“For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.” —Robert Barclay (1648–1690)
I shut my eyes
“I shut my eyes most of the time, and focus on my breath. This means, during the first part of the meeting for worship, sinking into the silence and letting myself look at whatever comes into my consciousness. When someone speaks, they may be speaking to me. I listen not so much to the logic of what is being said, as to whether it touches me, so my attention varies. I may find myself trembling, and if I don’t get up and speak, I’m likely to finish the meeting feeling frustrated. A whole lot can go on as I look at my consciousness, from feeling anger to letting my mind wander over everyday things, but whatever it is has less hold when I stay with my breath. I find being still in meeting for worship is simply different from being still when I am alone, and both experiences can be good.”
Inside the Meetinghouse, by Cassandra Shiffman
The heavy doors are open wide, inviting me to look inside.
I peer nervously into the meetinghouse, look a little closer, and I see
White washed benches with soft green colored cushions that glimmer ever so slightly in the light,
Oak circles of honey colored light suspended from the high ceiling by shining brass poles.
I see windows, and doors, and, in one corner, a small, dark wooden table with tissues on it.But most of all,
I see people.
Many kinds of people.
Maybe there is a man with his eyes closed
Or a woman with her fussy children,
Or a girl in the corner, swinging her legs and counting windows,
4,8,12,16 she counts.
All sit, bathing in the silence and the mutual feeling that GOD is with them there.No matter what they call this feeling,
Or the light,
Whether their God is simple
Or simply a spirit present in the hearts of the community
No matter what they believe, they feel personally invited here.
They feel part of a community, loved and respected for their own gifts and talents.
This is a meetinghouse, but it is also a safe haven,
Where one might go
“To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.” —Richard Foster, 1978
Prayer is simply a conversation or contact with God where we open ourselves to the Divine presence. This can take different forms. Quakers may pray silently. We may formulate words or an image or just be. It is important that we listen for what God may have to say to us.
Before meals, Quakers typically have a silent grace or moment of silent thankfulness for the meal and for each other. The group often holds hands during grace.
Holding in the Light
During or after worship, a Friend may ask the group to “hold someone in the Light.” The person may be sick, dealing with difficult life circumstances, struggling spiritually, or working to serve others. To hold a person in the Light, imagine them being held in God’s loving presence and offer prayers and love for them. Holding an individual or a group of people in the Light is often part of our practice of prayer.
“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?” —George Fox, 1652
The Jewish and Christian writings in the Bible are part of the Quaker religious inheritance shared with other churches. Following Fox, however, Friends have refused to make the Bible the final test of right conduct and true doctrine. Divine revelation has not been confined to the past. The same Holy Spirit which inspired the scriptures in the past can inspire living believers centuries later. By the Inner Light, God has provided everyone with access to spiritual truth for today.
There is extreme variety in the Bible’s contents and much of it is quite foreign to our present ways of living and thinking. If it is to be our only guide, it is plainly silent on many urgent questions.
Not all Friends have achieved an ideal relationship to the Bible. Old patterns of misuse or sheer neglect prevent the most beneficial use of the book. What Friends acknowledge as “biblical illiteracy” is too prevalent, and the cure is not easy.
—Adapted from Henry J. Cadbury “Friends and the Bible”
The Quaker expression of this radical expression of Truth was first offered by George Fox in England in the 17th century. George Fox was born in Leicestershire in 1624, the son of a reasonably prosperous weaver and an intensely religious mother. A serious, introspective, physically powerful youth, he was early drawn to religious concerns and was genuinely shocked by the failure of the “professors”, that is, professing Christians, to live their beliefs.
At 19, he left home on a spiritual quest, during which he sought out and challenged the religious leaders everywhere to answer his questions. Nowhere did he find satisfaction, until in 1647, having “forsaken all the priests” and in despair, he heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” The direct experience changed his life, his religious conceptions, and his view of the human-Divine relationship. He devoted the rest of his life to sharing his new understandings.
He was imprisoned eight times. He suffered cruel beatings, great strain and deprivation. And he proved a true religious genius, an heroic and indomitable figure whose journal and other writings continue to be basic works of the Religious Society of Friends, whose founder he is generally conceded to be. He knew the Bible so well that about 75 percent of his writing is biblical allusion. He never intended to found a new sect. He believed his discovery was universal that he had rediscovered primitive Christianity, and its embrace went far beyond the institutional limits of the Christian Church, which in its 17th century condition he regarded as apostate.
In briefest summary, the principles at which he arrived included the following:
- That God is directly accessible to all persons without the need of an intermediary priest or ritual;
- That there is in all persons an in-dwelling Seed or Christ or Light (he used all these metaphors) which is of God and which, if they will but heed it, will guide them and shape their lives in accordance with the will of God;
- That true religion cannot be learned from books or set prayers, words, or rituals, which Fox called “empty forms,” but comes only from direct experiences of God, known through the Seed or Christ or Light within;
- That Scriptures can be understood only as one enters into the Spirit which gave them forth;
- That there is an ocean of darkness and death—of sin and misery—over the world but also an ocean of light and of love, which flows over the ocean of darkness, revealing the infinite love of God; and
- That the power and love of God are over all, erasing the artificial division between the secular and religious so that all of life, when lived in the Spirit, becomes sacramental. The traditional outward sacraments, again characterized as empty forms, are to be discarded in favor of the spiritual reality they symbolize.
—Gordon Brown, “Introducing Quakers”
The early Quakers, derisively named that because their fervor often caused them to tremble as they preached or prayed, met hardship and persecution. Thousands were imprisoned. Some, traveling to carry their Truth, were captured by Algerian pirates and held for ransom or sold into slavery.
The most brutal persecution occurred in the Massachusetts Bay Colony where four Friends were hanged on Boston Common, and others were flogged, branded, had their ears cut off or their tongues bored through with a hot iron, and were driven into exile. Only in Rhode Island, where Roger Williams had established the principle of religious toleration, were Quakers safe from persecution, and there they flourished. A number of governors of that colony were themselves members of the Religious Society of Friends. The oldest general gathering of Friends in the world began there at Newport in 1661 and became the New England Yearly Meeting. In 1672, George Fox himself crossed the Atlantic to attend and give the yearly meeting guidance. A decade later, William Penn began his “holy experiment” by establishing the colony of Pennsylvania and basing its governance on Quaker principles and ideals. Today, with Quaker meetings in more than 60 countries around the world, nearly half the Quakers in the world live in the United States. Since the late 19th century, most Quaker missionary outreach to Africa, Latin America, and Asia has come from the United States. The largest number of Quakers is in Africa, mainly Kenya. This has profoundly influenced the present world picture of the Religious Society of Friends.
—Gordon Browne, “Introducing Quakers“
Hint: It started in Boston.
Lessons that I have learned from Boston Quaker history
A lecture by George Selleck at Friends Meeting at Cambridge.
George Arthur Selleck (1899-1980) was a birthright Quaker, son of Guy B. and Cora Gain Selleck. He married, Florence M. Gifford in 1925 and after Florence died, he married Daisy Newman in 1978. Selleck was educated at Friends University (B.A., 1921), Hartford Theological Seminary (S.T.B., ca. 1926) and Harvard (M.A., ca. 1932). He was a recorded minister and held positions in various Quaker Meetings and was also instrumental in reunifying the New England Yearly Meeting, revising that Meeting’s Book of Discipline. Selleck directed relief work under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee in Finland in 1948-50. He was Inter-faith Seminar Program director of the New England Region of the Service Committee, 1965-67. George Selleck was author of Quakers in Boston 1656-1964 and Principles of the Quaker Business Meeting, among others.
The Religious Society of Friends is an evolutionary transformation of Western, English, Protestant, Puritan Christianity that arose in the mid-1600s during the English Civil War. The movement sought to revive the radical spiritual life of primitive Christianity. Early Quakers were persecuted as heretics.
Today, many “convinced” Friends, who have been attracted to join our search for spiritual immediacy, bring with them some more, some less of their Christian faith. Others, who have been raised as Quakers, continue in the radical Christianity of the early Friends. Still others simply do not self-identify as Christians. For “unprogrammed, liberal” Friends, which includes Friends Meeting at Cambridge, the Quaker version of Christianity does not include a creedal statement of belief, the authority of priests, ritual observance of the sacraments, or adherence to doctrinal Biblical interpretations. Even more importantly, because we seek to live in the Light that takes away the occasion for wars, Liberal Friends have left behind the exclusivity of Christian belief. Thus, Universalists and those from other religious backgrounds are welcome as members.
What has persisted in the Quaker movement is the belief in radical spiritual life for those who sit in expectant worship and walk the talk in social action. Many of us have experienced the growing reality of the inner Christ, the seed, the Light within, the inner teacher. We believe that the love and Light of God, which showed in all its perfection in the life and teaching of Jesus, is available to everyone even today, however they may choose to identify it.
So, the question is, is this the form of Christianity that you are seeking? If not, you may wish to explore other branches of Quakerism that have different Christian profiles.