The Earliest Quakers and Liberal Quakerism

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.

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Comment by David McKay on 10th mo. 13, 2018 at 11:12am

I usually grimace when a response to somebody's offering is to quibble about words. I'm about to quibble about words. :)

The word "mystical" implies (for me) and encounter that is largely ineffable. That is to say: it is about something for which human language fails us. When I hear people talking about such and so being "mystical" they seem to want that ineffability to be somehow intrinsic the experience:  not only does language fail, it must fail. In other words it is a theory about the nature of human language almost as much as it is about the experience/encounter.

When I read early Friends I do not here people protecting what they say by claims of ineffability or remote mystical experience. I hear people talking about being led by a God who speaks to them. The word I might favour here would be "prophetic". Moreover I hear no claims of specialness of rarity. I hear an assumption that pretty much everyone has access to this encounter and those who claim otherwise have been bewitched by the extremes of Calvinism and their obsessions with the text of scripture being the sole foundation of faith.

I do not think "prophetic" faith is any less liberal necessarily. And I'm not entirely sure I am using the word "mystical" in quite the same sense that you are.

Comment by Howard Brod on 10th mo. 13, 2018 at 2:42pm

Thanks David,

For the very reasons you state, Mysticism has many variant descriptions (see for a sampling).  One could spend the rest of their life researching and trying to define it. I like the simple definition given in Collins dictionary: "Mysticism is a system of contemplative prayer and spirituality aimed at achieving direct intuitive experience of the divine" 

I do believe that for many of the earliest seekers in Quakerism during the first few decades, there was a mystical experience at work. This is not to say that for some, such as George Fox, there was not also a prophetic aspect to their experience. 

The fact that there was such an emotionally resistant reaction for many earliest Friends at the introduction of outward forms to the Religious Society of Friends, is telling. One of the key indications of mysticism is an abhorrence towards being spiritually defined (as you accurately implied in your response). 

At any rate, the purpose of my blog post was not to list every characteristic of the earliest Quakers; rather, it was to point out just three characteristics that many modern liberal Friends share with these earliest Friends. Yet, not all modern liberal Friends do so, of course.  We are a varied lot!

In some liberal meetings, it is the mystics within the meeting that actually have encouraged the meeting to lessen or eliminate outward forms so that all in the meeting might enjoy a mystical experience with the divine often.  I think we may continue to see more of a lessening of outward forms within liberal Quakerism as time moves on. Once my meeting started experimenting with this, the spirituality of individual Friends and the meeting as a whole has blossomed. So, my experience indicates to me that there is a power in mysticism (as Rufus Jones explained well). This power can be very at home within liberal Quakerism as it was with the very earliest Quakers before they were pressured to accept outward forms. As liberal Friends, we should be suspicious of unnecessary outward forms such as permanent committees, appointed leaders, Quaker traditions for traditions sake, petty rules/controls or procedures, on and on.  Unnecessary outward forms create a dulled spiritual environment that makes it more difficult to connect constantly with the Light. Plus, outward forms make the experience of the divine quite a drag in my opinion  :-)

Much Light to you my F(friend).

Comment by David McKay on 10th mo. 13, 2018 at 6:39pm

Thank you for the clarification.

I do follow the contemplatives as much as I can (I lack their discipline). But I tend to avoid the term "mysticism" simply because it is so loaded.

I agree. Quakers can be as much addicted to dead forms as the religion down the street. Something the first Friends may not have appreciated. I think structure can be helpful though. So I'm less in favour of "lessening or eliminating outward forms" as ensuring the ones we hold onto are held gently.

Comment by Howard Brod on 10th mo. 13, 2018 at 7:23pm

So well said, David.  Thank you!


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