually reach the real world of forms
through a rigorous discipline which carries from the experience of
mere images to that of opinion and then to that of ultimate knowledge.
St. Paul expresses a similar notion when he says: "Now we
see through a glass darkly, but then face to
face."2 And much of the Eastern religious tradition speaks in like terms.
Patmore talks of "self-evident Reality," and this is
indeed an apt expression for what mystics claim to experience. How
do they know that what they perceive is genuine "reality"
rather than an imitation? The answer is that it is self-evident and
that the self-evidence is so powerfully impressed on the
transformed consciousness that they cannot doubt it. Possibly it is like
the experience of someone who has a strong clairvoyant or
telepathic vision so "real" that the person accepts it with a certitude
not to be questioned and, indeed, often proceeds to act on the
basis of it.
Patmore goes on to say: "The Babe sucking its
mother's breast, and the Lover returning, after twenty years'
separation, to his home and food in the same bosom, are the types and
princes of Mystics." Here he suggests that the universe of
mystic experience is our "true home"; when we attain it, we realize
that it is where we really belong, just as the true lover returns to
his beloved after long separation and realizes with renewed
awareness that this is where he should be.
How do we "see" this world which transcends what
we usually think of as normal experience? Plato speaks of the
"eye of the soul," which is as real as the physical eye and is
designed to take us into the level of consciousness that we associate
with mysticism.3 Through the eye of the soul we see
interconnections, we transcend the universe of separate things, we experience
the world as basically one, and, according to the accounts of
many mystics, we even transcend the apparent separation between
good and evil. In religious terms, the self is absorbed in or united
with God. However briefly, we grasp our place in the scheme of
things and are enlightened directly by the Supreme Being.
Stated somewhat differently, the mystic
experience, according to those who have undergone it, is the "highest"
level of consciousness. Psychologically, perhaps, when infants we first
perceive the world as one and do not distinguish between
the "I" and the "other." Then, very early in life, we begun to
see things as separated from one another selves from selves,
mine from other, outer from inner, and so on. The separate
sciences represent this level of consciousness. This is the state of
awareness that we often associate with analyzing breaking down
our experiences, viewing them as discrete.
The mystic is suggesting that beyond the level of the
world as discrete is a realm of experience which is once more
unitive but unitive in a sense somewhat different from that of
our early childhood. In this new and higher unitive
consciousness we integrate and absorb all the previous experience of
division even while transcending it. Perhaps we can say that the
unified consciousness of the very small child is unsophisticated
while that of the fully developed mystic is a sophisticated one.
The earlier and later unity have features in common.
Both, for example, are characterized by an immense feeling of awe
and reverence and joy. In infancy, as Wordsworth suggests,
"Trailing clouds of glory we do come, from God who is our
home."4 While the poet says that the "prison house" soon begins to close
and that the "vision splendid" fades "into the light of common
day," the mystic would reply that this same vision can be restored
and even expanded through the mystical experience.
Mystics are certain that their experiences are, as
William James put it, "noetic" providing knowledge and, indeed,
the most complete and sure knowledge
possible.5 Returning from this transcendental realm, mystics will find that they now
look on the universe of ordinary experience in an entirely new
light. Their intuitions about values, for example, may be
transformed; and familiar objects will be placed in different contexts.
The senses themselves, which once appeared so clear and
distinct, may now seem to be confused: thus some mystics will
"hear" colors or "smell" sounds.
From the perspective of the mystic, the experience is
first-hand rather than second- or third-hand. Religion emanating from
the reports of another's experience is merely indirect or
derived, not primary. An analogy might be drawn from the realm
of science: teachers of science usually believe that it is
important for the students to "get their hands dirty" through
actual laboratory work. While they may learn from the
laboratory reports of others, there is no substitute for first-hand
experience. So it is with the perception of mystics: while they value the
reports of others' experiences of the divine, they are never satisfied
unless they, too, can have the vision.
Mysticism is not magic. It is not the "occult." Nor should
it be thought of as antiscientific. Indeed, one can argue that in
its emphasis on direct experience, it parallels certain
scientific attitudes. It is not "irrational" despite what some critics may
say, although it may be beyond reason, depending on how
that ambiguous word itself is used. Patmore maintains that the
mystical Reality is the, "object of pure reason or perception." While
the mystical experience is not one of mere feeling, an
emotional glow often accompanies it, just as the experience of
higher mathematics is frequently said to be deeply moving.
Up to now we have been speaking as if there were few
if any diversities within the admitted universals of mysticism.
Yet mysticism is more than a single theme in the symphony
of religious experience: there are also important variations
and differences in emphasis among its historical expressions.
Although there are many resemblances between the Islamic Sufi and
the Hassidic Jew, diverse historical experiences provide
different colored clothing for their bodies of mystical knowledge.
The Franciscan is not a Hindu, even though their spiritual
language may be amazingly alike. Nor can Quakers be equated with
late medieval mystics. Their cultural history from the 17th to
the 20th century has dyed their mystical cloak with its own
peculiar tints. What are those hues? How, in other words, is the
mysticism of Quakerism related to mysticism in general?
Scholars like William C. Braithwaite and Rufus Jones
argue that Quakerism is basically
mystical.6 By contrast, writers like Hugh Barbour and Arthur O. Roberts, while not
denying important mystical elements in the early development of
the Society of Friends, also maintain that in some respects
17th-century Quakerism was not necessarily
mystical.7 In part the dispute turns on problems of definition and in part on
historical interpretation. A brief reference to the social and
religious context of early Quakerism might put the issue in perspective.
The 16th-century Protestant Reformation was in part
a revolt against the late medieval attempt, by writers like
Saint Thomas Aquinas, to reconcile Christianity with the
emphasis on rationality to be found in Aristotle. Saint Thomas, both
Luther and Calvin appeared to say, had too much confidence in
human reason. Lutheranism and Calvinism, therefore, called for a
return to Saint Augustine, who best reflected Paul's emphasis on
the role of sin and the extreme necessity for grace.
Salvation by faith rather than by works became the
slogan of the orthodox Reformation; and the faith it stressed
was commitment to Biblical teaching that was supposedly pure
and unadulterated. While the early Luther, to be sure, spoke of
the "priesthood of all believers," he made it clear that
certain interpretations of the Bible by some of his followers could not
be tolerated; and eventually he seemed to turn to the state for
support in sustaining his own interpretation.
Meanwhile, the many varieties of Anabaptists had
arisen, some of them rooting their beliefs in what they took to be
Luther's early doctrines. They renounced the notion of the
state supporting the church; they rejected infant baptism
as incompatible with the Bible and with the notion of
voluntary commitment to religion; and in some instances they
appealed from the authority of the Bible to that of direct
religious experience. Although most Anabaptists were not preponderantly
mystical, some revealed strong mystical tendencies not
unlike those that were to emerge in the Quakers of the next
century. And the mystical Anabaptists must have been sustained
and reinforced by such early 16th-century sects as the Family of
Love, which, as Rufus Jones has pointed out, anticipated many
later Quaker beliefs.8
To what extent 16th-century continental
mysticism affected the development of sectarianism and mysticism in
17th-century Britain has long been debated. Rufus Jones argued
that there were more than a few Anabaptist congregations in
Britain and that they must have influenced the religious
atmosphere which eventually gave rise to both the Baptists and the
Quakers.9 Many have suggested that the great German mystical writer
Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) must have had some impact on the
British mind, but others have minimized his influence.
The historical debate turns on the degree to which
17th-century British sects developed spontaneously. Some, like
the Ranters for example, were almost wholly rooted in British
soil. In general, it seems safest to say that both continental and
native influences were at work. Some religious currents in
Britain, mystical and nonmystical alike, had an almost continuous
history from the Middle Ages, and much 17th-century
British sectarianism may have been grounded in earlier movements
such as the Lollards of the 14th and 15th centuries rather than in
the 16th-century continental Reformation.
The debate about Quaker mysticism and its
possible antecedents has been paralleled by a similar discussion as to
the relation of 17th-century Quakerism to Puritanism. Some
have suggested that Puritan strains in Quakerism were in tension
with opposing mystical currents. Puritan moral notions were
legalistic, whereas the tendency of mysticism is to seek transcendence
of rigid legalism. But it is very difficult to assess what
proportions of mysticism and of Puritanism existed among early Friends.
Similar to the discussion of Puritan-mystical tendencies
is the analysis of mysticism and "prophecy." The 17th century
witnessed the development of many apocalyptic sects
whose leaders prophesied either the imminent end of history or
some dire calamity. Early Friends were not unaffected by these
currents and one can discuss the degree to which their mysticism
was colored (or distorted, depending on one's point of view)
by prophetic and apocalyptic hues. Is there a necessary
connection between mysticism and prophetic warnings, or are the two
strains separable? Does mystical religious experience inevitably lead
to prophetic and apocalyptic outlooks or are the latter
entirely independent of the former? Obviously, much depends on
one's precise definition of mysticism and on one's conception of
how it is related to the individual personality and to a given culture.
In the complicated religious scene out of which
Quakerism arose there were, of course, "conservatives" and "radicals."
Some scholars even speak of "right-wing" versus "left-wing"
Puritans, indicating by the latter a greater degree of strictness in
religious principles and often a more extreme position on
overthrowing and reconstructing the existing social order. Radical
attitudes were encouraged by disappointment with the regime of
Oliver Cromwell. From the left-wing point of view the
Commonwealth government was indeed no revolution, and
Cromwell's compromises often stimulated agitation for more
fundamental religious and social change.
Left-wing tendencies, too, were often associated
with apocalyptic views, as among the "Fifth Monarchists" of the
1650s, who deemed the Day of the Lord and the end of human
history to be close at hand. Sometimes preachers tinged with
apocalyptic views sought to hasten the Day of the Lord by conspiring
to overthrow the government. Quakers were directly affected,
since they were often confused by the general public with
Fifth Monarchy advocates and other extremists.
Thus when the young George Fox began to be
strangely moved by the urgings of the Spirit, he had to cope with a
great variety of social and religious currents in his
immediate environment. He was in part a product of his times, and it is not
surprising that Puritan, apocalyptic, Anabaptist, and
social-change perspectives like those of the Levellers should have
been struggling within his emerging religious consciousness. From
the beginning he had strong mystical proclivities, but he is said
to have resisted them, in part because of his dislike for the
Ranters, with their claim to have transcended good and evil and
their alleged "free love" communities.
Some scholars have suggested that it was not until
Fox traveled into the northwest of England during the early
1650s that the mystical element took on
importance.10 It was then that he became increasingly disillusioned with institutional forms
and creeds and began to listen and follow what early Friends
called the Light. Initially, perhaps, there was a modicum of fear in
his attitude possibly fear of the unknown or of what the
Light might lead him to do.
Within Fox's early religious consciousness were
struggling not only the several tendencies already noted, but also two
types of mysticism. One sees the soul's union with Ultimate Reality
as transcending such categories as good and evil, while the
second has been termed "ethical mysticism." In the first the accent is
on a mystic vision which is "quietist" in nature and which seeks
to escape the struggles involved in the life of action. In the
second, the Light Within commands action in the world and
supposedly gives guidance for it.
In the end the second type of mysticism triumphed both
in Fox and among early Friends. By the 1660s Quakers had
come to think of their religious life somewhat along these lines:
All willing and action without an awareness of the Light Within
is self-interested and corrupting. One's religious experience
must begin at this point and with this awareness. Once one
recognizes the presence of the Light or the Christ Within then
one has to wait for guidance, without which all human will and
all action are as dust. One has, in other words, to be "open" to
the Light (or to Christ) and openness suggests a purging of all
desire to will and to act without inner guidance. At this point, then,
one might hope for a transformed consciousness
an illumination that comes from the heart of the universe
or Ultimate Reality.
Robert Barclay, one the most articulate of
17th-century Friends, speaks of the seed which epitomizes the Christ
Within. As he puts it:
By this seed ... we understand a spiritual and heavenly and invisible principle in which God as
Father. Son and Spirit dwells, a measure of which divine
and glorious life is in all men as a seed which of its own
nature draws and invites us to God; and this some call
vehiculum Dei or the spiritual body of Christ. ... Because it is
never separated from God nor Christ, ... as it is resisted God
is said to be resisted; and on the contrary... as this seed
is received in the heart, and suffered to bring forth its
proper and natural effect, Christ comes to be formed and
Waiting for the illumination of Christ, however, can be
a long process and entails both patience and faith. For while
one is waiting, one's soul may be torn between the self-will
which prevents vision and the as-yet absent union with God
which goes beyond mere self. One has to be utterly empty and
denuded of the ordinary self before one can become "full."
In rather characteristic early Quaker language,
Stephen Crisp thus describes this waiting process, and the pain
connected with it, before the Light begins to complete its work:
But then, oh the woe, misery and calamity that opened upon me! Yea, even the gates of hell
and destruction stood open, and I saw myself falling
thereinto, my hope and faith, and all fled from me, I had no
prop left me to rest upon. The tongue that was as a river,
was now like a dry desert; the eye that would, or at
least desired to see everything, was now so blind, that I
could see nothing certainly, but my present undone and
miserable state. Oh, then I cried out in bitterness of
my soul, "What hath all my profession profited me? I
am poor and blind and naked, who thought that I had
been rich and well adorned... "
Crisp sought light in the "meeting of God's
People' but it seemed in vain to sit there with such a
wandering mind as mine was, while, though I laboured to stay
it, yet could not as I would. At length, I thought to go
forth; and as I was going, the Lord thundered through me,
saying, "That which is weary must die." So I turned to my
seat and waited in the belief of God, for the death of
that part which was weary of the work of God.... And
many sore conflicts did I meet withal before I was able in
all things to distinguish between the workings of the
true spirit and power, from that which was but the old
So the more I came to feel and perceive the love
of God, and his goodness to flow forth upon me, the
more was I humbled and bowed in my mind to serve him,
and to serve the least of his people among whom I
walked. And as the word of wisdom began to spring in me,
and the knowledge of God grew so, I became as a
counsellor of them that were tempted in like manner as I had
been; yet being kept so low that I waited to receive
counsel daily from God, and from those that were over me in
the Lord and in Christ.... Being called of God and his
people to take the care of the poor, and to relieve
their necessities as I did see occasion, I did it faithfully
for diverse years...12
These words of Stephen Crisp suggest the general
ordering of the Quaker mystical experience: first, a feeling of
spiritual need and an effort to meet it by exertion of self-will;
secondly, utter misery because of the attempt, since the present self is
not the self that ought to be; thirdly, a recognition that this misery
may be an opening to the Light and one's consciousness of
conflict in the soul leads to a kind of passivity,
in which one no longer stands in the way of the Light or the Christ a kind of
crucifixion of the "existential self"; fourthly, the Light resolves the
original tension and one becomes a new Self, within the context of
the Meeting of Friends; and finally, the new self reflects its
experience in service to the poor.
Early Friends often spoke of good and evil and in
terms very similar to those used by Puritans. But implicit in
Quakerism from the very beginning was a rejection of the notion that
ethics should be codified and made into a body of law.
Although Quakers did not reject the Bible and, indeed, often quoted
it they insisted that it must be read and understood only
as illuminated by the Christ Within. While Friends did not
always agree on how this should be expressed, in general we may
say that to them, ethical and religious statements were not
valid because the Bible said they were, but rather the Bible said
they were because basic religious experience vouched for
their validity. God was still active in the world and in
human consciousness; and a Friends meeting was always open to
fresh leadings, whether in religion or in social concerns.
This meant that while Quakers initially might be
uncertain or merely conventional about the specific implications of
right and wrong, they opened themselves to the direct experience
of God in the expectation that the Light might reduce
their uncertainties and either confirm or reject the conventional
view. Thus in the beginning the testimony against all war was not
as clear or definite as it became after the Restoration; and
while initially there was no uniform testimony against slavery,
there was a sure if painfully slow development of the notion that
slavery was morally wrong and that the Quaker could have none of
it. John Woolman's journal in the 18th century is a testimony
to the way in which Quakers saw the Light working on the
The traditional tender conscience of the Quaker was
often the result of an excruciatingly complex waiting for clearness and
assurance. But an integral part of Quaker mysticism was
the notion that revelation is progressive that is, truer and
more complete religious and moral insights than those of the past
were always possible if individuals and meetings would wait
patiently for the Light.
The Quaker meeting represented the consciousness
that there is a corporate or social dimension in religious
experience. The meeting constituted the framework within which
Friends checked individual leadings against those of others. One of
the difficulties associated with mysticism throughout history has
been the problem of distinguishing illusion from truth in
religious experience. Nonmystical religious movements seek
through formal creeds and privileged hierarchies to assist the believer
in making this distinction. But the Quaker rejected
all intellectualized statements of belief and spurned, too,
any priesthood or professional ministry.
The Friend sat in meeting and, in the often
awe-inspiring silence, attempted to be open to whatever the Light might
bring. When fellow Friends did break the silence, one would be able
to measure one's own leading against that of another; and while
in the end one must follow the Inner Light, still it was necessary
to take seriously any discrepancies that might exist between
one's own experiences and those of others. Although
discrepancies did not necessarily mean that one was mistaken, still
the individual owed it to fellow Friends and to the quest for
Truth to ask whether and to what extent the personal vision might
be influenced by pride or by the clever disguises of evil. Thus,
far from being only a solitary search, Quaker mysticism
was emphatically a social one as well.
Friends' experiences during the 17th century, like those
of certain other sectarians, often included an element of what
many might call the bizarre. George Fox had vivid
visionary experiences, heard "voices," and sometimes spoke in ways
that were difficult to comprehend. On one occasion he clearly
heard a voice commanding him to go to the town of Lichfield and to
shout out "Woe unto you, bloody Lichfield." Fox was puzzled
by the message but followed it to the letter. He later thought that
it might have had something to do with the fact that Lichfield
was supposedly a center for persecution of Christians in
Are experiences of this kind a part of mysticism? Again,
it depends on how one defines the term. We do know that
those traditionally accounted as mystics have also apparently
had clairvoyant, levitation, and precognitive experiences. Many
of the saints are said to have floated in mid-air when lost in
deep meditation. Perhaps it is plausible to suggest that while
such psychic phenomena often accompany mystical experiences,
they are not a necessary aspect of them.
As suggested earlier by the term "ethical
mysticism," Quakers thought of religious experience as embracing
everything from initial doubts and disquietude through the waiting
for leadings to the reception of the Light and action in the
world. The experience of the Christ Within, while certainly central
to Quaker mysticism, shares the designation "religion" with all
those acts in the world illumined by the Light. Just as Friends from
the beginning thought of all days as holy and no times as
peculiarly sacred, so they saw no real breach between inward
illumination and those acts performed under its scrutiny such as
Fox's pleading for higher wages, the rejection of oaths, refusal to
join the army, agitation against slavery, and the founding
After the 17th century there was a tendency to
quietism among some Friends, and practices such as plain dress and
plain speech lingered on without a renewal of that direct
experience of which they had been an expression. Their original status
as symbols of equality was frequently forgotten. But quietism
and withdrawal, while important tendencies in much of the
18th century and through part of the 19th, were never complete;
and in certain respects such as agitation against slavery and
war the social action based on mystic experience continued.
Thus far we have been treating Quaker mysticism
against the background of mysticism in general and of its origins in
the 17th century. We now turn from its affinities and origins to
its implications and potentialities. Not all Quakers will agree
with the last part of this analysis, but their criticisms will no
doubt contribute much to that dialogue out of which more
general and truer insights may emerge.
Broadly speaking, we suggest that while Quakerism was
born as a sect in the Christian religious tradition, its genius
implicitly aspires to a universalism that transcends the Christian or
any other existing religious framework. By this we mean that
the very nature of what we call Quakerism is to rise above
the tradition within which it was born.
Consider what goes on in a Friends meeting. Friends
gather and settle in for what will be either an hour of silence or a
period in which the silence will be interrupted periodically by
those who have been led by the Spirit to speak. A "gathered"
meeting will be one in which concerns about mere temporalities will
have faded and in which Friends will be open to whatever
leadings may arise from the Christ Within.
By not striving for anything in particular (eliminating
the element of self-will) Friends will become lamps illumined by
the energy which they believe is vouchsafed by "that of God"
within every person. This element of nonstriving implies, first,
a concentration of one's thoughts. One seeks then to
banish discursive reasoning. At the same time, one is aware that if
one strives too actively to accomplish these ends, one will
be frustrated, for striving to be nonstriving is a contradiction
in terms. If the mystic seeks "emptiness' too strenuously, it will
prove elusive. Hence an attitude of waiting and the reduction of
anxiety to the lowest possible point will be appropriate. One may
never get beyond this in a given meeting, although in a sense even
this state is an achievement.
If one does experience the emptiness for a moment,
and the Light streams in, then one must still not necessarily
expect more than a momentary illumination. The levels of
mystic experience in a Friends meeting are similar to those
identified by the mystics of all cultures and religious backgrounds
all the way from fleeting glimpses to more protracted joy,
although it is difficult to speak in terms of time frameworks since
one presumably is rising above temporal categories.
While one is opening oneself to the Light, others are
doing likewise, with the same problems. Sometimes they will
speak out of the Light, thus seemingly interrupting one's own
openings. But often the oral expression of another Friend may respond
to or comment on what the Light in one's own self is
conveying. This meshing of experiences in a "good" or gathered meeting
is one of the most striking aspects of Friends' mysticism.
Even if the meeting is silent for the whole period of
worship, the quality of the silence may vary considerably. Friends
may rise from such a meeting with the observation that it was
"dry" one, that is, in which the light was dim indeed. Yet
another wholly silent meeting may evoke the later comment that it
was a very fruitful period.
Is there a telepathic communication achieved in
the genuinely gathered as contrasted with the dry meeting? It is
a plausible proposition on the basis of the evidence. At its best
which is rarely achieved a meeting will represent not only
a unitive experience within the individual Friend but also
a consciousness of deep underlying social and spiritual
unity. Leadings of the Light are both vertical God and creature
and horizontal between and among Friends
themselves. Because the highest levels of mystical experience in a
meeting may be rare, they are correspondingly precious. But Friends
tend to hold that any step beyond everyday consciousness is to
be viewed with awe.
Quaker mysticism is characterized by an emphasis
on spontaneity. One never knows where the Light or Spirit will lead
and one should therefore not imprison the worship within
too much structure of either time or mode of expression.
Friends who hold to the Society's early traditions are therefore
suspicious of planning or "programming" a meeting beyond arranging
for its time and place. There is great confidence that the Spirit
Within will provide all the guidance necessary.
Because they value silence so greatly, many Friends are
loath to break it even with spontaneous speech. Yet Friends'
mysticism holds that speaking "out of the silence" is also valuable.
The problem may be to distinguish between the Spirit's voice
and that of one's own ego. Many Friends require the evidence for
the Spirit to be overwhelming before they will venture to
express themselves orally, and some, perhaps, suppress what may
be genuine leadings. Not infrequently, however, the expressions
that one has suppressed are uttered by another in the same
meeting. Although early Friends tended to think of music as
an impermissible external aid in worship, sometimes the Spirit
may move Friends to spontaneous song or even dancing.
In part Friends' emphasis on silence, unless the Spirit
moves one strongly to break it, is rooted in the general suspicion
of words. Words at best transmit in a very uncertain and
ambiguous way what the Spirit is saying. Just as Friends are suspicious
of much "theologizing" or attempting to place
religious experience within a highly intellectual, logical framework
so they tend to think that if the Spirit does press one to speak,
one should beware of elaborate phraseology and
What is the relation between the Christ Within of
Quaker mysticism and the historic figure called Jesus of Nazareth?
This is a question that has exercised some Friends and about
which there are still disagreements. The Christ of inner
experience, modern Friends continue to hold, gives his Light to all,
whatever their culture or tradition. Here the great early figure of
Isaac Penington speaks, too, for contemporary Quakerism:
... the soul of the Lord holdeth forth some beams
of his eternal light to all mankind, according to his
pleasure, at some time or other visiting the darkest corners of
the earth, and making some way therein for the scattering
of that darkness which separates the soul from the light
of life, and from the sweet presence and enjoyment of
its Creator, which naturally flow into every soul in
its believing and obeying of the light.16
But the Christ Within may be experienced in widely
varying degrees and this suggests that some persons may be more
"Christ intoxicated" than others. The Light for whatever reason
flickers in some but in others glows brightly and with a
steady flame. Thus many 20th-century Friends would agree with
the words of William Penn:
That which the people called Quakers lay down as a
main fundamental in religion is this, that God,
through Christ, hath placed his Spirit in every man, to
inform him of his duty and to enable him to do it; and
that those who live up to this are the people of God,
and those that live in disobedience to it are not God's
people, whatever name they may bear or profession they
may make of religion... By this Spirit they
understand something that is Divine; and though in man, yet not
of man, but of God.... They call it the light of Christ
This implies, then, that every person has a measure of
Christ within, including such historic figures as Jesus, Buddha,
Richard Nixon, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Jim Jones. Thus we
can speak of a Jesus Christ, a Richard Nixon Christ, and so on.
But we customarily say that Jesus Christ in his life and work
exhibited that of God Within far more than most others. The historic
Jesus who lived in Palestine some 1,900 years ago and who
suffered under Pilate was closer to Christ with greater constancy than,
for example, Napoleon. But Napoleon, too, embraced a
Christ Within, and so does every man and every woman.
A provocative question which one might put to a Friend
is whether Quakerism depends at all on the supposed fact that
a given person by the name of Jesus of Nazareth lived on
earth. Many early Quakers, no doubt, would have been shocked
by such a question, for they thought of themselves as having
revived first-century Christianity, with its faith in the historic
Jesus. Implicitly, however, it would seem that Quakerism does
not require the historic Jesus. That is to say, if it should be
proven tomorrow, and beyond the shadow of any doubt, that Jesus
of Nazareth never lived, the essentials of Quaker mysticism
would remain. For implicitly Quakerism depends, not upon some
given historical embodiment of Christ but upon the Christ who
is embodied in every person at all periods of history. While
these varied expressions of Christhood will be colored by their
cultures and their times, within all of them will be the Light which
never fails. William Blake speaks about "mercy, pity, peace, and
love" being expressed in a variety of cultures in "heathen,
Turk, and Jew." So, too, Christhood, in this interpretation of
Quakerism, is both universal and yet channeled through a multiplicity
of personalities and ways of life.
Like much mysticism, the special form we have
been describing as Quaker is rather disquieting to those who like
their religion clearly defined and predictable. Being guided by
the Light is often disturbing to complacency, self-satisfaction,
and ethical passivity. It is unsettling both to those who
practice Quakerism and to those outside its circle. For while Friends
are assured of the Christ Within, that Christ is forever
making demands on the conscience that seem to imply a kind of
ethical perfectionism. A John Woolman never rests in his
denunciations of slavery and often unsettles the minds of whole
meetings.18 An Elizabeth Fry never ceases her pleadings for prisoners. The
Quaker in a gathered meeting, while aware that the meeting has
its consolations for those who have suffered bereavement or
personal misfortune, is never satisfied to rest with
performance of this undoubted function of religion. The life of action calls,
in which evil is not to be overcome by evil but by good. The
New Testament passage, "Be ye therefore perfect..." is confirmed
and underlined by Quaker mysticism.
Because of this strain of perfectionism, Reinhold
Niebuhr classifies Friends as "soft utopians." That is, they are rather
naive about the world, do not understand the ubiquity of power,
and, as "children of light," do not fully comprehend the depths
of darkness. But the Quakers would respond that they are not
naive; that it is the power politicians and those associated with
them who are simplistic insofar as they seem to believe that
human beings can use military violence and the compromises of
power politics to produce good. The Quaker tradition is well
acquainted with the reality of sin. Quakers do not believe, however,
that one can attack it directly, but only by overcoming evil
with good. Tenderness to all creatures, including human beings,
as Woolman and others have emphasized, is far more likely
to overcome evil than supposedly "tough" measures that
are ostensibly in touch with reality.19
This tendency to perfectionism carries with it the peril
of enormous hypocrisy. Those who stress perfection are
almost certain to demonstrate by their acts that they fall far short of
it. Or their very virtues may lead to vices. Thus early Quakers
sought to keep their way of life simple and industrious. But their
very simplicity and industry meant that their earnings were saved
and invested. The result was that, in the words of Frederick
Tolles, they moved from the "Meeting House" of the late 17th
century to the "counting house" of the 18th and 19th centuries. And
try as they might to avoid it, the counting house mentality
often affected their way of life and the way they looked at the world.
Quakers have not been unaware of the dangers of
hypocrisy and of the transmutation of virtues into their opposites.
Their consciousness of the issue explains in part the tradition of
"frank speaking," which encourages Friends to address one
another's shortcomings rather openly.
While verbal criticisms are always to be offered in love,
to the outsider the frankness might on occasion sound rather
harsh. At a more formal level, the queries sharp questions
about conduct addressed to the meeting as a whole endeavor
to remind Friends that they have high commitments and that,
like other human beings (and perhaps even more so), they have
a tendency to forget those commitments. Thus a query might
read: "Have Friends sought in every way to maintain their
testimony against all violence?" Or "Are Friends so living that they
take away the occasion for war?" Or "Have you expressed in
your lives the testimony of simplicity in dress, manner of living,
and speech?" But even with frankness in speech and the queries,
the threat of hypocrisy is present in every meeting.
A healthy meeting will, of course, keep constantly at
the center of its consciousness the knowledge that mystic
experience can be one of the strongest sources of renewal and fresh
insight. Many a meeting has been saved from desiccation and
hypocrisy by the mysterious workings of the Spirit or the Light
within ordinary human beings. What seemed dead has become
alive; and the peculiar combination of mystical and prophetic
religion that we associate with Quakerism has once more made itself
felt as in the days of George Fox.
1. From Patmore's "The Rod, the Root, and the Flower,"
as quoted in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, p. 2 (Noonday
Press, N.Y., 1955).
2. First Corinthians, XIII:12.
3. Perhaps the "eye of the soul" is also what enables us to
`see' things in such psychic phenomena as
4. Wordsworth, "Ode on Intimations of Immortality
from Recollections of Early Childhood."
5. See William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
6. See, for example, Braithwaite,
The Beginnings of Quakerism and The Second Period of
Quakerism; Jones, Studies in Mystical
Religion and The Later Periods of Quakerism.
7. Barbour and Roberts, eds.,
Early Quaker Writings, 1650-1700, pp. 13-46 (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,
Grand Rapids, Mich., 1973).
8. Jones, Studies in Mystical
Religion, pp. 428-448 (Macmillan, London, 1923).
9. Ibid., pp. 396-427.
10. Barbour and Roberts, eds.,
op.cit., p. 25, 32.
11. Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian
Divinity, p. 137 (Friends' Book Store, Philadelphia, 1908).
12. "A Journal of the life of Stephen Crisp," in Barbour
and Roberts, eds., op.cit., pp. 203-205.
13. See Phillips P. Moulton, ed.,
The Journal and Major Essays of John
Woolman (Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1971).
14. Rufus Jones, ed., George Fox: An
Autobiography, p. 132 (Ferris and Leech, Philadelphia, 1919).
15. See Douglas V. Steere, On Speaking Our of the
Silence (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 182, 1972).
16. Penington, Works, Part 1, p. 383 (1681).
17. Penn, "Primitive Christianity Revived, in the Faith
and Practice of the People Called Quakers," quoted in
Passages from the Life and Writings of William
Penn, p. 426 (Friends' Book-Store, Philadelphia, 1882).
18. In Woolman's Journal, one is impressed by the
writer's earnestness, his self-discipline, and his sense of
commitment to the antislavery cause. Both in meeting and privately,
in conversations with other Friends, something within him
is constantly urging him to speak and to agitate.
19. On an ocean voyage, Woolman observed the sensitivity
of `dunghill fowls,' carried on the ship, remarking, "I
often remembered the Fountain of Goodness, who gave being
to all creatures and whose love extends to that of caring for
the sparrows; and I believe where the love of God is
verily perfected and the true spirit of government
watchfully attended to, a tenderness toward all creatures made
subject to us will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do
not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation which
the great Creator intends for them under our government."
See Moulton, ed., op.cit., p. 178.