Some Quaker writings summarised

During the first Coronavirus lockdown Quaker socialists read and shared summaries of Quaker texts. As the UK returns to significant restrictions, here’s an easy introduction to some books that you might enjoy.

The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill

“Popular revolt was for many centuries an essential feature of the English tradition and the middle decades of the seventeenth century saw the greatest upheaval that has yet occurred in Britain” 

Accounts of Quaker history have typically followed the narrative as told by George Fox in his journal, through his childhood, wanderings, openings and alliance with Margaret Fell, leading to the Children of Light, later known as Quakers. 

‘The World Turned Upside Down’ changed that, beginning instead by exploring the class character of the time, the divisions between north and south, the freedom of the forest and the emergence of London as a place people could live without masters. 

Whereas Fox’s Journal claims his organisation as the one with the answers, Hill recognises it was part of an interconnected movement, in which people moved easily between dissenting groups such as Levellers, Ranters, Muggletonians and many others who frequently adopted the pejorative terms given them.  

On the basis that the common people of the past should be taken on their own terms rather than those of their critics, Hill resurfaced and repopularised the democratic theologies of such figures as Gerrard Winstanley, Abiezer Coppe, Joseph Salmon and Samuel Fisher. He also helped resuscitate the reputation of James Nayler (pictured on the cover) to whom Quaker narratives had sometimes been unsympathetic. 

Rather than dismiss the daring ideas of the time, he recasts them as rational responses to the situation they faced, and their pioneers as leaders of a radical revolution-within-the-revolution who only now are being better understood. Of this radical milieu only Quakers and Anabaptists still exist. But a new generation is asking new questions of the past, as we relive different aspects of the experience of our predecessors, and ask how we act on them today. 

Women’s Speaking Justified, Margaret Fell

“The church of Christ is a woman and those that speak against the women’s speaking, speak against the church of Christ”

The plague of 1665-66 coincided with the persecution of Quakers during which many suffered prison. While incarcerated, Margaret Fell wrote ‘Women’s Speaking Justified’, a forerunner of modern Feminist Theology. 

In it she argues: 

– That God puts enmity between women and the serpent/the dragon (evil)
– That the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a time when gender relations will be different and a woman will protect a man
– That there were many female leaders who worked with Jesus, including Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Martha. Jesus also spoke to the woman from Samaria at Jacob’s Well and celebrated the woman who anointed his feet with ointment 
– That women were there at the crucifixion even when most male disciples had fled, and women were the first witnesses to the resurrection.
– That there are female leaders in the early church mentioned in Paul’s letters, especially Priscilla, and the letters make clear that all are prophesying 
– That with the Light of Christ in all, the promise is fulfilled and all have the Spirit poured upon them  
– That the new Jerusalem spoken of in Revelation is a woman, signifying gender equality 

If you have ever heard a man trying to use the Bible to justify the oppression of women, then Fell’s ‘Women’s Speaking Justified’ is a refreshing rejoinder.

Full text:

A Caution to the Rich, John Woolman

“How many are spending their time and money in vanity and superfluities while thousands and tens of thousands want the necessaries of life?” 

‘A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich, 1793’ is usually published as an appendix to John Woolman’s Journal. 

This deathbed query of John Woolman, shocked by the inequality of England, remains relevant today. As we begin to imagine how the world could be built back better, some ideas from Woolman’s 1793 essay ‘Caution to the Rich’ are worth remembering: 

1. Put limits on rent

“Rents are often so high that persons…often find occasion to labour harder than was intended by our gracious creator…These things are common when in health but through sickness and inability to labour…many are so straitened that much of their increase goes to pay rent, and they have not the wherewith to buy what they require.”

2. Check your privilege

“Now when some who have never experienced hard labour themselves live in fullness on the labour of others there is often a danger of their not having a right feeling of the labourer’s condition and of being thereby disqualified to judge candidly in their case” 

3. Stand up for migrants 

“”Ye know the heart of a stranger seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt”. He who hath been a stranger among unkind people, or under the government of those who were hardhearted has experienced this feeling; but a person who has never felt the weight of misapplied power comes not to this knowledge but by an inward tenderness, in which the heart is prepared to sympathise with others.”

4. Better wages, less work, more employment

“If four men working eight hours per day can do a portion of labour in a certain number of days, then five men, equally capable could do the same business by the same time by working only six hours and twenty-four minutes per day” 

5. Redistribute wealth

“Did a man possess as much land as would suffice for twenty industrious frugal people and…did we believe that after our death our estates would go equally among our children and the children of the poor it would be likely to give us uneasiness. This may show to a thoughtful person that to be redeemed from all the remains of selfishness..we must constantly attend to the influences of His spirit”

6. Make peace

“The rising up of a desire to obtain wealth is the beginning…wealth is attended with power by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported, and hence oppression carried on with worldly policy and order the seeds of war swell and sprout and grow”

7. Respect indigenous peoples

“The offspring of those ancient possessors of the country in whose eyes we appear as newcomers are yet owners and inhabitants of the land adjoining us, and that their way of life, requiring much room, hath been transmitted to them from their predecessors and probably settled by the custom of a great many ages”.  

The Journal is available to read online here:

Search for Reality in Religion, John MacMurray

John MacMurray

One of the influential figures of 20th century Christian Socialism was the philosopher John MacMurray, who gave the Swarthmore Lecture in 1965. 

Given towards the end of the life, the lecture begins with an autobiographical section detailing his spiritual and political journey before sharing what he describes as his”‘conclusions – necessarily personal and tentative towards which I have been led”:

– What makes humans distinct from animals is reflection, and the original form of reflection is religion, which is an expression of the consciousness of fellowship  
– The principal society which achieved a progress to maturity without breaking this religious unity, is Judaism 
– Jesus was a social reformer, and an answer to anyone who says he was actually a religious teacher must be to ask how any Hebrew prophet could be a religious teacher without being a social reformer, as the distinction did not exist 
– Friendship is a spiritual relationship, and in this sense any religious unity is a spiritual not a biological unity.  
– Any dualism of classes makes such a unity impossible 
– The purpose of God is the establishing of a permanent co-operative fellowship to be achieved with full human consent, which must do away with enmity
– That the example of Jesus and those who followed him shows that the new must be established in the shell of the old rather than relying on government 
– That Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere shows us the form society should take 
– That this will involve neither withdrawing from the world nor joining the ’empire’ versions of religion which were what Marx so famously critiqued 
– That the ‘church’ should be understood to mean the community of the disciples of Jesus working to establish the Kingdom of heaven on earth, which will be inclusive, international and interdenominational.
– That this is a religious task based not on self interest or legal compulsion but on love working in freedom

Fit for Freedom Not for Friendship, Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel

For a number of years Quakers in the US and Europe have been engaged in a process of reflection on – and uprooting of – racism and white supremacy, in society and in the Society of Friends. 

An essential resource in this has been Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel’s history ‘Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship’. The book investigates Quaker work for racial justice, especially in the US anti-slavery and civil rights movements and notes that while many Quakers did play a role in these movements, the people we celebrate today were often radical outliers, while the mainstream of white Quaker opinion was rarely dissimilar from white opinion at large. The result is that the Quaker record on anti-racism is not as consistent as many today would like to think. 

It records: 

– That Quakers were the first Christian denomination to free itself of enslaving Africans, but this followed a century of prevarication. Prior to this there were many Quakers who ‘owned’ slaves, including, most prominently, William Penn.

– Quaker history tells the stories of John Woolman, Lucretia Mott and Levi Coffin for their prominent roles in anti-slavery campaigns. To truly learn though we also need to remember Benjamin Lay who had his Quaker membership removed for the stridency of his anti-slavery activism, and Sarah Mapps-Douglass who never joined the Society of Friends, because of the segregation that was practiced at that time  

– Individual Quakers played a role in most of the major civil rights campaigns, including the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides and the Poor People’s Campaign. Friends in Baltimore and Philadelphia also ran joint social project with Black Panthers. Progress towards racial equality and diversity in Quaker Meetings and schools however was slow.  

For those who prefer to think of Quakers as consistently on the right side of history it is an uncomfortable read. In honouring of our testimony to truth though, it’s essential to engage with our ‘roses and warts’ history, in order to be able to transform

“The phrase, “practical mystic” seems to be a contradiction in terms. It has often been applied to Quakers, for whom the communal Meeting for Worship is a central experience.” 

Practical Mystics, Jennifer Kavanagh

“The phrase, “practical mystic” seems to be a contradiction in terms. It has often been applied to Quakers, for whom the communal Meeting for Worship is a central experience. It is a meeting in stillness, not in passivity, but in expectant waiting on the Presence”

Practical Mystics explores the often mysterious connection between faith and action. It looks at not just how the contemplative and active lives can co-exist but how in essence they are the same. Practical people, all of whom can be mystics; mystics who can also be practical. And, more than that, how the action stems from that very faith, how the two are intertwined, and how crucial that interaction is.

The popular conception of mystical experience is that it is something exclusive, elite, soaring above the scope of the ordinary person. This is very far from the truth. If we define mysticism as a direct experience of the Divine – whatever that means to you – this is an experience that is open to all. Mysticism, in its very nature unconfined by institution or creed, inherently tends to universalism.

The phrase, “practical mystic” seems to be a contradiction in terms. It has often been applied to Quakers, for whom the communal Meeting for Worship is a central experience. It is a meeting in stillness, not in passivity, but in expectant waiting on the Presence, waiting for guidance on how to make the world a better place. It is where faith and a leading to action come together.

The relation between our faith experience and our action is not a simple causal relationship.

That we are changed, that is certain – we become part of a larger consciousness, aware of our connection with other human beings and other creatures. What we are called to is not an externally imposed duty but an inner imperative.

Maybe we feel that “mystic” is too big a word for us individually, but the Quaker way is without doubt a mystical one. We might conclude that not all Quakers are mystics, but that we will all, in some way and to some degree, be touched by the mystical, sometimes held by it and even, in some, be taken up in its all-encompassing embrace.

So far from being a contradiction in terms, the practical is the lifeblood of mysticism: we are not being asked to detach ourselves from our humanness, to float off into some kind of numinous ethereal space. Even in our mysticism, we are relating to others. The practical is both the natural outcome of the mystic experience and intrinsic to the experience itself. There is no division between being and doing.”

A post with some of the summaries of books on socialism will follow