A Review of Traditional Quaker Christianity

As I read and re-read Traditional Quaker Christianity, I felt a spirit of humble diligence intent upon conveying the core substance of Quaker understanding, as well as the practices that have thus far assisted its continuation. The original draft of this book was the result of a study of Friends faith and witness by Ohio Yearly Meeting member Michael Hatfield. He gave his work to the yearly meeting "to do with as it saw fit." Small study groups were formed in which his writing was found useful but in need of more work. OYM called upon four Friends (Arthur Berk, John Smith, Susan Smith, and Terry Wallace) to edit and develop Hatfield's original draft.

 There are seven chapters in the book, each containing anywhere from four to ten sections. Each section is comprised of a title, selections for recommended reading, a short essay, and questions for discussion. Four appendices complete the main body of the book, providing more discussion of eldering, a brief history and present-day scope of alternate forms of Quaker faith, a glossary of Quaker terms, and a bibliography.

 This book would be helpful for anyone wanting a readable introduction to or comprehensive overview of the original tenets of Quaker Christianity, and the sustaining practices that have evolved in Ohio Yearly Meeting. The primary doctrines of the faith are all included: the Word of God is Christ (not the Bible); the Spirit of Christ is universally bestowed; salvation entails obedience to the living God (not intellectual assent to doctrine); only in the daily cross of Christ can evil be overcome. In addition to presenting the central beliefs, the book examines particular tenets that have arisen from the faith: that gospel ministry is oracular, that the Scriptures are esteemed and studied, that baptism and communion are inward occurrences, and that females and males have equal spiritual potential in substance and practice. Pertinent passages from the Scriptures and Friends writings are frequently cited and paraphrased to supplement the editors' descriptions and explanations.

 Some present-day misconstructions of Quaker faith are addressed. For example, in the fourth section of the first chapter, Lewis Benson is quoted contrasting the ethic of obligation with the ethic of idealism: the former being a principle grounded in divine Will as opposed to the latter, which is based in human values. A later discussion in chapter seven on testimony versus testimonies furthers the discussion, and the difference is then illustrated in later sections where the original peace witness and the contemporary peace testimony are each described.     

 I found the essay on clerking substantial in identifying gifts needed for clerking, responsibilities of both clerk and meeting while conducting business, and helpful practical advice for maintaining order, and writing or modifying a minute. Throughout the book, practical advice is regularly offered and always purposeful.

 The roles of elders, overseers, ministers, and teachers are each described: their work, the strengths and gifts necessary, and the typical dangers encountered. A chart at the end of chapter six compares the different functions and orientations of each, providing an easy reference to Friends who are not practiced in identifying these gifts and are unfamiliar with their specific benefits to the community.  

 Though Traditional Quaker Christianity is intended to convey the tradition among Conservative Friends, it may find readers among Liberals and Evangelicals. Should another generation of Quakers come forth and undertake the restoration of "the desolations of many generations," they could find this book a resource for building up a Quaker Christian society. Here they would find stated the purpose and aim of the society, means to realize that aim, practices to support those means, and generally a structure  provided in which a people of God could arise, flourish, and serve the cause of Truth.

          

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Comment by James C Schultz on 10th mo. 2, 2014 at 6:48pm

After finishing the book I still think it's worth a spot in every meeting's library.  While it ends with a little sense that the authors consider Conservative Quakers are truer to the original model than all the others it is important to note that the book is about traditional Quaker CHRISTIANITY and in that sense they might very well be as many liberal quakers would contend that Quakerism is no longer just a Christian religion and others would contest the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth, His resurrection from the dead and/or the whole concept of salvation which are all traditional Christian beliefs.  Yet the book contains much that all Quakers can reflect upon in determining the health of their spiritual journey individually and collectively as members of whatever body of Quakers they consider their community.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 2, 2014 at 7:15pm

Well, here's where we get up against that question of "What 'is' Christianity?"

Some traditional Christian beliefs are not particularly 'Christian'. These, unless interpreted very differently than I can understand them, would therefore have to be untrue... Really, we still end up with that question asked mockingly by Pilate, ie 'What is Truth?'

Traditional-or-untraditional doesn't even touch that question! And if 'Christianity' means something that's true, as I'm sure we do agree -- then Truth has to be the real issue. What makes that question 'Christian' would be how we seek to answer it, Whom we ask.

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 10th mo. 3, 2014 at 8:52am

Our tradition, Forrest, does more than "touch" the question of what is truth; it is grounded in Truth and upholds it. In fact, we answered to the name "Friends in the Truth" before we answered to the name of "Quakers." Fox's conception of Truth is described by Lewis Benson in an essay titled "Friends and the Truth." I'll copy a couple of excerpts here and if you want to read more, I'll let you know how you can find a copy. Benson writes: 

For early Friends truth was the ultimate value. George Fox says, "prize the truth above all things" and "love the truth more than all" and in an Epistle to Friends he writes, "Let the weight and preciousness of truth be in your eye, and esteemed above all things by you." Truth is that which we are to love and prize and esteem above everything else. The truth, says Fox, " is that that is stronger than all" and "do not think that anything will outlast the truth."

The term "truth" of which Fox spoke in such glowing superlatives has now disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary. How did this conception come to occupy the central place in Fox's thought and what meaning did it hold for him? Fox's conception of truth is grounded upon his belief that the life of man is determined by his relationship to his creator. He believed that the creator speaks to man calling for right action and for a community that lives under his rule. By listening to God and obeying his word man fulfils the basic law of his being. This basic conversational relationship between man and his creator is what Fox means by truth. Truth does not consist of particular propositions or a system of propositions. It is rather a dialogic relationship with God. When this dialogic relationship is broken, man ceases to fulfil the purpose and destiny that God intended for him. This is the fall of man--the failure to hear and obey the creator. This is what Fox calls "the fall from the truth" and to his opponents he declares: "To the witness of God in you all, I speak; that you may see your fall from the truth, out of the prophets' life, Christ's life, and the apostles' life; so you are out of the commands, and fallen from God..." Truth is experienced as the voice of the creator whose word must be obeyed, and so it is natural for Fox to speak of hearing truth's voice and obeying the truth. Truth comes by obedience in righteousness and therefore the wisdom of "Friends in the Truth" is not the wisdom of the wise but the wisdom of the just. 

Comment by James C Schultz on 10th mo. 3, 2014 at 12:28pm

According to John Jesus is the Truth.  If we understand Truth to be what is real I can see Jesus saying He is the Truth to be pretty much the same thing as God identifying himself when speaking from the burning bush as "I AM".  Of course Jesus is not just the Truth, he is the Way and the Life so when Jesus reveals himself to us we get a glimpse of the Truth just as Moses got a glimpse of God and it gives us a perspective that allows us to be free of all the man made truths that try to enslave us by insisting we should be this or that or do this or that.  The more Jesus reveals himself to us we learn how to Live in the Truth and eventually we find we are living the Way of the Truth and being transformed from our spirit outwards until a day comes when we have received that spiritual gift that far surpasses prophecy and tongues, the gift of Love and we have truly found the way to the Father's house for God is Love.

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 10th mo. 3, 2014 at 3:30pm

Laura, you've brought up a number of issues, and most of them you've answered yourself: there's nothing wrong with "community" and "right action," but when community is sought for the sake of community and right action is sought for the sake of right action according to one's ideals/values, then they are expressions of human ability and aspiration--independent of divine will. And then we have secular humanism.

Likewise, you've discerned what's behind your squeamishness about the word "truth": a counterfeit Christianity of "intellectually assented to" doctrines. Fox also was handed an apostatic form of Christian faith, which he couldn't accept. He had a great deal of inward sensitivity when he was young. We all need to cultivate our ability to discern truth from falsehood and make the most of the sensitivity that we're given, and then we're given more, as in the parable of the talents.

The last issue you brought up  is one that's more difficult. God's love is very different from the love that we are capable of on our own:  in God's love we can love our neighbor as ourself; in God's love we can love our enemies just as completely as we love those who are dearest to us.

There are many kinds of human love; loving God is one kind. But still loving God is a human activity, and therefore isn't a valid standard by which to judge divine revelation or command, any more than reason or the Scriptures would be valid standards by which to try divine commands. There's a passage in Barclay that speaks of the evidence and clarity that comes with divine revelation that inclines the mind to assent. This is what Benson meant when he wrote "the voice of the creator whose word must be obeyed." The voice must be obeyed because it carries with it a convincing power. Here's the Barclay quote:

Yet from hence it will not follow,that the divine revelations are to be subjected to the test, either of the outward testimony of the Scriptures, or of the natural reason of man, as to a more noble or certain rule and touchstone; for this divine revelation and inward illumination, is that which is evident and clear of itself, forcing, by its own evidence and clearness, the well-disposed understanding to assent, irresistibly moving the same thereunto, even as the common principles of natural truths do move and incline the mind to a natural assent; as, that the whole is greater than its part, that two contradictories can neither be both true, nor both false (Apology, 2nd proposition).

Comment by Keith Saylor on 10th mo. 3, 2014 at 5:04pm
I get it Laura. Thank you for your testimony of deepening in Jesus in the circumstance of life; even when it is a struggle in the face of fear, anxiety, and anger. Your testimony mediates Christ to the reader. Bless you.
Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 10th mo. 3, 2014 at 5:20pm

Thanks, Keith. I appreciate your responding.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 3, 2014 at 8:10pm

There's what I'd call "transcendent factuality."

That is, no historian or theologian can provide a valid expert opinion as to whether God actually sent Jesus as a wake-up call, an act of divine mercy on the world. Did, or didn't. That's what truth is about. If a doctrine happens not to be true in that sense, it might be held by a great many 'Christians' but could not be a valid element of 'Christianity.'

I call myself "Christian" because "did" is utterly obvious to me -- and because I've found God to be as Jesus said -- and because what I've been able to learn about the man has been of great value.

I have not found all the various traditions and beliefs through which Jesus and his role have been filtered to be of similar value,  or even plausible. Other interpretations of those traditions may someday make them helpful, whether true or not. The fact that some interpretation is traditional, however, while it inclines me to consider that it might have a meaning I'm simply not getting -- doesn't seem to have much evidential force.

Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 10th mo. 5, 2014 at 11:14am

Patricia, thank you for starting this discussion. I've ordered Traditional Quaker Christianity and look forward to reading it. 

And thank you, Laura, for your testimony. 

Although I don't think he would have embraced the name Christian, I'm reminded of Jim Corbett - "The new covenant turns out to be the primal Covenant continuing to reveal itself,  a light shining in the darkness throughout the Creation, from the beginning" and "the covenanted task remains the same, to be a people whose way of life hallows the earth."

Comment by Jim Wilson on 10th mo. 8, 2014 at 12:25pm

I received my copy of 'Traditional Quaker Christianity' and have found the book to be an inspiring read.  The writing is clear and direct.  I often felt like I was being eldered, in a friendly, and Friendly, way while I was reading.

The book is divided into seven chapters.  Each chapter is divided into a number of sections.  Each section is only a few pages long.  This makes the book a good resource; you can go to a particular section you are interested in and contemplate that particular topic.  Or you can read the book from cover to cover.  Each section ends with 'Discussion Questions' which I found helpful.  These 'Discussion Questions' also seem to be designed for using in a group context.  And I think the book would be a useful introduction to traditional Quakerism when read in a small group setting, as well a for individuals to read.

There are numerous quotes from the Bible and from Quaker works; particularly George Fox, Isaac Penington, William Penn, and Margaret Fell.  The numerous quotes make the book a kind of compendium of traditional Quaker thought and views.

I was particularly struck by the discussion on the Peace Testimony.  This is the only topic for which there are two sections.  The first section deals with 'Common Misunderstandings', and this is then followed by 'Friends' Original Peace Witness'.  I found these two sections personally illuminating.  I have for some time been puzzled at the fickleness with which Liberal Quakers adhere to the Peace Witness.  I was particularly struck by Liberal Quakers I know who agreed with Obama's attacks on Libya to remove Qaddafi (that worked out well, didn't it?).  This feeeling of liberal fickleness with regard to the Peace Witness was reinforced by reading Chuck Fager's 'Angels of Progress'  In 'Angels', Fager discusses how Progressive Meetings turned on a dime from being militantly anti-war (asking the federal government to abolish the 'War Department', now known as the 'Defense Department'), and then becoming just as militantly pro-war during the Civil War.  Outside of a Quaker context, this parallels the way Progressives were anti-war before W.W. II, until Hitler attacked Stalin, and then they became militantly pro-war and pro-interventionist.  Still, I was baffled by how easily Liberal Quakers drop their commitment to a Peace Witness; the Liberal Quaker attitude seemed to be a very weak version of the just war theory, at best.

The two chapters in this book opened for me just why the Liberal Quaker commitments in this area are so weak.  On page 173 the book notes, 'Christ Jesus has commanded us not to fight and kill.  Of all the reasons for supporting the Peace Testimony, this is its single firm foundation.'  This is the heart of the Quaker Peace Witness.  When the foundation is abandoned it is not surprising that those testimonies, such as the Peace Witness, which rest on this foundation, become shaky, or non-existent.

I will be reading this again.  I want to express my gratitude to the authors; they have created a beautiful and, I think, an enduring work which will benefit many people.

 

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