Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Interpreting Our Past – Part 1
I have been reading ‘The Rich Heritage of Quakerism’ by Walter Williams. I find it an enjoyable read. It is a view of Quaker history from the perspective of an evangelical Quaker and since most Quakers are in this stream, the book likely presents a view of Quaker history that is widely held.
Here I would like to make a few comments on Chapter 12, ‘The Age of Quietism’ which begins on page 119. These are impressionistic comments, not a scholarly analysis.
The overall attitude of Williams towards the period of Quietism (which Williams dates from 1690 to 1825) is found on pages 119 and 120. Williams quotes from an advice that the London Yearly Meeting sent to all of its members in 1689 after the passage of the Toleration Act:
“Walk wisely and circumspectly toward all men, in the peaceable Spirit of Jesus Christ, giving no offense nor occasions to those in outward government, nor way to any controversies, heats, or distractions of this world, about the kingdoms thereof. But pray for the good of all: and submit all to that Divine power and wisdom which rules over the kingdoms of men.”
Williams then comments, “It would appear that for the next hundred years and more Friends generally followed these counsels, keeping themselves aloof from governmental problems, giving little denunciation to social evils, and only praying for the good of all – an attitude of mind and habit of life that could not have satisfied the first generation of Quakers.”
My first comment is that I think it is revealing that both evangelical and liberal Quakers today feel that this attitude, summed up in the quote, is a bad thing. The idea of forming a separate community that was ‘aloof’ from the larger society, that was to a degree withdrawn from the larger society, is viewed as a decline, something that the first generation of Quakers would not have approved of.
I am not convinced that this is an accurate appraisal of the first generation and their attitudes; in fact it seems to me that there is a continuity between the first generation and the period of Quietism. But I can see people arguing otherwise.
The question I would ask is how did the Quietist Quakers view themselves? My feeling is that modern Quaker historians are not allowing Quakers from this period to speak for themselves; we are not hearing their own voice. Instead, modern Quaker historians see the period of Quietism through their own interpretive lens and I think this lens is distorting. And it is worth pointing out, again, that both liberal historians and evangelical historians of this period in Quaker history share the same interpretive evaluation because both the evangelicals and liberals are engaged activists. And both sides argue against the idea of forming an ‘aloof’ community; that is to say a separated and distinct community. One example of the way this modern interpretative lens distorts is in the very usage of a word like ‘aloof’. Notice that the quoted Advice does not use the word ‘aloof’. Instead it advises members to adopt a peaceable attitude towards all and model their behavior on that of Jesus. Forming a distinct community is not necessarily a matter of being aloof and the use of that word pushes the reader towards a negative assessment of this period. For example, what if Williams had used the word ‘intentional’ to describe the Quaker community at that time? Or what if he had written, “not participating in governmental problems and disputes”? A phrase like ‘not participating’ is, I feel, more descriptive, more neutral, and less likely to generate a negative assessment. But because evangelical (and liberal) Quakers today regard activist participation in the political process as significant, even central, to their understanding of what it means to be a Quaker, they have difficulty approaching the period of Quietism without bringing in their own negative evaluation, based on their own understanding.
But I want to hear from Quakers during this time in their own voice. My suspicion is that they knew what they were doing and that they had reasons for doing it. To be honest, I find the quote from the Advice of the London Yearly Meeting to be inspiring and I want to hear more along these lines.