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More on the North and West

I'm a little surprised by the positive response my look at English geography and Quakerism received, but I suspect there may be others like me wondering in what conditions Quakerism can thrive, and perhaps also about that question of change around 1660.

While Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down doesn't suggest that Quakerism changed when it headed south, it does spend some time looking at conditions in the North and West of England which may have helped Quakerism thrive:

The North and West were regarded by Parliamentarians as the 'dark corners of the land', in which preaching was totally inadequate, despite the efforts of many Puritans to subsidize it. In 1641 Lord Brooke observed that there was 'scarce any minister in Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland, and especially in Wales.'...

Yet one of the paradoxes of the period is that, of the most radical sectarian groups, the Quakers started almost exclusively in the North of England.... The light of God risen in the North, Burroughs said, discovers the abomination of England's teachers and worship, and shall not only shine throughout the nation but 'shall spread over the kingdom'... When the Quakers turned south in 1654 they made great progress among 'that dark people' of the dark county of Cornwall, as well as in Wales, and among weavers generally, notably in Gloucestershire.

The paradox is increased by the fact that such Puritan ministers as there were in the North had mostly been cleared out by Archbishop Neile in the 1630s. Others had fled from their parishes in the North and in Wales during the civil war, when royalist forces occupied their areas.... In fact as early as 1646 the sharp eye of Thomas Edwards noted that 'emissaries out of the sectaries' churches are sent to infect and poison... Yorkshire and those northern parts,... Bristol and Wales.'...

We therefore have to look for other explanations than the influence of southern Puritanism for the sudden burgeoning of radical religious ideas in the outlying areas of the North, West, and South-west of England, and in Wales. Traditional southern English middle-class Puritanims of the Presbyterian variety had a hold only in isolated areas of the North (Lancashire, Newcastle, the West Riding) and hardly at all in Wales... But this absence of traditional Presbyterianism does not mean that there were no popular religious movements in these parts, still less that there were no traditions of popular revolt. (73-77)

Hill goes on to talk about the Lollards, the Pilgrimage of Grace, Antinomians, and Familists and Grindletonians. (Grindleton was even right at the foot of Pendle Hill.) He then explores the promising conditions Quakers found in the 1650s and the converts they made:

The defeat of the royalist armies in the civil war, the bankruptcy of the traditional clergy, created an even greater spiritual void than in the more traditional Puritan centres of the South and East. Yet the period was one of much greater prosperity in the pasture and farming areas...

The Quakers, whose original leaders were almost exclusively northern yeomen and craftsmen, came from this background. Lancashire Quakers included former victims and opponents of oppressive royalist landlords, who had gained experience of cooperative action in resisting increases in rents, labour-services, and tithe payments. Levellers were active in Lancashire throughout 1649.

But such men could also draw on pre-existing underground traditions which were suddenly enabled to flourish after Parliament's victory. When George Fox rode into the North in 1651 he found congregations of Seekers or 'shattered Baptists' waiting for him everywhere among the yeomen farmers of the Yorkshire dales, the Lancashire and Cumberland pastoral-industrial areas. By 1656 Quakerism 'began to spread mightily' in the south-western counties of England. (78-9)

I don't want to suggest that religious belief is a matter of social circumstance, but it does seem clear that early Quakerism benefited from and developed in response to a particular set of conditions that provided fertile soil for the beliefs of Fox and other preachers, but not necessarily for the beliefs of the more Presbyterian Puritans whose strength was further south.

Social dislocation is only a partial explanation for why the Quaker seed could sprout so vigorously, as the entire country, and indeed much of Europe, had seen traumatic changes over the past few century or so. The lifting of censorship certainly permitted an enormous variety of religious perspectives to present themselves, but Quakerism and Baptism seem to be the two survivors of the many options that appeared then, the two whose roots set deeply enough for them to continue after the Restoration.

Looking at Quakerism today, it again seems that there are places - sometimes countries, sometimes university towns, sometimes part of the midwest where earlier generations of Quakers settled - that are eager to hear of the Inward Light. There are lots of places where that message is not so welcome. And of course, some places are better tuned to one or another version of that message.

It's easy to look at the early Quakers and focus on their message rather than their audience. In fact, it's practically expected in religious writing. I wonder, though, if there's an opportunity for Quakers to think about who is interested in our message, both in the past and in the present. To me, it seems like Quakerism really should have swept the world - but obviously, it hasn't.


Just speaking for myself, I don't think it's a matter of "who is interested in our message", but of who is experiencing what early Friends called "the day of visitation" -- a time when the Voice in a person's heart and conscience rises up and calls everything that person has done with her or his life into question. Such a person is ripe for what Christ called metanoia and early Friends called convincement: the transformative process of letting her- or himself hear, very clearly, what that Voice in her heart has to say to her, and letting herself be totally re-directed and remade by it.

To a person who has gone through the process of convincement, Quakerism makes total sense. To everyone else, it never comes completely into focus.

The relatively informal culture of the English North combined with the rediscovery of the Bible in the vernacular as (apparently) a literally accurate Book, and the general political and economic turmoil of the early seventeenth century, to produce a people who were free to live by their own lights, ready to believe in the Voice as a real supernatural power, and ready to doubt the scripts that they had been living by in the past. This was a potent preparation for Quakerism.

In the southeast, people lived under the thumb of a more rigidly ordered, authoritarian, top-down culture, comparable to what prevails today in, e.g., the American South, the American fundamentalist-Protestant culture, and much of the American lower-middle-class Catholic world; and this produced a voice that tended to outshout the Voice of Christ in people's consciences -- namely, the voice of cultural norms. (People who are guided by the voice of cultural norms today, tend to say things like, "I'm going to enlist in the military and fight in Iraq because it's what I owe my country; it's the right thing to do." Or, "gay sex is unnatural and wrong.") Puritanism was successful there because it took advantage of the top-down set-up, using the authority of the Puritan "divine" to drive its messages home. Quakerism refused to exploit the top-down set-up to its advantage, and so had a much harder row to hoe.

As trade across the English Channel flourished, and the southeast entered the mercantile era, this produced two other voices that also tended to outshout Christ's voice: first, the voice of cosmopolitan skepticism regarding all religious claims, and second, the voice of economic necessity and economic ambition, a.k.a. Mammon. Cosmopolitan skepticism was strong in the circles surrounding the royal court, and among the floating populations of the port cities. But Mammon would not really come into his own in England until the Restoration.

I think "Quakerism today" has done fairly well in university towns because it speaks to people who are out from under the direct control of cultural norms and whose liberated lives cause them to question the scripts they've lived by in the past. That's two of the three preconditions that the English North had going for it in the time of George Fox. However, university towns do not foster the third precondition -- they do not encourage a readiness to believe in the Voice of Christ in the conscience as a real supernatural power, but, like the port cities of early Quaker times, encourage a cosmopolitan skepticism instead.

And thus, campus-area meetings tend to have a lot of people who like the Quaker world, but who have not really gone through the process of convincement, and who, accordingly, build their personal versions of "Quaker mysticism" around something other than total obedience to the Voice that early Friends lived by. The result is "(unprogrammed) Quakerism today", which is something rather different from what William Penn called "Primitive Christianity Revived".

I share your concerns, but have perhaps more hope that the people in the campus-area meetings you worry about are at least on a path that can lead them to convincement.

It seems that you see two basic barriers. The first is a question of whether to listen or not - should one listen for God, or listen to someone standing there telling you what God wants? The second is a question of what to listen to. Is one seeking God's voice specifically? Or is one listening to one's own ideas flowing by on a peaceful Sunday morning?

There is hope for both of these groups. It's possible that the first group is listening to someone who can lead them past the obstacles, and perhaps eventually they'll even start listening for themselves.

For the second group, the group already listening, the problem is distractions - whether of Mammon, cosmopolitan skepticism, or simply the classic 'me, me, me.'

I haven't heard even the strongest rationalists claim that they sit in worship and worship themselves - at least in my experience, they sound like they seek to connect with something beyond their daily experience.

So why isn't God breaking through? How have we mistaken other voices for the Light?

I don't yet have an answer to that, or an explanation of how to make people "ripe for what Christ called metanoia and early Friends called convincement".

All I have is hope that Light can yet come through the darkness, however dark it may be.

Simon, I much appreciate your thoughtful reply to my comment.

I am actually seeing other barriers than the two you mention. I mentioned in my earlier comment that the inability to believe that the Voice in the heart and the conscience is really GOD, is a major barrier.

E.g.: If a person cannot believe that the voice in her heart, condemning her for not giving money to that beggar that approached her yesterday, is God Himself, she may think she is listening for God in meeting for worship on Sunday morning, but what she is actually doing is pretending to herself to listen for Him while actually walking right by Him in the same way she walked past the beggar. And as long as she continues to do this, the breakthrough will elude her.

Marshall -

Perhaps I'm just more optimistic than you are, or less seasoned, but I have two reasons for greater hope that people listening can surmount the barriers you describe.

The first is theological, I guess - but it's pretty simple. God can reach people, and human barriers are permeable, even the strongest barriers.

The second is from my experience. I spent a lot of years in and out of meeting listening, but not really hearing. The breakthrough took a long time, first coming as a sense of emptiness and longing and over time breaking down the barriers I had. Attending meeting accelerated that process, to say the least.

Can others follow the same path, not knowing they're taking it? I doubt I was the first, and certainly hope I was not the last. The barriers can fall.

Hi, Simon.

I wasn't saying the barriers are impassable. I was just pointing out that they exist -- and that their effects may be seen in those campus-area meetings we've been discussing.

"Quakerism today" in such places is observably different from "Primitive Christianity Revived", and it differs in ways that the explanation I've suggested makes sense of.

That's all!