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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds I’m here again in Special Collections at Lancaster University Library. And here, we have Francis Howgill’s writing– first published in 1672. In this passage, Francis Howgill is writing about his companion in the Quaker ministry, Edward Burrough– also from Westmorland– who died in jail in London in 1662. It’s a celebratory passage, looking back a decade to the life-changing days of 1652. At the same time, it’s laced with rhetoric which both attacks the status quo and reinforces Quaker understandings of spirituality. It starts with a reference to the humble origins of many of the early Quaker converts, outcasts of Israel living in the north of England– as opposed to the south and London.

Skip to 1 minute and 5 seconds These are uneducated people and yet sincere and loving and committed to their spiritual search. The comparison here is with people who seemed to enjoy great learning but who ran into outward forms rather than true faith. God so loved Howgill and his companions that he appeared daily to them and also sent a prophet, George Fox, to help them in their spiritual quest. Fox’s teaching and way of life reaches them, and they find the narrow path. They find God when they turn aside from the clergy. In other words, they’ve given up listening to those who they consider to be “hireling shepherds” paid for their ministry.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 seconds When they let go of what had been holding them back, they find what they’ve been looking for– intimacy with God. They find God to be near or close in the silence and stillness; their minds out of all things. Even thought becomes an outward barrier to finding God. Howgill claims he and his fellow Quakers are caught as in a net– bound together by their experience of God breaking into their lives. This is an intense experience of community, of being wrapped within the experience. Like fish, they’re brought to land, gathered in. They come to know how to be, what to stand in and wait in, in order to live a faithful life.

Skip to 2 minutes and 44 seconds And given their humble origins– their outcast status– they need to ask each other if this is really happening to them. Are they no longer outcasts but the chosen? Is the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which the whole of Christianity has been waiting for, emerging in Westmorland in 1652? Assured of the authenticity of their shared experience, they give their lives from this moment to God and to the Quaker movement as God’s representatives and to each other as fellow travellers. They find themselves in a covenant, a mutual promise-keeping relationship with God– as has been promised in Jeremiah 31

Skip to 3 minutes and 32 seconds to 34, repeated in Hebrews 8:8 to 14. Covenant is a key Quaker concept. And in their tracts, Quakers talk as if they’re really fulfilling the biblical promise of the final end time covenant– when the new law is written on people’s hearts so that faith is known in head and heart in a complete and final way. They tread down all reasoning about religion. That’s just outward and inauthentic and instead turn within to the place and space where God can be truly found. They are, thus, formed as coagents of God– a people for his praise in our generation. And it’s a wonderful, unforgettable, and joyous experience– a blessed day.

Skip to 4 minutes and 24 seconds Even writing at the time of the death of his dear friend, Edward Burrough, Howgill cannot contain the joy and excitement of all that has befallen him.

Key aspects of Howgill's thought

Watch this video, which offers an overview of this text.

It brings out the key aspects of the Francis Howgill passage. We see the way that criticism of others with more status is mixed with a celebration of the true faith that Howgill and his companions have found. We also see in this passage how ‘contract’ (legally binding agreement based on obligations) is contrasted with ‘covenant’ based on mutual promise-giving. The choice of scriptural references point to the Quaker understanding of how their movement is fulfilling Christian prophecy.

You might like to look at Jeremiah 31: 31 - 34. What other scriptural allusions can you see in this passage?

If Quakers were not reliant on scripture, why do you think they quoted it?

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This video is from the free online course:

Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

Lancaster University