Assembled and edited by Terry H. Wallace, Susan S. Smith, John C. Smith, and Arthur Berk. Ohio Yearly Meeting, 2014. 220 pages. $15/paperback; $11.99/eBook.
This book is pretty much what the title suggests: a description of how early, or “traditional,” Friends understood Christianity and their relationship with Christ Jesus. It is mainly told through lengthy quotations from early and some more recent Friends. Some Friends will be thrilled to have such a clear, concise exposition; some will be puzzled or put off by the archaic language; and many will refuse to pick up the book at all. This may be unfortunate because it seems important that each Friends meeting provide an opportunity to grapple with our tradition. Before tossing it out or declaring that Friends are “post-something,” we should make a sincere effort to understand what those early Friends were experiencing that transformed their lives and empowered them to witness to the power of the Christ Within in the face of persecution. Other books, such as Michael Birkel’s Silence and Witness, Wilmer Cooper’s A Living Faith, or nearly anything by Lewis Benson will probably be more accessible and comprehensive for many Friends. On the peace testimony, Sandra Cronk’s Peace Be with You is still unequalled.
This is really two books in one. The first part is an explanation of traditional Quaker understanding and explication of their experience of Christianity, which differed considerably from that professed by most other institutional Christians of their day. It also differs markedly from what the stereotypical televangelist preaches, and what many Friends belonging to Evangelical Friends International (EFI) hold dear, although these differences tend not to be closely examined.
The carefully selected quotations delineate a number of points made by early Friends. The New Covenant focuses on the spiritual life of the gathered body rather than on individuals, and is open to everyone who accepts it. Salvation is premised on Jesus having tasted death for everyone and we are saved by following the Light of Christ and thereby participating in the resurrection. We are redeemed through obedience to what is asked of us, which may differ from what is asked of someone else. Quakerism offers an ethic of obligation/obedience rather than an ethic of idealism. The fundamental belief is that Christ teaches us the principles of God’s righteousness and gives us the power to obey. The book also describes Friends’ understanding and use of scripture and of their inner life. These are important concepts and experiences with which Friends need to wrestle. Discussion questions are provided for each section.
The second part has to do with traditional Quaker practice. There are useful sections on waiting worship; on ministers, elders, and overseers; on advices and queries; and on Quaker testimony.
There is a glossary of terms and an appendix on the history of the separations and differences among the branches today. While much of the glossary is helpful, it may be best to read both it and the history as an insight into Ohio Yearly Meeting thinking and biases given that OYM is “the last yearly meeting retaining significant aspects of its Quietist heritage.”
This book is a good start, with its concise quotations from the (mostly) old texts. Now we need a book that takes these traditional experiences and understandings of Christ and experiments with ways to help “liberal” Friends get at the Truth behind the words. According to Scripture, in the very first interaction (that is, the oldest story we have in the Hebrew Bible) God told humans “I am that I am.” As I understand it, God meant the name is not what counts; what is important is God exists. God did not say “you must call me ‘the Lord,’ or even ‘God.’” Later we are not told we must only use the noun “Christ,” and in John 1:1–9 “Logos” and “Light” are offered as synonyms. If the noun is not critical—this book would argue that it is—how might Friends and others be invited into the experience of being searched and known and loved by something or someone greater than themselves? What language or variety of expressions might help us to open ourselves to the yearning to be in right relationship with that which is greater than humans, that which is Divine? I believe it is Friends’ experience that Christ self-reveals in Christ’s time and way, not at the command of any human. Early Friends urge us to be willing to submit to guidance, known inwardly, that draws us toward love and toward others, and with this same fierce intention to surrender to Love.