Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Interpreting Our Past – Part 2
One of the characteristics of the period of Quietism is that the Quaker community was governed by a code of Discipline, which is to say a code of conduct. Williams sums up some of the code on page 126 with items that include prohibitions on alcohol, tobacco, cursing, failure to read scripture regularly, and others. I have read a number of Disciplines from this period in a book called ‘The Old Discipline’ and I think Williams’s description is accurate. I would even suggest that the Disciplines of the time were more thoroughgoing than Williams indicates.
Williams comments on the Discipline by saying, “If our generation inclines to smile at some of these regulations, the fact is clear to us all that these Friends of two centuries ago were fully convinced that Christianity is a life – not merely an identification with some religious sect or church.” (Page 126) Williams concludes this section with, “Such restrictions have, of course, long since been removed from the Discpline; and our generation deplores the loss to the Church of many godly and substantial families while the restrictions still remained in force.” (Page 126)
My first comment is simply to observe that today the book that governs a Quaker Yearly Meeting is likely to be called ‘Faith and Practice’. And it is unlikely to contain anything like the kinds of restrictions on everyday behavior that were the norm during the period of Quietism. This shift from a ‘Book of Discipline’ to a ‘Faith and Practice’ reflects a shift in the nature of the association. For both liberal and evangelical Quakers the feeling is that the disciplined life that was the norm under Quietism was too confining and lead to a loss of membership and energy; this is what Williams means by his remark deploring the loss of so many ‘substantial families’ of Quakers. This negative assessment of the Discipline is something that both liberal and evangelical Quakers share; they feel they have overcome and advanced beyond such an approach.
My second comment is that I think if one compares the function of discipline in a non-Quaker context a different way of looking at this period emerges. By ‘discipline’ I mean a written code of conduct which members of an association are expected to adhere to if they wish to remain in good standing.
The clearest example I can think of that instantiates this kind of social arrangement is monasticism. Christian monasticism is governed by a rule, such as the ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’. The rule outlines the basic parameters of a monastic life including codes of conduct, required observances, offices, and formation. What is remarkable about Christian monasticism is its tenacity over time. Though at times there have been strongly anti-monastic currents in Christian history, such as the English reformation, overall Christian monasticism has been able to survive and even flourish into the modern period. Although membership in specific orders that are governed by specific rules, or disciplines, has fluctuated, up and down, over the centuries, even so the monastic presence has been remarkably enduring.
Buddhist monasticism is another example of an institution of remarkable endurance. It has maintained its presence in the world, in basically the same form, for about 2500 years. Buddhist sects have come and gone; East Asia is littered with the archeological remains of temples and monuments; but Buddhist monasticism has retained its integrity and an identifiable continuity over the millennia.
Buddhist monasticism is governed by a rule, a code of discipline called the Vinaya. It is six volumes and meticulously governs the lives of Buddhist monastics in great detail.
There are other examples, but these two are illustrative. My point here is that Quaker historians tend to view the period of Quietism, and its Disciplines, through the lens of modern day hyper-individualism. They therefore conclude that the overall effect of the Discipline must have been a negative one because it impinges on individual expression which is the highest good to which modernity aspires. (I think it was Ross Douthat who noted that the only ‘ism’ that contemporary people believe in is ‘individualism’.) Unable to note the similarities between a Discipline governed life in other social contexts, and the Quaker Discipline of the period of Quietism, the analysis of its effects, by both liberal and evangelical historians, strikes me as shallow and off the mark. Given that there are types of rule-bound, disciplined life that have lasted far, far longer than the way outlined in Quaker Disciplines, the question that really needs asking is why was this focus on Discipline lost among the Quakers when it was not lost among the Benedictines, or the Carthusians, or the Theravada Buddhists?
I don’t have an answer; but I think it is a question that needs raising; my hope is that by asking such a question some light might be shed on the process that undermined the Quaker Way of life.
It is worth noting, I think, that a rule-bound, disciplined, life is not confined to monasticism. One can also find it among Anabaptist groups such as the Amish. Among the Amish the ‘Discipline’ is referred to as their ‘Ordnung’; and it is, perhaps, the closest analog to the Quaker Discipline of the period of Quietism. Amish Ordnung govern many aspects of behavior, establish the Order of Service, describe how to choose ministers and bishops, and how violations are to be handled. Violations can result in expulsion from the Amish community, just as violations of a monastic rule can result in expulsion, just as violations of a Quaker Discipline could also end in being ‘written out of the Meeting’.
The Amish were able to retain their approach into the modern period, but Quakers, by and large, were not. It seems to me the question that historians should ask is why Quakers lost their Discipline. I am particularly interested in hearing the voices of those who defended a traditional Quaker way of life; that is to say a way of life under a code of Discipline. I mean, when the evangelicals and liberals were altering that way of life, what did the traditionalists have to say? What was their point of view? It is difficult to find out what their perspective was because Quaker historians today do not seem to be interested in letting them speak to us. Having decided that the Discipline is something we are better off without, there is no need to allow contrary voices to speak. I think this is a loss and, personally, I would like to hear what the traditionalists had to say as they saw the Quaker Discipline slipping away.