“In an awful frame of mind…”

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…

3 thoughts on ““In an awful frame of mind…”

  1. Tom E

    The astonishing transformations that Quakerism seems to undergo in each successive century may appear baffling, even to those Friends knowledgeable about Quaker history. At one stage I read a lot about the 18th century and it became clear that these Friends were followers of Fenelon far more than Fox. A great many translations were made of the French Quietists during this era, the well known ‘A Guide to True Peace’ being possibly the last of these (though ‘A Reasonable Faith’ and various Hicksite writings retain traces of this period). The journals are full of words such as ‘creature’, ‘Creator’ (the word Christ is seldom used), ‘pure love’, and so forth, and I believe that if one really wants to understand the spirituality and even theology of this period then Fenelon is the place to go. The founders of the 17th century, with the possible exception of Isaac Penington who has always remained a favourite among Quietists, had rather faded into the background by this stage and interest in them was only properly rekindled, it seems, by the work of Cadbury, Rufus Jones, Lewis Benson and many others in the 20th century.

    I wish there was more of the spirit of this period in modern Quakerism (though not the dress or plain speech!) I used to attend my local meeting, but the atmosphere of left wing social activism (all absolutely fine for those suited to that), and embarrassment over even the slightest mention of Christianity, ensured that I eventually took refuge in the rather more congenial atmosphere (to me) of the WCCM. I still retain a strong interest in Quaker history, however, and believe that earlier periods, in particular, have much to offer the contemporary world.

    1. Mike Farley Post author

      Fascinating reply, Tom! It’s interesting you should mention WCCM – there’s a group locally, based at the Anglo-Catholic church across the road, which we attend sporadically, and a few of us have established a monthly Jesus Prayer group. But we gladly keep our Quaker membership, and attend our local meeting regularly – and all the more since there is a genuine groundswell of change among Friends, best expressed online I think in Craig Barnett’s Transition Quaker blog (see the link above “what Quakers may become”) and the Quaker Renewal UK group on Facebook.

      I must investigate Fenelon further – I kept stumbling across his name, and Mme Guyon’s, many years ago when I first began exploring contemplative prayer, but I never read the man’s own work.

      Thanks again, Tom, for a most thought-provoking comment!

      In Friendship, Mike

      1. Tom E

        Thank you, Mike, for pointing me in the direction of Craig Barnett’s blog. I agree with much of what he says. I know there are other discussions about this, particularly on QuakerQuaker. I also enjoyed reading Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore lecture, where he seems to be saying rather similar things. The thing I like about Quakerism is that it has always been such a distinctive and different form of Christianity (if that word still applies!), and much of the older writing is just wonderful.

        To return briefly to the 18th century, for all the emphasis on Quietist patterns of thinking, there were also other developments afoot, such as Deism, which affected many prominent Friends, such as Abraham Shackleton and John Bartram, as well as Tom Paine, whose father was a Quaker from Norfolk, and who always regarded himself as one. Others clearly didn’t, however, and he was denied burial in a Quaker cemetery. Towards the end of his life he repented bitterly of his former beliefs, according to a source I once read, telling everybody how wrong he had been about everything, and mumbling the Jesus Prayer repeatedly (according to his Quaker maid). Paine the Hesychast – now there’s a turn up for the books!

        Best wishes,

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