Sacralize and secularize
I've been re-reading Douglas Gwyn's The Covenant Crucified. This morning I picked it up by accident at a page with lots to think about for anyone considering early Quaker history. In some ways it's a restatement of the thesis of the book, but it's placed in Gwyn's chapter on "The Quaker Revolution Revised, 1667-1675", so it feels more explicitly focused on change from the earliest days of Quakerism to the later period of consolidation.
The Protestant project begun by Luther, extended by Calvin, and made programmatic in Enland by radical Puritans was to sacralize all reality. The sanctified life was taken out of the monastery and extended to the social whole. That tendency reached its ultimate form in the Quaker revolution, with its rejection of the steeplehouse as "holy place," sabbaths and feast days as "holy times," and clergy as "holy men."
In this totalizing program, early Friends consolidated and furthered many Puritan themes. But they also confronted unjust and dishonest practices in the marketplace as the dark underside of the Puritan revolution's capitalist ethos, just as they countered the violent tactics and oppressive results of the Civil War with their nonviolent Lamb's War.
The decisive moment of the Quaker revolution was played out in Nayler's enactment of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem. This enactment of total sacralization, the enthronement of Christ among the people, manifested the entire Protestant program in England. It both brought Protestantism to its fullest implications and moved into a new realm.
The government's brutal treatment of Nayler and its repression of Quakers, accompanied by the popular backlash against radicalism, signaled a dramatic, dialectical reversal: the movement to sacralize all life was inverted, becoming the movement to secularize all life.
In the English drama of the rise of capitalism, Nayler plays the prophetic role of the charismatic figure who mediates a profound shift in the culture... Typically, the "vanishing mediator" will be quickly exterminated, or otherwise will simply fade into obscurity as new institutions grow up to regularize the new order he or she has helped catalyze. While Nayler represents the immediate victim of the first type, Fox represents the second type, who survived to become irrelevant to the culture he helped create, even superfluous to the Society of Friends he founded. Certainly, neither figure saw himself as the prophet of secularism. On the contrary, both saw themselves as heralds of a new covenantal society challenging and eclipsing both Church and state. What finally developed, however, was a covenantal sect existing within a contracted saeculum (the Latin root of "secular," meaning "age," or "generation"), the "new age" of an unrepentant (and finally indifferent) generation.
The triumphalist notion that early Friends like Nayler and Fox helped created our modern society with its freedoms is a popular half-truth, ideologically impaired by liberal hindsight... one must give a fuller account of what lived and died in these Quaker figures and their initial movement.
Nayler's passion offers the most dramatic "moment of truth" in the Quaker revolution, but it is vulnerable to a romantic reduction of its meaning: "Poor James, another martyr to the system; mean old George, he never understood." Fox's longer, apostolic saga helped enable the movement's second, post-revolutionary phase. Thouse less tragic than Nayler, Fox is remarkable for his profound insights and continuity of faith in changing circumstances. Here, the temptation is to reduce Fox to the denominational hagiography of "Quaker lore": "Good old George, our founder; bad old James, he went astray." But Fox's outcome was far less his aim than his fate. (289-90. Paragraph breaks added; italics Gwyn's emphasis, bold emphasis added.)
There's a lot here, speaking both to the experience of early Friends and to later followers who find themselves stuck on the same fault lines early Quakers tried to overcome.
The idea that early Quakers tried to take Protestantism to its logical conclusion is, as I've noted before, appealing. In a very strong sense George Fox re-read the world around him - all of it, uncompromisingly - through the Bible. His intensely biblical foundation led him to direct inspiration, available to every individual in every context all the time. Nayler took the story of God's being everywhere, on the edge of breaking through, and enacted a sign of that breaking through - and triggered the reversal that Gwyn's book often mourns.
The secularization that Gwyn describes here is not "the war on Christmas" or the usual battles over Church and State we have in the United States, though it certainly leads to difficult compromises. It's the shift from seeing religion as everywhere, a vision of the world shared with God, to seeing religion as one piece of a larger picture. Religion becomes a private matter, shared with others of your own choosing.
It's often appealing to read early Quakers as if they were writing in the present, when this secularization is already completely normal. We can (and do) compartmentalize their message into one part of our lives. Quakers have also seemed to absorb the vocabulary of religious independence that William Penn and later Quakers used to free Quakers from the burden of persecution. I think, though, that Quakerism never completely accepted the shift that Gwyn talks about here. That may be the underlying reason that Quakers seem to have a harder time letting the world go the way of the world.
Can we take up the early Quakers' quest to "sacralize all reality"? Should we?