To better understand an adult’s behavior, psychologists often investigate the individual’s childhood experience. Events that take place in the early years can form attitudes that shape actions in later life. It would not be surprising if this held true for institutions, too. This observation may apply to many facets of the Quaker experience; here I want to consider whether meetings may have become overly constrained because of early experiences in the fledgling movement.
George Fox’s Journal is, for the most part, a sober, matter-of-fact account, dictated many years after the events it portrays. The emotional drama is inferred from the narrative rather than being expressed outright. Yet there is one passage slipped in from another hand that gives a direct glimpse of George Fox expressing himself. It is an apparently verbatim report of the preeminent organizer of Quakerism speaking in a meeting. Entitled "An Address to Friends in the Ministry," it was given at John Crooke’s house on Third month 31, 1658.
Some parts of this report are familiar—the underpinnings of Quakerism as we know it today: "And let none be hasty to speak; for ye have time enough, and with an eye ye may reach the witness; neither let any be backward when ye are moved, for that brings destruction." But one part seems more relevant to my topic:
Now a man when he is come out of the world he cometh out of the dirt, then he must not be rash, for now when he cometh into a silent meeting that is another state . . . ; when he hath been in the world and among the world, the heat is not yet off him, for he may come in the heat of his spirit out of the world; now the other[s] [are] still and cool, and his condition is that, not being agreeable to theirs, he may rather do them hurt, begetting them out of the cool state into the heating state, if he be not in that which commands his own spirit, and gives him to know it.
This passage exhorts ministers to calm themselves from the cares and excitement of everyday life. But in the light of tendencies that had already been manifested among early Friends, it also hints at the dangers of listening to voices with headier, hotter messages. Coolness and "keeping low" were essential behavior, essential in Fox’s view not only to sincere understanding but to the unity of Quakerism.
Early on, Quakerism ran into the problem of unity. If everyone has the Truth within them and is called to act out that truth, how can agreement be reached on proper speech and action? It took a period of development and consolidation to reach the organizational consensus that we enjoy today, albeit sometimes precariously.
Quakerism arose amid an atmosphere of religious ferment. Ranters espoused a personal view of truth: that inner inspiration gives license to conduct free of moral fetters. Millenarianism expected the end of the world—in 1656, 1660, and then 1666. Fifth Monarchists, who looked for the violent establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, were a threat to the state. Quakers were at times confused with them and arrested on the same charges of sedition. And while women were still disenfranchised in most ways, a few found individual voices and shocked the orthodox by traveling the country to challenge male priests.
No wonder Quakers had internal struggles to maintain their unity of vision, and external struggles to be seen as a sincere and nonthreatening religious movement. In the first half century of Quakerism’s existence the tendencies towards individualistic expression did on occasion threaten the unity of vision, maybe even its continuing existence. What follows are three major examples of this.
James Nayler’s "running out" is one of the best known chapters in the Quaker history book. Not only did he appear for a time to be a challenger for the leadership of the fledgling sect, but he allowed himself to be worshiped as an embodiment of Jesus Christ—at least that is how his contemporaries saw it. In the notorious 1656 incident in Bristol, James Nayler rode into town on a donkey with several women and a couple of men crying "Hosanna" to him and scattering rushes, a direct reenactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This case became a national cause celebre; he was subsequently sentenced to be flogged with 315 lashes through the streets of London and again in Bristol, and to have his tongue bored with a hot iron and his forehead branded with a B (for blasphemer). This was the type of publicity that the Quakers did not need, and much more importantly was the type of individual apocalyptic action, a personal vision of inner truth, that could have splintered the young movement into irreparable shards.
The case of John Perrot, from 1661 on, was a more organized challenge to the movement that was crystalizing around the organizational skills of George Fox. John Perrot’s followers became known as the "hat men," from the main outward effect of the movement, which was to deny the necessity of removing hats upon entering meeting, which was the custom for men as a mark of piety and respect. It was ironic that Quakers should suffer intense conflict on such a matter when one of their distinguishing actions—one for which they were prosecuted—was the refusal to remove their hats before judges and the upper class generally. Just as Quakers insisted on using the familiar form of address, "thou," to all people and to God, and to abjure rituals, so the followers of John Perrot saw no need to make such an artificial distinction for meeting for worship.
John Perrot was an intensely spiritual person who received divine inspiration while a prisoner of the Inquisition in Rome; but his raptures led him into a negative mysticism that made him deny the imposition of even the simplest forms for worship. Many members viewed his espousal of a more inspirational spirituality with enthusiasm—there was even a book published, with a title that starts: "The Spirit of the Hat, or the Government of the Quakers" and continues for some 51 other words—and although John Perrot was banished to Barbados, it was many years before the challenges to Quaker unity by his followers, in North America as well as in Britain, died down. In 1672, while visiting Long Island, George Fox noted, "There we met with some of the hat spirit which was judged down and condemned. And the Truth was set over all." A couple of pages later he mentions, "I had a great travail concerning the Ranters. . . . I knew the Lord would give me power over them and he did."
The Wilkinson-Story Separation
The Wilkinson-Story separation arose around 1675. To a large extent it was the need to strengthen the newly named Religious Society of Friends against individualistic challenges like that of John Perrot that had led to the setting up of a centralized system of monthly and quarterly meetings. John Wilkinson and John Story led a protest against what they saw as overregulation of spiritual affairs through this centralized order, and of the new tendency of the Quaker system to censure individual meeting decisions.
They particularly resented the condemnation of individual actions by Friends who were not members of the monthly meeting concerned but came from other parts of the country. Although this controversy was more organizational in nature than the other two, like them it was largely personality-based and an attempt by individuals to assert their own version of truth against an outward imposition of conformity. Most weighty Friends lined up against the schismatics; William Penn wrote that church order was a manifestation of heavenly discipline. "Keep in the Unity" was the new message, holding more weight than "Follow the Truth within," as we might categorize the earlier leadings of Quakerism.
Without the strenuous efforts to root out messianism and personality-based movements, Quakerism could probably not have survived, just as other movements born of the same era have vanished. We might have been but a footnote to social history had the struggle to counter the effects of James Nayler, John Perrot, John Wilkinson, and John Story not been waged.
How has this need for unity and restraint affected us today? Did we pay a price for this survival strategy, for the continued tidy organization of our affairs? The tradition of staying low, of remaining cool, may be protecting Quakerism, but it could be hampering us too. Stilling for a while the turmoil of the outside world enriches our worship—the telephone rings during meeting for worship and it is ignored. That is a mark of strength. But if someone should be seized by the Spirit, visibly shaking and behaving irrationally, or if they should cry hallelujahs, will we look askance, fearing for the decorum of our time-hallowed ways?
This inquiry into the damping-down of schismatic tendencies started from a curiosity about diversity in North American Quakerism, and whether the lack of a more demonstrative worship, of a more emotional recognition of the Spirit, hampers outreach to a wider congregation. And is keeping cool a necessary part of Quakerism, or is it a way of unconsciously defending a little turf, in part a result of historical influences that may or may not still be relevant? Quakerism still has schismatic tendencies that surface from time to time, and such a small movement cannot afford to be further fragmented—but just as once the danger lay in being too hot, today it may lie in keeping low and being too restrained.