New England Yearly Meeting

A community of Quakers and Quaker meetings across New England.

The Quaker Message

George Fox, one of the early founders of the Society of Friends in seventeenth century England, had as a youth suffered great anguish as he sought an answer to his spiritual quest. His answer came, after much reading of the Scriptures and visits to many ministers and counselors, when he heard a voice within him which said: "There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." "And when I heard it," he later reported, "my heart did leap for joy." He had found God directly without the aid of ritual or clergy, and henceforth his distinctive message was: (Christ speaks directly to each human heart who seeks Him; listen to the Teacher who is within; He placed His light within each of us, and as we follow the way He directs we shall be led into life and Truth.

The first names for the new movement were Children of the Light and Friends of Truth. William Penn thought of it as "primitive Christianity revived."

Since those early beginnings, Friends have continued to hold that their faith is one of first-hand experience of God in their lives. Spiritual life, they say, does not depend upon the acceptance of certain doctrines, nor the observance of certain rites, but comes as persons are obedient to the light of Christ within them. 'They feel free to reject much of the ecclesiastical structure of the times, including priests, church dogmas, outward sacraments, and external authority in religion, because they feel that for them these do not serve the life of the spirit.

This has not been a solitary faith. From the beginning, the Quaker faith has flourished in a group, in a society, in a beloved fellowship. While God may be found in one's inmost life, one is always conscious of being part of a larger group of persons who are likewise joyously following the inward way and seeking to be obedient to the light of Christ within. They seek to be obedient not only in the quiet gathering for worship together, or in their meeting for settling practical affairs, but also as they are led as a group to be concerned for those about them, particularly those suffering injustices or inequities. While Friends had great respect for the individual person, the real unit in the Society of Friends has always been the Meeting.

Friends traditionally allow great freedom in describing their own religious life and experience. They have no formal creed. They try to weave their faith into life. Are they seriously trying to follow their inward guide? Does the Sermon on the Mount come alive for them as setting standards for Christian action? Are they endeavoring to live by Quaker testimonies of integrity, simplicity, equality, peace, and community? In other words, one can often tell Quakers not so much by what they say as by the way they live.

The excerpts, which follow, are attempts from different points of view to portray this basic Quaker experience.

The End of Wor​ds

The end of words (even of Christ's own directions in the days of His flesh) is to turn men to the holy life and power from whence the words came.
—Isaac Penington: Works, 1681 ed., Part II, p. 170.

The Presence and Power of the Most High

At last, after all my distresses, wanderings and sore travails, I met with some of the writings of this people called Quakers, which I cast a slight eye upon and disdained, as falling very short of that wisdom, light, life and power, which I had been longing for and searching after. After a long time, I was invited to hear one of them (as I had been often, they in tender love pitying me and feeling my want of that which they possessed). When I came, I felt the presence and power of the most high among them, and words of truth from the spirit of truth reaching to my heart and conscience, opening my estate as in the presence of the Lord. Yea, I did not only feel words and demonstrations from without, but I felt the dead quickened, the seed raised; insomuch as my heart, in the certainty of light and clearness of true sense, said: "This is he; this is he; there is no other; this is he whom I have waited for and sought after from my childhood, who was always near me, and had often begotten life in my heart, but I knew him not distinctly nor how to receive him or dwell with him." And then in this sense (in the meltings and breakings of my spirit) was I given up to the Lord to become his both in waiting for the further revealing of his seed in me, and to serve him in the life and power of his seed.
—Isaac Penington: 'A true and faithful relation" (1667). Quoted in Thomas Ellwood's "Testimony" in the preface to Penington's Works, 1681 ed., p. xlv.

A Secret Power Among Them

Not by strength of arguments, or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine and convincement of my understanding thereby came [I] to receive and bear witness of the truth, but by being secretly reached by [the] life; for when I came into the silent assemblies of God's people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed. And indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian, to whom afterwards the knowledge and understanding of principles will not be wanting, but will grow up as is needful as the natural fruit of this good root, and such a knowledge will not be barren nor unfruitful.

—Robert Barclay (1648-1696): Apology, prop. 11, sect. 7 1908 Phila. ed., p. 340.

The Kingdom of Heaven Did Gather Us

The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and His heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another, with great joy of heart: "What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? And will He take up His tabernacle among the sons of men, as He did of old? Shall we, that were reckoned as the outcasts of Israel, have this honour of glory communicated amongst us, which were but men of small parts and of little abilities, in respect of many others, as amongst men."

—Francis Howgill's "Testimony" in preface to Edward Burrough's Works, 1672. This extract is considerably abridged.

They Were Changed Men

They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them. And as they freely received what they had to say from the Lord, so they freely administered it to others. The bent and stress of their ministry was conversion to God, regeneration and holiness, not schemes of doctrines and verbal creeds or new forms of worship, but a leaving off in religion the superfluous and reducing the ceremonies and formal part, and pressing earnestly the substantial, the necessary and profitable part, as all upon a serious reflection must and do acknowledge.

—William Penn's preface to George Fox's Journal, bicent. ed., 1891, vol. 1, p. xxxvii.

A New Dimension of Life

The possibility of this experience of Divine Presence, as a repeatedly realized and present fact, and its transforming and transfiguring effect upon all life this is the central message of Friends. Once discover this glorious secret, this new dimension of life, and we no longer live merely in time but we live also in the Eternal. The sense of Presence carries with it a sense of our lives being in large part guided, dynamically moved from beyond our usual selves. Instead of being the active, hurrying church worker and the anxious, careful planner of shrewd moves toward the good life, we become pliant creatures, less brittle, less obstinately rational. The energizing, dynamic center is not in us but in the Divine Presence in which we share. Religion is not our concern; it is God's concern. The sooner we stop thinking we are the energetic operators of religion and discover that God is at work, as the Aggressor, the Invader, the Initiator, so much the sooner do we discover that our task is to call men to be still and know, listen, hearken in quiet invitation to the subtle promptings of the Divine. Our task is to encourage others first to let go, to cease striving, to give over this fevered effort of the self-sufficient religionist trying to please an external deity. God is the Seeker, and not we alone. I am persuaded that religious people do not with sufficient seriousness count on God as an active factor in the affairs of the world. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock," but too many well-intentioned people are so preoccupied with the clatter of effort to do something for God that they don't hear Him asking that He might do something through them.
 

—Thomas Kelly: A testament of devotion, 1941, pp. 91, 96-7.

God is Loving Heavenly Father

To live one's life to the full, it is surely necessary to base it on a positive hypothesis. And it is helpful also to join together with others who share the same outlook. Many scientists have found in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) the spiritual community that they need. Friends do not accept the idea that the universe occurred by chance, that man is a chance conglomeration of molecules which has developed ideals, a conscience, humanitarian instincts merely in order to survive. That seems to make a god of chance and to attribute motives to a machine. It is wholly incredible, almost more incredible than the idea that there exists nothing but mind. To accept the existence of matter and spirit seems reasonable. To attribute the creation of matter to a Supreme Spirit may be a way of expressing what we do not understand, but it seems more sensible than to suppose that by denying that there is a problem or refusing to admit its significance, we explain it away. But this is not enough. The Society of Friends is a Christian body; it is a body of people who take Jesus Christ as their example and who think of God in terms of Christ's life and teaching. This means far more than to accept the Idea of a Supreme Creative Spirit; it means the basing of the experiment of life on the assumption that God is a loving Heavenly Father who is accessible to man, who cares for man, who would not put man to the indignity of being a perfect puppet, but who suffers when man, having been given free will, chooses to reject Him.

—Kathleen Lonsdale: Science and Quakerism, 1956 ed., pp. 4, 5.

A Hand Held Out to the Scientist

Religious creeds are a great obstacle to any full sympathy between the outlook of the scientist and the outlook which religion is so often supposed to require. I recognize that the practice of a religious community cannot be regulated solely in the interests of its scientifically-minded members and therefore I would not go so far as to urge that no kind of defense of creeds is possible. But I think it may be said that Quakerism in dispensing with creeds holds out a hand to the scientist. The scientific objection is not merely to particular creeds which assert in outworn phraseology beliefs which are either no longer held or no longer convey inspiration to life. The spirit of seeking which animates us refuses to regard any kind of creed as its goal. It would be a shock to come across, a university where it was the practice of the students to recite adherence to Newton's Laws of motion, to Maxwell's equations, and to the electromagnetic theory of light. We should not deplore it the less if our own pet theory happened to be included, or if the list were brought up to date every few years. We should say that the students cannot possibly realize the intention of scientific training if they are taught to look on these results as things to be recited and subscribed to. Science may fall short of its ideal, and although the peril scarcely takes this extreme form, it is not always easy, particularly in popular science, to maintain our stand against creed and dogma.

Rejection of creed is not inconsistent with being possessed by, a living belief. We have no creed in science, but we are not lukewarm in our beliefs. The belief is not that all the knowledge of the universe that we hold so enthusiastically will survive in the letter; but a sureness that we are on the road. If our so-called facts are changing shadows, they are shadows cast by the light of constant truth. So too in religion we are repelled by that confident theological doctrine which has settled for all generations just how the spiritual world is worked; but we need not turn aside from the measure of light that comes into our experience showing us a way through the unseen world.

Religion for the conscientious seeker is not all a matter of doubt and self-questioning. There is a kind of sureness, which is very different from cocksureness.

—A. Stanley Eddington: Science and the unseen world, 1929, pp. 88-91.

If You Were to Ask Ten Quakers

If you were to ask ten Quakers to explain to whom they were listening and speaking in the silence, and just what was their idea of God, I doubt very much whether you would get two identical answers; and I doubt still more whether an agnostic would find one answer to satisfy him among the lot. The fact is, that when we try to explain, even to ourselves, what we mean by God, ordinary words fail us.

Of course that often happens to a scientist too, when he is talking about science. He could describe atoms in various ways, but not in any way that doesn't enormously oversimplify the problem, or that explains their real nature. Yet scientists believe in atoms; they don't regard them merely as a convenient hypothesis.

To many people throughout history, God has been intensely real because they have found that they can experience communion with God. But such experience is not gained without persistence. We must listen; we must make time to step aside even from good works, in order to talk with God. Sometimes a physical withdrawal is not possible, but when communion has become a constant attitude of mind it is deeply satisfying, because it fulfills our need for the companionship of someone who loves us in spite of our failings.

—Kathleen Lonsdale, "Deeper mysteries than life." In The Friend (London), vol. 120 (1962), p. 775.

Bond of Union in Inward Experience

Quakerism, indeed, has always found the bond of union for itself and for the wider fellowship of the Church catholic, in inward experience the experience of the one Divine Life that is reproducing in men the character of Jesus Christ. It has refused to lay the emphasis in creed or ritual or in its days of vigor on institutions. Where Christ is, there is His Church, made up of all who seek to live in His spirit, whatever the words by which they try to find expression for their faith or the practices which have become means of grace to their souls.

—William C. Braithwaite: The second period of Quakerism, 1919, p. 641.

Mystical Experience Verified in Daily Life

The mystical experience, which is far more common than the skeptically minded and the critics of mysticism realize, finds its most solid support not in ecstasy or miracle but in the verifying facts of our everyday life. Our simplest faith in the triumphant worth of normal goodness, our steady confidence that the truth we hold is universally true, our conviction that love is something more than a subjective thrill, our intimations that the beauty which we see here and now is only a glimpse of an infinite and eternal beauty all these convictions are built upon the fact that there is a junction of our finite individual lives with one real foundational Spirit who is the ground and source of all the self-transcending values by which we live. Isolate us, insulate us, leave us as lonely oases in a sterile desert and we could not even have mirages of the good, the true, the lovely and the beautiful. Life would dry up and shrivel away. We are these strange eternity-haunted beings just because we are conjunct with God whom some of us at least discover walking with us in the cool of the day, as the fish feels the ocean or the bird feels the air. These experiences of inner fortification and joy help us immensely to bear the "heavy and weary weight of all this unintelligible world" and give us an unwonted buoyancy.

—Rufus M. Jones: Fundamental ends of life, 1924, pp. 116-7

Dangers of Creeds

We do not in the least deprecate the attempt, which must be made, since man is a rational being, to formulate intellectually the ideas which are implicit in religious experience. But it should always be recognized that all such attempts are provisional, and can never be assumed to possess the finality of ultimate truth. There must always be room for development and progress, and Christian thought and inquiry should never be fettered by theory. Among the dangers of formulated statements of belief are these:

  1. They tend to crystallize thought on matters that will always be beyond any final embodiment in human language;
  2. They fetter the search for truth and for its more adequate expression; and
  3. They set up a fence which tends to keep out of the Christian fold many sincere and seeking souls who would gladly enter it.

Particularly in these days we need to be on our guard against these dangers. Multitudes of peoples are being shaken out of their comfortable beliefs by the terrific experiences through which the world is passing, and are seeking a secure basis for their faith. And some are finding a Reality which is much too great to be confined within the narrow limits of a creed.

—The true basis of Christian unity, a statement presented to London Y.M., 1917.

The Spiritual Message of Friends

No important religious movement can keep moving and can maintain its vitality and spirituality without a body of cohesive principles which form the central structure the invisible skeleton of its life. These truths and principles often lie too deep for expression in words. They may be woven into the tissue of the life of these people rather than set forth in exact formulae, but nevertheless it will be found that deep down in the central current of the continuous movement there are significant ideas which give direction and moving power to it.

It has been so for nearly three hundred years with the Society of Friends. Its members have usually been hesitant about formulations, and not very successful in making them, but there have always been in operation, in the widely dispersed Society, underlying principles of truth which have made the movement significant in history. There have been repeated tendencies to vary, to divide and to be profoundly influenced by religious currents of thought in the environment, but through all the historical variations at least a feeble grasp, a dim vision of the original central principles of life has persisted at the heart of the movement.

There are three foundation aspects of Quakerism to be explored which underlie the very structure of our life and mission in the world. These three vital aspects cannot be cut apart as though they were independent, but they must receive separate emphasis and interpretation. The first is our essential truth, that is to say, the faith by which we live; the second is our type of worship by which we breathe our higher life; and the third is our mission of service by which we express ourselves to the world.

QUAKERISM in spirit and ideal is neither a form of Roman Catholicism, nor a form of Protestantism. Protestantism in its, original, essential features called for an authoritative creed, specific sacraments and an authentic form of ordination. Quakerism at its birth was a fresh attempt to recover the way of life revealed in the New Testament, to re-interpret and re-live it in this present world. Its founders intended to revive apostolic Christianity. They did not intend to create a new sect. They carefully avoided calling themselves a "Church." They were content to be a "Society of Friends." George Fox said: "The Quakers are not a sect but are [a people living] in the power of God which was before sects were."
 

The original message of George Fox which gathered the Society of Friends, was never systematically formulated by him. It was essentially the faith, based on personal experience, that God and man have direct relationship and mutual correspondence. This was not, in the first instance, a doctrine, but a live and throbbing experience. George Fox kept his faith as concrete as possible and avoided as far as one can, abstract phrases which tend to become mere words. The principle which he named "that of God in man" was first of all for him a personal discovery that something not himself, something beyond himself, was operating in him as an invading spiritual power. He seemed to have found a central stream of life, flowing over the ocean of darkness and death, and revealing to him the infinite love of God present here in the world where we live. In his thought he linked up this stream of Life which was revealed within himself with the Fountain of Life which had broken into the course of history in Christ. All that he meant by the word God took for him form and reality and character in Christ and spoke completely to his condition. He never thought out the complications of the inward Christ of his experience and the outward Christ of history and gospel story. In fact he made too little of the historical Christ. But he leaped to the conclusion that Christ is eternally alive and is God continually revealing Himself through the ages in men. That which broke into him as Light and Truth for his time and need seemed to him to be the Light of Christ, coming out of the Eternal World, but rich and concrete with the spiritual content of Christ's definite life here in time.

It means that God has broken into revelation through a person who made love and tenderness the supreme qualities of life both in man and God. It further means that within measure and limits that divine Light and Love and Truth, so wonderful in Him, can be continuously revealed and demonstrated through lives like ours. The central Quaker faith in the seventeenth century was a testimony that man may live in vital contact with the divine Life-Stream and that that divine Stream of Life can flow into expression through man.

WORSHIP. There is a very close and vital connection between this central truth of man's relation to God and the way of worship which the early Friends inaugurated. They were careful not to bisect life into sacred and secular divisions. They wanted all the activities of life to be sacramental. They attempted to carry their lofty faith in the real Presence into every aspect of home and business. They took seriously the apostolic injunction: "Whether ye eat, or whether ye drink, or whatever ye do, do it all to the glory of God" And yet they felt that there ought to be high-tide occasions in the spiritual life, when there should be nothing in the way to interrupt or to disturb the consciousness of communion with God.

They made the discovery that silence is one of the best preparations for such communion and for the reception of inspiration and guidance. Silence itself, of course, has no magic. It may be just sheer emptiness, absence of words, or noise, or music. It may be an occasion for slumber, or it may be a dead form. But it may he an intensified pause, a vitalized hush, a creative quiet, an actual moment of mutual and reciprocal correspondence with God. The actual meeting of man with God and God with man is the very crown and culmination of what we can do with our human life here on earth.

While the primary function of the meeting for worship is, no doubt, the direct reception of inward resources of life and power by an entrance into the Stream of Life itself, and by being bathed and refreshed in the waters of Life, it ought also to be an occasion for constructive human ministry. The meeting should be an opportunity for the circulation of life and for the transmission of insights of faith, of truth, of experience, of fresh and vital messages. The focus of emphasis ought always to be the refreshment and edification of the group, not the personal "relief" or "satisfaction" of an individual. Nor is the Quaker Meeting a place for stereotyped "sermonizing," for laboriously "constructed" addresses. What is needed is a fresh, inspiring, illuminating, uplifting message, which opens the gates of life to struggling and discouraged souls. The meeting will be at its best when all that is spoken coheres and draws toward a single central purpose, so that it culminates in a unity of life.

True religion of the Spirit is bound to bring into play transcendent forces which carry the soul beyond what is and has ht en. The difference between a Meeting and a lecture or a debate lies in the fact that the Meeting looks for and expects revelation, The breaking in of the Eternal. It ought to be like the rising of the water in a lock which enables the ship to go out for its journey on a higher level.

HUMAN SERVICE. As the Quaker faith is inherently allied to the Quaker way of worship, so also the Quaker impulsion to take up and share "the burden of the world's suffering" springs out of the central faith and the intimate fellowship of worship. A touch of the transcendent aspect of life, the eternal aspect of it, is essential to all three of these foundation features of the Quaker movement its truth, its way of worship and its peculiar practical mission in the world. We should lose the essential mark and badge of our calling if we should allow our Quaker service, our mission to oppressed humanity, to drop to the purely secular level.

We approach all problems with a peculiar faith that man is potentially a child of God, a being of infinite worth. The liberation, the enlargement, the realization and fulfillment of man's true life is, or should be, behind every effort. If we work to change outward conditions, to transform oppressive social and economic systems, to destroy war, to remove brutal forms of punishment and every method of violence, we are all the time concerned to enable man to have better opportunities to come up to his full stature as a man, which cannot be fully done until society itself becomes more richly organized. The method of such human service, if it is to be genuinely Quaker service, that is, "intelligent," "spiritual" service, must be a method that is consistent with the way and spirit of love. It cannot run on a level with the secular theory of force. Its way is deeply sacrificial and costly. It gives and shares, not merely goods and money, but life itself. It enters sympathetically and with an understanding mind into the heart and condition of those who suffer and who are to be helped. It travails and suffers with them and it aims in the end to make a different world through its love and its effort. As John Woolman expresses it, "Love is the first motion." The real hope of such a worker is to be an organ through which the divine Life can break in and come into play.

One of the most important missions of a Society like ours is its prophetic service. We maintain that we must not merely be identified with a party, or a division, or a given system, or a prevailing theory. We must be free and broad-visioned enough to see around and beyond the partial one-sided aspect of the issue for which the "party" stands and to seize the ethical and spiritual significance of the whole situation before us, and deal with it from above the storm and controversy and propaganda of the moment. This attitude brings in once more the transcendent, the eternal aspect, which is precisely the function of a spiritual body as contrasted with a secular one.

The social order must be profoundly transformed and adjusted to the demands of justice and fairness for all men. But whatever happens to the social and economic order, the quality of the spirit of those who compose the social structure will always be the essential matter. No reorganization, whether gradual or revolutionary, will make a good world unless the units themselves are good. Even now, in a world far from being rightly fashioned, we can help toward the reorganization of it by a faithful and consistent practice of simplicity of life, sincerity of heart, brotherliness of spirit toward all men, and confident reliance on the intrinsic forces of the soul in co-operation with God.

—Rufus M. Jones, "The spiritual message of the Religious Society of Friends" in World Conference (1937) Report of Commission I, pp. 7-16.

Whereas I Was Blind, Now I See

Hope, peace and encouragement is not enough to depict my religion. When my spirit is animated by my religion and is aware of the inviolable Truth prevailing, my heart dances for joy and gratitude and sings the praise of God! Every moment is a mystery. Even this body of mine, what a mystery it is, whose heart is beating incessantly without my knowing, and whose lungs breathe ceaselessly without my knowing! This air is God's, the light is God's, we are his. I am living with all the universe, and all the universe is living with me, in God.

However others may have been, I have been long in the dark. But my religion has opened my eyes through the immense love of God, and is letting me see things more and more clearly. "One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see." When I came across this sentence I felt like crying for joy and surprise. I felt my 'own thought was expressed there!

—Yukio Irie, "My religion: by a Japanese Friend." In The Friend (London), vol. 115 (1957), pp. 163-4.

New England Yearly Meeting of Friends

901 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602

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