A Life Steeped in the Quaker Way

Photo by James Steidl

I still think of myself as a kid growing up in Vermont. Back then, with some regularity, my folks packed us up and drove over the line into New Hampshire to attend Quaker worship. That was my introduction to George Fox and the way of faith he inaugurated centuries earlier. 

I suppose here is where I could go on with a long review of Fox’s life: his triumphs and struggles, his accomplishments, and the roots of the movement he started. But I will leave that to other more learned people. I want to reflect on how a man born 400 years ago came to shape what I believe, how I live and, in the end, who I am. I have a strong feeling there are millions of folks who could say the same. It’s remarkable to me that one person who lived long ago could have such an impact. 

And so it was, back in the late 1950s and early ’60s that my family made the trip to Hanover, New Hampshire to worship in the Quaker way. I attended First-day school for most of the hour, which is where I was introduced to George Fox, who I was told founded the Quakers. My childhood brain remembered that he taught that no one was above us, that there wasn’t a need for clergy, that God resided in all people, and that ending a human life was a terrible act. 

In that particular Friends meeting, children joined the adults for the last fifteen minutes or so of worship. That’s when the magic happened. It was a profound, meaningful quiet interrupted by the occasional cough or creaking chair along with some men and women who stood to speak. It was not the quiet that comes with boredom: it was purposeful and powerful. I do not remember what was said in meeting and I only vaguely remember what the adults looked like. But I do remember the wonder that came over me. I knew I belonged and there was a presence that transcended the kids and adults in the room. I didn’t think to call it the Light or God; it just felt “like wow” as my 7-year-old self would proclaim. I found myself feeling grateful for our founder, the mystery man named after the animals that frequented the woods behind my house. I did not understand what was going on with me, but I know now that I was experiencing, not learning about, but experiencing spirituality. I felt a profound relationship with the Divine that was drawing me in and drawing all of us closer together.

Even during those early years, going to meeting defined me. My friends went to church and Sunday school. They talked about a sermon or a children’s message. In contrast, I went to meeting and First-day school and talked about the silence. My friends recited the old bit of doggerel that declared “Quaker meeting has begun, no more laughing, no more fun.” I didn’t mind. I experienced something that was beyond fun and figured they didn’t know what they were missing.

My family was steeped in the Quaker way. It was not always named but I began to understand that Fox wanted to build a community set apart. I understood that we were not to be a church that people simply attended, but rather a community that lived differently. I began to understand that this difference was why my father was a conscientious objector during the Korean conflict and why my folks were married in the Quaker way. A print of Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom hung prominently in the study, and I loved it for the friendly message it visually presented. I often heard names like Woolman and Penn but more often, George Fox. As I grew older and processed what I learned in First-day school I began to understand the weight of what Fox taught. 

The author and his father (and the family dog), Vermont, 1958. Photo courtesy of the author.

Today, I know more of the details and could present the history in a well-considered manner, but I prefer the immature way of expressing what Fox meant to me, like a child discovering what mattered, or as the Buddhists say, the beginner’s mind. The “wow” I experienced in meeting fueled my interest to discover what my community of faith guided us to be. I came to know that my father did the right thing during times of war and that it was meaningful that my parents didn’t repeat formal vows at their wedding like I heard others do at ceremonies I attended. I began to make sense of the fact that no one at home dressed in fancy clothes or wore ornate jewelry, as Fox taught. I knew my folks kept me home during “duck and cover” drills at school. Even as a child all of that made perfect sense. I couldn’t always explain why it made sense, so I simply told friends and teachers that we were Quaker. That was enough because it declared who I was, not just the church I attended. I learned early on that we were different because Fox thought it was the way of Christ. 

As my faith matured, I learned what it meant when Quakers believed that God was everywhere and in everyone. For one thing, I learned that Fox taught a promise ought to be your bond and oaths were at least not needed and at worst an affront to the truth. That lying to a person was equivalent to lying to God. I learned that women should be given the same authority as men because God lived in all people. For that same reason, I came to know that People of Color, those who spoke different languages, or believed differently than us were to be respected. One particularly strong memory was that while we were Christian, we had a deep respect for the faith of Native people just like Hicks’s painting depicted. I understood that as Friends we were not better than others, for all people had the indwelling Light of God. But we were “set apart” and found a different sort of life to be meaningful and, dare I say, joyful. 

At a later point my family moved and our new community did not have a Friends meeting near enough to make the drive. We tried a couple of mainline Protestant churches, and I remember feeling out of place and confused at worship. I had to stand and sing songs that seemed dull and sit quietly while I listened to a man say things that didn’t always make sense. Later when my father and a local college professor founded a Friends meeting, I felt back at home with a visceral sense of being a part of something that started many years before. Being a part of meeting again strengthened my resolve to live differently as Fox guided. 

When I was a teenager the lessons I had gained as a child bore fruit and the way of Fox influenced everything I did. The Vietnam War raged, and I grew in respect for my father’s conscientious objector status. I was often bullied and threatened with violence for being against the war before it was popular to do so. As my antiwar sentiments strengthened, I became a bit of a pariah at my high school. I refused to say the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of every school day because oaths were not needed and an affront to God. I was called a “[n word] lover” because I championed the Civil Rights Movement and joined the youth leadership of a boycott against the local segregated swimming pool. But through it all, the image of Fox stuck in my mind, and I knew I was right. I knew these were not mere political issues, as they were sometimes called. These were essential to our humanity. But I also knew that I was not to fight back when I was confronted and that became my greatest challenge. Many times, I wanted to lash out when classmates hit me, shoved my school books to the ground and called me rude names. But I remembered the words of Fox, to “walk cheerfully” and to recognize “that of God in everyone,” even those who made my life difficult. So, I held my tongue while continuing to live the only life I knew. I was encouraged by knowing that Fox and many early Quakers endured far worse and never wavered and never resorted to violence in response. 

Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom, c. 1834,  on Wikimedia Commons.

Age and life experience bring change. My life was no exception. As I entered adulthood, I met and eventually married a Congregational minister. Through her I met clergy and became impressed. Eventually, after a lot of soul searching and consideration, I left the Quakers and was ordained in the Congregational tradition. I laugh at myself now. I had to learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, and the Gloria Patri when I entered seminary. Later, as I performed the sacraments, I thought how odd it was that a former Quaker was presiding at the very things Fox rejected. But somehow those things made sense for a time, and I still have respect for them. After many years I became what some would call burned out. But I understand now that I had lost myself and needed to get back to the way proposed by Fox. I don’t regret those years, but I liken them to an extended Rumspringa, the Amish rite of passage in which their youth explore the world outside the community. Like them, I took time to explore another way, allowing me make the faith of my younger years my own. 

Fox’s quote “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” has become a sort of mantra for me. It wasn’t until late into my adulthood that I fully understood the power of those words. Given the pain, the insults, and persecution Fox suffered, to maintain cheerfulness is nothing short of miraculous. When I was taunted with jokes about oatmeal and boring Quaker meetings, and later when I was assaulted for being a “peacenik” or a “commie,” the words of Fox kept me centered. Knowing them now puts a spring in my step when everything from the weather to the social situations we face tend to put a cloud over my head. Perhaps that is his greatest gift to us: to find cheerfulness in our walk and to find God in all people. For what he gave us and for the definition I feel about life, I will always be grateful for George Fox.

Geoff Knowlton

Geoff Knowlton is a psychotherapist who specializes in treating children in foster care. He attends Yarmouth (Mass.) Meeting. His poetry has appeared in Friends Journal and other places. He also contributes to Illuminate, the Friends Bible study series published by Barclay Press.

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