By John Moorman
Good morning! In less than three weeks Bob Henry will be here as our new pastoral minister. As we prepare to welcome him and his family to our meeting community, we need to take a little time to examine why we are here today. What brought us here to Indianapolis First Friends Meeting? Why are we here as attenders or members, active or not? What is there about Quakerism that speaks to us, individually and collectively?
I propose in a very short time this morning to briefly highlight the beginnings and present-day situation of our faith as a way for thought on the above questions. These questions are personal and each of us will handle and answer them according to their personal experiences, readings and searching for the Christ within.
George Fox is considered the founder of Quakerism. He was born in England at a time of political and social upheaval. George was a poorly educated individual who began his life working for a shoemaker. This shoemaker also kept sheep and cattle. George’s time in the fields with the sheep and cattle gave him an understanding and love of everything that God had made. As he put it in his Journal he was, “in unity with the creation”.
At an early age, Fox began his search for the reality of God that he could not find in preachers, professors, or others he approached with his questions and concerns. Finally, a leading came to him that, “There is one even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition”.
This was revolutionary. Each person can realize the presence of Christ within their own lives. Fox called this an opening. As Fox is quoted in the testimony of Margaret Fell an early convert and later his wife, “he spoke as followeth…How that Christ was the light of the world and lighted every man that cometh into the world; and that by this Light they might be gathered to God”.
Out of this conversion experience and various leadings, early Quakerism was developed. At its core was the belief that Christ’s presence could be experienced individually. There was no need for an intermediary to reach God. Fox was strong in condemning the “Hireling Ministry” found in the Churches of the day. They were hindrances to finding the presence of Christ within each person.
Some of the leadings of Fox led to early testimonies against the swearing of oaths, simplicity in dress and lifestyle, against the paying of tithes to the Church of England, and non-participation in wars and military life. These testimonies caused great difficulties for early Friends as they were seen by those in power as a danger to their positions, whether in the established Church, or Government at both a local and national level. As a result, many early Friends were imprisoned, died in prison, were killed by mobs, or by being executed by Governmental order, or suffered greatly for their beliefs including losing their land and homes. George Fox was beaten and imprisoned many times in places that would make today’s prisons look like palaces by comparison. He had to be a hardy man to survive into his 67th year. This in an era when the average lifespan was 45 years.
What enabled Quakerism to survive these early years when other small groups such as the Ranters did not?
There were several factors that enabled Quakerism to survive beyond its beginnings.
The first was that Fox was by all accounts a charismatic individual. His presence was powerful both in speech and prayer. William Penn once stated that he had never met such a powerful man in prayer as George Fox.
The second was that he made friends easily and was particularly effective in attracting to his side those who were more educated than himself and held substantial positions in English society. These individuals included William Penn, Issac Pennington, and Robert Barclay. As William Penn wrote in an introduction to George Fox’s Journal, “He was an original and no man’s copy”.
The message of Fox had its own inner validity, as William James said, “In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity”. However, no spoken word, in a time prior to modern communication methods, could survive unless it was contained within a written and intelligible format. George Fox did dictate his Journal, but without the exceptional work of Thomas Ellwood in editing it, it would not have reached publication.
Any movement, such as early Quakerism, must be able to attract minds capable of giving an intellectual structure to its organization and beliefs. These beliefs must appeal to other minds and be logically defensible. Robert Barclay did this for Quakerism. His “Apology” was a presentation of Quakerism that could be understood by literate individuals of the time. It helped place Quakerism as a biblically based Christian belief, rather than a small sect of questionable worth or value.
The third was that George Fox understood the need for organization if this faith was to continue and grow. His provision of the organizational setup of individual meetings, which then were members of a quarterly meeting, and then of a yearly meeting helped stabilize the early Quaker movement and brought with it the ability for oversight and the development of leadership as time progressed. The establishment of meeting elders gave each meeting the ability to examine individual leadings of members and provide guidance to meeting members if needed.
The fourth was that George Fox recognized that not only could Christ speak to him personally, but he could speak as well to others. This was not a personal religion but a community of believers. As the light of Christ is given to you share it with others. This is not done individually but through a gathered community of believers (witness the formal name; Religious Society of Friends). As Steven Davidson states in the recent Pendle Hill Pamphlet, The Gathered Meeting, “In the gathered meeting, we experience what we seek as a religious community; inward confirmation in our personal faith, collective unity of purpose in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and a profound sense of the Presence”. As Fox would say, collectively we seek Christ’s presence in our lives. Thus, when Fox died, he was but one Quaker minister among many and the leadership of Quakerism was already passing on to others.
The form of early Quaker worship was unprogrammed. However, Fox and others could expound for hours during meeting on Christ’s presence in their lives, their leadings, and the importance of scripture to everyday life.
Any religion changes over time. Quakerism is no exception. As it has no creeds nor doctrines, it is more open to change than others. The Light of Christ within continually gives new leadings that while they must be examined by fellow members, eventually result in change in outlook and structure. It took over 100 years but Quakerism did disavow slavery as being against Christ’s will. Men’s meeting for business and Women’s meeting for business became the Meeting’s meeting for business. Plain dress and plain speaking gradually were eliminated as society changed and became less ostentatious and stratified.
The outside world also affected Quakerism. Religious movements such as the Wesleyan and Holiness movements of the 1800’s, and individual Friends with strongly expressed concerns on Quaker views and practice all had a place in the changing structure of Quaker worship and belief emphasis. Splits occurred among Friends meetings and Yearly Meetings and are continuing, regretfully, as I speak. As an Indiana based example, there are four Yearly Meetings with headquarters in Indiana; Western Yearly Meeting headquartered in Plainfield of which this meeting is a member, Indiana Yearly Meeting headquartered in Muncie, Central Yearly Meeting headquartered in Muncie, and New Association of Friends headquartered in New Castle. Three of these Yearly Meetings are currently affiliated with Friends United Meeting a world-wide association of Friends Meetings and Churches. One, Central Yearly Meeting is independent. There are individual Friends Meetings and Churches in Indiana belonging to Yearly Meetings affiliated with Evangelical Friends Church - Eastern Region and Friends General Conference, or independent of any further affiliation. Sometimes, I think that Quaker toleration extends beyond our faith, not within it.
I see the result of each schism as a loss of something that was vital to early Quakerism. Early Quakerism was Christ centered, mystical, prophetic, and evangelistic. It was grounded in the knowledge that the Light of Christ was present in everyone; that we as a community of believers could personally experience Christ’s presence. This experience must be shared with others and it was, with an evangelistic fervor. It was the intent of early Quakers that their experience would sweep the world and bring radical change. That intent was never realized.
Currently, Quakerism in its many forms has 377,055 members worldwide. The countries with the most Quakers are Kenya with 146,300 and the United States with 76,360.
So, what does this mean for Indianapolis First Friends Meeting as we await the coming of our new pastoral minister and his family?
One thing that separates Quakers from other faith communities, is that we have no lay leadership. Ours is a participative community of ministers who share their ministry joyfully with each other. Ministry is many things; singing in the choir or as separate individuals, playing music, preparing food for fellowship hour or special events, calling on individuals who are sick or in need of assistance, giving spoken messages, encouraging others in their ministry, keeping the building and grounds clean, up-to-date and in order, teaching Sunday school and assisting with Children’s Church, working with meeting finances, writing articles for Quaker publications, organizing events, providing opportunities for spiritual growth and enrichment, and many others that I have not mentioned.
What is your ministry? How have you been encouraged in it? Have you encouraged others in their ministry? If not, Why?
As our new pastoral minister comes let’s welcome him and his family into an active meeting that is a worshipful community responding to Christ’s presence in our lives. How can we prepare to assist him in his ministry as he joins us?
What can you say?
As we enter unprogrammed worship as a gathered community, let us be open to Christ’s presence among us. If you receive a message that is for you personally, keep it in the silence. If it is a message you feel led to share stand and share it with the meeting community.