Quaker Universalist Voice

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A Quaker Prayer Life

by David Johnson – A Review

A Quaker Prayer Life, by David Johnson (Inner Light Books, 2013; see excerpts). Johnson has a long commitment to nonviolence and opposing war and the arms trade, and has worked with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. He delivered the 2005 Backhouse Lecture to Australia Yearly Meeting, “Peace is a Struggle.”

David Johnson’s A Quaker Prayer Life is the work of a modern Quaker who is acquainted with prayer and who interprets the written testimonies of early Quakers and their observations on the prayer lives of others. His testimony in this book is a singular effort, a challenge to Quakers to articulate their experience of prayer today.

A Quaker Prayer Life, by David Johnson

Johnson is an Australian geologist, Quaker writer, founder of the Silver Wattle Quaker Centre in Australia and a worker for practical nonviolence in public policy. He is a member of Queensland Regional Meeting of Australia Yearly Meeting. He leads workshops and lectures on this topic of Quaker prayer.

For Johnson, prayer is what the mind does within the brain. Action itself is not prayer. For Johnson, true prayer is prayer without action.

The mind does carry out preparations for and evaluation of action, and prayer does have consequences in its links to action. However, for Johnson, neither these mental processes nor their links to consequences are themselves prayer.

Johnson’s view differs from that of those who experience action, including the mental preparation for and evaluation of action, as prayer. However, his view does appear consistent with the testimony of those early Friends selected as sources for this book, and this view is an important one that challenges all our understandings of prayer.

Whether prayer is rightly understood as action with mental preparation or as mental activity without action, the testimony of early Quakers includes important advice and wisdom for prayer life.

Like the 99 metaphorical names for God in the Islamic tradition, Johnson recognizes a fluid and flexible analogical description of God, using an inadequate human language to express what is currently beyond human words to express. At base for this author, prayer is the turning of one’s attention toward that part of reality at the edge of understanding in an effort to discern the Inward Light and its requirements for one’s life.

The book might have been subtitled A Description of the Prayer Testimonies of Early Quakers. It consists of annotated selections from the writings of weighty Quakers, and Johnson draws upon other sources to inform us about their lives.

An appendix summarizes a wide diversity of techniques found helpful by many Quakers in their prayer lives, including inward holding and lifting, following breathing, attention concentration, memorized prayers, and mantras. Johnson supports a diversity of helpful methods for different people at different times in their lives and in different circumstances. He includes section titles to punctuate the flow of his argument and provides thoughtful endnotes. The book lacks both a table of contents and an index.

This book, like the recent Inner Light Books title The Essential Elias Hicks [see the 27 December, 2013, Quaker Universalist Conversations review], is a challenging contribution to our spiritual lives and well worth our reflection. The author makes a major contribution by his emphasis on prayer as a conscious choice for a prayer discipline, part of a practical life of continuing daily attentiveness throughout the span of life.

Since 2009, Inner Light Books of San Francisco has provided an important service to the Quaker community by sharing Quaker stories and by encouraging authors in exploring the early period of the Quaker community and its testimony to the world as a way to examine Quaker values. Inner Light Books seeks to expand the knowledge of and appreciation for the faith and practice of the Religious Society of Friends.


A European American Catholic (Pax Christi kind of Catholic) friend mentioned to me that she was not into praying; she was into action. I, a European American Quaker (and Pax Christi participant), responded, “Prayer is just internal action.” Gentle blessings, Wendy Clarissa Geiger
My gradually maturing notion of prayer is that it is an inward process of opening to leadings, not a process of asking God for something. When I face a situation, my prayer is to be opened to see and accept what my part is to be in that situation. So…not action but preparation to act…or not to act.
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