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The Defining Marks Of Quakerism

By Ralph Hetherington

Copyright Ralph Hetherington, 1996

There is an inherent instability in any group which leaves the final criteria for individual belief and action to its members. Any such group, in order to achieve stability, must have some convictions shared by its members. There is a tiresome cliche which we hear from time to time, namely that there are as many Quakerisms as there are Quakers. Or to put it rather less crudely in the words of Hugh Doncaster, "any Friend can believe anything and the Society of Friends stands for nothing." Jonathan Dale in his talk at the recent Manchester Conference referred to "the contemporary Quaker assumption which seems to believe that we all have our individual opinions and that's that--there's nothing to choose between them and nothing more to be said." He goes on to refute this by considering our social testimonies. "What sort of Society would we be," he asked, "if we cheerfully included hangers and floggers among our penal reformers?" We can also imagine the shocked horror of Friends if they heard one of their number advancing the merits of Jew-baiting or queer-bashing. We do indeed, as a Society, have corporate opinions, and strong ones at that. These often, and most importantly, concern our testimonies.

Social Testimonies

When I came across Friends more than fifty years ago, their first and abiding impact upon me was not the beliefs they held, nor their place in the theological spectrum, but rather their social testimonies--how they lived their lives and what they thought was important. It was only later that I came across such phrases as "the Inward Light" or "that of God in Everyone" or "What canst thou say?" What was immediately apparent to me at that time was the integrity and dependability of Quakers themselves. One could depend on being told the truth, or at least not to be told a falsehood. One could rely on confidences not being broken--a sense of mutual trust that made one feel safe in Quaker company. Nobody was going to cheat your or take advantage of you. There was an insistence that every individual was of equal worth and importance, however insignificant or ill-equipped he or she seemed to be, and that whatever opinion they expressed was worthy of careful and serious attention. I was intrigued and much attracted by the complete absence of the use of titles of any description, whether social, academic, medical, ecclesiastical, political or military, and by the use of both first name and surname in addressing a Friend one was meeting for the first time. Being already a pacifist, I knew of the Quaker peace testimony, but I quickly learned that this was part of a much wider testimony of compassion for the vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society, stressing the importance of doing nothing to add to the world's misery and of doing what one could to alleviate it. It also quickly became apparent that Quakers were studiedly unostentatious in their life styles. Although some Friends were clearly affluent, they seemed to be careful not to spend money on those things that they thought were unnecessary. Thrift, temperance and opposition to gambling and financial speculation seemed a natural part of the Quaker way of life.

QSRE is undertaking an important service in asking us to rediscover our social testimonies. I believe we should list and describe them with some care, not set in tablets of stone but reflecting our current ideals of simplicity, social equality, personal integrity and compassion.

If God Comes Into The Conversation...?

However, the testimonies by themselves are not enough to distinguish Quakerism. Most, if not all our testimonies are shared, at least in part, by other religious, ethical and secular organisations. They comprise, very largely, the protestant ethic of the 17th century. So is there anything else we can claim to be a central feature of Quakerism, which serves to distinguish us from other sects? Ben Pink Dandelion reports, from data gathered during his research into Quaker beliefs, that "What was said directly about God was that there was that of God in everybody." "This," he wrote, "is a universal Quaker phrase... at the heart of the Quaker witness in the world and is what falls most readily to any Quaker's lips should God come into the conversation at all."

This belief that everyone has some divine element within his or her personality must surely be closely connected to what is an equally central experience among Quakers: namely the experience of the Inward Light. This view is expressed with authority in Chapter 19 of Quaker Faith and Practice, which describes the views of early Quakers. The first Friends, we are told, saw themselves as a "gathered" and a "guided" people. The source of guidance was the Inward Light which they saw as the Inward Light of Christ. Moreover, this was

A universal Light, which can be known by anyone, of either sex, of any age, of whatever religion.... The experience of Friends was that the Light led them into an understanding of the Christian life and the way it was to be lived. We express the principles they discovered in terms such as Truth, Equality, Simplicity and Peace. However, these are not abstract qualities but vital principles of life. Early Friends expressed them in the ways of action which they called testimonies, and for which they were prepared to suffer and to die.

Direct Experience, A Faith For Living

In an article in "Friends Quarterly" in January, on "Unity and Diversity in the Society of Friends," Janet Scott lists various aspects of Quakerism. The first and defining aspect she sees as the experience of belief in unmediated access to God. The second aspect, which is closely related, is the emphasis on the inward rather than the outward. A third distinctive aspect is the testimonies.

In her Pendle Hill pamphlet, "An Experiment in Faith," Margery Post Abbott describes a long discussion extending over a period of close on ten years, by a group of American women Friends, some of whom were from the liberal unprogrammed tradition and some from the fundamentalist programmed tradition. At the end of their discussions they were able to list some of the ideas and beliefs they held in common. The first was a belief in the potential for direct experience of God or Christ in individual lives without mediation of priest or book, without agreement on its nature or name. The second was in a faith which must be lived day by day knowing that faithfulness to the Spirit, whatever name we give it, must be at the core of our lives. The Spirit affirms the reality of the world around us and does not draw us away from it. Rufus Jones expressed this idea when he wrote in his Later Periods of Quakerism:

The two features of Quakerism that have impressed the world at large are (1) its testimony to the reality and validity of mystical experience, and (2) its work for the relief of human suffering.

A Universal Quaker Statement

This is the essence of Quakerism, the experience that distinguishes it from almost all other religious sects. Of course, many claim that it is possible to have as it were a hot line to god: a personal access to divine inspiration available through prayer, worship and meditation. But this inspiration is usually held to be subject to correction and can be negated by reference to scripture or ecclesiastical authority. It is not accorded primacy over everything else. In Quakerism it is. Moreover, the Inward Light is believed to be available to anyone and everyone, everywhere. With these criteria in mind, I should like to suggest a universal Quaker statement which would express this experience and this conviction. It might be formulated as follows:

We experience a living spirit at the heart of our lives which enables us to tell good from evil and right from wrong; and which teaches, guides and admonishes us. This spirit is subject to no traditional or biblical constraints and is accessible to all people everywhere.

I believe our testimonies derive directly from this experience. Our central conviction of the reality of the Inward Light and of its ubiquity and its primacy, together with our testimonies, could provide a viable definition of Quakerism as understood in Britain Yearly Meeting, and which might also be acceptable to many other Yearly Meetings worldwide. These are the defining marks of Quakerism.


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