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Fixing the Spirit

I've been reading Paul Tillich's A History of Christian Thought. I'm not reading it to learn about Quakerism specifically, but every now and then Quakerism comes up. It's not always flattering, but it's certainly provocative. Take, for example, this passage from page 40:

The Montanists believed that they represented the period of the Paraclete [Holy Spirit], following the periods of the Father and the Son. The sectarian revolutionary movements in the church have generally made the same claim; they represent the age of the Spirit.

It happens, however, that when the attempt is made to fix the content of what the Spirit teaches, the result is extreme poverty. This happened, for example, to the Quakers after their initial ecstatic period. When the content is fixed it turns out that there is nothing new, or what is new is more or less some form of rational moralism. This happened to George Fox and his followers, and to all ecstatic sects. In the second generation, they become rational, moralistic, and legalistic; the ecstatic element disappears; not much remains that is creative compared to the classical period of apostolic Christianity.

Some of that isn't very friendly, or Friendly, yet there is some degree of truth to it, if not "extreme poverty". Quakerism has certainly changed since its earliest proclamations during the years of the English Civil War and the Restoration. Frederick Tolles' Meetinghouse and Countinghouse documents declining fervor in Philadelphia as Friends became more wrapped up in the world, though many returned to a more religious focus as they retreated from public life.

There are certainly people who gratefully view Quakerism as rational religion they can embrace despite their lack of interest in religious ecstasy, and who embrace silent meeting as a place of shared meditation more than worship.

And yet... there's definitely more still going on, and many Quakers who take the ecstatic side, the connection to the Spirit, very seriously, and not as a historic relic given only to the founders. Perhaps Quakers' general refusal to create easily documented and understood creeds - thereby not "fixing the content" - is part of why that aspect survives. Recent years have seen more interest in the ecstatic side of Fox and other early Quakers, especially as more complete versions of Fox's Journal have emerged to replace the somewhat rationalized version released by Fox's successors.

While I don't find Tillich's description adequate to describe the reasons I find Quakerism so compelling, it certainly provides a conversation starter that many Quakers may want to contemplate as a query, not an answer.


Yes, there is more than a little truth to it. The switch may be marked by Margaret Fell Fox's commentary on the ban on bright colors as a "silly, poor gospel." Apparently the only major first generation leader still alive, she clearly viewed what was happening to Quakerism in a somewhat similar light to Tillich's view.

By the late 18th century, the chilling effect of repressive leadership was beginning to result in moving in diferent directions drawing from other sources - and you get a split beginning between more evangelical and more liberal variants, which builds during the 19th century, while classical Quakerism recedes. The tightly controlled Quakerism of the era following the period of the "Valiant Sixty" and rapid growth largely disappeared, replaced by quite different Quakerisms heavily influenced by varied currents such as the Wesleyan and Unitarian movements.

There is little truly of the ecstatic in any of the varieties of North American Quakerism, nor in FWCC affiliated European Quakerism. You will find more in Latin American, African, and Asian Quakerism, but again these tend to be significantly different from classical Quakerism.

Ecstatical awakening movements are nothing unusual in religious history, and they inevitably lose their power and their appeal for new members after a while.

So the problem is: Do those movements in time develop special peculiarities which justify their survival after the ecstatical phase.

Quakerism early got a part of the large interconfessional "quietist" movement and the only part who maintained quietist ideas when catholicism or protestantism dropped them; so the particular quaker community is imho justified not by its ecstatical beginnings but by its quietist development.

Among current Quaker bloggers, there are a few of us who believe there is a growing renewal among Friends to restore and reclaim some of what you mention here as God or Christ as the center of our faith.

Off the top of my head, these Friends come to mind:

Robin M., What Canst Thou Say
Martin Kelley, Quaker Ranter
Aj, Aj Schwanz

I also perceive a slight growth among Conservative Friends, especially Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative, which now has a preparative meeting under its care and an as-yet unaffiliated worship group that has been looking at Conservative Friends for the past 18 months or so.

Thanks for adding to the conversation, Simon--both online and off.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Dear friend Simon, we might note that the dictionary defines "ecstasy" (from ex- "outside" and histanai "to cause to stand") as "a state of being beyond reason and self-control". I believe it is somewhat misleading to use such a term to describe the state of the early Friends -- except perhaps in the cases of those who did not come fully out from under the influence of Ranterism and those who clustered around Nayler in the time of his fall.

Fox's call to Friends to dwell in and under the Light and Power of God was a call to be controlled by that Light and Power. Other early Quaker leaders, such as the elders at Balby, issued similar calls. What they were summoning the Quaker movement to, with such calls, was not a state of being out of control or divorced from reason, as with the Bacchantes of ancient Greece, but a call to be under that blessed Control that transcends our own, and guided by a divine Reason more sane than anything we can manage on our own. Thus the majority of the early Friends were critically different in their spiritual practice and outward conversation from such ecstatic dissenting Christians as the Anabaptists who invested Münster, or the Brethren of the Free Spirit, or those who followed Nayler into Bristol, all of whom had some kinship to the Bacchantes of ancient Greece. And that is perhaps why the Quaker movement survived where the Münsterites, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the ecstatics who followed Nayler -- and the Bacchantes -- all failed.

I have heard the path of the early Friends described as enstasy -- not a word I find in any dictionary, but etymologically the opposite of "ecstasy": literally, a state of being caused to stand inside oneself, rather than, as with "ecstasy", being caused to stand outside oneself. Thus, as a word describing Friends, "enstasy" would mean something like "a state of being under a higher control: a state of being profoundly centered inside, in God."

Understood in this way, the change that Friends underwent in later generations does not seem so much of a reversal or betrayal of where they were at the beginning. Yes, the creative fire diminished, because the social turmoil around them that had inspired them to respond creatively had subsided. But the connectedness remained; and because it did, the fire was able to flare up anew at times when important new challenges arose.