In this film, we’re going to think about the inward nature of Quaker spirituality, and also some of the outward outcomes of Quaker thinking. If we think back to George Fox’s account of the 1647 experience that proved foundational for Quakerism, we can remember that he felt he had nothing outwardly to help him. Then he hears the voice that changes his life. There is one, even Christ, Jesus, that can speak to your condition. It’s not an outward voice. This is an inward experience of revelation and transformation. What we find, throughout Quaker spirituality, is this emphasis on the inward as authentic, and the outward related to the worldly or apostasy– that which has fallen from the faith.
Fox claims that other Christians have focused too much on outward forms and outward notions, and have lost their way. They are concluded under sin. The outward creates a barrier between humanity and God. These early Quakers became very critical of the outward, and their spirituality is focused on the inward– what we can term as interiorised. We can see this in the form of worship which Quakers adopted, and in the style of early meeting houses like the one at Brigflatts. They worshipped in stillness and silence, usually for about three hours, without any outward form or ritual. Everyone was spiritually equal. Everyone was a minister. Nobody stood at the front, because everyone was fulfilling the priestly role, one to another.
Anyone could speak, if moved to by the Lord. Baptism and communion were experienced inwardly– a baptism of the Holy Spirit, and the communion
of the inward supper, as in Revelation 3:20. Thus, Quakers had a liturgy of silence, or an empty or open form with no set events amidst the silence and stillness. It was a spirituality based on absence of the outward, which they believed led to a sense of inward presence. In meeting houses like the one at Brigflatts, as in any other, there’s no front– no pulpit, no altar, no decoration, such as a crucifix or stained glass. The meeting house is deliberately plain– a strong Quaker value. And we can see only wooden panelling and unadorned benches– probably backless, originally– in a plain building made of local materials, in the local style. Even the meeting house, as an outward form, is unnecessary.
It’s no more special than any other place, and Quakers only started to build them as people’s houses grew too small for increasing numbers. Quakers were wary of outward speech too, refusing to follow worldly custom, such as saying good morning to each other. George Fox, coming down the road into Sedbergh– an unknown traveller with an unusual accent, at a time when many people didn’t venture more than 20 or 30 miles from their home– was asked by someone he met where he was from. Fox didn’t offer a polite or conversational reply– I’m from Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire. Instead, he simply responded, from the Lord. He said only what he felt God wanted him to say.
This critique of the outward and the promotion of the plain as spiritually authentic led Quakers to adopt particular ways of being in the world. They dressed more simply than the rest of the population, foregoing anything that was only for decoration, such as unnecessary buttons or lavish kinds of clothing. There’s talk of a Quaker gait, or way of walking. And we now think that this was a walk different from the parading style of the rich, bound round with yards of material to show off their wealth, but rather one constrained and confined by the very lack of material. We know that in time, Quaker houses would become unadorned too, without fancy woodwork or mirrors. Everything became plain.
Quakers, when they did speak, adopted what has been called plain speech. They refused to use the polite form of address– you– to social superiors, but rather levelled the world down by using the familiar forms of thee and thou to everyone. Outward hierarchy was of no consequence, as everyone was equal before God. Calvinism had revolutionised the idea of salvation by extending it from the rich and powerful to the idea of an elect, dotted throughout society. But Quakerism went one step further, and considered that salvation could come to everyone– a concept of a universal elect. Thus, worldly rank meant nothing, and Quakers refused to use titles or do anything that denoted status.
They also refused to remove their hat to anyone as a sign of respect. The only time Quakers removed their hats was when someone prayed in a meeting for worship. The person praying knelt, and the rest of the group stood and took off their hats. Quakers also refused to swear on the Bible, for it says in Matthew, swear not at all, and because it implied a double standard of truth telling. They also refused to pay tithes, payments required of all parishioners for the upkeep of the church and its clergy. It was easy to get a Quaker into court on any number of counts, and once there, to gaol them for not swearing the oath.
At the same time, Quakers would turn court rooms into pulpits, given half a chance.
Quakers also refused to use the pagan-derived names for the days and months, referring to them by number instead. Sunday was first day, Monday second day, etc. The months were numbered too. Every day was spiritually equal. Sunday was no more special than any other day, and every day was Christmas and Easter, not just the dates the world had set.
Quakers refused to haggle over prices, but rather sell and buy at what they thought was the fair price. In time, this led to a reputation for honesty, then for looking after other people’s money. And banks, like Lloyds and Barclays, have their roots with Quaker families. And Quakers refused to fight. War and killing were seen to be part of the world, now past– part of humanity falling away from the faith, of failing to live in the unfolding kingdom of God, and also of failing to understand the basic Christian truth of the spiritual equality of everyone.
George Fox called on his followers to be patterns and examples walking over the world, trampling all that is contrary under, and reaching towards those they met to unlock that of God in everyone– the ability of all to be open to God breaking into their lives and effecting transformation and salvation.
Quakers claimed that they’d achieved perfection, but this didn’t mean that they could then do what they want– that nothing counted as a sin anymore. Rather, they lived a model life, fueled by their sense of inward authenticity. Their experience of the Second Coming of Christ come again was all inward, but its consequences were highly visible.