The Spiritual Basis of Friends' Social Concerns
Friends' faith is deeply rooted in the practice of personal contact with God, out of which come the leadings and concerns which shape their lives.
A Painful Discrepancy
The basis of Friends' social concerns is the same as the basis Of Quakerism as a whole the belief in the within-ness of God. This is not original with Friends. Many other groups have believed that God is within as well as above and beyond man. However, the emphasis on the within-ness of God in all human beings, in the capacity of the individual to communicate directly with God, to experience the spirit of Christ and express it in every aspect of life has led us to adopt patterns of behavior which may be considered distinctively Quaker.
This is the spiritual basis of the Friends' distinctive form of meeting for worship waiting in the Light for direct revelation of God's will for us. It is the basis for the distinctive form of meeting for business seeking unity in the Spirit. And it is the basis for all the social testimonies. For three centuries Friends have been exploring the application of this belief in the within-ness of God in all men to the problems of human relations and the end is certainly not yet.
A Quaker social concern seems characteristically to arise in a sensitive individual or very small group often decades before it grips the Society of Friends as a whole and as much as a century or more before it appeals to the secular world.
The concern arises as a revelation to an individual that there is a painful discrepancy between existing social conditions and what God wills for society and that this discrepancy is not being adequately dealt with. The next step is the determination of the individual to do something about it not because he is particularly well fitted to tackle the problem, but simply because no one else seems to be doing it.
Dorothy H. Hutchinson: The spiritual basis of Quaker social concerns, 1961, pp. 1-2. Friends General Conference.
The Business of Our Lives
Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all his creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.
John Woolman: 'A plea for the poor," (written in 1763-4) in The journal and major essays, ed. Phillips P Moulton, 1971, p. 241.
There was in the Quaker movement a moral earnestness and a social intensity which saved it from the easy pitfalls of mystical quests. If these men had their moments of transport when they felt themselves "in the Paradise of God" they never lost their hold upon the central purpose of their lives to transform this present world to the end that society here on earth might take on a likeness to the Kingdom of Heaven. Fox had his first awakening in his nineteenth year, not over his own sins, but over the moral conditions and social customs about him.
It was in this focussing upon moral effort that the Quakers differed most from the other sects of the Commonwealth period. Their "views" were not novel or original. Every one of their peculiar ideas had already been proclaimed by some individual or by some religious party. What was new was the fusing of their ideas into one living truth, which was henceforth to be done, was to be put into life and made to march.
Rufus M. Jones in introduction to William C. Braithwaite's The beginnings of Quakerism, 1923, pp. xlii, xliii.
Injustice "Struck at Their Life"
The social testimony of the Society of Friends did not arise out of any doctrinaire theory of human rights or of the nature of a just society. As the living experience of the inward light of Christ became a reality to the first followers of George Fox, a force moulding character and making all things new, they found that the many forms of social injustice witnessed round them, "struck at their life" and could no longer be tolerated. It was from this central experience that they sought a new order of human relationships in the humdrum tasks of earning a living and in their contacts with their workpeople and customers. In their own business relationships they sought to maintain a simple and steadfast integrity, determining to make or sell only things of good quality. The apprentice in the shop, the serving girl in the home, the labourer at the plough, each was a human personality, lit with a spark of the divine light, and, therefore, demanding respect. The earliest social testimony was eminently practical, setting a new standard to be followed by Friends in all their business activities a standard of quality in the goods handled, a standard of fairness and consideration in their dealings with all men.
Industry and the Social Order Conference, 1958: Preparatory document 2, Friends and the industrial and social order, p. 3.
Religious Experience Comes First
Quakers are not perfect; they are essentially human and weak and inept and stupid like everyone else. But their being Quakers does make a difference to their attitude and their behaviour and it is to this that their influence in history and society, which is out of all proportion to their numbers, is attributable. There is a tendency to put the cart before the horse, to say that they are people who find happiness in serving others and who seek to find religious belief through such service. This is quite the wrong way round, apart from having a concealed and unjustified implication that Quakers are simply those who have a particular psychological quirk which drives them to service and sacrifice as a means of self-gratification. What comes first is the religious experience which leads to religious belief. Out of this comes a compulsion to work for others in some way or other. For many it is in practical matters, for some it is a drive towards a contemplative and mystical life for this too serves others, bringing us all closer to true awareness of God through its actual being.
Geoffrey Hubbard: Quaker by convincement, 1974, p. 169.
Unity of Faith and Works
Our vision of our Meetings for Worship is of places where God is present, where God brings us into unity, where through corporate worship and the ministry arising out of it, we may be strengthened in our convictions, awareness, work, and faithfulness.
Our vision is of the unity of faith and works. We recognize that some come to works only after gaining faith, and some come to faith through working. Ideally, we reach inward to the Spirit that speaks to us and guides us, and outward to the world which needs us and which we need if we are not to drift into empty piety or self-glorification.
Workshop at Pendle Hill, July 8-13, 1979, "Friends as leaders: the vision, instrument, and methods," p. 8.
Characteristics of a Quaker Concern
I shall call attention to seven characteristics of Quaker social concerns in general. First and foremost, a Quaker concern requires a prepared individual. This preparation, in the great among us, seems to have a pattern which is visible in retrospect but is not visible to the individual at the time he is being prepared. It seems that faithfulness in apparently unrelated aspects of life is preparation most necessary for a Friend who will be subsequently called to carry through a concern.
A second characteristic of a Friends' social concern is that the concerned individual makes direct contact with the evil which needs attention. That is why Elizabeth Fry had so much more practical insight than other prison reformers of her day.
A third characteristic of the concerned Friend is his ability to establish empathy with the objects of his concern, e.g. to achieve imaginative identification with prisoners as Elizabeth Fry did.
A fourth characteristic of the concerned Quaker is his willingness to work for any minor, unspectacular, partial solution of a big problem, which seems, at the moment, achievable. Often minor reforms are the only realistic possibility and to over-reach is to prevent any progress.
A fifth characteristic of a Quaker's concern is that it does not rest until it has penetrated through the superficial evil to its root causes. In looking for causes, Quakers cannot, as many Christians have done, fall back upon the hopeless depravity of man as the cause of social evils. Friends recognize that man's depravity is real, but they have never considered it his essential quality nor felt obliged to wait till man is less depraved before attacking social evils. They have, on the contrary, felt that, since every man contains the Divine essence, we need not be without hope. Friends, therefore, look for social causes and at least partial cures for social evils.
A sixth characteristic of social concern is that the person who is sensitive to one social concern becomes inevitably more sensitive to all social evils.
Lastly, the person with a social concern is willing to accept censure and ridicule. Yet in the last analysis, obedience to the Light is the only satisfying course. Approval is not the criterion. Results are not the criterion. I am convinced that if one is obedient, failure is impossible. The results, when they appear, will rest upon the foundations laid by many anonymous builders. To be one of these is not to fail.
Dorothy H. Hutchinson: The spiritual basis of Quaker social concern, 1961, pp. 4-l0. Friends General Conference.
What Does He Lay Upon Me?
Thus the state of having a concern has a foreground and a background. In the foreground is the special task, uniquely illuminated, toward which we feel a special yearning and care. This is the concern as we usually talk about it or present it to the Monthly Meeting. But in the backgrount1 is a second level, or layer, of universal concern for all the multitude of good things that need doing. Toward them all we feel kindly, but we are dismissed from active service in most of them. And we have an easy mind in the presence of desperately real needs which are not our direct responsibility. We cannot die on every cross nor are we expected to.
Thomas R. Kelly: A testament of devotion 1941, pp. 108-9.
I think I have wasted a great deal of my life waiting to be called to some great mission which would change the world. I have looked for important social movements. I have wanted to make a big and lasting contribution to the causes I believe in. I think I have been too ready to reject the genuine leadings I have been given as being matters of little consequence. It has taken me a long time to learn that obedience means doing what we are called to do even if it seems pointless or unimportant or even silly. The great social movements of our time may very well be part of our calling. The ideals of peace and justice and equality which are part of our religious tradition are often the focus of debate. But we cannot simply immerse ourselves in these activities. We need to develop our own unique social witness, in obedience to God. We need to listen for the gentle whispers which will tell us how we can bring our own lives into greater harmony with heaven.
Deborah Haines, "Living in harmony with heaven on earth," Friends search for wholeness, 1978, p. 139.
If I can live in simple comfort and owe no man anything, sharing intimately with loved ones life's varied experiences; if I can bring a touch of healing and a clearer outlook into the trials and problems of those with whom I mingle; if I can humbly undertake public service when the public calls me, caring neither too much nor too little for popular approval; if I can give spiritual values always the first place as did Jesus of Nazareth, and gladly sink from sight like a bit of leaven that [the] coming of his kingdom may be hastened, then will this experiment of living yield in full measure the true wealth of contentment.
Alfred Osborne, from his personal papers. Printed in New England Y M. minutes, 1952, p. 17
True godliness don't turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it.
William Penn: No cross, no crown, 1682, ch. 5, sect. 12.