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Meeting with quiet

"Quietism" seems frequently a term of disparagement in Quaker histories. It's easy to get excited about the adventures and struggles of early Quakers. After the Glorious Revolution (well, glorious for Protestants) brought toleration for Quakers, and they found safe homes in Pennsylvania and other colonies, Quakerism seemed to lose much of its energy. Rather than proclaiming that Quakerism is true Christianity that everyone should be following, Quakerism turns more and more into a separate sect, retreating from the world.

Part of the disdain seems to come from Quakers simply growing calm relative to their early days of evangelism. John Woolman stands out in the period between Fox, Penn, and Barclay and the schisms of the 19th century, but otherwise I don't tend to hear a lot about 18th century Quakers in modern conversation.

Howard Brinton was fond of emphasizing the value of Quietism, which means much more than just a period of relative calm among Quakers. It has ties to Roman Catholic Quietist thought from the 17th century, notably that of Miguel de Molinos, Archbishop François Fénelon, and Madame Guyon. It was inspired by the mystical traditions of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, but was found by the Catholic Church to be heretical in 1687.

Brinton wrote in Friends for 300 Years that "The works of Madame Guyon, Fénelon and Molinos, valuable guides in the life of prayer, could at one time be found in almost every Quaker library," though Margaret Hope Bacon contests that in a footnote in Friends for 350 Years. Diane Guenin-Lelle wrote an article on Quakers and Quietism which goes into much greater detail.

I just found a copy of Fenelon's Spiritual Letters, which appears to be the same book as the currently-available The Seeking Heart, though paginated differently. Many of the letters by this Catholic Archbishop feel distinctly Quakerly, like this one, which fits well with the Thomas Kelly quote I posted yesterday about being "prayed through":

110. "Teach us to pray"

Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee; Thou only knowest what we need; Thou lovest me betters than I know how to love myself.

O Father! Give to Thy child that which he himself knows not how to ask. I dare not ask for either crosses or consolations; I simply present myself before Thee, I open my heart to Thee.

Behold my needs which I know not myself; see and do according to thy tender mercy. Smite, or heal; depress me, or raise me up; I adore all thy purposes without knowing them; I am silent; I offer myself in sacrifice; I yield myself to Thee; I would have no other desire than to accomplish Thy will.

Teach me to pray; pray Thyself in me.

This is strong stuff, as Quietism calls for silencing the self, not just at Meeting - though it led to a lot of quiet meetings - and listening for what God wants rather than what we want. Fénelon doesn't urge complete retreat from the world, but certainly calls on his readers to step away from the world's expectations. Sometimes this takes him places that I think will trouble modern readers, who might see ignorance or passivity, but which had echoes in Quakerism:

29. To prefer love and humility to learning.

People cannot become perfect by dint of hearing or reading about perfection. The chief thing is not to listen to yourself, but silently to listen to God; to renounce all vanity, and apply yourself to real virtues; to talk little, and to do much, without caring to be seen. God will teach you much more than all the most experienced persons and all the most spiritual books. Do you need to be so learned in order to know how to love God and deny yourself for His love? You know much more of good than you practise. You have much less need of gaining fresh knowledge than of putting in practice that which you have already acquired.

53. Gentleness and humility.

Your remedy for wandering thoughts and want of fervor will be to set apart regular seasons for reading and prayer; to mix yourself up in outward matters only when it is necessary; and to attend more to softening the hardness of your judgment, to restraining your temper, and humbling your mind, than to upholding your opinion even when it is right; and finally, to humble yourself whenever you find that an undue warmth concerning the affairs of others has led you to forget your supreme interest, Eternity.

"Learn of me," Jesus Christ says to you, "for I am meek and lowly of heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls." Be sure that the grace, inward peace, and the blessing of the Holy Spirit will be with you, if you maintain gentleness and humility amid all your external perplexities.

I'll be posting more of Fénelon and hopefully some of the other Quietists over time. If you're impatient for more, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library has more about and by Fénelon.


Hi, Simon!

You write that "John Woolman stands out in the period between Fox, Penn, and Barclay and the schisms of the 19th century, but otherwise I don't tend to hear a lot about 18th century Quakers in modern conversation."

I agree that this is so, but would suggest that it is only because Friends don't bother to get to know their own history.

There were certainly plenty of other noteworthy, memorable and historically influential 18th century Friends besides Woolman. Some were social activists at least as effective, and in some cases more so, than Woolman himself -- for example, John Bellers, Anthony Benezet, John Churchman, and a few of the Pembertons. Others were ministers and teachers within our Society whose influence toward the good was at least comparable to, and in a few cases apparently greater than, Woolman's own: for example, Thomas Story, Benjamin Bangs, Samuel Bownas, Joseph Pike, Thomas Chalkley, Job Scott, Thomas Shillitoe, David Ferris, Comfort Hoag, Elizabeth Hudson, Samuel Fothergill, Jane Pearson, John Pemberton, Thomas Scattergood, and Henry Hull.

If Woolman is remembered better than any of these others, I think it is because of a combination of two things: (1) his Journal was beautifully written, and (2) it focused on subjects dear to the hearts of liberal modern Friends. But neither of these factors proves that he was more original, or capable, or influential in his own time. And in fact, some of the others on the list above seem to have had greater impact on their own time than Woolman did.