‘Like a cork on the ocean, wafted hither and thither as the Spirit of God should blow’

The term Quietism, at least in Quaker circles, is usually taken to denote the period stretching from the beginning of the 18th century to the early 19th, and is regarded by most Friends with mixed emotions at best. It is often seen as a retreat from the enthusiasms of the initial years of the movement, a period of ossification and sterility, with increasing formality in terms of dress, speech and behaviour, and an interference in the lives of members which would hardly be tolerated nowadays.

 Yet, this period has its apologists, notably Howard Brinton in the 20th century and, more recently, Lloyd Lee Wilson – as well as others, who have, often, a fairly ambivalent attitude. Thus, despite complaining about a ‘marked negativity’ which, in his view, characterized 18th century Quakerism, Rufus Jones appears to have admired, and perhaps been a little baffled by, the ‘extraordinary sanctity’ of certain Friends during this period.  He certainly provides a wonderful and detailed introduction in Vol. 1 of The Later Periods  of Quakerism, where he first traces the influence of the continental Quietists – such as Mme Guyon, Fénelon and Molinos – and the similarities in the spread of Quietism in Italy and France in the 17th century with that of early Quakerism. Both stressed the authority of the inward light over that of the formal church, both attracted large numbers of lay people, and, in both, groups of adherents would gather in silent worship or meditation. Hardly surprising, then, that Quietists and Quakers were frequently confused, particularly in France, with the Jesuit Bossuet’s attack on Quietism entitled Quakerism à la Mode, and another French Quietist, Antoinette Bourignon, forced to defend herself by publishing a tract entitled A Warning against the Quakers.

 The first in a series of translations of these continental Quietists was made in 1727 by Josiah Martin, a Friend, entitled An Account of Madam Guyon, followed by various works of Fénelon. Much of this material was printed in London, and then reprinted in Philadelphia by Andrew Bradford, in 1738, as The Archbishop of Cambray’s Dissertation on Pure Love, with an account of the life and writings of the lady, for whose sake the archbishop was banished from court. And the grievous persecutions she suffer’d in France for her religion - the ‘archbishop’ and the ‘lady’ being Fénelon and Mme Guyon. In this title we see one of the characteristic terms of 18th century Quaker language – ‘pure love’. ‘Pure’ is a term often used in 18th century writing, with John Woolman speaking of ‘pure wisdom’, as well as his famous passage on the ‘pure principle’. A Guide to True Peace, the best known of these works, is a late addition, first published at the beginning of the 19th century. The fact that it was reprinted some twelve times over the course of  several decades testifies to the enduring influence of Quietist thought within the Society, despite the convulsions, and departures from ‘the Truth’, following the introduction of evangelical Protestantism by Gurney and others.

Quakerism also developed its own extensive Quietist literature, mainly in the Journals, which are now rather neglected, but in which a very particular character is evident. Many of them were probably not intended for publication, and are strikingly free in expression of the highly introspective spiritual life led by these Friends. It is tempting to see a strong contrast between the rugged personalities of the 17th century founders and their more ‘timorous’ (to quote Jones) 18th century heirs, with their fear of ‘creaturely’ activity, their opposition to involvement in the political or intellectual life of the times, and their stress on obedience to the ‘daily cross’. Somewhat akin to monastics, the emphasis seems to have been on inward living, with everything else, even such staples of 18th century Quakerism as travelling in the ministry, assuming a somewhat secondary role.

The Journals have little of the self-confidence, or combative spirit, of early Quaker writing. Humble in tone, they are often hesitant in manner, as though groping in the dark, and even filled with self- reproach, as in the Spiritual Diary (1796) of John Rutty, a medic and scientist. Quotes include the following: ‘Old Adam yet unslain; sticks like birdlime’, ‘Not yet delivered from captivity to the world’s spirit’, ‘Sinfully cholerick on a slight provocation’, ‘Do less in medicine and nature, saith the Lord, and more in spirituals’, ‘O my grovelling tendency to the study of terrestrial matters’, and ‘Sinned in smoking for mere pleasure, not for health’. Most striking is the sentence, which came to him in an ‘irradiation’, that ‘it is criminal not to hate this life’, an almost  Gnostic statement indicating that the struggle between the two worlds was on, between the material and the spiritual, and only by dying to self, and thus opening to that which lies ‘yonder’, could this struggle be won.

Though Friends from this era were often very successful in business, there is frequently a sense of weariness and disgust with such matters. In the case of Thomas Shillitoe (born 1754 in London) his business activities caused more than normal anguish to his tender conscience, which along with the call to travel in the ministry, brought him into ‘secret plungings of spirit’. The ‘plungings’ of 18th century literature are of some interest in themselves, since it is difficult to know whether they are merely Quaker code for simple depression, or refer to deeper and more lasting ‘cleansings’. As Shilllitoe’s spiritual activities increased, the incompatibility of business with the life he was called to lead resulted in him hearing inwardly the words: ‘Gather up thy wares into thine house, for I have need of the residue of thy days.’ At the same time, though, the promise was made: ‘The little meal in the barrel and the little oil in the cruise, of temporal property, shall not fail.’

This attitude is echoed in the Journal (1797) of Job Scott, who records ‘feeling breathings of soul to be set at liberty from bondage of earthly cares’, and talks of the prophetic call in these terms:

Thou art called and appointed, and through many and deep tribulations, I have separated thee a prophet to the nations. Thou hast very little more ever to do in the business and affairs of this life. Gather thy mind from all cumbering things, and stand singly and wholly devoted to my work, service, and appointment. Regard not the world; thou must be about thy Heavenly Father’s business; thou must attend to my directions, and submit therein to thy proper allotment. My will and purpose require and loudly call, and have called, for greater dedication of heart and singleness of devotion to my work and service in the glorious gospel. Take no thought for the morrow: do to-day what thou findest to do, in my light, and in the liberty and allotment of my holy Spirit. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will assuredly give thee a crown of life. I will hold thee in my holy hand forever. I will provide for and take care of thy motherless, and, as it were, fatherless children, in thy absence.’

 Apart from the numerous Journals, letters, and translations of continental Quietists, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of other literature, at least of a religious nature. Or is there? A lot of literature from this period, which has so far been ignored, may contain great treasures in this respect. On most of the evidence so far, however, it would seem as though theology is largely ignored, and it may have been accepted that Barclay had settled all that, and nothing further was required. The Grounds of a Holy Life by Hugh Turford, a schoolmaster from Bristol, was, however, published right at the beginning of the Quietist period in 1702. This was very popular and went through many editions, even being translated into several other languages. Rufus Jones calls it a ‘worthy contribution, though humble and simple, to mystical literature.’ The emphasis here is on the ‘inner witness wrought in the man himself’, on ‘righteousness in one’s own heart’, and what Turford calls ‘the exercise of religion’ – similar perhaps to what Friends of that period, such as John Bellars, refer to as ‘watchfulness’, or to the ‘practice of the presence of God’ of Brother Lawrence (from much the same period). He has little use for ‘words and notions’ and calls his readers away from all forms and outward things.

What of the ‘self-annihilation’ often associated with Quietism (not just of the Quaker variety), and which seems to hold an almost morbid fascination for the modern mind? The most extreme example of this kind of thinking is generally taken to be the Spiritual Guide of Miguel de Molinos. Among Quaker writing, by contrast, a more homely, down-to-earth quality can be found, though not without the sharp distinction made between ‘creaturely affections’ on the one hand and ‘pure love’ on the other, to which everything must be sacrificed. In the Memoirs and Letters of Richard Shackleton there are some good examples of this distinction, and the consequent sense of wariness which pervades the lives of these Friends.

Had I kept to my first love, and not suffered the wisdom of fallen nature to blind and deafen, and, in appearance, almost totally quench in me the second Adam, which is a quickening spirit, I should not now be without true wisdom, in a captious, deceitful world’.

 ‘My mind is too apt to be drawn out in these opportunities (referring to conversations with friends), from a still, quiet frame, into a flutter and commotion; and the affections of the creature to steal into the room of the pure love of the Creator, who is ever jealous of his just right.’

And, in a letter to his daughter Margaret….

 ‘Mayst thou, dear child, be preserved in simplicity and nothingness of self, in humility and lowliness of mind, seeking diligently after, and waiting steadily for, the inward experience of that which is unmixedly good. This is the way to be helped along from day to day, through one difficulty and proving after another, to the end of our wearisome pilgrimage.’

Sarah Grubb, in her Diary (1780), actually talks of her desire to achieve ‘the annihilation of own self’, and of ‘labouring after total resignation of mind’. And to what end? So that ‘every specious appearance of self-love may be consumed and the spring of action of both religious and moral duties rendered pure’. All of which is likely to make little sense to those, like ourselves (or, more accurately, like myself), who have no real idea of the vistas opened up when this great labour of reducing the ‘creature’ is carried through to its logical conclusion.

Are there any vestiges of this remarkable and neglected period of Quaker history left among modern Friends? On a corporate level the answer would seem to be almost none, even, I would dare say, among Conservative Friends, with the exception, as noted above, of Llloyd Lee Wilson, its most notable spokesperson, and a few others. Among individuals it is more difficult to tell. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in Quietism, though not necessarily of a specifically Quaker variety. Patricia Ward, the author of Experimental Theology in America: Madame Guyon, Fénelon, and their Readers (2009) writes:

As time went on and I searched for editions of my authors (ie. Mme Guyon, etc.), I began to encounter a twentieth-century underground readership. People interested in spirituality seemed to hear about Madame Guyon and Fénelon through word-of-mouth. A student at Wheaton College in Illinois came to my home for a painting job, and, to my astonishment, brought along a volume of the autobiography of Madame Guyon to read during his lunch break. “Why are you reading Madame Guyon?” “I heard it was good”, was the reply. Near Columbus, Ohio, a Lutheran of mystical tendencies who was part of a group of bicycle riders explained to me during a breakfast break that she had been told, “Oh, you’re a Madame Guyon”. In Nashville, Tennessee, a member of a small group at the United Methodist Church asked me, “Have you read Fénelon’s ‘Christian Perfection’? It’s really good.” At a conference on Madame Guyon that I attended at Thonon-les-Bains, France, a French reader asked the audience of scholars why Madame Guyon was so little read in France when she was widely appreciated in charismatic circles in the United States.’

But as Jesus himself said, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house”.’ (Matthew 13:57).

Views: 537

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Friend Tom, thanks for  this post.  It speaks to me.  When I discovered the works of the Quaker Quietists I found them to be inspiring and exactly what I was looking for in Quaker spirituality.  The Quaker interest in continental Quietism resulted in the publication of 'A Guide to True Peace'.  The 'Guide' was compiled from the writings of Guyon, Fenelon, and Molinos, along with some of their own writing, by two British Quakers.  I think of the 'Guide' as a literary quilt.  Along with the three continental Quietists the 'Guide' also contains over 100 biblical references.  What I found surprising is how well the compilation works; it flows smoothly and teaches in a plain and direct way.  I carry a copy with me wherever I go.

Quaker historians in general have created a narrative about Quaker history which you touhc on in your post.  That narrative is that there was a creative, short-lived, first period.  That was followed by a decline during the Second Period, the period of Quietism.  Then there was a reinvigoration in the third, modern, period.  What I find interesting is that both liberal and evangelical Quakers share this narrative.  Both liberals and evangelicals have structured their narrative of Quaker history in a way that dismisses, or sidelines Quaker Quietism and exalts the modern period as being superior to it.  For example, both of these modern versions of Quakerism depict the manner in which the Quaker community adhered to a Discipline in negative terms; as if it were a bad thing.  This is because both liberals and evangelicals have adopted the modern perspective of hyper-individualism.  From the modern perspective the purpose of the Quaker community is individual self-fulfillment.  Communal commitments are, through this lens, interpreted as impinging on individual self-expression and that is considered to be a bad thing.  In contrast, I see communal commitments as the vessel that held Quaker spirituality in manner that was a light for the world to see. 

But the more I have uncovered the Quaker Way during the period of Quietism the more I find it attractive.  Personally, I think the period of Quietism was the high point of Quaker history.  Rather than pushing it aside, I think of Quietism as the heart and soul of deep Quaker spirituality.  I am acutely aware of how this runs counter to how most modern Quakers view Quietism. 

I am not familiar with Lloyd Lee Wilson.  Has he written about Quietism?  Is there a way of contacting other Quakers who find the period of Quietism to be nourishing?

Again, thanks for thy post, and I look forward to further observations from you.

Hello Jim,  Thanks very much for your reply. You raise some good points, and I agree with much of what you say about the Quietist period. Concerning Lloyd Lee Wilson (who I hope would not object to my calling a spokesperson for this period) the books of his that I have read are 'Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order', 'Wrestling with our Faith Tradition', 'Holy Surrender', and the 2011 Michener Lecture 'Change and Preservation in the Same Current'. Most of them are probably available from the FGC bookstore, or Amazon. Of course he writes from a modern perspective, which cannot be called a purely Quietist one by any means, but I think there is much in his writing that would appeal to you.

Concerning other Friends who find this period to be of particular interest, I am not really sure, to be honest. Considering the resurgence of Quaker historical research in recent times it is still very neglected, and most people with an attraction to more traditional forms of Quakerism tend to look to the 17th century, and the writings of people like Lewis Benson. Of course, there must be connections here. The 18th century developments had to come from somewhere, and it was not purely from continental Quietism. Barclay clearly has an important role, and I believe that Penington is very close in spirit also. Then there were the developments happening right at the start of the 18th century, which I briefly mention, such as Bellars and Turford, among others. It really seems to be a very poorly understood period, and would be a great area for research, I feel. I'd like to try my hand at this one day, if I can find some time. It would probably be the only way I can do anything useful for the Society!

Thanks once again for your reply.

Both periods were profoundly hostile towards the natural human mind -- a stance early Friends shared with their Puritan contemporaries. Moderns tend to prefer the early period because there was significantly more prophetic manifestations of Spirit, more confrontation with The World in the expectation that it would be quickly brought under Christ's reign; while the Quietists had collectively adopted a more cloistered form of life. The early guys were more visibly heroic (although the Quietists could be quite courageously engaged with the outer society, when they felt that demanded of them.

There are no individuals without our collective cultural context, no collective perceptions without individuals to receive them. That's a dead issue, suitable only to beat Liberals with -- and I'd like to see more thoughtful objections to modernist ideologies, please?

Greetings Forrest:

As usual, you raise some good points.  I don't mind having an exchange about modernism, its character, and how it has effected the Quaker tradition.  I'm not sure that this is the thread for that discussion.  But briefly, I see the collapse of Quaker distinctives from the period of Quietism to be a central question of Quaker history.  In my own mind I contrast this with the ability of other religious traditions that maintained their distinctives into the 21st century.  These include a lot of communities that range from Orthodox Judaism to Amish to Buddhist Monasticism.  The contrast is this: the Quaker distinctives, such as dress and speech (among many others) are paralleled by similar distinctives in the communities I just mentioned.  Quakers were unable to retain their distinctives, yet these other communities were able to do so.  Contemporary Quakers, both liberal and evangelical, regard this as a good thing; and I believe they do so under the influence of such modernist ideas as 'progress' and the modernist idea that the individual is the center of existence.  I could be wrong about that; but even so I think it is a question that modern Quakers would benefit from asking and exploring.  As Tom mentioned, historians do not seem to be looking at Quaker Quietism; it is as if they have, as a group, signed onto the standard narrative of Quaker Quietism as representing a decline, something we modern Quakers have overcome and left behind.  Nothing to really look at there.  My own experience with my interaction with these sources is that there is much from that period of great depth and holiness.  I find people like Hugh Turford profoundly inspiring and insightful.  Like Tom, I suspect that there are lying in various archives works of great wisdom, untouched and unread for over a century.  It is surprising to me how thoroughly modern Quakers have sidelined this period.

Thanks for the comments.

Interesting points made by Forrest. I'm not into Liberal bashing as I go to a Liberal meeting myself. Let's not forget also that 18th century Quietism gave rise to Hicksite Quakerism. As I see it, the kind of thinking prevalent during that period was not the kind of thinking that you would find in, say, Ohio YM (Conservative) these days. Rufus Jones made the point, in one of his books, that you can wade through endless pages of 18th century writing without finding a single reference to Jesus or Christ. Lots of stuff, though, about the 'Creator' or the 'pure principle'. So what are we dealing with here? Also, during this period Deists were thick on the ground within the Society. A lot of them were disowned, such as Abraham Shackleton and the botanist Thomas Bartram (who took not a blind bit of notice and continued to attend meeting until his dying day).

I think we have to be very careful about interpreting the 18th century through our own concerns or 'agenda'. I feel that the way of thinking we encounter during this period rather neatly evades easy characterisation in terms of Liberal, Conservative or Evangelical.

I think that some of what I'm saying here echoes what Jim says above.

Okay, what makes many lovers of old Quaker ways 'modern', by my way of thinking -- is the tendency to treat Quaker history as a sociological phenomenon rather than a spiritual one.

A concern with whether or not we should have kept our distinctive external practices, like 'other' minority religious groups... suggests exactly that kind of thinking, doesn't it? From a spiritual viewpoint, it would make all the difference in the world whether more recent Friends betrayed a leading to keep those distinctives -- or followed a new leading that made those irrelevant or outright counterproductive for God's current purposes.

I'm with earlier generations of Friends -- and contemporary Conservative Friends -- in feeling that there is something amiss in the normal human mind -- a condition sometimes described as 'The Fall' --

and at the same time I feel led to affirm that our normal consciousness -- however immature and wrong-headed we get -- is also God's creation, a faculty to be nurtured as a feature of God's children rather than  repressed as God's enemy...

Right now our mission seems to be -- at least in my city -- to provide a comfortable spiritual practice for atheists. I'm very uncomfortable with the limitations which that situation entails for liberal Friends' Meetings -- but I don't get to tailor the Society of Friends to my needs -- While presumably God knows what we're good for; and is putting us to use where we fit.

Remember George Fox's brush with Deism, in his Journal? How he'd sat by a fire wondering whether 'All things come by Nature' -- and then, regaining his customary faith, looked back on that as 'a temptation' -- which God had sent, he considered, so Fox could better communicate with people who held such beliefs....

Tom E wrote: "Rufus Jones made the point, in one of his books, that you can wade through endless pages of 18th century writing without finding a single reference to Jesus or Christ. Lots of stuff, though, about the 'Creator' or the 'pure principle'. So what are we dealing with here?"

One reason for the lack of biblical perspective among 18th Century Friends was the lack of access to the Bible.  It was not commonly found in Quaker homes.  In the early 19th Century, inexpensive Bibles became widely available in the English-speaking world.  It is reported that the Bible was considered to be a sensation at Ackworth Friends School when it was made available to students.

After the split between Orthodox and Hicksite Friends, there was a deliberate effort in place a Bible in every Orthodox home!  So we should not be surprised that Orthodox Friends quickly became more Biblical in perspective and idiom.

There is a book by an Irish woman who was raised as a Friend, and left as an adult, about the kind of Quaker spirituality she experienced  as a child.  It was very deistic, and lanquid in tone, characterized by "bedewings" of the Divine Spirit.  I have her book somewhere, but can't locate it at the moment.  No wonder Paul being struck down on the road to Damascus was so sensational!

That's a very interesting point made by William Rushby. If Friends did not have access to the Bible, why was that? As a denomination they were probably better off than most, and more 'book orientated' too. I remember a similar discussion on whether most Friends' homes in the early 19th century would have had a copy of a Guide to True Peace, which was claimed to be the case by Brinton. This was later refuted (apparently) by someone else, who said that the influence of the continental Quietists had been greatly exaggerated. But then why all the publishing of their works by Friends, and the fact that some were even prepared to learn French to read them in the original?

I'd love to read that book by the Irish woman, if anyone can let me know the title. 'Celestial showers' seems to be another popular phrase from that period.

There's a Pendle Hill pamphlet by Robert Griswold, on 'Creeds and Quakers'. Basically he says the founding leaders of early Friends were relatively uninterested in ideas about religion (aka "notions") because they'd been too sharply aware of the Referent of all that... Fox could write whole volumes of religious argument and speculation; but he realized quite clearly that no verbal statement about God could bear the weight of one direct experience of God... Hence, sayeth Griswold, they rejected creeds --

less because of a concern for civil liberties and individual autonomy than

because creeds were a distraction from the actuality they were meant to convey.

I can't help wondering whether the alleged opposition to creeds among early Friends might be a case of reading a later bias back into early Quakerism.

This raises the question for me of what constitutes a creed.  In an informal sense, liberal Friends IMHO have rather strong creedal doctrines, but most would probably never admit that they do.  There is even one discussion list that someone enrolled me in where the moderator stated very explicitly that no one would be allowed to assert the usual doctrinal claims that underlie orthodox Christian faith.  Creedal???  (I withdrew my membership in that list!)

Dictionary.com gives as one definition of creedal as ". any statement or system of beliefs or principles."

Did George Fox or other early Friends state explicitly that opposition to creeds was part of their creed???

I don't have the pamphlet with me; I know that (as with everything 'Pendle Hill') the piece is littered with footnotes; and Fox is a prime reference.

Griswold has also written some excellent articles on the tradition including 'No Creed Is Not The Same As No Theology' in Friends Journal -- but lacking a subscription, I can't access that online anymore... So I'll just have to point out that the pamphlet and the article are both worth reading & pondering; and ought to be available in any Meeting library.

What's the point of asking if this was'explicit'? Are you saying that Fox couldn't be said to object to creeds unless he'd gone around chanting "No creeds! No creeds!" or the like? His emphasis was strongly on immediate direct access to God; and strongly against 'professing' Christianity except as something the speaker knew by that means. The frequent references to lapsed Friends as having 'run out after notions' likewise is based on that same insistence that religious ideas simply weren't the point to Fox. Creeds were not, in fact, regularly recited in Quaker Meetings; there might have been far less contemporary opposition if they had been; but it would not have been consistent with the many writings we certainly do have.

The question reminds me of a friend who died a few years ago... Anyway, he got caught driving down the 'carpool' lane with his dog. He demanded that the officer "Show me in writing!" that "two or more" didn't include a man and his dog.

Reply to Discussion


Support Us

Did you know that QuakerQuaker is 100% reader supported? If you think this kind of outreach and conversation is important, please support it with a monthly subscription or one-time gift.

You can also make a one-time donation.

Latest Activity

William F Rushby replied to Forrest Curo's discussion 'Scriptures: Can't do with them; can't do without them?'
"Forrest: You have packed some heavy judgments into two short paragraphs, with no or very meager…"
22 hours ago
Forrest Curo replied to Forrest Curo's discussion 'Scriptures: Can't do with them; can't do without them?'
"Perhaps, then, lack of "faith" (as people typically misconceive it) is less of a barrier…"
William F Rushby replied to Forrest Curo's discussion 'Scriptures: Can't do with them; can't do without them?'
"When God takes the initiative, even the recalcitrant can be converted.  With God, all things…"
Forrest Curo replied to Forrest Curo's discussion 'Scriptures: Can't do with them; can't do without them?'
"Um, where were we? Thanks, however, for that last example of how not to read scripture. If it were…"
William F Rushby replied to Forrest Curo's discussion 'Scriptures: Can't do with them; can't do without them?'
"I don't really have a sophisticated definition of "nontheist" to offer.  I…"
Keith Saylor replied to Forrest Curo's discussion 'Scriptures: Can't do with them; can't do without them?'
"Hello William, Thank you for that important correction. The specific quote that prompted my…"
William F Rushby replied to Forrest Curo's discussion 'Scriptures: Can't do with them; can't do without them?'
"Hello, Keith! "Atheist" is now a naughty word that is not politically correct! …"
5th day (Thu)
Keith Saylor replied to Forrest Curo's discussion 'Scriptures: Can't do with them; can't do without them?'
"Hello William, When you reflect upon another another person as atheist, how are you using that…"
5th day (Thu)

© 2020   Created by QuakerQuaker.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service