Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
The perfect way of unity and conformity
Leslie Higgins, in an article(1) entitled “The Apostatized Apostle, John Pennyman: Heresy and Community in Seventeenth Century Quakerism,” quotes John Pennyman:
“And if any have not the self-same measure of the Spirit, and know the self-same things, let such alone, without imposing upon them, and leave them to walk in the measure of Light and Knowledge that they have reciev'd, though it be not the self-same measure that others have reciev'd: and if they want any knowledge, or be in any thing otherwise minded, God shall reveal the same unto them: - and here is the perfect way of Unity and Conformity.”
John Pennyman was one of the early Quakers who held to the sufficiency of the immediate inward guidance of Presence itself and so was not cordial to those other early Quakers who lost faith in this early testimony and began instituting outward forms and structures to supplement and regulate the experience of a conscience directly informed by Presence itself.
The quote above is profound in its witness to a Spirit and conscience that trusts completely in and holds faithfully to the inward Presence of God even in the midst of seemingly conflicting “measures of Light.” There is such a simple beauty to this experience of the “perfect way of Unity and Conformity” in that it has complete faith in the inward presence of God to work things out even when it is not pretty. In this perfect way of unity and conformity there is a powerful and beautiful sense of long-suffering and patience anchored in the direct experience of inward Presence itself. This perfect way does not seek unity in outward or expired static forms and traditions but in Living Presence itself without respect of outward persons, traditions, or institutions.
The Quaker experience in history demonstrates the flaw in binding and regulating a conscious and conscience to outward persons, traditions, ideologies, and institutions. These outward matrices overshadow the intuited experience of Presence itself leading to enchantment in the spell of outward forms and the loss of unity and conformity. The imposition of outward forms over against the freedom of conscience in Presence itself does not produce unity; it only serves as a nursery for further disunity. Those Quakers, who sought unity, through the disuniting imposition of outward forms and respect of persons over Presence, undermined the very unity they sought.
Near the end of her article Higgins writes:
“Able to dismiss the person of John Pennyman because of his eccentric behavior ..., satisfied that he represented a threat to the community because he provided opponents with new opportunities for persecution, the London Friends community was less able to satisfactorily dismiss the challenge that he represented to their formulations of divine and human authority, a challenge which persisted behind the attempts of prominent Friends to organize the community and justify corporate authority in subsequent decades.”
Intuited Presence will always work through the cracks and crevices and break through the spells of outward forms; lighting the conscious and conscience in and through itself. Leaders always use the pretense of bad or embarrassing behavior to justify the outward institutionalization of Presence. The more leaders seek unity by regulating through outward forms, the more disunity they reap. Quaker history demonstrates this experientially.
The perfect way of Unity and Conformity is faith in the inward guidance of Presence itself and patience and long-suffering in light of unequal measures of Light. This was the way of the early Quakers until some lost faith in it, as a result of behaviors they disagreed with, and turned to a respect of outward persons and institutions. It is instructive that there were many who held to a faith in Presence itself as the perfect way of Unity and Conformity, however, those who sought to impose outward forms focused on the small numbers of eccentric individuals and lost perspective.
1. THE APOSTATIZED APOSTLE, JOHN PENNYMAN: HERESY AND COMMUNITY IN SEVENTEENTH CENTURY QUAKERISM
Lesley H. Higgins
Vol. 69, No. 2 (Autumn 1980), pp. 102-118
Published by: Friends Historical Association
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41946910