Vessels of Honor in the House of God

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A Letter to Samuel Fothergill

Samuel Fothergill (1715-1772) was the son of a Quaker family well-known in London Yearly Meeting and Pennsylvania. He traveled in the ministry to the American colonies and was witness to the 1755 war tax crisis in Philadelphia that was precipitated by the French and Indian War. Samuel wrote many letters home, worshiped regularly at Penketh Particular Meeting, and occasionally with Friends at the meeting in his home town of Warrington, England. Elaine Green, also born in that town (though in the twentieth century), now chooses to write her own reply to the “Epistle to Friends at Penketh Meeting.”

Warrington, 28th Day, Third Month, 2021

Dear Friend, Samuel Fothergill,

I write to respond in part to your epistle of 28th Day, Sixth Month, 1755, to our Penketh Friends. Whilst I recognize that it is not our usual habit to respond to epistles, I have hoped that you might not mind, since I am moved by your ministry, which still speaks to me through earthly time and space.

I see that you wrote your epistle from Nantucket. I have learned from your subsequent letter to Friends of the Meeting of Sherborne, Nantucket, that you were at the time deeply exercised by the disunity amongst Friends there. In the time that has flowed between us, it appears that disunity has pursued this remnant people of God, and we still strive through communicating together to follow after peace with God and with one another.

Yet I hope that there are amongst us in my time, those whom—if you were here with us—you might salute as truly living: present in the Spirit and working in the cause of Truth. In our century and amid our many cultures, now across the globe, we try to discern what love requires of us and hope that in doing so, we find that precious unity. We meet in worship to reach decisions about our church organization and the witness of our lives, endeavouring always to wait upon the Spirit to set aside our pride and fear to reach that desired holy unity that seems out of our human reach. We know through our experience that we are witnesses to a mystical resurrection to new life. As you observed in your own time, we see snares in our way on the path to Truth, but in our worship, we wait for and submit to the loosening power that can lead us out of this world to a better place. Your imagery of a faithful road to Bethel, to Jericho, through Jordan encourages us to glimpse the possibility of gaining a share in the treasured Spirit, and that we might inspire others by our experience.

Like you, we recognize that our world presents stumbling blocks for the weak in Spirit, and too many of us neglect the things that really matter. You met in your time those who, in your words, spoke a language that reflected their constant striving for earthly treasures in the form of worldly possessions, instead of seeking out the higher treasures that were not worldly things. I admit to being one such Friend in my own time, and here acknowledge that your ministry remains a reminder that I have more work to do. We, as an entire species, have been faced in the last 12 months with the earthly existential threat of a plague that has swept the planet and undermined our sense of human reason and strength. As you observed, there remains a thread of our human sensibility that knows this is God’s world, the control of which lies not in our hands, except to destroy.

We must rise above this destruction and hold fast to that which is eternal in each of us. I should wish to assure you that we are still searching out the right way forward to deliverance from our worries and hurts. We are still those honest travelers, with whom I hope (as with Penketh Friends) your spirit is secretly united. Most of us in the church now are not those united by birth to this family, but you have expressed your affection for all of us and your hope that we might remain excited in our spiritual journey towards eternal peace. I am encouraged by your own words to Penketh:

How long hath the gracious Hand been extended for your help? even all the day long, until the evening has drawn near, and his locks have been wet with its dew; unwilling to leave and graciously mindful of you.

Your epistle was in part addressed to young Friends at Penketh: to encourage them to seek out their own true happiness and peace of mind. I have noted and share your support of our youth who are weighed down with worldly cares and who have yet a greater role in spreading love and mercy. They deserve the sure comfort of which you write “in a day when nothing else can speak peace to the soul.” You saw young Friends as “vessels of honour in the house of God,” even though there are hurtful things that lie in their path. That may be so for all of us, regardless of who we are or how old we are, and we have to dig deep within ourselves to find that power to conduct us steadily and safely.

I read with pleasure that you felt upheld—even more than you thought you deserved—in your service to the church. It is both reassuring and instructive to us that you have used the wisdom and strength you have found within yourself to serve so carefully and intensely in America and in Britain, and that through your work you have found a great peace and sense of that unchangeable love and help which has not failed you. You bore witness to a deep experience of God’s goodness and unutterable kindness and mercy, which you say engaged your heart to devote the bloom and strength of your life to the service of one who was ever worthy of your love, obedience, and devotion. I find your experience inspiring in a human world that has not improved with age, especially at times when I am weary and worn down by its failings and terrors.

You described your soul as “inwardly melted before the throne of grace.” That is a holy image for me that I wish I had met and come to know. You wrote to Penketh that you hoped that your return to them would not be met with sorrow and distress on their part. I hope that this proved to be the case when you did return to Warrington the following year.

Inspired by those who went before us, Friends in my century continue to strive through their witness to persuade everyone to act according to a faithfulness, an obedience to the leadings of the Spirit and the loving kindness that is required of us. I choose to close my letter to you now with your own words, because they reflect well how I feel about this brief correspondence with you and with my own Friends in my century:

The everlasting, holy, and unchangeable God of all comfort be near you, to strengthen that which remains alive, and should live, to support you in every difficulty, and preserve you as a well fenced and frequently watered garden, is the prayer of your true friend and well wisher.

Affectionately,
Elaine Green

Photo by DioGen.

Elaine Green

Elaine Green grew up in Warrington, UK, as a member of the Church of England and is now a member of Ipswich & Diss Area Meeting of Britain Yearly Meeting. She visits Warrington regularly and worships from time to time with Warrington Friends. Contact: [email protected].

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