Silence is My Leading


Since I became acquainted with the Quietist period of Quaker history I’ve been attracted to it.  This period, which some Quaker historians refer to as ‘The Second Period of Quaker History’, is the one where I find the most nourishment.  It is the period which produced ‘A Guide to True Peace’ which has been of such help in my own inward journey.


Along with this attraction has been a searching out of what constitutes the difference between the Quaker ‘Activists’, who appear to dominate Quaker communities today, and Quaker Quietists, who do not seem to have much of a voice at this time.  Tentatively, I’ve come up with a working distinction.  It has to do with how the two approaches comprehend the nature of silent worship.


For the Activist silent worship is a means towards an end.  That end is the uncovering of an individual’s ‘leading’.  In the quiet and stillness of gathered worship the Activist Quaker can discern what they need to do, what they need to be engaged with.  For the Quietist Quaker, or more broadly the Contemplative Quaker, silence is the leading.  That is to say, for the Quietist silence is not a means for uncovering what one should be doing and where one should be going.  Rather, for the Quietist, entering into the silence of gathered worship is an end in itself.  For the Contemplative where one should be going is into the inward silence.  Silent worship is the leading.


I am not the first to notice this distinction.  Howard Brinton in his ‘Introduction’ to the 1946 edition of the ‘Guide’ (reprinted by Pendle Hill in 1979), notes that the ‘Guide’ suggests that “We must look within, not without, for the meaning and goal of life.  In the depths of our being we shall find an inner sanctuary where there is true peace . . . This solution will seem too simple to intellectuals and too inadequate to activists.”


The ‘Guide to True Peace’ is a manual for inner contemplation but it does not go on to suggest that this inward turning is justified by how its insights are then used in the world.  That is why the activist finds this approach inadequate.  But for the Contemplative Quaker, it is completely adequate.  The Contemplative, or Quietist, Quaker is content with the process of silent prayer and does not need to have it justified by its effect on activities in the world.


Or, more accurately, the prayer of inward silence in gathered worship is an activity in itself, an activity which the Contemplative Quaker finds inherently valuable.  Why?  Because the prayer of inward silence in gathered worship brings us closer to God.  For the Contemplative, that is the purpose of Quaker Faith and Practice. 


The Activist tends to look at silent worship as a kind of pit stop where we can refresh our spirit in like-minded community.  And it is true, it does provide such refueling and refreshment.  The Contemplative, in contrast, tends to look at silent worship as the vehicle that the Contemplative is travelling in.  The Contemplative arranges the activities of life so that they support times of silent worship.  The Activist uses silent worship to support activities in the world.  For the Activist the measure of silent worship’s usefulness is how it is applied in a social and political context.  For the Contemplative, silent worship is the social, the community context, the purpose, of the Quaker tradition. 


We live in a time where silence is difficult to find.  Turning inward, to inward silence, is looked at as suspicious and probably a waste of time.  But the Quakers of the period of Quietism did not think so.  They have left us a rich heritage of what that inward turning consists.  I am deeply grateful to have discovered this heritage, this guide to true peace.


Best wishes,




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Comment by Aaron J Levitt on 10th mo. 29, 2011 at 11:19am

Thank you for sharing this, Jim. I seek and experience silence as both an end and a means, but I feel myself getting unbalanced towards the latter fairly regularly. Maybe the same thing happens to some communities.



Comment by Jim Wilson on 10th mo. 30, 2011 at 8:47pm

Friend Aaron:


You are welcome.  I suspect that most people oscillate back and forth.  And communities as well.  I think at one point, during the Quietism period, the Quaker community seemed to approach silent worship as sufficient unto itself.  Then the pendulum swung the other way.  I think our current period is dominated by an activist view of silence; that silence is simply a means for becoming a better activist.  My hope is for a more contemplative Quaker approach.




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