Teaching Quakerism

I suppose I’ve always been involved in Quaker outreach. I remember earnestly explaining Quaker pacifism to my Girl Scout troop when we were learning how to equip a bomb shelter back in the 1950s when shelters were part of what it took to be prepared. The troop leader was kind, if somewhat bemused. I don’t think I made any converts, but the experience helped give me confidence in what I believed.

As a college student I began writing about Quakerism and talking about it to strangers, especially on airplanes (there were half-price student fares in those days), and with drivers willing to pick up a hitchhiker. In fact, one of my justifications for hitchhiking, which I did a lot in those days, was that it presented a marvelous opportunity for leisurely conversation about religion. (I gave up hitchhiking after being raped on the road, and no longer recommend it as an outreach opportunity.)

A few years ago, I had a long-running conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness. She came to my door in hopes of converting me, but found the theological questions I raised puzzling enough that she had to take time to mull them over. She came back several weeks later with fresh ammunition. I posed deeper questions, trying to open to her the Quaker understanding of God. This went on for over six months. She finally brought her deacon to see me, who must have decided I was a lost cause, because she never came back. I should have been relieved, I suppose, but I missed her visits. I could see that she was a person of deep faith, and on some level I think we understood each other.

More recently I’ve had the opportunity to talk about Quakerism to students at the small Quaker high school in northern Virginia where I work. At the moment, none of our students comes from a Quaker family. They are at Thornton because they were not thriving in public high schools, and that is about the only thing they have in common. Their parents are lawyers and military officers, teachers and social activists. Some come from very troubled backgrounds; others seem to have had all the advantages and don’t know why they feel lost. What we try to do at Thornton is provide a safe space for them to get to know themselves and learn to support each other. We have meeting for worship twice a week, and we have worship-sharing circles where the students are encouraged to speak what they feel. We have strict rules against physical or verbal violence. We keep the school small (under 45 students) to make sure that a sense of real community can be preserved. And we teach about Quaker-ism. This is an enrichment course, not part of the regular curriculum. Each group of students will have five or six class periods on Quakerism during the course of the year. The topics range from Quaker history to Quaker beliefs and testimonies, to meditation techniques and what happens in meeting for worship.

A couple of years ago I was asked, as an historian and the parent of a Thornton student, to lead one of the sessions on Quaker history. Knowing that I would be speaking to students who were not Quaker, and not wanting to be too forward, I approached the topic academically. I laid out names and dates, and I described the historical conditions that gave rise to Quakerism. The students were polite enough, and none of them actually fell asleep (I think), but I knew I wasn’t reaching them. I tried again the next year with another group. This time I was determined not to drown them in factual excess. I tried to focus on the bare minimum of historical data, but it still didn’t feel like a success.

Then this fall, when the opportunity arose again, I threw caution to the winds and decided simply to speak about my faith, as if I were speaking to someone who would understand. No more explaining Quaker history from the outside. Instead, I would try to open the experience of early Friends to the students, both as it was, and as it resonates in my own life. It needs to be experienced. I talked about what George Fox felt, and what he said about it. I talked about how the seekers were gathered on Firbank Fell. I talked about hypocrisy, and integrity, and despair, and what it feels like to win through to a place where you know you are on solid ground. I described George Fox standing on Pendle Hill declaring the Day of the Lord. I told them how he challenged everyone, everywhere, to examine themselves in the Light, as a Child of Light. I described his vision of passing through the flaming sword that had guarded the Garden of Eden since the Fall, back to a place where there is no occasion for war, because all of creation is in God’s hands. And this time, they listened.

Perhaps I was keeping it simple, because I knew they were beginners. I chose a few themes to focus on to get them talking. I asked what they thought of the Quaker idea that you can only know truth through your own experience. I asked what they thought of "infant damnation" and what they believed about heaven and hell. I talked about how integrity sometimes requires hard choices, and asked what challenges they had faced in trying to be true to themselves. I asked them to think about how every moment offers a choice to be true, or not, to oneself. I talked about how Quakers believe that God is present in this life, in this moment; that heaven is here now. I told them that George Fox did not want people to follow him, but to find their own Inward Teacher, and listen.

It occurred to me after two or three of these classes that keeping it simple and focusing on real experience is probably the best way to introduce anyone to Quakerism. When I had the opportunity not long ago to talk to a group of Thorn-ton parents I decided to use essentially the same outline I had used for the students, and found it just as effective. I think the trick is to stop worrying about explaining or convincing, and just talk about what we know experientially. I’m quite sure this is what I was doing in my younger proselytizing days. I wanted to tell people about my experience; I wanted to hear about theirs. I was not trying to convert anyone—most of us are terrified of the whole idea of converting anyone—I just wanted to share with them something that was precious and important to me.

In recent years, I’ve been relying more and more on the words of early Friends to explain what it feels like to be a Quaker. I love the freshness of their language, the stumbling, yearning, vivid outpouring of words as they tried to describe something brand new and utterly amazing. I have come to think that sharing the words of early Friends is a way of giving people a vocabulary for exploring their own spiritual lives. "Have I ever felt like that?" "Is that what was happening to me?" "Yes, that’s what I’ve been wanting!" The quotations don’t need to be fitted into a logical argument or a credible explanation. They stand on their own as living testimony, stirring images, little bits of Truth laid bare.

We need to share with each other, as Friends, the words that touch us most deeply. We need as rich a vocabulary as possible to talk about our faith and our spiritual experience. We need to share with each other our own experience, not just what we think or even what we believe. The amazing thing is that it is possible to teach Quakerism to non-Quaker students in the same way. We can hold up words and images and experiences passed down to us from the early Friends. We can hold up and describe our own spiritual journeys. We can pose questions to challenge the students to explore their own lives and their own experience. Instead of trying to explain Quakerism, we can, as George Fox, counseled, simply take people to the Inward Guide, and leave them there.

Deborah Haines

Deborah Haines is office manager at Thornton Friends School in Alexandria, Virginia, and a sojourning member of Alexandria Meeting.