Good Friends:


I am interested in learning more about the Quietist period in Quaker history.  There is not much avaliable online that I have been able to access.  Pendle Hill published "A Guide to True Peace" which I understand was widely used during this Quietist period.  My sense is that most view this period as a kind of embarassment.  I find myself highly attracted to the little I have found.  How do others feel about this dimension of Quakerism?  And what resources are available for learning more about it?






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Dear Dominic:

Thanks for the suggestions. I had not heard of Thomas Shillitoe or Samuel Bownas, so alredy I've learned a lot more than I previously knew. I'll order the Shillitoe journal, it looks rewarding.

I wasn't aware that Woolman was a quietist. Does he refer to himself that way, or was it part of the Quaker ambiance at that time?

I think the sense of embarassmen that you and I have detected regarding Quietism has appeared in part because many Quakers define the Quaker tradition by an adherence to an activist agenda. The idea is that one should be active for reform in the world and that this is what is really distinctive about the Quaker tradition. For example, histories I've read about Quakerism emphasize the reforming efforts of people like Woolman and Mott. I don't find an emphasis on contemplative Quakers; in fact it is really difficult to find information about them. I sense that they are there in history, but they are kind of in the shadows.

My sense is that Quaker Quietism places an emphasis on the experience of God in silence first; activism should follow from that, if that is one's clear leading. But from a Quietist perspective, it would be acceptable if activism were not one's leading, if instead one had a contemplative calling. It is this point, I think, that many moderns find difficult. This is a tentative observation as my explorations are limited.

Thanks again for the assist,

Jim - my understanding is that the label "quietism" was coined by Elisha Bates around 1832 as a way of ridiculing the previous generations of Friends.

The Quietist period tends to be regarded differently by the different branches of Friends. Wilburites tend to appreciate the development of Quaker nonconformist norms during the period. They also are the best informed about the period simply because they read far more journals than Friends of other branches. Gurneyites (pastoral Friends) see it as a period of the "decline" of the vocal ministry and the development of pointless traditions. Events during the Quietist period created the context out of which Liberal Quakerism emerged, but they generally are not terribly interested in learning about the period.

Dominic recommended some excellent works. Be sure to check out these also:

18th Century
Gil Skidmore, ed., Strength in Weakness - a recent and very well edited collection of writings by women Friends of the period
Journal of John Griffith - be sure to read the Epistle to Friends at the end
Charles Marshall, The Way of Life Revealed
Joseph Phipps, The Original and Present State of Man

Very Early 19th Century
Memoir of Henry Hull
Memoir of Christopher Healey
Journal of Joseph Hoag
John Wilbur's Letters to George Crosfield
Dear Chronicler:

Thanks for the additional references. All of these names are new to me; I'm eager to explore what they have to offer.

To be honest with you, I'm not clear about the differences between the Wilburites, Gurneyites, Hicksites, Beanites, etc. I can see, though, why pastoral Friends would regard Quietism as a decline because of their Evangelical and extroverted inclinations. I think Liberal Quakers are disinterested in Quietism because that traditional places such a strong emphasis on activism and social reform and I think there is an intuitive feeling that Quietism, while not opposed to social reform, is more focused on a contemplative dimension than many Liberals would find comfortable.

I have read some of Molinos, Fenelon, and Guyon. It seems to be the case that Quietism is strongly critiqued by many groups. It seems to arouse a lot of ire which crosses sectarian divisions; that is to say traditionalist Catholics have a strong dislike for Quietist views just as Pastoral Friends do. Again, it is not clear to me why this would be the case.

As for me, I find the writings of Quietism highly congenial; I regularly reread "A Guide to True Peace" and always find it refreshing.

Thanks again for your suggested readings,

Reading the journals of Friends from the period of Quietism, are best covered in several graduate courses offered by Earlham School of Religion. I feel blessed to have had those courses under the direction of John Punshon, the Leatherock Chair of Quaker Studies, just before his retirement. I have oodles of notes from those classes. Perhaps, the one defining moment of Quietism in history for me occurred in Pennsylvania during the French/Indian War of the 1750's when Friends, who had charter status in the colony parliament, withdrew from it, opening the way for Benjamin Franklin to organize the supply convoys to support British troops in the fray from Detroit to Lake Ticonderoga. Was it easier to retreat to a near monastic form of Quaker Life, shunning processes they set in motion when the colony was founded, and provide defacto support to the proponents supporting the defense of the colonies, than to stick it out in the parliament and be caught up in the tyranny of the majority? The decline of Quietism is best illustrated by the annual rate of reading members out of meeting who married non-Quakers.
Dear Morningbear:

Sounds like you had some wonderful courses. And you kept the notes!

I'm not at all familiar with the specific historical episode you mention. But I have noticed this -- almost no one has an approving word to say about Quietism. The Catholic Church considered it a major heresy and it seems many (most?) Quakers think of it as some kind of aberration. Withdrawing from political involvement isn't necessarily a bad thing; it depends on the circumstances. Even Confucians (who regard service to the State as a primary duty) often withdrew when the tyrannical Mongol (Yuan) Dynasty seized power.

You referred to this withdrawal as "quasi-monastic", which is interesting to me. I have a positive view of monasticism. I sometimes think that an explicitly monastic component of Quakerism is exactly what the Quaker tradition needs. I don't think there is any precedent in Quaker history for Quaker monasticism, at least I'm not aware of it. But perhaps there are episodes like the one you mentioned that could lead in that direction.

Thanks for your input,

I have the sense that even without knowing about the Convergent Friends development in the larger Quaker world, many people coming to liberal meetings are searching for a more contemplative religion. Several of the older generation Friends in my meeting frequently express frustration at what one called the "plague of quietism" among liberal Friends today. And yet when I read Friends Journal and look at the activities of most people in my meeting, I have the sense that Friends are as busy as bees working for peace and social justice. But people my age (40's and younger) tend to resist the pressure to spend all our time on activism. We're longing for deeper worship.
Dear Rosemary:

My attraction to the Quaker tradition was based primarily on the contemplative dimension. I'm not sure how people will take this, but activism does not seem central to me. I say this because it is possible to be an effective and dedicated political activist without being a Quaker; most activists aren't. I'm aware of the influence Quakers have had in history in anti-slavery campaigns, women's suffrage, etc. Even so, what I find in the Quaker tradition is an opportunity for shared silence and stillness during which I am open to the presence of the divine, and that is what keeps me going to Meeting for Worship.

Thanks for your comments,

I agree that activism ought not to be central but also think that it shouldn't be discounted. Jesus is surely very clear about the importance of caring for those in need around us. But I think some Friends misread history when they put peace work before the connection with the Divine. Friends did extraordinary things because they had been remade in the presence of God first. I honor the Friends that I'm referring to for their longing to serve people who are suffering from injustice and violence in the world. I don't think that longing is misplaced. (How could any Christian think that?) But I have the sense that each of us has to have his or her time, whatever it is, to discover the source before we are pushed into constant action. I hope I'm articulating this idea clearly. I don't mean to suggest the Friends in question are lacking in faith. I think they should encourage others' faith and practice of worship more than they do.

I found that my own service to others changed profoundly when my faith deepened. (Hard to find language to describe any of this.) I might as well not have done much of what I did before that happened, except that the knowledge of my own inadequacy that I discovered there must have helped me.

I appreciate you starting this discussion. I'm also new to the study of these journals and am grateful for the suggestions of what to read.
It marked a retreat from the in-your-face Word-spreading of the first Friends, into trying to live as a somewhat separated people of God in a secular world Friends no longer expected to see overturned any day now..

With this switch came a heightened emphasis on externals, maintaining group purity, the concern with 'plain dress' that Margaret Fell described as 'a poor silly gospel'.

And while it lead to a great deal of spiritually-grounded, effective activism, it isn't attractive to people who make activism their test of religion-- who make Jesus carry the donkey as Rumi put it...

The theology behind it is repellent to most moderns-- and I tend to agree with Walt Whitman here: that we should "Dismiss whatever insults your own soul"-- but it was based on people's honest experience of the human capacity for self-deception and evil, at work in themselves and others!

We need to emulate their readiness to set their personal minds aside and to render themselves sensitive to intuitive inspiration from God, without their assumption that the personal self was necessarily corrupt. Early in John Woolman's journal we see him remonstrating with a stage magician, earnestly insisting that any such causal pastimes and entertainments are necessarily a distraction from God's demands. But they might better be seen as just another aspect of God's creativity and generosity to us!

We shouldn't be dismissing what they had and we lack-- but we'll rightly need to move forward from here, not to return to their particular forms.
You put it so clearly, as ever. "People who make activism their test of religion." One of the big reasons not to do this is that we can't see to what end any thought or action might lead. Think of Thomas Merton joining a Trappist monastery because he thought he was done with the world and finding himself instead a public figure, internationally famous, responsible for revitalizing monasticism and bringing Buddhists and Christians together in peace work.

The parable of the sower is helpful to me when thinking about this: the way so many religious people, not just Quakers, turn these subjects into abstract, polarizing debates. The sower spreads many different kinds of seeds because the world is a beautiful garden, not a field with only one kind of plant (or even 2, wheat and weeds). We shouldn't judge among the seeds or even think we know which are "active" seeds and which are "quietist" seeds, in the sense of judging what kind of results will come from them. Our job is to prepare ourselves to be fertile ground as far as we're able.
Dear Forest:

I enjoyed this post. I'm ambivalent about the 'externals' such as plain dress and distinctive speech. In a sense, every group has some peculiar speech. Any club, for example, has some shared vocabulary that those outside the club don't necessarily comprehend. I'm thinking of mundane examples like gardening clubs or sports associations, etc. From this perspective the usage of distinctive speech among Quakers at the time we are referencing seems natural and functional to me. The loss of distinctive features of Quaker life was accompanied by the loss of a distinctive Quaker mode of worship and understanding of what it means to worship among many Quakers and it seems to me there is a connection. I'm suggesting that such distinctive practices can serve to maintain the integrity of a spiritual group. For example, Buddhist monasticism has distinctive dress, ways of speaking (right speech), and deportment and it has been able to function for 2,500 years. I think the distinctive modes of conduct for Buddhist monasticism have helped, rather than hindered, maintain the integrity of that institution.

Best wishes,

Some of the more devout at the time of the change felt that the emphasis on maintaining external differences was the result of a weakening of the original impulse.

I quoted Samuel Bownas, a Quaker preacher of the century after Fox, in one of my own posts, how he'd been puzzled by a new deadness he felt in some meetings, that hampered his preaching. "I found it very hard work in many places, and in some meetings was quite shut up, but where the people who did not profess with us came in plentifully it was not so, there being an open door." He approached another Friend, and asked "what he thought might be the reason, why it seemed more dead amongst Friends in this nation now, than in some other places. He gave this as a reason, that ‘the professors of truth in that nation were very strict and exact in some things, and placed much in outward appearance, but too much neglected the reformation and change of the mind, and having the inside thoroughly cleansed from pride and iniquity, for thou knowest,' said he, ‘the leaven of the Pharisees was always hurtful to the life of religion in all shapes.'" Quaker Meetings have gone on producing more than their share of God-touched individuals ever since, but the 17th Century honeymoon is over for most of the group.

The concern to maintain certain 'peculiar' customs [ See Chuck Fager's delightful piece 'Friends as a "Chosen People" ' at ] was always part of the practice, from the time that George Fox was first convinced: "When the Lord sent me forth into the world, he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to 'thee' and 'thou' all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small. And as I travelled up and down, I was not to bid people 'good morrow' or 'good evening', neither might I bow or scrape with my leg to any one..."

"Oh the blows, punchings, beatings and imprisonments that we underwent for not putting off our hats to men! For that soon tried all men's patience and sobriety, what it was... And though it was but a small thing in the eyes of man, yet a wonderful confusion it brought among all profess[ing Christians] and priests. But, blessed be the Lord, many came to see the vanity of that custom of putting off the hat to men, and felt the weight of Truth's testimony against it.

"About this time I was sorely exercised in going to their courts to cry for justices, and in speaking and writing to judges and justices to do justly, and in warning such as kept public houses for entertainment that they should not let people have more drink than would do them good, and in testifying against their wakes or feasts, their May-games, sports, plays, and shows, which trained people up to vanity and looseness, and led them from the fear of God... In fairs also, and in markets I was made to declare against their deceitful merchandise and cheating and cozening, warning all to deal justly, to speak the truth, to let their 'yea' be 'yea' and their 'nay' be 'nay', and to do unto others as they would have others do unto them, and forewarning them of the great and terrible day of the Lord which would come upon them all. I was moved also to cry against all sorts of music, and against the mountebanks playing tricks on their stages, for they burdened the pure life, and stirred up people's minds to vanity."

The distinctive modes of conduct maintained by Quakers really couldn't be separated from their original inspiration--but as reliance on that inspiration weakened, they could be and sometimes were poor substitutes for it.

Some of them were probably not suitable long-term guidelines: the disapproval of music and stage-magic for example. Maintaining the testimony against having clergy perform weddings-- led in later times to a great many Friends being lost to the movement for "marrying out of Meeting."

The current weakness probably is not, by the way, a matter of losing the "integrity" of the group. To some extent I have to blame it on maintaining our integrity in ways that put it at risk, as in striving to include all persons of good will who want to join, without requiring any developed understanding or experience of our spiritual foundation-- much like if a Buddhist teacher, lacking a proper successor, appointed someone who'd been practicing, but not getting it.

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