‘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).

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A few brief comments:

Like Tom I belong to a Liberal Quaker Meeting and find it a good fit for me; I feel very much at home there.  I have no negative feelings about the liberal or evangelical traditions.  I think both of these branches of Quaker Faith and Practice have much to offer.  My response was focused specifically on the narrative which seems to dominate how Quakers talk about their past; particularly the period of Quietism.  I find myself disagreeing with how modern Quaker historians understand that period; but that does not imply a general critique of either the liberal or evangelical streams (or the Conservative branch).

The comments about how much and how often Quakers read the Bible, and how widespread the Guide was illustrates, in my opinion, how little we know about the period of Quietism.  My sense is that even basic research is lacking so that our views of that period are, for the most part, distorted.  I have read that William Penn had his household gather for daily Bible reading.  I don't know how widespread that practice was or if it had any lasting effect in the period of Quietism.  My guess is that dedicated Bible reading varied among individuals; just as it does today.

Regarding the Guide, my research indicates that at least 17 editions were published in the first 100 years after the Guide appeared.  Almost all of these were sponsored by Quakers.  This indicates to me that there must have been a market for it in the Quaker community.  The 1946 edition was published jointly by Harpers and Pendle Hill, with an 'Introduction' by Howard Brinton; it was later reprinted in 1976 by Pendle Hill.  As far as I know the 1946 edition was the first edition by a major publisher.  The Guide has had an influence and audience outside of the Quaker community from its first publication; in modern times people like Paul Brunton, Christopher Isherwood, and organizations like the Foundation for Human Understanding reference it.  By now, I think, the Guide has established itself as a contemplative classic that is not sect specific.

I quite agree with you, Jim. The Quietist period has to be the least known of all the various periods, and, as you say, even basic information, such as family Bible reading is lacking. For instance, I haven't found much about this in Clarkson (Portraiture of Quakerism) which is one of the best references. Gurney apparently said that he found American Quakers to be rather lax about this on one of his visits there. This was presumably in contrast to British Quakers of the time, with whom he was more familiar.

Friends from this period, particularly the ones who wrote, did clearly have a good Biblical knowledge though. This does not apply just to the Orthodox branch, but also to people like Job Scott and Elias Hicks. Their 'Hicksite' interpetation was, of course, often criticised, though it probably didn't differ all that much from what had gone before. Rather, the Society was beginning to change under Evangelical influence, and what had been the norm was becoming unacceptable, at least to some.

What interests me particularly is the very distinctive, and often beautiful, language you find in the journals. Some of it is very reminiscent of Fenelon (if you know his writing) and is clearly Christian (I haven't come across any Deist writing, though I believe it existed). However, it is expressed very much in its own idiom. The Guide to True Peace, as you say, is now a contemplative classic, and has become increasingly popular over recent years, which is good to see.

I must leave off this discussion as I am off to France, and out of the reach of the internet for a while (what joy!). A pleasure, as always, though, to talk about these things with you.

William, Here is a sample of a founding Quaker stating explicitly no identity with creeds. From William Rogers "Christian Quaker" in the preface p37 published in 1680. I can share with you hundreds of like quotations from Burroughs, Fox, Pennington, Wilkinison just to name a few.

"Awake, Awake from the sleep of Death, that the Lord may give unto you Life. He that was, and is, and is to come, is arisen in a remnant; and Christ, the Son of the Eternal God ... is become the Horn of their Salvation, and hath brought Immortality to Light in them, and revealed the Teacher, that can never be moved into a corner; and therefore these cannot depend any longer on the teachings of man, nor yet on outward Canonical Articles, Creeds, Directories, or Church-Faiths prescribed by man: but on the teachings of Christ alone, by his Light and Spiritual appearance in themselves, to lead and guide unto the Father of Life." 

Many of the founding Quakers rested in the direct and unmediated teaching of Christ alone, by his Spiritual appearance within them. Not by creeds, papers, teachers, etc. outside them. They looked to no outward creed, no Church-Faith no ideology, no theology. Like many of us today, who know a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed inwardly through the inward illumination of Presence so too the founding Quakers awaken from the sleep of Death which is a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by outward creeds, church -faiths, Canonical Articles, etc. 



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