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The Inner Life - THE SOCIETY OF FRIENDS Post by :chrisking Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :3643

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The Inner Life - THE SOCIETY OF FRIENDS

The following letters were addressed to the Editor of the Friends' Review in Philadelphia, in reference to certain changes of principle and practice in the Society then beginning to be observable, but which have since more than justified the writer's fears and solicitude.

I.

AMESBURY, 2d mo., 1870.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE REVIEW.

ESTEEMED FRIEND,--If I have been hitherto a silent, I have not been an indifferent, spectator of the movements now going on in our religious Society. Perhaps from lack of faith, I have been quite too solicitous concerning them, and too much afraid that in grasping after new things we may let go of old things too precious to be lost. Hence I have been pleased to see from time to time in thy paper very timely and fitting articles upon a _Hired Ministry and _Silent Worship_.

The present age is one of sensation and excitement, of extreme measures and opinions, of impatience of all slow results. The world about us moves with accelerated impulse, and we move with it: the rest we have enjoyed, whether true or false, is broken; the title-deeds of our opinions, the reason of our practices, are demanded. Our very right to exist as a distinct society is questioned. Our old literature--the precious journals and biographies of early and later Friends--is comparatively neglected for sensational and dogmatic publications. We bear complaints of a want of educated ministers; the utility of silent meetings is denied, and praying and preaching regarded as matters of will and option. There is a growing desire for experimenting upon the dogmas and expedients and practices of other sects. I speak only of admitted facts, and not for the purpose of censure or complaint. No one has less right than myself to indulge in heresy-hunting or impatience of minor differences of opinion. If my dear friends can bear with me, I shall not find it a hard task to bear with them.

But for myself I prefer the old ways. With the broadest possible tolerance for all honest seekers after truth! I love the Society of Friends. My life has been nearly spent in laboring with those of other sects in behalf of the suffering and enslaved; and I have never felt like quarrelling with Orthodox or Unitarians, who were willing to pull with me, side by side, at the rope of Reform. A very large proportion of my dearest personal friends are outside of our communion; and I have learned with John Woolman to find "no narrowness respecting sects and opinions." But after a kindly and candid survey of them all, I turn to my own Society, thankful to the Divine Providence which placed me where I am; and with an unshaken faith in the one distinctive doctrine of Quakerism-- the Light within--the immanence of the Divine Spirit in Christianity. I cheerfully recognize and bear testimony to the good works and lives of those who widely differ in faith and practice; but I have seen no truer types of Christianity, no better men and women, than I have known and still know among those who not blindly, but intelligently, hold the doctrines and maintain the testimonies of our early Friends. I am not blind to the shortcomings of Friends. I know how much we have lost by narrowness and coldness and inactivity, the overestimate of external observances, the neglect of our own proper work while acting as conscience-keepers for others. We have not, as a society, been active enough in those simple duties which we owe to our suffering fellow- creatures, in that abundant labor of love and self-denial which is never out of place. Perhaps our divisions and dissensions might have been spared us if we had been less "at ease in Zion." It is in the decline of practical righteousness that men are most likely to contend with each other for dogma and ritual, for shadow and letter, instead of substance and spirit. Hence I rejoice in every sign of increased activity in doing good among us, in the precious opportunities afforded of working with the Divine Providence for the Freedmen and Indians; since the more we do, in the true spirit of the gospel, for others, the more we shall really do for ourselves. There is no danger of lack of work for those who, with an eye single to the guidance of Truth, look for a place in God's vineyard; the great work which the founders of our Society began is not yet done; the mission of Friends is not accomplished, and will not be until this world of ours, now full of sin and suffering, shall take up, in jubilant thanksgiving, the song of the Advent: "Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth and good-will to men!"

It is charged that our Society lacks freedom and adaptation to the age in which we live, that there is a repression of individuality and manliness among us. I am not prepared to deny it in certain respects. But, if we look at the matter closely, we shall see that the cause is not in the central truth of Quakerism, but in a failure to rightly comprehend it; in an attempt to fetter with forms and hedge about with dogmas that great law of Christian liberty, which I believe affords ample scope for the highest spiritual aspirations and the broadest philanthropy. If we did but realize it, we are "set in a large place."

"We may do all we will save wickedness."

"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."

Quakerism, in the light of its great original truth, is "exceeding broad." As interpreted by Penn and Barclay it is the most liberal and catholic of faiths. If we are not free, generous, tolerant, if we are not up to or above the level of the age in good works, in culture and love of beauty, order and fitness, if we are not the ready recipients of the truths of science and philosophy,--in a word, if we are not full- grown men and Christians, the fault is not in Quakerism, but in ourselves. We shall gain nothing by aping the customs and trying to adjust ourselves to the creeds of other sects. By so doing we make at the best a very awkward combination, and just as far as it is successful, it is at the expense of much that is vital in our old faith. If, for instance, I could bring myself to believe a hired ministry and a written creed essential to my moral and spiritual well-being, I think I should prefer to sit down at once under such teachers as Bushnell and Beecher, the like of whom in Biblical knowledge, ecclesiastical learning, and intellectual power, we are not likely to manufacture by half a century of theological manipulation in a Quaker "school of the prophets." If I must go into the market and buy my preaching, I should naturally seek the best article on sale, without regard to the label attached to it.

I am not insensible of the need of spiritual renovation in our Society. I feel and confess my own deficiencies as an individual member. And I bear a willing testimony to the zeal and devotion of some dear friends, who, lamenting the low condition and worldliness too apparent among us, seek to awaken a stronger religious life by the partial adoption of the practices, forms, and creeds of more demonstrative sects. The great apparent activity of these sects seems to them to contrast very strongly with our quietness and reticence; and they do not always pause to inquire whether the result of this activity is a truer type of practical Christianity than is found in our select gatherings. I think I understand these brethren; to some extent I have sympathized with them. But it seems clear to me, that a remedy for the alleged evil lies not in going back to the "beggarly elements" from which our worthy ancestors called the people of their generation; not in will-worship; not in setting the letter above the spirit; not in substituting type and symbol, and oriental figure and hyperbole for the simple truths they were intended to represent; not in schools of theology; not in much speaking and noise and vehemence, nor in vain attempts to make the "plain language" of Quakerism utter the Shibboleth of man-made creeds: but in heeding more closely the Inward Guide and Teacher; in faith in Christ not merely in His historical manifestation of the Divine Love to humanity, but in His living presence in the hearts open to receive Him; in love for Him manifested in denial of self, in charity and love to our neighbor; and in a deeper realization of the truth of the apostle's declaration: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."

In conclusion, let me say that I have given this expression of my opinions with some degree of hesitation, being very sensible that I have neither the right nor the qualification to speak for a society whose doctrines and testimonies commend themselves to my heart and head, whose history is rich with the precious legacy of holy lives, and of whose usefulness as a moral and spiritual Force in the world I am fully assured.

II.

Having received several letters from dear friends in various sections suggested by a recent communication in thy paper, and not having time or health to answer them in detail, will thou permit me in this way to acknowledge them, and to say to the writers that I am deeply sensible of the Christian love and personal good-will to myself, which, whether in commendation or dissent, they manifest? I think I may say in truth that my letter was written in no sectarian or party spirit, but simply to express a solicitude, which, whether groundless or not, was nevertheless real. I am, from principle, disinclined to doctrinal disputations and so-called religious controversies, which only tend to separate and disunite. We have had too many divisions already. I intended no censure of dear brethren whose zeal and devotion command my sympathy, notwithstanding I may not be able to see with them in all respects. The domain of individual conscience is to me very sacred; and it seems the part of Christian charity to make a large allowance for varying experiences; mental characteristics, and temperaments, as well as for that youthful enthusiasm which, if sometimes misdirected, has often been instrumental in infusing a fresher life into the body of religious profession. It is too much to expect that we can maintain an entire uniformity in the expression of truths in which we substantially agree; and we should be careful that a rightful concern for "the form of sound words" does not become what William Penn calls "verbal orthodoxy." We must consider that the same accepted truth looks somewhat differently from different points of vision. Knowing our own weaknesses and limitations, we must bear in mind that human creeds, speculations, expositions, and interpretations of the Divine plan are but the faint and feeble glimpses of finite creatures into the infinite mysteries of God.

"They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they."

Differing, as we do, more or less as to means and methods, if we indeed have the "mind of Christ," we shall rejoice in whatever of good is really accomplished, although by somewhat different instrumentalities than those which we feel ourselves free to make use of, remembering that our Lord rebuked the narrowness and partisanship of His disciples by assuring them that they that were not against Him were for Him.

It would, nevertheless, give me great satisfaction to know, as thy kindly expressed editorial comments seem to intimate, that I have somewhat overestimated the tendencies of things in our Society. I have no pride of opinion which would prevent me from confessing with thankfulness my error of judgment. In any event, it can, I think, do no harm to repeat my deep conviction that we may all labor, in the ability given us, for our own moral and spiritual well-being, and that of our fellow-creatures, without laying aside the principles and practice of our religious Society. I believe so much of liberty is our right as well as our privilege, and that we need not really overstep our bounds for the performance of any duty which may be required of us. When truly called to contemplate broader fields of labor, we shall find the walls about us, like the horizon seen from higher levels, expanding indeed, but nowhere broken.

I believe that the world needs the Society of Friends as a testimony and a standard. I know that this is the opinion of some of the best and most thoughtful members of other Christian sects. I know that any serious departure from the original foundation of our Society would give pain to many who, outside of our communion, deeply realize the importance of our testimonies. They fail to read clearly the signs of the times who do not see that the hour is coming when, under the searching eye of philosophy and the terrible analysis of science, the letter and the outward evidence will not altogether avail us; when the surest dependence must be upon the Light of Christ within, disclosing the law and the prophets in our own souls, and confirming the truth of outward Scripture by inward experience; when smooth stones from the brook of present revelation shall' prove mightier than the weapons of Saul; when the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, as proclaimed by George Fox and lived by John Woolman, shall be recognized as the only efficient solvent of doubts raised by an age of restless inquiry. In this belief my letter was written. I am sorry it did not fall to the lot of a more fitting hand; and can only hope that no consideration of lack of qualification on the part of its writer may lessen the value of whatever testimony to truth shall be found in it.

AMESBURY, 3d mo., 1870.

P. S. I may mention that I have been somewhat encouraged by a perusal of the Proceedings of the late First-day School Conference in Philadelphia, where, with some things which I am compelled to pause over, and regret, I find much with which I cordially unite, and which seems to indicate a providential opening for good. I confess to a lively and tender sympathy with my younger brethren and sisters who, in the name of Him who "went about doing good," go forth into the highways and byways to gather up the lost, feed the hungry, instruct the ignorant, and point the sinsick and suffering to the hopes and consolations of Christian faith, even if, at times, their zeal goes beyond "reasonable service," and although the importance of a particular instrumentality may be exaggerated, and love lose sight of its needful companion humility, and he that putteth on his armor boast like him who layeth it off. Any movement, however irregular, which indicates life, is better than the quiet of death. In the overruling providence of God, the troubling may prepare the way for healing. Some of us may have erred on one hand and some on the other, and this shaking of the balance may adjust it.

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