Quaker-pocalypse: Collapse and Renewal in Quaker Social Witness, Part One

January 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

I think I feel led to return to my Quaker-pocalypse series, to focus a bit on our witness life. But my leading for this blog has been sputtering lately and I find myself darting from one theme to another without clear coherence, so I’m not sure where I’ll be led next.

Meanwhile, this post, when I finally finished it, was so long that I decided to break it up into segments. This one takes a historical look at our witness—how we have organized it—in the first two of four—possibly five—stages. These first two stages are The Lamb’s War and “Quietist” Ministry. The next two segments are Evangelical Witness and Liberal Witness. Finally I look at Radical Quaker Witness Today.

I think we need a new approach to witness. And to work my way feebly toward such an opening, I found myself reviewing how Quakers have organized our social witness in the past. I see four modes of organizing witness in our history, in which energy followed by maturity and then decline—or in the first case, persecution—has led to a new form with new energy. It’s as if the Holy Spirit wants us to keep at it, providing new openings, and—hooray!—finding us with ears to hear. One big reason we believe in continuing revelation.

The Lamb’s War

The first phase was the Lamb’s War, the Apocalypse of the Word (see Doug Gwyn’s groundbreaking book of this title). It focused on the world with the zealot’s intensity and often was confrontational. It was unreasonable, being founded on religious faith. It engaged virtually all the Children of the Light, in the sense that virtually all Friends eschewed hat honor, used plain speech, etc., in their everyday lives. It aimed at what early Friends believed to be the root of social ills—false religion, as the agent of an even deeper cause, alienation from God. And it was radical, not just in its critique, its methods, and its proposed solutions. It also arose from radical discipleship and it aimed at the roots, as they saw it, of a world that could not comprehend the light that was coming into the world.

Then came the persecutions, the backlash from the established church and the state, bringing the wholesale death of our early leadership in Britain’s gaols—the collapse of the Apocalypse of the Word and the need to change our stance toward the world.

“Quietist” ministry

The result was the second phase of Quaker witness—the reliance on Quaker ministry that characterized the 18th century. Think of John Bellars and John Woolman. Friends who felt a divine leading to mend the world in some way who took their leading to their meeting and, if the meeting discerned that the leading was a true one, off they went. It tended to be focused internally (think of Woolman visiting Friends to persuade them against slaveholding) and it was not, generally speaking, confrontational or radical. Putting aside the vigorous culture of travel in the gospel ministry, this period’s social witness ministry did not, as far as I can tell, engage very many people as either ministers or recipients.

There was no overarching organizing vision for collective action, as there had been for the first generation, no sense of mission like the earlier apocalyptic belief that the second coming of Christ was at hand. As Doug Gwyn describes in The Covenant Crucified, Friends had cut a deal with the powers of the world after the persecutions gave way to some level of tolerance: you leave us be and we’ll leave you be—that was the deal.

This witness was morally reasonable, in that it relied on arguing from a scriptural and a moral stand. But it was not yet reasonable in the secular humanist sense that so dominates Quaker witness today, in which we argue from a stand in social science and use liberal political rhetoric.

This witness was radical in that Quaker ministry still relied radically on the movement of the Holy Spirit, at least in theory, but it was much more contained and far less focused on the world outside the Quaker community than the Apocalypse of the Word had been.

But Quakerism became more and more quietist, more withdrawn from the world into Quaker distinctives and an ossified culture of eldership that tended to quench the spirit.

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