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.