The Temptation to Do Something: A Quietist Perspective

Many people think that Quietists were people who liked quiet, and that the Quietist period in Quaker history was so named because meetings for worship were often entirely silent. In fact, "Quietism" comes from an utter reliance on inward quietness, stilling one’s own mind and waiting for God to direct an individual’s life. This becomes manifest in all aspects of behavior—certainly in determining whether or not to speak in meeting for worship, but also in more mundane issues. A quietist shopkeeper might feel uneasy about stocking "gay ribands" (as one early Friend reported) and change the merchandise in the store. A quietist farmer might feel led one morning to mend fences rather than mucking out the barn (as some contemporary conservative Friends have reported). To submit to God’s will in these acts is to follow a divine leading. Obedience in such matters is no less important than in the discernment of whether, when, and where to undertake travels in the ministry.

Even more remarkable are stories of major, life-changing decisions based on a sudden insight into God’s will. One example comes from the memoirs of Benjamin Ferris, an 18th-century Friend. He writes that, "following my own inclination," he decided to court "a comely young woman, of a good, reputable family; educated in plainness; favored with good natured talents; and in good circumstances." She was everything that a young Quaker man of the time looked for in a young Quaker wife. One day, he went to her house with the intention of proposing marriage, but while sitting with the young woman he heard "something, like a still small voice, saying to me, ‘Seekest thou great things for thyself?—seek them not.’ This language pierced me like a sword to the heart. . . . I endeavored to conceal my disorder; but soon took my leave." The courtship was over.

Queries: Are there parts of my life that God directs and parts that I can choose for myself? Do I listen for God’s "No" to something I really want to do?

Some time later, he noticed another young woman while dining at a Friend’s house, and "a language very quietly, and very pleasantly, passed through my mind, on this wise, ‘If thou wilt marry that young woman, thou shalt be happy with her.’" Only then did he notice that she was lame. He writes he was "displeased that I should have a cripple allotted to me." For weeks he resisted the leading, using every argument he could muster. Finally, he acquiesced to God’s will and proposed marriage. Even then, Ferris was not willing to submit completely. He reports that for months afterward he avoided her company. Finally, "divine Goodness had prevailed over my rebellious nature. . . . The young woman appeared beautiful; and I was prepared to receive her as a gift from heaven; fully as good as I deserved." Writing 40 years later, he states he never had any regrets.

Queries: Do I wrestle with unwelcome leadings? Do I have this kind of faithfulness?

Though we may not like to admit it, Ferris’ story is acceptable to modern readers, in part because of the ending—they lived happily ever after. But Ferris didn’t know that going in. In fact, he had good reason to fear that there might be a very different outcome in store. Like other Quakers of his time, Ferris would have been well acquainted with the story of the prophet Hosea:

When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, "Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness. . . ." So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim. (Hos. 1:2-3)

Gomer had three children—only the first of which is identified as Hosea’s—and in the second chapter, Hosea divorced her. Her response was:

I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink. (Hos. 2:5)

The reader might think, "Good riddance," but God had other plans:

The Lord said to me, "Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes." (Hos. 3:1)

And Hosea did.

We modern Quakers have the advantages of biblical criticism to deal with such passages. We can read them as allegories or parables or some other form of literary device, but Benjamin Ferris would not have made such an interpretation. Like any other 18th-century Quaker, Ferris saw the Bible as a history—an accurate record of God’s dealings with humanity. Our easy assurance that "God is Love" was not available to him. Friends at that time had an older view of God—a God who was potentially more demanding.

But is ours a more sophisticated understanding of divine nature, or just a simplistic one? To say, "God is Love" and leave it at that may give us a false sense of comfort. How often, when faced with unpleasantness, do we Friends say, "I don’t believe in a God like that," as if that settled things? Remember the Hebrew name for God is Yahweh, meaning, "I am who I am," not "I am who you want me to be."

Queries: Can I conceive of God asking so much of me? Could I say yes?

So, what are Friends called to today? Do 18th-century Quietist Quakers have something to say to the rest of our Religious Society? Quietist Friends knew what they were called to. They were to separate themselves from the world, to be a peculiar people, a light unto the nations—their lives were to be examples to everyone else. Friends today see themselves in a very different way. We tend to agree with William Penn, who wrote, "True godliness does not draw men [and women] out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." Rather than being called out of the world, we say we are in the world, but not of the world.

Our involvement in the world presents us with a multitude of opportunities. Nevertheless, just because a particular piece of work is (to use Ferris’ words) "comely," and we are "favored with good natured talents," doesn’t mean God is calling us to it. To Quietist Friends, choosing "good work" by ourselves is "will worship," that is, putting the products of our own wills ahead of God’s will. Spiritually, they would tell us that, no matter what good things were accomplished, these would be "dead works" and without merit. Even on a practical level, doing work that God has not chosen for us is wasteful. First, we may be getting in the way of those whose rightful task it is. Second (and more importantly), we are using time and resources that could be devoted to those tasks God wants from us.

It can be hard to stand still when others are taking action. It is undoubtedly hard to be criticized (even by other Quakers) for not feeling the urgency that they do with respect to a particular issue. But in the words of Elias Hicks, "If the Lord’s visited & dedicated children persevere in faithfulness to required duty, without drawing back, but continue to move forward as He is graciously pleased to open the way and go before them, they need not fear what man can do unto them."

Queries: Do I have the patience to wait for God’s direction? Do I have the strength to resist the temptation to "do something"?

Paul Buckley

Paul Buckley, a Quaker historian and theologian, is a member of Clear Creek Meeting in Richmond, Ind., and attends North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis.