Quaker Universalist Fellowship


Universalist Friends

The Journal of the
Quaker Universalist Fellowship
Number 35
Fall & Winter 2000

In This Issue


From the Clerk

Richard Barnes

To Live a Life of Continuous Prayer

Rhoda R. Gilman



My Personal Religion

Henry Joel Cadbury

The Quaker Universalist Fellowship is an informal gathering of persons who cherish the spirit of universality that has always been intrinsic to the Quaker faith.  We acknowledge and respect the diverse spiritual experience of those within our own meetings as well as of the human family worldwide; we are enriched by our conversation with all who search sincerely.   Our mission includes publishing and providing speakers and opportunities for fellowship at regional and national Quaker gatherings.

Universalist Friends and a QUF pamphlet are published twice a year and are available free to on-line subscribers. These publications are available as Web pages (HTML) for browsing, ebooks (PDF) for on-line reading, and pamphlets (booked PDF) for printing. To enter a free on-line subscription, visit our Web site at http://www.universalistfriends.org.

If you wish to receive printed copies of these publications by regular mail, send an annual subscription fee of $12.00 to QUF at our mailing address below. Selected past QUF publications are available free to our on-line subscribers. We will send available printed copies of past publications upon request and on payment of a fee.

We trust that all of our subscribers will support our work by sending a tax-deductible contribution to QUF. You can also contribute by sharing your reflections on our publications and on your own experiences. To make a contribution, subscribe to printed versions of our publications, or ask questions, contact:

Richard Barnes,Treasurer
Quaker Universalist Fellowship
Route 1, Box 28-3
Millboro, VA 24460
email: QUF@universalistfriends.org

From the Clerk

by Richard Barnes, QUF Steering Committee Clerk

Occasionally, I have the opportunity to speak to groups of Christians interested in the “beliefs” of The Religious Society of Friends. I attempt to stress the universality of Quaker spirituality, while relating our tradition to their Biblical and more orthodox theology. Just as I try to use Buddhist concepts in a Quaker–Buddhist interfaith dialogue, I try to use language and concepts that are familiar to Christians in a Quaker–Christian dialogue. Below you will find excerpts from my ‘stump’ speech. In the tradition of Universalist Friends, I encourage you to share your response with our readers in future issues by sending your responses to Richard Barnes, 338 Plush Mill Road, Wallingford, PA 19086 or by email to QUF@universalistfriends.org.

Quaker Spirituality: To Answer That of God in Everyone

Many people and some denominations choose favorite Bible verses or texts that frame their identity. While I have never seen it referred to as such in Quaker writings, I believe that Matthew 25:31-46—Jesus’ teaching on “The Great Judgment”—could be called the “Quaker text.”

When the Son of man comes in all his glory, he will gather “all the nations,” and he will separate them from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

Jesus doesn’t ask what doctrines the people of “all the nations” believe or to what creeds they subscribe. The sheep and goats are not separated because of their religious belief, their disbelief, or their prophecies. There are no chosen people, no predestined elect. To be a sheep or a goat—the choice is ours. To inherit the kingdom, we are called to be compassionate to that of God in everyone, especially those whom society considers to be the undesirables, “the least of these my brethren.”

One cannot speak of Friends’ “spirituality” without also speaking of Friends’ “social concerns.” Friends pray and worship God, not only for the joy of experiencing the Divine Presence, but that we can better love, act, and serve in the world. As William Penn is often quoted, “Christians should be judged more by their likeness to Christ than their notions of Christ.”

Quaker spirituality is one of discernment of and obedience to divine guidance. The Religious Society of Friends shares much in common not only with Christians of other communities of faith, but also with all devout souls of other religions around the world who seek to know and follow the will of God in their lives. However, Friends do possess a spirituality of our own. In his “Introduction” to Quaker Spirituality, Douglas Steere highlights the Quaker distinctives that unite us:

  • a deep faith in divine guidance and in obedience to the “leadings” and “concerns” that spring from it;
  • certain practices that enhance individual and corporate discernment of God’s will;
  • a unique form of corporate worship on the basis of silent contemplation;
  • a special form of vocal ministry;
  • a unique way of conducting our meetings for business and arriving at decisions;
  • “testimonies” of community, simplicity, equality, and peace—testimonies that we try to embody as “the fruits of the Spirit.”

The End of All Preaching:
To Direct All People to Their Inner Teacher

The Religious Society of Friends was first drawn together in the middle of the seventeenth century in England at the period when the sharp Civil War had resulted in a victory for the parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell. It was a time of immense spiritual and political ferment. Modern democracy had its spiritual roots in 1650 England. The belief in the divine right of kings was overturned by the belief in the divine inspiration of the common man. There were fierce debates over the rights of the “commonest he” in the realm. These rights were grounded in the fact that every man was regarded as a possible vehicle of the Holy Spirit, of the voice of the living God speaking to the time. Oliver Cromwell gave instructions to his own aides that that they must never deny access to any common soldier who wished to see him. Cromwell feared that God might be speaking to him through that ordinary man and that if he did not listen to him the Lord might cast him off.

Arising in this milieu of spiritual, religious, and social revolution, George Fox, with little formal education but with an intimate knowledge of the Bible, had a series of profound mystical experiences that refocused his life and gave him a sense of mission—to direct all people to the Living Christ within them, their Inward Teacher.

The Scriptures were the prophets’ words and Christ’s and the apostles’ words. And what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord. You will say, Christ saith this and the Apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?

Francis Howgill, one of the earliest companions of Fox, has left us this testimony of the gatherings of these radical Christian seekers in the North of England:

The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue nor speech from any creature.
The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement, and great admiration, inasmuch that we often said to one another with great joy of heart: “What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? And will he take up his tabernacle among the sons of men, as he did of old?”

In 1660, The Religious Society of Friends represented the radical left wing of the Protestant Reformation in England. The Church of England rejected the spiritual jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, the Mass, images, and five of the seven sacraments. The Presbyterians transferred the power of the bishops to elders. The Congregationalists and Baptists insisted on the autonomy of the individual congregation. The Baptists eliminated creeds and preached the “priesthood of all believers.” Finally, the Religious Society of Friends dispensed with the outward rituals of baptism and communion and the professional ministry.

Friends experienced not a baptism of water, but of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. Their entire Meeting for Worship was based on the silence of the worshiper at the communion altar. They proclaimed the primacy of the inward Light, not the Bible, as the Word of God. Calling themselves “Children of The Light” or “Friends of Truth,” they thought of themselves as friends of Jesus. (John 15)

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends….

The name “Quaker” was a derogatory nickname used by their opponents, as it was said that they trembled or quaked with religious zeal. In Acts 4:31 we read, “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” Friends have since adopted the term, and today the words Friend and Quaker have the same meaning. The formal title of the Quaker movement is now “The Religious Society of Friends.”

The Inner Light and Continuing Revelation

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Jeremiah 31: 33

Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

Jeremiah 29: 12-13

So I tell you: ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened for you. Rest assured: everyone who asks, receives; everyone who seeks, finds; and for the one who knocks, it is opened. Which of you fathers would hand his son a snake when it is a fish he is asking for? Or a scorpion when it is an egg he is asking for?
So if you, imperfect as you are, know how to give your children good gifts, isn’t it much more likely that the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

Jesus of Nazareth, Luke 11: 9-13

We read in the book of Acts of the “charisms” or spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit during the Apostolic Age. Many would argue that the Apostolic Age has passed, that the canon of scripture is closed, and that the Holy Spirit speaks only through the magisterium of the church. Is an infallible church or an infallible Bible our only way to know the true will of God? Is the Apostolic Age really over? Does the Holy Spirit still speak to ordinary people? Is the guidance of the Holy Spirit still operative? Is all revelation concluded?

Friends generally believe that first-hand knowledge of God is only possible through that which is experienced or inwardly revealed to the individual human being through the working of God’s quickening Spirit. One of the pamphlets distributed widely by early Friends was Peter Balling’s The Light upon the Candlestick:

We direct thee to within thyself, to mind and have regard unto that which is within thee, to wit, the Light of Truth, the true Light which enlightens every one that cometh into the world. Here thou shalt find a Principle certain and infallible, and whereby increasing and going on therein, thou mayest at length arrive unto a happy condition: Of this thou mayest highly adventure the tryal.... He that will not adventure, shall never begin, much less finish it to his own salvation.... We say then, That we exhort every one to turn unto the Light that’s in him.

Rufus Jones, in summarizing Balling’s tract, wrote:

We can judge no doctrine, no Book to be Divine except by some inward and immediate knowledge of what really is Divine. Without this Light the Scriptures are only Words and Letters.... No finite thing can bring us a knowledge of God unless we already have within us a sufficient knowledge of Him to make us able to appreciate and judge the Divine character of the particular revelation.... God must be assumed as present in the soul before any basis of truth or of religion can be found. “The Light is the first Principle of Religion. —Mind, therefore the Light that is in thee.”

At the very center of the Quaker faith lies the concept of the Inner Light. In every human soul there is implanted a certain element of God’s own Spirit and divine energy. This element, known to early Friends as “that of God in everyone,” “the seed of Christ,” or “the seed of Light,” means to Friends, in the words of John 1:9, “the true Light, which enlightens every person who comes into the world.” The Light of God that shined brightly in Jesus of Nazareth also shines in varying degrees in each of us. The Inner Light, if and when turned to:

  • enlightens our conscience of right and wrong;
  • is beyond human reasoning, but can guide our reasoning;
  • brings a sense of inner peace;
  • opens the meaning of scripture;
  • reconciles willing spirits;
  • gathers the wills of many into one;
  • brings unity amidst diversity;
  • brings about a sense of harmony among conflicting inner emotions, within interpersonal relations, and within the community;
  • is the basis of “the sense of the meeting” in Friends’ Meetings for Business;
  • is the basis of the Friends’ Peace Testimony.

George Fox acknowledged that there is “an ocean of darkness and death” over the world. But he also saw that “an ocean of light and of love” flows over this ocean of darkness, revealing the infinite love of God. Friends acknowledge that narcissism, self-interest, greed, lust, fear, jealousy, and anger reside in each one of us. Friends also believe that the power of God to overcome evil is available in the nature of everyone who seeks it and truly wants to submit to the indwelling Light of God. To a great extent, we are the arbiters of our own destiny, having the power of choice. Salvation, in the Quaker sense, lies in our power to become children of God.

Universality of The Light

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.

George Fox, Epistles

The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion, and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another though the divers liveries they wear here make them strangers.

William Penn, 1673

The Religious Society of Friends does not have a creed, a catechism, a declaration of faith, or a book of common prayer. It does maintain an anthology of the personal spiritual experiences of the divine presence in the lives of Friends for nearly 400 years—a collection called Quaker Faith and Practice. When I read these accounts, I gain a deep appreciation of Friends who were both Christians and Universalists. Undoubtedly, Fox, Fell, Barclay, and Penn were Christians. But it is also true that their persecutors were also Christians. It was Christians who hanged Mary Dyer on Boston Common. From the very beginning, it was the Friends’ belief in the universality of the Light that made them distinctive among Christians.

The 17th century Quaker evangelists who reached the Middle East, even calling upon the Sultan of Turkey, were surprised to find that the Light dwelled in the hearts of those who had not heard of Christ or had the advantage of Christian scripture. In encounters with Native Americans, Friends were impressed with their deep spirituality and assumed that the Living Christ had already reached them, even if they had not heard of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Nothing aroused the anger of the Quaker opposition more than the assertion that the Light was not the province of some predestined elect but was universally given to all humankind. Robert Barclay wrote in his Apology of 1676,

The Church (is) no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such that God hath called...to walk in his light and life. The church then, so defined, is to be considered, as it comprehends all that are thus called and gathered truly by God...of whatever nation, kindred, tongue, or people they be, though outwardly strangers, and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words, and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts.... There may be members therefore of this Catholic Church both among heathen, Turks and Jews, and all the several sorts of Christians—men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart, who...are by the secret touches of this holy light in their souls enlivened and quickened, thereby secretly united by God, and there through become true members of this Catholic Church.

Obviously, Barclay was not referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but to a much more catholic, worldwide, universal church gathered by the Spirit of God. During the 20th century, Friends have been called to serve alongside of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists around the world. While affirming God’s witness in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, we also acknowledge that the Light resides within all people and will respond to all who sincerely seek to know and obey God’s will. When an elderly Muslim woman or the child on the Mongolian steppes prays sincerely from the heart, the omnipresent Spirit does not turn a deaf ear because the prayer is not asked in Jesus’ name.

The Divine Spirit, revealing itself in the depths of the soul, is thought of as a source of religious and moral knowledge, a source of power to act according to that knowledge, and a source of unity with one’s neighbor. Outward authorities such as the Bible and corporate “faith and practice” statements are important but secondary sources of truth. The Light, the Life, the Truth, the Love of God is revealed directly to every human being, of every race and religion, without the requirement of any intermediary such as church, priest, or sacred book. Each of us has the choice of relying on our own will and conscience or discerning and following the Divine Light within.

To Live a Life of Continuous Prayer

by Rhoda R. Gilman

Those words have haunted me. I heard them one evening over dinner and a glass of wine from a friend and professional associate. Karen is a beautiful, powerful woman, whose keen mind and emotionally charged personality polarize people into devoted friends and bitter enemies. She has survived childhood abuse and physical handicaps that would have destroyed a lesser person. Educated in an Anglican convent, she longs to live a life of continuous prayer.

To me the word “prayer,” with its overtones of supplication and the implicit feeling that it must be addressed by someone to someone, lacks any real life. Yet reality is never captured in words; like a map, words are not the territory. If I were to draw a word-map of the same territory, I would say: “I want to live in the presence of eternity.”

No matter how far we stretch, we can never reach eternity, yet it is with us in each moment—in each breath we draw. We can touch it fleetingly—but only by stopping in our mental tracks and suspending the flow of thought that places us in time. Eternity is outside of time and therefore outside of change, decay, and all the sorrows and delights we know.

Yet what deceptiveness in the simple words “suspend thought”! To do so is to lay down on the altar of eternity all intention, all memory, everything that is our sense of self. And what is left? Freedom. Relief from the perpetual anxiety of existence. The emptiness that, as one early Friend found, “contains all things.”

Is this not what Jesus meant by “Poor in Spirit”? Meister Eckhart thought so. Worldly possessions eventually become a burden, something to carry through life, a responsibility that drains our energy and attention. Just so, the individual persona demands to be continually defended, justified, and fed. Burdened by it, we can never fully enter the Kingdom. Free from it, we can find love without clinging; compassion that is participation, not pity; joy in the immediate wonder of being alive. And somewhere in the emptiness is a whisper that we are in fact not ourselves, but part of something infinitely larger. We are in the presence of Eternity.

Always we must return to time, of course, for that is our condition. We are creatures of time and space. Why this is so, and what the reason for our existence, is not ours to ask. We know we share it with all sentient life—and probably with beings whose sentience we cannot perceive. And we know we have a wordless longing for eternity. It is a longing that we can either flee from and try to deny or keep coming back to, following whatever map of words and thought-pictures we can find to guide us. If we continue to do so, the nearness of eternity slowly begins to color much of our waking time. Are we not then approaching a life of continuous prayer?


A member of Twin Cities Friends Meeting in St. Paul, Rhoda R. Gilman serves on the Quaker Universalist Fellowship Steering Committee and is a former editor of Universalist Friends. She now serves as editor of the QUF pamphlet series and as host of the QUF e-mail list, which she founded.


God and religion are not intellectual. We are a part of God like a branch is part of a tree. Thinking is not involved; in fact, thinking about God and religion can diminish our sense of connection. The more completely we surrender to being a part of God, the stronger our personal connection with Him will be.

Nelson Babb
W. Suffield, Connecticut

Without belief in the supernatural, mystical discoveries must be reinterpreted. A non-mystical understand of Quakerism is that the Holy Spirit, the inner light, is simply nurturing love or good will toward living beings. We walk in darkness at times when we don’t feel loving, but we can bridge the darkness with the will, the intention of serving humanity. How can we serve humanity today? Jeremiah is the quintessential prophet. If we don’t make a sharp turn toward justice, calamity looms for our planet. We must distribute human wealth more evenly and protect other species.

Dale Berry
Grants, New Mexico

We know that there are many religions in the world which show us different ways to God. There are groups of mystics or spiritually oriented people who are trying to walk the path to God in the silence of their heart and soul. Silence is the universal spiritual path on which we can be sure that we will meet God. Everyone who is willing to take the time to be in silence can walk along the path toward Light.

In silence we are able to talk to God. In silence we feel God’s presence, and in moments of silence we know that God exists. God is the center and creator of the whole universe. There is no place where God wouldn’t be present; there is no place where God’s vibrations wouldn’t be part of the structure. Wherever we look, not only on our planet Earth but into the millions of stars shining in the evening sky, everywhere God’s energy is pulsing. Everywhere is life, which has come out of God.

When we are sitting in quiet, in the deep silence of our soul, we feel the flickering light of God. Just a small light is coming toward us, and we feel and know that it is coming directly from God. We feel the love, joy, wisdom, and cosmic eternity in its substance. We feel that this light of God is coming from somewhere deep in the universe, from God’s center, which is made only of light, which pulses as a gentle wind, or, better, as a gentle stream of everlasting presence, silently touching our open soul.

In moving into the twenty-first century, we should decide as a people to make ourselves better, open-minded, spiritually and ethically working on ourselves. By this, we will help to move this world to a higher level. We should practice quietness, self-searching, self-discipline, harmonious thinking. By this we can experience the eternal connection between our soul and God and try to understand the cosmic laws of harmony and love, which have been here from the time of creation, seeded into it by the great Architect of the universe.

The new century should not be an age only of new technology and millions of empty words. It should be an age of righteousness, of understanding the unity of all humankind and discovering the richness of spiritual life. In this new century, we should not only talk about but practice respect toward nature, toward all creatures. It should be a time in which we will be able to find peaceful retreats and healing centers, where in every tree, every mountain, every creature, every raindrop, every woman, man, and child we will see the silent presence of the Spirit of God.

In Faith and Practice we can read the words of Caroline Stephen: “To sit down in silence could at least pledge me to nothing. It might open to me, as it did that morning, the very gate of heaven.” What a wonderful statement: “To sit down in silence...might open to me the very gate of heaven.” The power of silence can open the gates of our spirit, the light of God can enter and illuminate the chamber of our soul, and we will know that God is present in us. It will open, as a blossom of a lotus floating on a lake opens in the morning toward the beams of the sun. Out of the nightly sleep, the light of life and the touch of the spirit make us spiritually alive, awakened children of God.

The Rev. Vladimir Strejeck
Pastor, Mount Airy Friends Meeting
Mount Airy, North Carolina

My Personal Religion

by Henry Joel Cadbury

Editor’s note: The following, a lecture given to Harvard divinity students in 1936, is from an unpublished manuscript in the Quaker Collection at Haverford College. It is printed here with the kind persmission of Henry J. Cadbury’s daughter, Betty Cadbury Musgrave.

I have been asked in some twenty minutes to explain my personal religion that lies behind my career as a teacher of the New Testament. It is very natural that students should feel that analytic and historic processes of the classroom are relatively remote from the actual religious experience in which they as religiously minded men are concerned both professionally and privately. They also are sometimes generous enough to give their teachers credit for having behind them a private religious life that is more intimate and vital than the abstract and historical questions touched upon in the classroom. I have yet to see a theological school where there was not a feeling that the faculty were deliberately suppressing something that was vital or even—still worse—that they had no personal religion to suppress.

It is further reasonable to suppose that teachers trained to analyze objectively religion in remote persons—like Jeremiah or Paul or St. Augustine or Luther—are qualified to do the same for themselves. And in the intimacy of a friendly family group like this, one need be restrained by no modesty—as though one were uncovering anything too intimate or sacred, giving that which is holy unto the dogs.

The only restraint I might feel is not for fear lest I should boast of attainment but rather that I have not much to offer of the forms of religion that students expect and think to be helpful. My lack of these is a nakedness that I hesitate to expose. They lie in two areas especially—theology and personal religion.

Most students that ask questions are looking for theological conviction and evidence. They wish to know whether I believe in the existence of God or in immortality, and if so why. They regard it impossible to leave these matters unsettled—or at least extremely detrimental to religion not to have the basis of such conviction. Now for my part I do not find it impossible to leave them open. I understand that other people are different and that they suppose their whole religion rests upon definite convictions on theological questions. Indeed many people say it rests on convictions about historical subjects. Paul wrote, for example, “If Christ be not risen then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”

Now I am not trained in pure metaphysical theology, and while I might no doubt explain in a bungling way how I would if necessary debate such a question as God, I feel that the clever things I might say and the arguments that I might use in rebuttal would be merely exterior to the springs of my real life and would not be representative. I might even deceive myself into thinking that my religion had such rational grounds.

I may say that theological questions are not the only ones on which I find it possible to avoid decisive and enthusiastic espousal. My students know that there are historical questions—let us say the order of date of the two Thessalonian epistles—on which to me uncertainty seems the only reasonable attitude. But there are also other questions of more immediate practical concern in which I am perhaps too lazy to form a partisan attitude. I wish to send my children to school and I must choose the school to send them to, but I find it possible to avoid ultimate decision on the abstract merits of the issue between the new Progressive Education and the old formal schooling of the conservative schools such as I myself had. Economically and politically I am no conservative—certainly no convinced capitalist. But I am no more an ardent communist either. And in like manner I can describe myself as no ardent theist or atheist.

The second area of religion in which I can make little contribution is in the kind of personal religion which has played a great part in Christian history—I mean in conscious communion with God, the practice of prayer and the like. That may seem the more remarkable since the Society of Friends whose traditions I inherit is generally supposed to be a society of mystics. Now I am not denying a large mystical strain in Quaker history, both early and late, but I am quite convinced that it has never been general and that a large number of non-mystics have enjoyed religious life under [the Society’s] auspices and have contributed much that Friends have done for human good. As a Friend I have been brought up to expect occasional divine revelation or immediate consolation or fellowship. I have not found that expectation fulfilled in any demonstrably supernatural way. Perhaps it is due to moral defects—i.e., sin. That morbid reason would occur to anyone. Or it may be due to temperamental defects—constitutional lack of the emotional or psychic qualities. Or it may be because I have not practiced rigidly enough the regimen which some mystics have prescribed—prayer, meditation, fasting, concentration, etc. Possibly I fail to recognize as such what other persons would designate as intimate religious experiences. I know that is a possibility:

The angels keep their ancient places
Lift but a stone and start a wing
Tis ye, tis your estranged faces
That miss the many splendored thing

And I find myself at times in moods that seem to me closely to resemble the moods of religious experience. But I do not induce them, nor quote them, nor treat them as evidential. I am inclined to think other people would do so. I would regard that as a matter of interpretation.

At this point I may add what seems to me is a useful approach to religion. It seems to me that both theology and piety are interpretations. I recall the words of an American critic about poetry. Poetry, he says, is the imaginative dominion over experience. Perhaps religion is much the same—the dramatizing of life in terms of an unseen companion, or of a loving father, or of a greater creator. This dramatizating goes into all aspects of life. History, when religiously interpreted, means divine governance and intervention into affairs of men—particularly in the person of Jesus Christ. Strong natural sympathy for persons in need is interpreted in terms of intercessory prayer. Vivid conviction of duty is interpreted as a direct command of a personal god, and so forth.

I am aware that my confessions are very damaging—or at least would seem so to many persons. My situation has led me to ask two questions quite conscientiously. The first is whether in speaking as I sometimes do at religious meetings I might not be called a hypocrite—not that I say intentionally what I do not believe, but that the whole environment and tradition of the occasion, and the Bible which I sometimes cite by way of illustration, carry in most people’s minds—for better or for worse—a suggestion of religious conviction and experience which I do not share. I do not see any way to avoid it. If I publicly and repeatedly denied my orthodoxy, my admirers would not believe me; neither would my non-religious critics. I have a good deal of interest in the latter group—religious liberals, gropers, seekers for a possible religion. I admit that my religious association, whatever I may say or do, prejudices my usefulness to them. That is due to their revolt against the religion they have known or painted in caricature. They feel sure I must be tarred with the same stick. They suspect me of some ulterior motive. The fact that I am a layman is either unknown to them or no safeguard. I am professionally for religion. I believe the unbelievable, I stultify a fairly decent mind by associating myself with the cloth, and I maintain an impossible combination of reason and superstition by setting each in a water-tight compartment. These at least are the charges which anti-religious people make of us.

The other question I ask myself is this: Is a man qualified to teach certain chapters in the history of religions—and my chapter happens to be three generations in the history of one religion—unless he is himself a practicer of a religion in some slight way similar to that of the classic exponents of whom he teaches? This embarrassing question I have answered partly by recognizing that the responsibility for exposing Harvard theologues to such a person rests in the first instance on the dean and the university who hired me. And I have partly answered it by asking my colleagues in other fields of interpretation whether they can justify their own position. One of the best teachers of English literature that I know is himself no author. I am sure he cannot write poetry, and though he writes good prose when he tries, he almost never tries. But he is sympathetic with many kinds of literature, he can explain what it’s all about, and he teaches boys and girls to like to read good authors. I have taxed teachers of the appreciation of art and music with my question. They are few of them artists and musicians in their own right. But they understand their subjects both analytically and sympathetically. Now what is my job? Is it to teach you to be religious? Or is it to teach you the understanding of religion? In the latter case, there may be no disadvantage in the personal disqualifications that I have named, provided that I am fair and reverent. Maybe I am like a teacher of the appreciation of Italian renaissance art whose own artistic achievement is nil—or at most some modest work in so different a field as modern bas-relief portraits. On the other hand, some of the most deeply religious and enthusiastic teachers of religion that I know seem to me to impart their own spirit admirably but to give little help in interpreting any form of religion that is not congenial to their own personal experience. They can travel the whole religious history in their courses and see nothing except Platonism, or mysticism, or sacramental religion, or some special theological problems, whatever their own bent happens to be. Beside the deepening of his personal religion, the future theological student needs training to understand a great “variety of religious experience.”

But to return to my own religion, as nearly as I can tell, it is mainly neither emotional nor rational but expresses itself habitually or occasionally in action. I need not retail the reasons that have led me to this emphasis in religion. It is one part of our Quaker tradition that “religion is a way of life.” We think sometimes that the best way to know religion is to see a religious personality in action. The latest and best form of the Discipline of the Society of Friends consists not of a statement of faith but merely of quotations of different individuals about their own religious experience. If you know John Woolman’s Journal you will know what I mean by a religious personality in action. He held a traditional theology and he also interpreted experience mystically, but the amazing revelation which he gives is that of a sensitive conscience feeling its course in a series of soul-searching problems—public problems that he felt must be personally decided. Such forms of religion do not often get recorded, but they are none the less real and important. As we observe such people, we see that their behavior, both habitual and in conscious crises, is the natural expression of a character. And perhaps what they do speaks louder than any words. Some of Jesus’ parables suggest that he employed this narrative method as the best way to describe what he regarded as important in religion, and such historical religious persons whose lives we know well enough no doubt often reveal their religion in the same way.

To call the set of a man’s life his religion no doubt seems a great comedown—when you are used to finding it in beliefs or distinctively religious experience. But when a man deals religiously with issues that others settle in other ways, in fact takes seriously the religious implications of behavior both individual and collective, tries to practice fully the standards that conventional religion officially endorses, and to make his whole life consistent if not conscious, he is in my opinion practicing religion as much as the one who skillfully builds the dialectic structure of a well rounded theology or as the man who through public and private devotion lives in that mystical drama of the religious imagination.

I am not suggesting that I have any unusual achievement in this area, or that in fact it is an unusual area. I am only saying that when I am asked what if any personal religion I have, I must admit that it is to be found here if anywhere. I am interested in better individual and social morality. I should be glad to promote it through my own practice first of all. How I can justify such a wish theologically does not bother me, and I am not in sympathy with those who deprecate morality that is not religiously self-conscious or not motivated by a theistic conviction. I should be willing to let my religion rest very largely in a life of honest thinking, of kindly dealing, and of challenging impact upon the social uses and conventions that it comes in contact with. This is at least a direction but not an achievement.

Is such a religion personally satisfying, and is it socially valuable? These are two of the questions that one naturally raises. I am not sure the first one is a good question to ask—as though we were to pick whatever seemed to be the pleasantest and easiest religion. I am often inclined to be envious of other people’s religion. They are so cocksure dogmatically that they act as though they are omniscient. Life has no doubts, its direction is determined, all evil is by hypothesis overruled by an all-wise God for good. I do not share this view of life, any more than I share the Christian Science views of disease, but I can see that it makes people enthusiastic, effective, self-forgetful—and often fanatical and great bores. Such satisfactions as I get out of religion are of a less ebullient kind— except of course for too frequent feeling of failure, it is only a kind of objective sense that at least I am within the limits of cool judgment and common sense, and a pious hope that it may prove that I might have done worse.

Is such a religion socially valuable? I think it is. I would rank it far above professional service to religion. I had occasion lately to decide whether I should choose between the Hollis Professorship in Divinity at Harvard and an ultra-conscientious insistence on telling the truth. I chose the latter, and in doing so I was largely influenced by my reading of history and the sense of support and fellowship which the example of men who in the past made like decisions gave me. I found many of my friends had different standards of values. They deprecated the risk to which I exposed what they seemingly regarded so important—the teaching of New Testament criticism to a group of prospective preachers.

I have said that the kind of religion I am speaking of rarely gets down in writing. I do not suppose that I have succeeded in describing it. I can think of no way in which I could hope briefly to describe it. If you could have lived with me through the strain of many weeks this autumn and early winter when I was dealing largely in the secret of my own conscience with the problem I have already alluded to—the question of my relation to the teachers’ oath—you might have seen what I mean—if you did not entirely understand or sympathize with the extremely difficult questions that it raised. I refer not to questions of my personal welfare. They never bothered me at all. But if real moral questions are at stake (even in very slight degree) and if loyalties are genuinely in conflict, and if moral questions are only too easily confused with merely political or strategic considerations, a course of right action in personal behavior, if taken seriously, taxes much more than you might suppose the genuinely religious elements that any man can bring to such a problem. But that is too long a story.

And what is the real test or evidence of religion that I can offer in myself? According to my own definition, it is nothing I can say now nor in the classroom. It is whether in all our contacts—when I am off guard, when personal situations arise—you can conclude that, not consciously nor for display, I represent the manner of reaction that befits a religious personality in action.


A prolific writer and distinguished biblical scholar who worked on the translation of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Henry Joel Cadbury, Ph. D. (1883–1974) was Hollis professor of Divinity at Harvard from 1934 to 1954. He also taught at other schools, including Haverford College—from which he resigned under fire after decrying the “orgy of hate” in the U.S. against Germany in 1918. Cadbury was a noted Quaker historian; he recovered, and brought to light in the book George Fox’s ‘Book of Miracles,’ the history of miraculous cures attributed to George Fox. And he was a dedicated humanitarian and peace activist who served as chair of the Friends National Peace Committee, proposed the founding of the American Friends Service Commitee (AFSC), and served as an AFSC leader. When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Society of Friends by way of the AFSC and the British Friends Service Council in 1947, it was Cadbury who accepted the award for the AFSC. Cadbury’s A Quaker Approach to the Bible is available from QUF online.

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