Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Many Quakers mistakenly assume that the modern liberal Quaker movement is not akin to the movement first began by the very earliest Quakers from the 1640’s into the 1670’s. Yet, three characteristics of these very earliest Quakers remain essential characteristics of liberal Quakers in modern times: Spiritual freedom, egalitarianism, and mysticism.
As with many spiritual movements at their beginning, Quakerism began as a free-flowing spiritual society. Highly influenced by Jesus’ own spiritual experience and nature, the earliest Quakers’ spiritual experience included what we would term in modern times a “mystical experience within”. This experience was abundantly more spiritually fulfilling than what they had previously encountered from the established Church of England or the Puritan churches of the day. This mystical experience was so sufficient on its own that these very earliest Quakers eagerly cast off any religious outward forms, viewing them as unnecessary. Further, they began worshipping just as Jesus had done - surrounded by quiet so they could more easily go inward to experience individually and together the same Light experienced by Christ. This form of worship required no hierarchy of human leadership as was typical with the more established churches.
However, a free-flowing spiritual movement such as that did not bode well for its practitioners in the mid-1600’s. An atmosphere of intolerance resulted for the fledgling Quakers; causing persecution, imprisonment, and a general misunderstanding by others. For example, Quakers’ intense mystical experience of oneness with Christ was viewed as blasphemous by others outside of the Quaker movement. In modern times, such a blurring into oneness is well understood to be typical for spiritual mystics, as it is actually a fulfillment of Jesus’ own words about his hopes for his followers, as recorded in the Bible: “I am praying that they may all be One – just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they too may be in us.” Unfortunately for those first Quakers, Quakerism started in the mid-1600’s at a time before that “oneness” concept regarding themselves and the divine was understood and tolerated.
All of this backdrop created an eventual rift among Quakers by 1670. The struggle was between a number of well-known Quakers in the countryside and an emerging London Quaker hierarchy led by George Fox to create religious order through the use of prescribed outward forms; no doubt to gain respectability for the Quaker movement and thereby ensure its survival. By the late 1670’s much of the original egalitarian nature of the Religious Society of Friends had begun to subside at the instigation of George Fox. However, the introduction of outward forms was viewed by many Quakers as a wedge between themselves and their mystical relationship with the divine. They were opposed to the imposition of set worship times, prescribed forms of attire, acceptable speech patterns, membership rolls, a Yearly Meeting hierarchical structure to control all Quaker meetings, an implied hierarchy in the local meetings, and other rules of conduct that appear petty by modern standards. Many Quakers voiced that these London elders were now acting as the churches they had left years ago.
Still, as the Quaker movement entered the 1700’s, the presence of outward forms to solidify Quakers into a uniform religious society had been well established by isolating and ostracizing those prominent Quakers who resisted the changes. But something had been lost in the transition. Quakers could no longer be identified as an organic group of seekers distinguished by spiritual freedom, egalitarianism, and mysticism - as they once were. No longer did their unity lie simply in the same spirit of love and Light that was manifested within Jesus. Instead, Quakers now became viewed by others as guided by uniform peculiar outward forms – just another church of sorts, but burdened with a different set of rules and beholden to a different set of religious leaders. It wasn’t until 1828, when liberal Quakerism began to emerge, that a centuries’ long return began back to that more egalitarian and mystical experience within the Religious Society of Friends.