The Baltimore Young Friends Yearly Meeting Lecture For 1944
I am as conscious as anyone can be of the limitation of what a committee can do to effect a resurgence of spiritual life in our Society of Friends. And I am just as well aware that the overworked phrase “individual faithfulness” effects no miracle either, since the repetition of the phrase does not produce the faithful individuals we want. There can be no doubt that we greatly need “prophetic souls and dedicated leaders”—nothing short of that will do. But alas, they do not come at call and they are not produced by the shouting of the need for them. The prophetic type of leader is always a divine bestowal, a miraculous gift of grace, that cannot be produced by planning or by effort or by education―by “Oxford or Cambridge.” Laboriously worked up contrivances to urge people to try to lift themselves by their bootstraps or to work them up by persuasion to come to the help of the Lord in the mighty crisis, usually fail of effect. Persons are not moved to great issues that way. There is a serious limit, soon reached, to what a conference of delegates can do. If it were possible to transmit the fresh stirrings of life that occur in the best conferences, back into the little groups that really constitute our Society, the conference would be important, but there is no “wireless,” no radio, that does it, and the second-hand reports fail to transport the kindling power. The people at home hear words, but fail to receive the quickening thrill. Nothing that happens “up at the top” or at “some remote center” or that is done in an office, or a committee room, will be very momentous unless in the last resort it stirs fresh life and brings new vitality into play in the local groups—the little cells—which constitute the Society. The Society of Friends is not a yearly meeting, not a Five Years Meeting, not an occasional conference, not a central office somewhere, not a series of committee meetings; it is primarily and essentially a widely scattered number of local meetings, little cells, where the actual vitality and power and future potency of Quakerism is being settled and determined. We work in vain unless we keep our minds focused on these local units. And that is what for the most part we do not do. When yearly meeting is over, when the great conference concludes, the local meetings are in the main as they were before. We labor in vain unless we discover how to raise the level of life and power in these groups which after all are the ganglia and arterial fountains of our spiritual life. We send down documents from the higher-up brain centers, but documents work no wonders even when they are read, which is not always.
Before turning to constructive proposals I want to make perfectly clear the act that the world is in the fringe, in the penumbra, of a tremendous Revolution, with a big R. We have called it a war and the fighting has been with mechanized weapons, but we shall soon be face to face with awesome situations against which weapons are vain things, as ineffective as Canute’s futile attempts to stop the irresistible tides of the ocean. Nothing is ever going to be the same again and we cannot assume our Quakerism is to be unaffected by the euroclydon that is in front of us. The time has passed for “the complacent assumption of an unchanged world.” This situation which I see coming—though I am afraid most Americans are looking forward fondly to a new period of “normalcy”—this situation makes it more urgent than ever to have our Quaker Society inwardly prepared to be a purveyor of light and leading when the crisis comes. The Christian faith of the ages will be tested more severely than in any former Revolution, because it will be confronted with its supreme enemy, a completely economic, materialistic, and mechanistic interpretation of the word and of human life.
This materialistic view of life has captured the literature of our time. Almost every novel that is widely read presents a view of life that is starkly materialistic and plainly decadent. It is not merely a world of tanks and bombers and robots and high explosives; it is a world eager for cocktails and canned music and all the noises that drown the inward whispers of the soul. There is a dearth of genuine philosophy of life and of a convincing interpretation of spiritual reality. It may well fall to our lot to be the remnant body to maintain and uphold the genuine spiritual interpretation of life and of man’s divine endowment as our founders dd against the prevailing Calvinism of that formative epoch. Anyhow, whether my prophecy is real or vain, our task under God is plainly marked out for us. We must get ready, and my mind turns all the time to the local meeting centers where the issues will be settled.
If I may make one more prediction, it is that one result of the sweeping changes we are to see will be an extensive return of population to rural areas away from cities—a recovery of the land, a great conquest of the soil and a redeeming of waste places. If this occurs, as I think it will occur, and as I want it to occur, it will distinctly raise the importance of the local meeting and give it a new opportunity to minister to the spiritual life of its community.
Those who discount these forecasts that I have here made, and count them as nehusitan, which means empty words, may pass over this section as a blank and come at once to constructive proposals.
What is it that strikes persons awake, sets their faces forward toward more vital issues, and carries them over the great divide in their lives to a new stage of devotion and dedication? Of course, like the gates to the New City of the soul, there are many ways into this great experience, but it assuredly does not come by following old ruts of travel, or by pursuing the lines of tradition and cut and dried performances—even such a well-known one as sitting with an unstirred and empty mind in a silent meeting for worship which too often happens, Nothing works in these high matters—not even the best theories—nothing but the right person in the right place.
Most persons are awakened and set on their new track of life through the quickening and kindling power of some person who becomes for them the instrument of inspiration and of the creation of faith and the vision of a nobler way of life. Persons are set on fire by someone who is already aflame. It is a trumpet call to high adventure that starts the forward movements away from old forms.
That is one of the greatest stories in the long history of religion. It was through a long and wonderful circuit of souls, in a succession of forerunners, that the kindling idea of “Something of God in the soul of man” came to George Fox.
John Colet visited Savonarola in Florence and was transformed by the visit. Colet returned to England and awakened the great Erasmus to his mission of life, Erasmus converted Thomas Bilney at Cambridge. Bilney carried the torch of a new life to Hugh Latimer who in his martyr flame at Oxford lighted a candle that has never gone out. Successions like that are not strange and unusual. That is the way spiritual life is for the most part transmitted. If I may give one more instance of a personal and less exalted order, I was being introduced once by Charles House to the great band of youth in his unique Farm School at Salonika in Greece, when to my surprise he said: “I am introducing you to the man whose words in a meeting I attended once changed my life and led me to the decision to come here as your friend and teacher.” I had known nothing about it until that moment and I speak of it now in great humility. Garibaldi going out from Rome summoned the youth to follow him by saying: “I offer neither quarters nor provisions, nor wages; I offer you hunger and thirst, forced marches, battles and death.” Multitudes of youth followed him, because his call kindled their faith that he was a great leader. The moment that kind of faith is created, that thing itself is worth doing, the response is instantaneous and a supreme loyalty comes to birth. The point I am trying to make clear is the fact that if we are to see a resurgence of life and power in our beloved Society we must open the way for vital, kindling, inspiring persons to visit, or better still to live in, the communities where there are, or ought to be, meetings. The most effective plan will be to find openings of occupation, or to make arrangements for settling on the land or in other ways of occupation, as many as possible of our promising young leaders—above all married couples—in the Quaker communities where they are specially needed. It will be important to see that from time to time they have opportunities for enlarged preparation of themselves for spiritual service. It is just as important that some of the best of our youth should be putting their prepared lives into our home communities as that they should be on the Burma Road, or in France, or Lisbon, or Cairo, or Mexico, or India.
Our work-camps, which is one of the most original and creative of all the [American Friends] Service Committee’s undertakings, have clearly revealed that brilliant and well-equipped youth will instantly leave their easy and perhaps frivolous way of life for a hard piece of labor in an uninspiring locality the moment they feel the call and discover that the job is worth doing and enriches life.
The plans for secretarial work in meetings can well be expanded; and where the meeting is to small for a full time secretary, two or three or more communities might have a secretary in common, after the plans of the larger parish idea in the New England towns. The secretarial person must be a highly qualified person—such as we send abroad to represent us—with distinctive leadership and kindling power and fertile in fresh creative ways. and with gifts for family visiting and for the discovery of youth and for intimate fellowship with them.
But these plans will be slow of realization and only a later time can see results along these lines. Meantime, while such plans are being matured and persons for it are being discovered, we must be thinking of quicker methods. I should suggest that some twenty of our most profoundly spiritual leaders and interpreters of our ideals and way of life, be drafted for an extensive work of intervisitation in the regions of existing meetings and closed meeting houses. We used to wait until some Friend had an inward concern for spiritual labor and of this sort. Then after much deliberation his meetings in order “loosed him and let him go.” Sometimes he was the right person and sometimes he wasn’t, as I can testify. But in any case such concerns seldom arise now—the custom is well-nigh effete. But there is no reason, except that of ancient tradition, why an individual is more likely to be divinely guided or intelligently qualified in such matters than is a carefully selected group of Friends who have thoughtfully and prayerfully studied the whole situation and have clear insight as to what ought to be done. We must get our minds free from the theory that all wisdom and all light of leading consist in following ancient custom and doing what has always been done. I am not much impressed by the effectiveness of many of the ways of our traditional methods, though I would never urge change just for change—only for the sake of increased wisdom and spiritual power.
It would not be difficult to select twenty Friends, I have them in mind, who could be got free for longer or shorter periods of visitation, for attending existing meetings, appointing special advertised meetings, for the visitation of families and for patient creative work in regions where meetings once flourished or in communities where there is a nucleus of a possible new meeting. I know this can be done for I have seen it done in striking fashion. But it can be done only by persons who know how to do it. There are such persons and they can be found. In all these matters the Friends Fellowship Council can be very helpful, it ought to be used, but the actual direction should be vested in a central committee on the state of Society.
Many thoughtful Friends have long been convinced hat the method of answering the Queries does not give an actual account of the spiritual state of our meetings. A meeting may be inwardly pitifully dead and yet sending answers to the queries which give little indication of the existing lameness of life. There is need of a much more revealing searching of the actual state of life which such visitation would bring.
If we are to reach and garner the present day seekers who exist in every neighborhood, persons who are disillusioned over the effectiveness and value of the ordinary run of church service, our Quaker meetings must become unique centers of spiritual life, where there is felt a thrill of reality. That means that they must be occasions when life is lifted up and seen and felt in its true divine possibilities.
I am looking for a time, and not counting on it, when we shall have a Society of Friends not composed of a few awakened leaders and a body of unkindled quiescent members who move in the ancient grooves of habit and routine. But instead a live membership of persons who have thought out their principles of life and not merely adopted them second hand. It was that unique high level of total membership of the body which made early Quakerism such a convincing and conquering body of people. They knew what they believed and they lived in the power of it. They had a philosophy of life and they transmitted it.
There is very great need to have the unique aspect of spirit in man and its relation to the divine spirit in the universe freshly interpreted in a world that has become bogged down with material conceptions of life and the world.
There is very great need of a more vital grasp of the unique Person at the headwaters of our faith linked up with the Real Presence of the inward Christ who is the Life of our lives…
“Warm, sweet, tender even yet
A present help is He
And faith has yet its Oliver
And love its Galilee”
We can very well have a moratorium of divisive theological doctrines and focus our minds on a religion of life, vitally, livingly, constructively grasped and expressed in life and character.
This piece republished by Friends Journal to coincide with January 2012’s issue on Convergent Friends.