04 January 2024

"...The People, called in Scorn, QUAKERS": part one

The participants of the eighteenth-century movement that, under the leadership of George Fox and his fellow enthusiasts, claimed to revive Christianity after a "long dark night of apostasy," had a number of ways of referring to themselves. The name Quaker arose very early in our history. As Margery Post Abbott explains in the Historical Dictionary of the Friends (Quakers)

The term Quaker was allegedly first used to describe Friends in 1650 by Justice Gervase Bennet of Derby, England, at a trial of George Fox, who had been imprisoned under the Blasphemy Act. As Fox recorded in his Journal, "This was Justice Bennet of Derby that first called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God." By this, he meant that they trembled before the power of God. Friends such as Robert Barclay equated quaking to the trembling experienced in worship. The term Quaker was soon widely used by Friends as well as by their detractors.

Friends originally called themselves Children of the Light (see John 12:36, Ephesians 5:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:5). Publishers of Truth, Friends of Truth, and Friends in the Truth were other early names used starting with the second generation of Friends. As the formal name Religious Society of Friends became standard, many friends rejected the term Quaker as an unwanted nickname. By the late 20th century, most liberal Friends accepted the popular name along with the more formal one, while evangelicals more consistently spoke of the Friends Church.

However these early disciples chose to refer to themselves, they soon adopted "Quakers" as a public nameplate, trading on the fact that this name was used by their theological (and political) opponents. Early theologian Robert Barclay's Apology (1676) barely uses "Friends" at all as a label for the movement he was defending, reserving it as a vague and general salutation to his varied readership. He uses "Quaker" right up front, entitling his volume An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, As the Same is Held Forth, and Preached, by the People, called in Scorn, QUAKERS....—as if that "Scorn" were a badge of defiant authenticity.

I was fascinated by the Apology's opening pages, in which he addresses a plea for fairness and tolerance directly to King Charles II. He makes constant references to Quakers, but never calls them either Quakers or Friends. They are "messengers of the Lord," "prophets," "those people," "these innocent people," and most often, simply "they" and "we." In this letter, Barclay defines the people whose cause he pleads by their peaceful witness and the suffering they're undergoing. Who "they" are is indicated in stark simplicity on the cover: Quakers.

Next week I hope to summarize some of the results of the survey that 35 of you (thank you!) responded to, concerning these various names for ourselves and our communities in our own time. When I first presented this survey, I wanted to test my own observation that, as Margery Post Abbott said in her article, the term Quaker is generally and increasingly preferred among liberal Friends, and Friend among evangelical Friends, but (as the chart at the top of this post shows) the vast majority of my survey respondents use both terms. ("It depends.") 

Things divided out somewhat differently in the time of George Fox and Robert Barclay. It seems that the movement's publicists and pamphleteers, at least, used Quakers as a slightly ironic badge of honor, a sort of provocative innocency (borrowing Robert Tucker's phrase) in the face of the public. Among themselves, they addressed each other simply and literally as friends. In writing, they may have capitalized the  word mainly in conformity with general usage in English at the time—most nouns and many other words were capitalized—rather than intentionally using the word as an organizational label. It may have been a gradual process that this informal and affectionate usage of friends became the collective name for a less provocative, less trembly, and more dignified Religious Society of Friends.

What was the spark and substance of this powerful community-shaping friendship? Here's Robert Barclay in the Apology, Proposition XI (punctuation and italics as in the 1703 edition):

For not a Few have become Convinced of the truth after this manner: Of which I my self, in a part, am—a true Witness; not by strength of Arguments or by a particular Disquisition of each Doctrine, and Convincement of my Understanding thereby, came to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly Reached by this Life. For, when I came into the silent Assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret Power among them, which touched my Heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the Evil weakening in me and the Good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the Increase of this Power and Life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly Redeemed. And indeed, this is the surest way to become a Christian; to whom afterwards the Knowledge and Understanding of Principles will not be wanting; but will grow up so much as is needful, as the natural Fruit of this good Root, and such a Knowledge will not be barren nor unfruitful.

With these words, Barclay helps me understand the joy and enthusiasm that united this group of "God's people," these friends. He describes an experience of Quaker worship that, in my own time, I too witnessed and cherished; and many of the people around me when it happened to me in August 1974 (the capital-F Friends of Ottawa Meeting) really became very dear to me. 

I'm not arguing that literal silence is required for this knit-togetherness to happen, but Barclay's testimony does give me more insight into both of these evocative words, friend and Quaker.

(Part two. Part three.)

A new "dark night of apostasy" in our own time? What does the New Apostolic Reformation have to do with Jesus? (I admit it's a rhetorical question, but I welcome good-faith answers.)

And questions about the former president's eligibility for office, in the light of moral theology.

Nancy Thomas's favorite books of 2023.

Walking in the World as a Friend—a monthly online practice and discussion group starting this coming Monday, and repeating in three-month cycles.

Here's a clip from my beloved Chicago, from the late Little Arthur Duncan: "Little Red Rooster."


Martin Kelley said...

In case you haven't stumbled down this rabbit hole, which connects two parts of today's essay, some of the New Apostolic folks have this bizzarro obsession with William Penn and use him to justify their Christian nationalism.


Johan Maurer said...

News to me! Thanks, Martin.

Kevin Camp said...

The term "Friend" seems convivial and affectionate to me. I've applied it to others with whom I regularly worship and have fond feelings. Most people I have encountered outside of the Society of Friends know us as "Quakers" first and foremost.

I don't prefer one over the other. Sometimes I use them interchangably.