I went to meetings in an awful frame of mind, and endeavoured to be inwardly acquainted with the language of the true Shepherd. And one day, being under a strong exercise of spirit, I stood up, and said some words in a meeting, but not keeping close to the divine opening, I said more than was required of me and being soon sensible to my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks, without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could take satisfaction in nothing. I remembered God and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress he had pity upon me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offence, and my mind became calm and quiet, being truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for his mercies. And after this, feeling the spring of divine love opened, and a concern to speak, I said a few words in a meeting in which I found peace. This I believe was about six weeks from the first time, and as I was thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the language of the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart, and taught me to wait in silence sometimes many weeks together, until I felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to his flock.
John Woolman, 1741 – Quaker Faith & Practice 2.57
Among Quakers today little thought seems to be given to the Quietist period during the 18th century. The schisms of the 19th century (Gurneyites and Hicksites being remembered, generally, rather more than Beaconites or Wilburites!) have perhaps overshadowed this period when, it is easy to forget, John Woolman was working patiently towards the ending of slavery, and for peace during the Seven Years’ War.
Admittedly the Quietists were sometimes an odd bunch of people – it was they who carried plain dress and plain speech to extremes, and who were most committed, it seems, to endogamy and to other practices aimed at setting Quakers apart from the rest of society and the church. But there was more to them than that, I suspect. The dogma that history is written by the victors (whoever said it first) may be suspect – Constantinople, anyone? – but it perhaps contains some truth in this situation. It is the present-day Liberal Quakers, descendants of Hicksites, and Evangelical Quakers, descendants, largely, of Gurneyites, through whose eyes we look back at the Quietists.
As we look at what Quakers may become in the 21st century, perhaps we may find time to consider whether the stillness of Quaker worship, and perhaps of our personal spiritual practice, may be, as it was for Woolman, far more the motor of Friends’ transforming presence in the world than either our political convictions or our anger at injustice, good though those things may be in themselves. There are plenty of politicians and campaigners out there, without them all having to be Quakers; it is Friends acting, and praying, under the conviction of the Spirit, who have another voice, one that has so often wrought more peace and justice for those who suffer than our numbers would give us any right to expect. But that conviction, that leading, can only arise in silence, and in submission to the Spirit, as Woolman himself found out the hard way.
Do we need, among Friends, to look again at the Quietists, and to ask ourselves what we might learn – not imitate – from John Woolman’s contemporaries? I am no historian, but I feel it might be worth it to ask the question…