« October 2006 | Main | December 2006 »

November 30, 2006

From the North to the South

A month or so ago I stumbled on Cedric Cowing's The Saving Remnant: Religion and the Settling of New England in a used bookstore. I'd been thinking for a while about how religion seemed to shift when it crossed the Atlantic, but this book - which argues that there is less shift than I thought - actually had a greater effect on my thoughts about early Quaker history in England.

Cowing's basic premise is that:

A division in religiosity in England antedated settlement of New England. It was intensified by the spread of the textile industry from the Low Countries to East Anglia and the West Country and by the Reformation. A new rationalism was emerging in Southeast England while the Northwest retained its potential for evangelism and pietism. Using data on ancestry and religious responses of clergy and communities in New England, a cultural dividing line can be drawn across the homeland from the Wash to Exeter, via Bristol. Of course, beyond this line in the Northwest were some outposts of Southeast sympathy, such as Manchester and the English colony in Pembroke, Wales. On the other hand, southeast of the line, there were outposts of evangelical-pietistic influence in London, Norwich, the Isles of Ely and Wight, and some wealds and fens. (297)

While Cowing is most interested in how this played out in New England, as people from these parts of England migrated to a new continent and there had to grow together - or apart - his early chapters have a lot to say about Quakerism.

George Fox's hometown of Fenny Drayton has a prominent place on Cowing's map, just west of the boundary he draws for the Southeast. The North, where Quakerism first burst into a movement, and Bristol, where James Nayler made the entry that condemned him for blasphemy, are both on the Northwest side of the line. Cowing uses Quakers as markers of Northwest tendencies in New England, and writes briefly about Quakerism's roaring success in the 1650s in the North, contrasted with its less dramatic results in the South:

When Fox again traveled North from Fenny Drayton and crossed the Humber River, he found many people ripe for his message. Because the fields were "white for the harvest," he and his first converts, "the Publishers of Truth," were able to convince many groups and individuals in a short time. In this environment, Quakers were able to draw converts from several social classes. Even some younger sons of the lesser gentry felt the Inner Light. Young women were conspicuous when they witnessed in public or traveled unescorted. Itinerating was for the young and unattached but more mature converts and sympathizers offered hospitality to these young travelers....

The Quaker Galilee was in the North, chiefly Cheshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, and Westmorland, some of the highest ground in England. Quakerism found special favor with small farmers or shepherds descended from Vikings. The Norse custom was individual land-ownership, so they felt alienated from the Norman-French governing class, its political institutions, and lingering Catholicism. Fox's Quaker ideas and simplicity reinforced evangelical Protestantism in this region's pastoral people.....

The Society of Friends, as the Quakers called themselves, conducted missionary efforts in the Southeast during the Restoration, and Quakerism spread through the trading classes in towns, becoming more and more identified with a few strata of the population. Quakers turned inward, using less evangelism and seeking instead the small, still voice, retreating from a movement with universal claims to a sect. Quietism brought not only respectability and conservatism but sometimes a touch of deism. The followers of George Fox were still a peculiar people. Despite their inroads in the English Southeast there continued to be many more Puritans than Quakers, with the greatest disparity in East Anglia. Metropolitan London, however, remained a melting pot for religious belief as it had been earlier in the century.

The Quakers were the most successful survivors of the Civil War era. Yet in 1660, when the Quaker Seventy in the North went south to carry the Truth to the whole country, neither the time nor the place, the Southeast, was anywhere near as responsive as Westmorland had been in the 1650s. (120-2)

This adds a perspective that I hadn't thought hard about to the difficult question - if you accept it as a question - of why Quakerism changed after 1660. Politics changed, and Quakerism was seen as a threat to the re-established order, but something else changed: Quakerism itself moved south.

Using London as a center, even though it was a mix of everything going on in the country, took Quakerism out of the more pastoral upland settings where it had flourished, and brought it to the homeland of a more rationalist (often Ramist) Puritanism. Appealing to the Southeast meant recasting Quakerism in a style more appealing to those who lived there, and wild ecstasy was less welcome than cautious rationalism.

Cowing carefully avoids simple determinism, pointing out exceptions to his interpretations regularly and accepting that his line isn't a clear demarcation. I suspect there will still be people annoyed about being asked to consider the impact of geography on religious style and beliefs. Nevertheless, this seems like one piece of an ever richer story worth pursuing.

November 27, 2006

Quakers and Montanists

I wrote earlier about Paul Tillich's comments on Montanism, mystics, and Quakers, where Tillich speculated about the flames of ecstasy dwindling into rationalism. Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition doesn't compare Montanists and Quakers directly, but his description of this very early group (~150 AD) echoes the story of early Quakerism:

Nathanael Bonwetsch defined primitive Montanism as follows: "An effort to shape the entire life of the church in keeping with the expectation of the return of Christ, immediately at hand; to define the essence of true Christianity from this point of view; and to oppose everything by which conditions in the church were to acquire a permanent form for the purpose of entering upon a longer historical development...."

In the explication of his thesis, Bonwetsch placed the principal stress upon Montanism's attitude toward questions of the Christian life in relation to the world, and he saw it as the first outstanding movement to be called forth by a concern with these questions....

the explanation of the origins of Montanism lies in the fact that when the apocalyptic vision became less vivid and the church's polity more rigid, the extraordinary operations of the Spirit characteristic of the early church diminished in both frequency and intensity. The decline in the eschatological hope and the rise of the monarchical episcopate are closely interrelated phenomena worthy of special treatment; both indicate a process of settling already at work in the second-century church, and perhaps earlier, by which many Christians were beginning to adjust themselves to the possibility that the church might have to live in the world for a considerable time to come. Part of that process of settling was the gradual decline, both in intensity and in frequency, of the charismata that had been so prominent in the earlier stages of the Christian movement.... (98-99)

Reading this reminded me of the excitement Doug Gwyn conveys in Apocalypse of the Word when he talks about the impact of Fox's announcement that "Christ is come to teach His people himself", and the battles Fox had with those who by the 1650s seemed to reject 'charismata' completely, as something long since past. Early Christians didn't make that claim, particularly, against the Montanists.

It therefore seems to be correct to note that this type of prophetic speech was at home in the Montanist sect and in the greater church. But the tone of this insistence on the part of the critics of Montanism seems to indicate a certain amount of embarrassment on their part in practice if not in principle the charismata were becoming rarer and rarer. Despite their assertion of the theoretical possibility of prophecy in the church, the other guarantees of the presence and work of the Spirit in their midst were becoming so firm in their minds that when Montanism claimed to actuate this theoretical possibility with a vengeance, they were put to a severe test. (100)

Montanism laid claim to supernatural inspiration by the Holy Spirit as the source of its prophecy, and it pointed to the moral decline of the church as the main reason for having lost this power of the Spirit. Most orthodox writers in the second and even in the third century maintained that such inspiration by the Holy Spirit was not only possible, but present and active in the church. In meeting the challenge of Montanism, they could not, for the most part, take the approach that the age of supernatural inspiration had passed. Among the earliest critics of Montanism, there was no effort to discredit the supernatural character of the new prophecy. (105-6)

This is deeply different from most of the responses Fox received - by 1650 the focus was on scripture, even the old traditions of the church in various degrees cast off by reformers. Like Montanism's opponents, however, Quakerism's opponents found dark causes for Quaker inspiration:

Instead, these critics affirmed that the ecstatic seizures of the Montanists were indeed supernatural in origin, but claimed that the supernatural involved was not the Holy Spirit of God but demonic spirits.

I'll have more to say later on some of the connections between the areas that produced Quakerism and stories of witchcraft, but these kinds of questions still arise for any kind of supernatural message, along with the questions of insanity.

The impact of the Montanists would create problems for later mystics and prophets, however, as Hippolytus of Rome, first antipope but eventual saint, established a new path:

Yet the decline of genuine prophecy and of the extraordinary functioning of the Spirit among the ranks of the catholic church tended to reduce the effectiveness of this charge that the prophecy of the Montanists was a pseudoprophecy because its supernatural source was demonic.

There was another way to meet the doctrinal implications of the Montanist challenge, and in the long run that was the way orthodoxy took... [Hippolytus] recognized that the weakness which Montanism had discovered in the church lay in the church's concept of a continuing prophecy. This concept was of a piece with a vivid eschatology; for apocalyptic has always, as suggested by its very name, which means "revelatory", brought with it the notion of supplementary revelation, by which among other things, the apocalypticist is convinced that the end has truly come.

More consistently than most of the anti-Montanist writers were willing to do, Hippolytus subjected to question the very foundations of the Montanist movement. He was franker than most of his contemporaries in admitting that the church was not necessarily living in the last times, and in opposition to Montanism he defended the process by which the church was beginning to reconcile itself to the delay in the Lord's second coming.

As he pushed the time of the second coming into the future, so he pushed the time of prophecy into the past. It had ended with the apostle John, whose Apocalypse Hippolytus maintained was the last valid prophecy to have come from the Holy Spirit. And though John was entitled to claim the inspiration of the Spirit for his prophetic work, later so-called prophets had no such right....

As Schepelern has summarized the situation, "A half century earlier such a movement could still count on ecclesiastical recognition. Between the preaching of judgment by John and that by Montanus, however, there lies the decisive phase in the development of the church's organization and ministry, and the free manifestations of the Spirit protest against their authority in vain"...

In this way, the apostles became a sort of spiritual aristocracy, and the first century a golden age of the Spirit's activity. The difference between the Spirit's activity in the days of the apostolic church and in the history of the church became a difference not only of degree but fundamentally of kind, and the promises of the New Testament on the coming of the Holy Spirit were referred primarily to the Pentecost event and only through that event, via the apostles, to the subsequent ages of the church.

The promise that the Spirit would lead into all truth, which figured prominently in Montanist doctrine, now meant principally, if not exclusively, that the Spirit would lead the apostles into all truth as they composed the creed and books of the New Testament, and the church into all truth when it was build on their foundation. Here too, the transition was gradual, and it was not complete. The history of the church has never been altogether without the spontaneous gifts of the Holy Spirit, even where the authority of the apostolic norms has been most incontestable. In the experiences of monks and friars, of mystics and seers, as well as in the underground religion of many believers, the Montanist heresy has carried on a sort of unofficial existence. (106-8)

I'd always wondered why the sense I had of "church" felt so hard to square with what I actually read in the New Testament. The Gospels, Acts, and Letters describe people caught up in the Lord, experiencing Christ even when, as with Paul, they never actually met him in the flesh, but rather through the spirit. Hippolytus seems to be the writer who takes the (perhaps inevitable) step of declaring their experience completely different from ours, leaving us merely to be inspired by their writings but not to share the experience... that they invite us to share.

Though Quakerism (definitely) varies from Montanism in the details of what it finds in the Spirit, it's hard not to see the early Quakers rebelling not just against their fellow Protestants but against a line of argument that extends back to the second century. Early Quakers' fondness for "primitive Christianity" and their insistence on experience brings them back to expectations set before Hippolytus and a church that needed order.

Quakers have faced a similar problem of an end that hasn't arrived, and haven't spent much time as a movement proclaiming the nearness of the end since the 1650s, despite that perspective having helped define Quaker testimonies. 350 years later, however, Quakers still gather to listen for Christ, here to teach his people himself.

November 26, 2006

Secret truths, accessible to those who seek

The tradition / scripture / spirit distinctions I wrote about earlier intersect with another basic division in religious writing: things that can be explained and understood and things that cannot.

In A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes briefly about Basil of Caesarea, and his discussion of matters more about the relationship with God than the relationships among humans:

Basil expressed [Aristotle's] insight in a Christian sense when he distingushed between dogma and kerygma. Both kinds of Christian teaching were essential to religion. Kerygma was the public teaching of the Church, based on the scriptures. Dogma, however, represented the deeper meaning of biblical truth, which could only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form. Besides the clear message of the Gospels, a secret or esoteric tradition had been handed down "in a mystery" from the apostles; this had been a "private and secret teaching,"

which our holy fathers have preserved in a silence that prevents anxiety and curiosity... so as to safeguard by this silence the sacred character of the mystery. The uninitiated are not permitted to behold these things: their meaning is not to be divulged by writing it down.

Behind the liturgical symbols and the lucid teachings of Jesus, there was a secret dogma which represented a more developed understanding of the faith.

A distinction between esoteric and exoteric truth will be extremely important in the history of God. It was not to be confined to Greek Christians, but Jews and Muslims would also develop an esoteric tradition. The idea of a "secret" doctrine was not to shut people out. Basil was not talking about an early form of Freemasonry. He was simply calling attention to the fact that not all religious truth was capable of being expressed and defined clearly and logically. Some religious insights had an inner resonance that could only be apprehended by each individual in his own time during what Plato had called theoria, contemplation. Since all religion was directed toward an ineffable reality that lay beyond normal concepts and categories, speech was limiting and confusing. If they did not "see" these truths with the eye of the spirit, people who were not yet very experienced could get quite the wrong idea.(114)

While Basil was writing about liturgy, and non-scriptural practices like making the sign of the cross, Quakers seem to have similar issues when describing exactly what happens during a Quaker meeting, how people feel led to speak, and what exactly it is that we're all waiting to experience. Putting it into words often confuses more than it communicates, even among those worshipping in the same room.

For all the simplicity of the form of Quaker worship, it retains the complexity and the same challenges as liturgical worship that come up any time someone asks "why?" While there are people who describe Meeting as simply a quiet time to think and reflect, worship is much more than thinking, with results that don't fit into the simple boxes we use to describe ordinary tasks.

(Armstrong's translation of Basil is slightly different from (a likely old) one I found online, De Spiritu Sanctu, on the unwritten laws of the church, which both extends the mystery to scripture and sounds more concerned about creating curiosity:

Moses was wise enough to know that contempt stretches to the trite and to the obvious, while a keen interest is naturally associated with the unusual and the unfamiliar. In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity. "Dogma" and "Kerygma" are two distinct things; the former is observed in silence; the latter is proclaimed to all the world. One form of this silence is the obscurity employed in Scripture, which makes the meaning of "dogmas" difficult to be understood for the very advantage of the reader.)

Armstrong then turns to Gregory of Nyssa, Basil's younger brother, for more explanation of these difficulties:

As Gregory of Nyssa said, every concept of God is a mere simulacrum, a false likeness, an idol; it could not reveal God himself. Christians must be like Abraham, who, in Gregory's version of his life, laid aside all ideas about God and took hold of a faith which was "unmixed and pure of any concept." In his Life of Moses, Gregory insisted that "the true vision and the knowledge of what we seek consists precisely in not seeing, in an awareness that our goal transcends all knowledge and is everywhere cut off from us by the darkness of incomprehensibility." We cannot "see" God intellectually, but if we let ourselves be enveloped in the cloud that descended from Mount Sinai, we will feel his presence. (115)

For many years I interpreted my inability to '"see" God intellectually' as a barrier to faith, a problem keeping me from integrating God with my life. In my readings I regarded philosophers' efforts to include God as a sign of weakness, a "Hail Mary pass" that couldn't save their work. As I read more and more about religion, and especially religious history, it became clearer and clearer that reading about religion wasn't actually going to bring me closer to God.

Fortunately, all that reading did lead me to realize that I was on the wrong path, and that I wouldn't find God in a book. Feeling God's presence isn't about reading and understanding words, but rather about being enveloped, coming together with God in ways I can't easily describe, and don't understand in the ways I understand anything else.

A History of God

Karen Armstrong's A History of God explores the history of monotheists' relationship to their God, exploring Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It's a topic bound to aggravate a lot of readers - reading the 174 Amazon reviews "Lowest Reviews first" is fun. Some people find it disrespectful of religion, while others find it dangerously respectful of religion and disrespectful of rationality.

Armstrong tackles a topic that is obviously too large for a mere 399 pages, and does show her own opinions occasionally, especially at its conclusion, where she expresses her hopes for more mystical and less fundamentalist religion. The book can't dive too deep into the details of the subjects it discusses, providing enough information to tell the story and show paralllels across the three religions. Jumping among the three (with comparative asides on Buddhism and Hinduism) creates some challenges for telling the story. Armstrong does make different choices than many similar works, spending more time on Ranters than on Quakers, for example, but I usually find it works pretty well.

November 19, 2006

Last times

I enjoy the Slacktivist blog tremendously, as Fred Clark manages to look at the world and Christianity through a sympathetic but often bewildered perspective. One of his regular features is a page-by-page review of Left Behind, the first book of the 12-volume series. The comments frequently raise as many questions as the stories, and I was especially interested in a comment by "Reverend Ref" on the latest Left Behind installment:

The lectionary for this coming Sunday is concerned with the end times, desolating sacrilege and antichrist; you know, all that Bad Stuff in General that Fred mentioned in his post.

As I'm basically saying in my sermon, there is a major problem with looking at these apocalyptic readings and trying to determine just when those last days are supposed to occur. The problem is this: THESE ARE the last days, not some future date arrived at by mathematical gyrations more complicated than what is needed to hold the Copernican system together.

Referring back to Acts 2, it was at Pentecost that God poured out the Holy Spirit on the apostles and they spoke in other languages proclaiming the word of God. Peter, quoting Joel, says: In the last days it will be, declares God, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh ...

We are the heirs of that event. God's Spirit has been poured out upon us, and is being poured out upon us. The "last days" have been here for almost 2000 years.

Pentecost was a long long time ago, but that passage was key to early Quakers' understanding of what they were doing, even as their millenarianism faded. Its claim that "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" is important for its including both genders. Claims like Scofield's that the Sermon on the Mount applies only to God's eventual kingdom rather than to the here and now seem to me to fall in the face of this, and Quakers' insistence on applying Christ's teachings rather more strongly than their fellows considered wise likely also derives from this perspective.

(Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word argues along somewhat similar lines. I need to take a closer look at early Quaker writings to see how this notion played through their work, but it does feel to me like it resonates with William Penn's discussion of dispensations in his opening to George Fox's Journal.)

November 10, 2006

An aspiration

From II Corinthians 1:12:

For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward. (KJV)

November 5, 2006

"Black drapery on our door"

What is the peacemaker's responsibility to the warmaker? And, what, especially, is that responsibility when both the peacemaker and the warmaker share the same goals?

I wrote earlier about visiting John Brown's home and marveling at his violence in the name of the Golden Rule. His last words, passed to a friend at his hanging, forecast more violence to come:

I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

Brown was, of course, right that violence was on the way, as the Civil War started soon after. Still, it seems fair to ask the question of whether slavery could have - somehow - ended without violence.

Angelika remembered mention of John Brown in Howard Brinton's Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience Among Friends. That turned out to point to the Quaker Reader, which included an except from Elizabeth Buffum Chace's Two Quaker Sisters.

The story below is an excerpt of that excerpt, one which leaves me wondering about what the right thing to do in situation like this could possibly be.

When John Brown attempted to free the slaves at Harper's Ferry, our family was stirred by strong emotions. On the dark day, when the grand, but mistaken. old man was hung on a Virginia gallows, a solitary strip of black drapery on our door reminded our neighbors that, with us, it was a day of mourning....

My sister was deeply agitated at the news for she felt that John Brown and his men had, although unwisely, taken the first positive step toward ending the impossible conditions under which the country was laboring... (346)

"Although unwisely, taken the first positive step"? I'm not used to hearing "unwise" and "positive" in the same sentence that way. Is this the contradiction we feel when those with ends we support choose means we abhor?

It was just at this time that my sister Rebecca decided to go to see John Brown (347)....

At last Avis [the jailer] returned and led us into the prison-room. On one bed lay John Brown, on the other, Stevens. Mr. Brown attempted to rise, but could not stand. I gave him the rose, which he laid on his pillow....

We drew our chairs near Mr. Brown's bed; the jailer sat on a bench back in a corner; I unrolled some worsted work and began to knit; Brown looked gratified and was inclined to talk...

"'I want to ask you one question,' said I, 'not for myself, but for others. In what you did at Harper's Ferry were you actuated by a spirit of revenge?" Brown started, looked surprised, and then replied:

"'No, not in all the wrongs done to me and to my family in Kansas did I ever have a feeling of revenge.'

"The shyness that I believe he felt in the presence of strangers was wearing off. He spoke several times to my son and looked at him tenderly. He was becoming more communicative when a loud voice called "Avis!" It was Sheriff Campbell. The crowd had become impatient and threatened violence if I were allowed to stay longer. Avis hastened out and returned instantly with the verdict that I must leave. I shook hands with Brown on parting. 'The Lord will bless you for coming here,' said he.

"The great, tall sheriff opened the door and hurried out a little woman and a boy into the face of a furious mob of the worst-looking men I ever saw. We stood for a moment on the little platform at the top of the steps, and looked down over a sea of angry eyes and clenched and threatening hands and I did not feel afraid! I, who dare not pass a cow and who have such a terror of great dogs, was so uplifted in spirit that I had lost all feeling of fear, and walked through the mob, which opened just wide enough to let us pass, without thinking of the mob at all. I believe I was safer because I was not afraid. It was when Peter was afraid that he began to sink. It is good sometimes to get a glimpse of the power inside us.

[She returns...]

"What a different man I now found! Capt. Brown was sitting at a table, writing. He looked well; his hair, that had been matted with dried clots of blood, was washed and brushed. Thrown up from his brow, it made a soft white halo around his head. His high white forehead expressed a sort of glory. He looked like an inspired old prophet. He had just finished a letter to his wife and children. This he requested me to read and take to his wife, to whom he sent many messages. The last farewell was a silent one. Our hearts were too full for words. Stevens lay on his bed, apparently dying, but his great eyes shone, and his face was full of joy.

"Capt. Brown stood by the table as I left the room - a commanding figure, the white halo about his high head, on his face a look of peace. For twenty years he had believed himself divinely called to free the slaves. He had tried and failed. The slave power seemed stronger than ever; his little band of earnest young men were scattered, dead, or imprisoned, and he himself was condemned to die on the scaffold. But his faith never flinched.

"On November 24th John Brown wrote to me, 'I am always grateful for anything you do or write. You have laid me and my family under many and great obligations.'

John Brown died on December 2nd... (353)

Rebecca's telling of her walking through the crowd is a classic moment of a peaceful person confronting a violent situation and walking through it unharmed, carried "uplifted by the spirit." At the same time, she seems only to question Brown whether his motivation was revenge. She doesn't report the entire conversation, settling more for hagiography, portraying "a commanding figure, the white halo about his high head, on his face a look of peace."

Is this ministering to a prisoner, or is this burnishing a legend of a man of violence?

How far does sharing the same ends permit the forgiveness of the choice of means?

Or am I misreading Rebecca's interpretation of the Peace Testimony? She may well be following the path that it applies to her but not necessarily to non-Quakers.

The story raises many questions. I have few answers, none of them good.