Passion, Perfection, and the World
I spent a summer reading the journal of Elias Hicks. Not satisfied that I had gotten the whole story, I delved into biography and history. The swirling controversies that resulted in the big split are still ringing in my ears, and the questions that it raises for our lives in the present are clamoring for attention.
Elias Hicks, a farmer and traveling minister from New York’s Long Island, did not bring a new or controversial message to the Religious Society of Friends. Almost 80 years old at the time of the 1827 split that bears his name, he had been preaching the same traditional Quaker message for 50 years. The separation was precipitated by a power struggle in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, with evangelical-minded traveling ministers from Britain industriously fanning the flames. Hicks, a member of New York Yearly Meeting, wasn’t even at the sessions in Philadelphia, Pa., where the initial split took place. It was just that he was such a respected and well-known Quaker minister that everyone knew his name.
It would be possible to frame the split simply as a power struggle. A group of long-time elders in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting were unwilling to cede authority to anybody outside their group. Threatened by divergent points of view, they maneuvered appointments and used any excuse to whip up sentiment against those who differed from them in order to keep the upper hand. While it would seem that this was, indeed, part of what was going on, I see little to be learned by dwelling on it, except to note that, despite our lofty goals, Quakers are not immune to such human frailty.
The larger context was the evangelical fervor that was sweeping England and the United States at the time. There was growing demand from these quarters that people be clear about their Christian beliefs. A simple way to do this was to call for an affirmation among believers of the infallibility of Scripture, the tri-part nature of God, and the role of Jesus in the expiation of our sins. Thus, these evangelically-influenced Quakers began demanding that everybody in the Society of Friends subscribe to such a set of beliefs, and splits in yearly meetings took place all over the country on the question of doctrine.
With this understanding of the doctrinal nature of the split, I find myself firmly and wholeheartedly on the side of those who ended up being called Hicksites. It wouldn’t be hard to paint the picture in black and white, and be indignant about creedal demands being made on our beloved Society. After all, an understanding of the centrality of a personally-experienced, unmediated relationship with God was at the heart of early Friends’ message. Quakerism grew out of opposition to just such rigidity as the evangelicals were now calling for. Yet I think there’s still more to be learned, which requires getting genuinely curious about what was going on for those who were called Orthodox.
I could imagine the leading Quakers in Philadelphia, the biggest city of a growing country, feeling chafed and restricted by a tradition and community that was increasingly out of step with the times. A religious society without a creed had to be held together by practice. Your internal relationship with God was your own business, and nobody could inquire too closely into exactly what that relationship was, since it was totally experiential. But members of your religious community could inquire into how you led your life—how you dressed, what profession you took up, what you did for relaxation, whom you married, what you drank, whom you socialized with, where you sent your children to school. This was an era where Quakers were eldered and regularly expelled, or “read out” of meeting if they strayed too far from accepted norms, and Elias Hicks was deep in this tradition.
He saw the need for a protected Society, a place that would support and nourish individuals’ relationships with God. He put great efforts into building up Friends schools as a way to provide a “guarded education” to the community’s children, and he spoke out against any mingling with non-Quakers that might corrupt his beloved people with the world’s values.
This doesn’t mean that Friends didn’t care about what was happening in the world. Hicks, for example, was a passionate opponent of slavery. He urged his monthly and yearly meetings to send missives to the state legislature on this topic. He traveled under this concern up and down Long Island, calling on Friends to free those they still held in bondage, and to attend to their needs thereafter. He wrote a widely-read pamphlet calling for the freeing of all enslaved people, and spoke passionately on the subject when he traveled. He was a leader in the movement among Quakers to boycott products made by slave labor, and, partly as a result of his efforts, many Quakers of his time refused to use cotton, sugar, or rice. There is a touching story in the Forbush biography of Hicks in which he is dying, unable to speak, and in great discomfort with his bedding. Someone finally realized that it was a cotton blanket, and, when it was replaced with a wool one, he felt the texture and relaxed.
All this was true, yet Hicks was totally opposed to Friends joining abolition efforts in the wider society. He believed you should take a clear moral stand in your community; you make life choices that align with the will of God as you understand it, despite inconvenience or cost; and you make a witness of those values to the powers that be. But you don’t fraternize.
What was a well-off Quaker in Philadelphia to do? How could you be a successful merchant without mingling? Weren’t there more effective ways to oppose slavery than making yourself an oddity by refusing to eat sugar and rice? What about all the new ventures on the horizon? The evangelical movement was inviting religious people of all denominations to harness their common energy to spread the Word, printing Bibles to send to Asia and Africa—a stirring opportunity to join together to bring more light to the world. (Hicks noted caustically that it made more sense to challenge the laws that prohibited teaching black people right on our own shores.) The railroad industry was just starting to take off. There was exciting, cutting-edge work to be done. Were we to have no part in it? Were we to be held forever in the past by tired old tradition? Maybe it was worth it to demand that people swallow a few words of creed if that was what it took to shed the constraints of the past and break into the future.
When I frame the conflict this way, I don’t find it so easy to take sides. I’ve developed a deep love and respect for Elias Hicks. I love his approach to religion and how he thought about an individual’s relationship with God. I love his clarity that we shouldn’t be asked to believe things that are outside our experience and comprehension (a perspective that enraged the Orthodox). It all seems so expansive and respectful and right. I love his integrity and commitment and passion. But I don’t know if I could have been a good Quaker in his lights. I think I might have wanted to venture out a little, explore the world; I’m afraid that sooner or later, I too would have been expelled from meeting.
As I think of how to frame these issues in a way that speaks to us today, one of the keys might be passion. How is our passion fanned into life, and what do we do with the energy that is generated by that heat? Passion was the foundational, central, and driving force of early Quakerism. They believed with a passion, lived with a passion, challenged the powers that opposed them with a passion. They were a fiery young movement, filled with a passionate belief that the Kingdom of God could be realized here on earth; all that was required was enough passionate, courageous obedience.
Yet when the Kingdom of God doesn’t come, generation after generation, what is a religious society to do? By the time of Elias Hicks, it would appear that those who felt a deep religious passion had turned it more toward inward perfection. If it doesn’t look as if the world is going to change any time soon, we can put all that energy toward following God in our ordinary lives as fully and completely as possible. This was certainly the message of Hicks, the core of his ministry. I can imagine him believing that sharing this message was a worthy call, as he traveled up and down the east coast, filling meetinghouses, churches, court and state houses, speaking on the possibility of knowing God experientially and the joys that come from complete obedience.
I can imagine the richness and fullness of such a life—the adventures on the road, the stimulation of meeting such a wide variety of people, the sure knowledge that one was engaged in God’s work. But what about those receiving his message, those who stayed at home? I wonder about those ordinary Quaker men and women, living in farming communities and small towns, who didn’t have access to such big lives. They too were called to know God experientially and to be obedient to his will. Yet they were expected to do this all their lives at home, with a very restrictive set of community expectations in a fairly limited social circle. I’m sure that there were individual Quakers in such situations who quietly lived lives of deep passion, who were able to develop a rich inward religious life and find great reward in simple obedience to God’s will in their work, families and meetings. But I wonder if this was the norm. Overall, did this combination tend to fan the flames of passion or quench them?
And then there were those wealthy Philadelphia Quakers who chose a different route. What were they passionate about? Though it may be gross oversimplification, I see hints of passion for status, for control, for social acceptance, for being players at the table of life. Are these the passions we want to see fanned?
What are our options in the twenty-first century? Going to meeting no longer creates a direct challenge to society as it did for early Friends. Is the only way to engage with the larger world to become a traveling minister, spreading the news of the possibility of perfection? If we can’t do that, do we have to settle either for quiet lives focused on inward perfection with our co-believers, or for engagement with the world on its own corrupting terms?
What advice might our Quaker forebears have for us? Neither George Fox nor Elias Hicks would want us to believe anything just because they said it. After all, they called us to know God experientially, and their commitment to continuing revelation would surely make them hesitate to offer judgment about the right thing for another century. Hicks was reluctant even to publish his journal, not wanting future generations to be bound by a past that they might have grown beyond.
Furthermore, they would probably be so confounded by twenty-first century reality that they would be hard-pressed to offer advice about how to live in this world. But I think Hicks would be as clear as ever in his central message: our primary task is to listen for the voice of God. Burn away everything in your life that is not of God, and be reborn as a vessel wholly dedicated to God’s word and God’s work. This is our greatest work, and this will bring us the greatest joy. I think Hicks would worry that our present-day entanglement with things of this world would make such single-minded attention difficult—and I think he would be right to worry.
Yet I have to say that I love this world. I ache for it to change, yet I love finding my way deep into it, learning about it, engaging with it. I love the process of building more and deeper relationships with people I never dreamed I could have access to as a child, claiming them as mine. I love putting my shoulder to big problems along with others who care, stretching to offer what I have so that I can make this world a better place. I would rather put my energy toward that big work than toward purifying my life of tainted products. I don’t want to be separate. I don’t want my attention to be always on some higher plane. I want it to be fully here, fully present to this very moment.
Don’t fraternize, said Elias Hicks. Yet it is when I am doing just that that I feel most fully alive, most clear that I am engaged in the work that has my name on it.
I’m not at all confident that I would get his blessing. I keep thinking of him on his farm, during some of those long stretches between trips, trying to keep his mind wholly on God while doing farm chores, a struggle he mentions more than once in his journal. I can’t help but hope that he gave himself permission when he was bringing in the hay to drink in the beauty around him, to be glad for the sun and the sweet smell and the song of the birds—to be fully a part of this world without seeing that as a sign of spiritual weakness.
Is all this questioning even necessary? After all, we could say with complete justification that different times call for different choices. They made theirs; we get to make ours. And in this modern era that celebrates individualism and autonomy, we do like to make our own choices. Who among us would be willing to submit our lives to the authority of the community the way eighteenth and nineteenth century Quakers did?
Yet I do know that there’s more, and that many of us are struggling in the darkness around these very issues of passion and obedience, perfection and God’s work for us. We are thoroughly enmeshed in this world and see few alternatives. Indeed, a major attraction of Quakerism since World War II was the opportunity to join a like-minded community characterized by decency, tolerance, and social activism (and I can just imagine Fox and Hicks turning over in their graves at such a dilution of the fiery, all-consuming faith that centered their lives). We are overwhelmed with divergent pulls on our energies: toward the pursuit of conscience-based life choices, toward the maintenance of our spiritual communities, toward careers that embody some social good, toward bearing witness against the evils of the world. However, I think that we tend to jump to the question of where to direct our passion before we’ve taken the time to cultivate its roots. We often stumble into these decisions, responding to whatever tugs at us most strongly or loudly, or we look around, assess the need, consider our skills and inclinations, and make the best match we can figure out.
Maybe this is the lesson for our times from Elias Hicks and the great separation. We need both parts. We do need to find a new way to be in the world. But to do that as Quakers, drawing on the full power of our tradition, we need to commit to dwelling in the realm of what ignites and fuels that passion. If we settle for a motivation of outrage, inclination, fascination, fear, guilt, or well-developed reasoning, we may do good work, but it will be a pale substitute for what might be possible. I want more. I want my love for this world to be so deep and passionate that it burns away anything that is not of God, burns away any part that is covetous, acquisitive, self-serving, vain, judgmental, self-righteous, slothful, or small-minded. I want to act in this world wholly as God’s hands and heart.
I’m deeply beholden to Elias Hicks, and I want that same deep, passionate, and faithfully nourished spiritual life right in the center of my being. I want to be able to look Hicks straight in the eye, shake his hand, count myself as a Quaker of equal depth, and maybe even offer him something of value in return.