A short history of the gathered meeting

July 18, 2013 § 16 Comments

On July 8, Bill Rushby wrote this in his comment on my post on The gathered meeting and Jesus the Christ—some questions:

I think there are important questions that are being missed here. In discussing this blog, we have moved off into “rabbit trails” concerning the theological basis of Quakerism.

No one here has offered an explication of the concept of “gathered meeting”. And, at least in this blog and discussion, the origins of this idea have yet to be probed. It would be useful to narrate some specific experiences of gathered meetings, both in the ministers’ (and other) journals/memoirs and in the personal recollection of the parties to this discussion. The theological context of these experiences would also be relevant.

I have been trying to explicate the gathered meeting in terms of experience and testing early Friends’ testimony that the gathered meeting has its origins, as an experience rather than as an idea, in Christ. I have been trying to square their testimony, which I believe, and their experience, which I trust, with my own. And I was just about to start a series that does describe my own experiences with the gathered meeting. Some other commenters have done this along the way, as well.

My approach so far is something of a departure for me. Usually I start a project like this with research and then try to make that concrete. This time, I’ve started with concrete experience and haven’t done any research, though all along my intellectual temperament has has lured back into the realm of ideas and the whole thing has been an exercise in theology.

I do think that the “idea” of the gathered meeting came from scripture, as did almost all the “ideas” of early Friends. And I’ve said already that I suspect that Matthew 18:20 is the original source for the idea, though I believe there are others. I remember Bill Taber mentioning Acts 15 in this regard, the so-called Council of Jerusalem, in which the disciples decide whether to accept Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. And, as I note below, there’s Matthew 23:37. But in fact, I don’t really know where this idea came from for sure, or, just as interesting to me, when Friends began using the phrase “gathered meeting”.

Still, Bill’s comment reminds me that I have covered some of the ground he seems to be looking for already in an article I wrote for the January 2013 issue of Spark, New York Yearly Meeting’s print journal, titled simply The Gathered Meeting. It’s too long to publish in this blog, except in installments and I don’t know if I want to do that. You can read it by following the link above. But I do want to excerpt at least one section of it, headed A Short History of the Gathered meeting. Here it is:

The gathered meeting runs as the essential thread of spiritual ignition in our tradition. This began with the original gathering experience of Jesus’ early followers. It reemerged in the birth of the Quaker movement, and in it Quakerism has found its Guide ever since.

The first recorded gathered meeting in our root tradition was the baptism of Jesus, in which all assembled shared a psychic experience of God’s revelation in some way. This continued in the event we call the transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John were all caught up with Jesus in a vision of Moses and Elijah. Whatever else those events were, they were gathered meetings for worship in which Jesus and his friends were all gathered up into a shared religious experience. The defining example of a gathered meeting in our root tradition was Pentecost, in which several thousand were converted to the Way that Jesus taught in a manifestation of the Spirit through the apostles’ vocal ministry shortly after Jesus’ death.

The term gathered meeting comes, I suspect, from several passages in Christian scripture, and especially, from Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, on how to elder wayward members. It ends with this promise: “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also.” This promise is the foundation of Quaker worship, and especially, of Quaker meeting for business in worship.

The first recorded gathered meeting in our Quaker tradition was the fulfillment of George Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill of a “great people to be gathered” (see note below)—the convincement of the Seekers at Firbank Fell in 1652, the initiation of the Spirit that jump-started our movement. The journal of George Fox and of many other early Friends and continuing through all the periods of Quakerism into at least the middle of the 19th century are full of descriptions of meetings that were covered by the Holy Spirit and “the power of The Lord.” (“The power of the Lord was over all” was their way of saying that a meeting was so overflowing with the Holy Spirit that some Friends quaked.)

Note: I wonder whether Matthew 23:37 may have been on George Fox’s mind when he saw “a great people to be gathered” in his vision on Pendle Hill at the beginning of his ministry: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” A number of other biblical passages use gathering in the harvested grain or the flocks as metaphors for the final judgment, and these may also have informed early Quaker use of the word “gathered”; examples include: Matthew 12:30, 13:30, 24:31, 25:26, 31-32, and Luke 3:17.

§ 16 Responses to A short history of the gathered meeting

  • Bill Rushby says:

    I am not saying that Thomas Kelly mentioned earlier Friends meetings as such, though he may well have. But he does use their phraseology for describing what Lawrence Hoffman calls “the ritual moment”.

    From Thomas Kelly’s essay on “The Gathered Meeting”:

    “the meeting proceeded in a sense of covering”

    “The sense of Divine covering in a group is rarely sustained more than three-quarters of an hour, or an hour.”

    “this sense of covering”

    “Certainly the deepness of the covering of a meeting is not proportional to the number of words spoken.”

    I didn’t search Kelly’s essay all the way to the end for references to “covering”, but five examples should be enough to make my point!

    • Bill Rushby says:

      As far as I can tell, pre-20th Century Friends used the “covering” phraseology, but did not use “gathered meeting” with a few possible exceptions.

      This is a question one can investigate on “Digital Quaker Collection”: http://esr.earlham.edu/dqc/index.html

    • winny says:

      I never questioned that 20th century Quaker Thomas Kelly mentioned “covered meeting” multiple times in his essay the Gathered Meeting. I saw them also.

      Did he put these statements in an historic context? Not that I can find. That’s all.

      • Bill Rushby says:

        Winny: I have a habit of reading between the lines, and see ideas and phrases in Kelly’s essay which can be traced to other sources. I apologize if this has offended you. Bill

  • Winny says:


    Thank you for responding

    I can’t find anyhere in the essay is a reference to “earlier” Friends use of “covering”–Kelly’s essay seems to be a discussion of a good meeting, not of historic import.

  • Clem says:

    In light of my blog, “The Case of Gathered vs. Covered Meeting”, on QQ.org, I would suggest that, whereas “a gathered meeting” is convincement-based, the “covered meeting” is unification-based. I offer for my reason the recently published book, “The Manor”, by Mac Griswold which references English law’s distinction between “feme sole” granting rights of ownership to a single or widowed woman versus “feme covert” whereby her entire identity was “covered” or merged with her husband’s. The not only “saved” but surrendered engagement of Friends to the Spirit of the bridegroom seems the narrow path/Way to the heavenly banquet feast, or salvation.

  • Carlos Moreno says:

    Be still and know that I am God.

  • Emily says:

    When George Fox travelled around Britain in the 1640s searching for religious truth, he came upon many small “meetings” of dissenters or seekers, many of whom probably already had in mind the words of gathering together in the spirit of Jesus in mind; many of these seekers joined with Fox to begin the Quaker movement. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a meeting was the “action of coming together,” from the Old English gemeting, a “gathering of people for discussion, etc.” In the 17th century, it “was applied generally to worship assemblies of nonconformists, but this now is retained mostly by Quakers.”
    By the mid 1650s, the Quakers had, by necessity, developed more than one kind of meeting. According to William Beck (London Friends Meetings: showing the rise of the Society of Friends in London, its progress and the development of its discipline; with accounts of the various meeting houses and burial grounds, their history and general associations, published by Kitto, 1869) a number of different meetings Quakers developed in London soon after missionaries Edward Burrough and Francis Howgill arrived in 1654. The general meetings became not only huge (some 1,000 people could be seated in the Bull & Mouth, their rented space) but also rude and unruly, and Quakers came to call these meetings the “threshing meetings,” as ministers walked around to see who had the potential to be invited to join in smaller, private meetings. According to Craig Horle (“John Camm; profile of a Quaker during the Interregnum.” Quaker history, Fall 1981; Spring 1982), it had become standard practice among Friends to divide meetings by fully convinced and unconvinced by the time minister John Camm travelled to Bristol in 1655 (and discovered to his frustration that Bristol Friends had failed to so divide its meetings).
    As linguist Richard Bauman has pointed out (Let your words be few, Cambridge University, 1983), the great number of Quakers who were farmers and shepherds encouraged Quakers to adopt the agricultural language of the Bible: this included frequent use of the word “GATHER,” remembering the harvesting of crops or collecting seeds for later harvest. And the word “gather” in the 17th century had additional meanings–not just the collecting of plants or seeds as well as the assembling of people, but also the uniting, agreeing, and joining together of individuals in harmony. Which may have been why, as FriendMarcelle pointed out, the word became so commonly used among Quakers.
    It’s possible that the phrase “gathered meeting” arose simply from some Quaker saying “let’s gather a meeting,” meaning let’s create a meeting of convinced Quakers. Or perhaps from some Quaker saying, “that meeting was really gathered,” meaning that the meeting had true unity. Or perhaps both. The answer to the origins of the term “gathered meeting” probably lies in some obscure epistle of some Friend or Meeting.

  • Patricia Dallmann says:

    It seems to me that the way Friends used the word “gathered” is to describe convincement: the movement from a worldly perspective to one of knowing God. The Howgill quotation looks like it refers to Jn. 21:5-12, Jesus’ instructing the disciples how to fish, whereby Howgill puts himself and others in the place of the newly caught (newly convinced), who then come to be established: “We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in.”

    When we’ve been convinced and thereby know “what to wait in,” assembled together, way opens for the Holy Spirit to be among us.

    When the focus is on the self’s or the group’s experience, there can be missteps. There are group experiences that are not holy, and good discernment of one from the other is not likely (Mk.13:22) when the elect seed has not yet been raised (another way of saying becoming convinced).

    It seems to me that convincement is a preliminary step that must occur before what we’ve referred to as the gathered meeting is possible.

  • I am grateful for this series of posts on the gathered meeting. I, too, believe that the experience of the gathered meeting can become more common among Friends today, as it was at the charismatic beginning of the Quaker movement.

    Although early Friends may not have used the phrase “gathered meeting,” the concept of being gathered was very important to them. One of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve read of gathered meetings comes from Francis Howgill in 1663. Note his use of the word “gather”:

    “The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue, nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: “What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? … And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God… And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.”

    Earlham’s digital Quaker collection may not have any documents using the phrase “gathered meeting,” but, remembering Howgill’s quote, I searched today and found that it has 296 documents containing the word “gathered.” George Fox, Isaac Penington, William Smith, and other early Friends used the word frequently. In what we call a gathered meeting, we taste what they describe as a more long-term experience of being gathered as a people.

    Penington wrote, for example, “Unity in the spiritual body which is gathered into and knit together in the pure life, is a most natural and comely thing. Yea, it is exceeding lovely to find all that are of the Lord of one heart, of one mind, of one judgment, in one way of practice and order in all things.”
    He pointed out that the purpose of ministry is: “not only to gather, but also to preserve and build up what is gathered, even to perfection.”

    William Smith wrote about a people gathered under Christ’s banner of Love: “The Day of the Lord is glorious, in which He hath gathered a People to walk in his Fear, and to follow Him in the Path of Humility, where He teacheth them and makes them to understand His Precepts; and He fills them with his Love, and spreads it over them … and in the One Spirit He hath bound them up, and they are His People….”

    • Thank you, Marcelle, for your kind words and for these great quotes.


    • Bill Rushby says:

      I was aware of “The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net” text from the early Friends, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it. It definitely conveys the idea of a gathered meeting, and in beautifully poetic language.

  • Bill Rushby says:

    Peter Lasersohn is a linquist at the U of Illinois-Urbana. He has a site called Quaker Historical Lexicon, which reports on his investigations of the origin and meaning of selected modern Quaker phrases, often with surprising results! Peter relies heavily on the Digital Quaker Collection at the Earlham School of Religion.

    I am not aware that he has investigated the term “gathered meeting”, but I did, a bit–some on the Digital Quaker Collection and some just by web searches. I found no results for this term in the Digital Quaker Collection. The earliest reference I found elsewhere was in Caroline Stephen in 1908. This was not in her famous *Quaker Strongholds*, but in (I guess) a later book she wrote; possibly *Light arising; thoughts on the central radiance* published in 1908. (Stephen, Caroline Emelia, 1834-1909). I wish I had the exact quotation, but I don’t at the moment.

    The next, and most famous, use of the term is in Thomas Kelly’s famous essay on “The Gathered Meeting”, which is available online at the Tract Association of Friends website. I was startled (as I recall–it’s been a couple of weeks) to find that Kelly does not actually use the phrase “gathered meeting” in the body of his essay. Instead, he references earlier Friends’ use of “covering” and “covering over the meeting”, which may be found in several Quaker documents available in the Quaker Digital Collection. Kelly was a protégé of Rufus Jones, which is evident from his extensive use of “mystical” language.

    So…, we should probably shift our search for “gathered meeting” in Quaker history to a search for “covering” or “covering over the meeting”. I won’t attempt to report on the use of these terms in this reply, except to note that these expressions were used by both Hicksite and Orthodox journal writers.

    • Bill, thanks so much for this comment and the tip on the resources. I was thinking myself that “gathered meeting” might be a rather late usage and that “covered” might be the phrase used originally, or at least, earlier. So I’ll follow through on your suggestion.

    • Winny says:

      Is Thomas Kelly’s “the Gathered Meeting” the essay you meant to reference? There is no reference in that essay to early Friends’ meetings.

      • Bill Rushby says:

        First, let me apologize for hitting q when I should have hit g in writing the word “linguist”.

        Winny, I did not write that Thomas Kelly referenced “**early** Friends’ meetings; Instead, he references **earlier** Friends’ use of “covering” and “covering over the meeting”. Probably, these usages were more characteristic of the classical Quietist period than of the “early” Friends.

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