Early Quakers as mystics

Elizabeth Brown reflects on a series of workshops held in London that explored the living encounters of early Quakers with the spirit of God

George Fox reading a Bible under a tree, by Robert Spence | Photo: Image: © Religious Society of Friends in Britain

Give over thine own willing. Give over thine own running. Give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart, and let that be in thee, and grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt know by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion.  - Isaac Penington

What is a mystic? It is someone who desires to know and live in the Divine presence at all times. The contemplative life is one of unceasing prayer. Patricia Loring, in the first volume of Listening Spirituality, writes that it is a will to ‘a yieldedness to that which is, to that which is given, to whatever is required of us; to wait on what God gives us to do; to trust in an unknowable reality and presence…to rest in the Lord’ at all times.

George Fox

In a series of workshops at Friends House, in London, in late 2011 Friends were challenged to consider whether early Friends were mystics. Rex Ambler led our thinking about George Fox. He was one on a quest in search of Truth for himself, as ‘truth is still in darkness undiscovered’ and what is pure or ‘that of God’ in us, not taking another’s word but seeking inner revelation as to who he was inwardly in relation to God. Fox experienced times of unknowing and despair as well as times of upliftment and joy. He grew to ‘walk with’ God on the mountain of the Spirit as well as, at times, knowing the ‘valley of death’. He believed that we all have our Divine teacher within us who will guide us, provided that we listen to that teacher and not be distracted by the world. He spoke of ‘minding the Light’ of God that refreshes and gives one experience of God’s love. He knew Christ Jesus within himself, as we all can. I believe that George Fox was a mystic.

William Penn

Thomas Swain, of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, considered William Penn. William was ‘a true minister of Christ’ in that he preached the teachings of the scriptures and reported what he had personally ‘heard, seen or touched’ of God’s mercy and God’s power and goodness in his soul. He spoke of an ‘inner anointing’ by Spirit that was available to all who sought it. Penn taught that true ministry comes not from the speaker but by inspiration from the Spirit of Christ to those acting as oracles of God.

William Penn was a great teacher and guide to Quakers. He taught them how they should live and how to use their wealth if they had it. In his ‘Holy Experiment’, when he tried to create a peaceful state in Pennsylvania, he envisioned, as near perfect, a human state of living side by side with Indians and others, in peace and harmony. Unfortunately, in time, human frailty spoiled this experiment, but it was a bold vision and a worthy enterprise. Penn was a great and inspirational teacher.

Quaker women

Elaine Hobby led our thinking about some of the Quaker women of the seventeenth century. They suffered as women did, of that time, who had no legal rights but were regarded as vessels and property of the menfolk. There is good evidence to suggest that they also suffered persecution and imprisonment, alongside the men, for breaking away from the church teaching of the time and becoming Quakers. They experienced torture, imprisonment and the confiscation of goods (if they were owners of a farm, in widowhood) as did the men.

Lynn Morris enacted a glimpse of the life of Elizabeth Hooton, who was a spirited, outspoken advocate of her experience of the Divine Spirit within her. She was also very practical. She proved a great support to George Fox at the beginning of the Quaker movement. Elizabeth also became a travelling Quaker minister and was firm in her convincement of how to act. She met with Cromwell and Charles II in an effort to achieve leniency of treatment for Quakers.

The Quaker women that we learned about, like Hester Biddle, were travelling ministers and missionaries. Many were married with children but left them to travel abroad. At times they suffered imprisonment and were ‘much beaten and abused’. They spoke out about the injustices of the time and were ‘filled with the Spirit’ and with ‘the Light in their consciences’, which led them to spread this teaching to whomever they met. It is hard to tell whether they could be considered mystics. They certainly experienced ‘the fire of the Spirit’. Elizabeth Hooton seemed to ‘walk with God’ in all she did. She was portrayed as one consumed by the Spirit, which I imagine would be the experience of a mystic.

Isaac Penington

Rosemary Moore led us to consider Isaac Penington, who had been religious from youth but then experienced the mystery of God, truly, once he became a convinced Quaker. He wrote eleven books of depth and inspiration. He had an ‘awakening’ experience, which led him to want ‘to swim in The Life’ of Spirit.

Early Quakers were seen as ‘a peculiar people’ at a time when, despite government promises, there was no religious tolerance. Quakers and Catholics were persecuted.

Isaac printed contentious material and encouraged the reader, like George Fox, to know one’s inner teacher. This was not a popular teaching for the ministers of the church. He counselled that ‘time is needed to discern the voice of the Shepherd’. He believed in seeking the guidance of Spirit in all dealings with others, be they wife or neighbour, and advocated avoiding ‘hardness of spirit or hard reasoning’. If he felt that he had acted, or said something, too hastily he could not forgive himself. He set himself a high standard.

Isaac was not interested in practical affairs, but only in affairs of the heart, mind and spirit as they served the Lord. He was an inspirational pastor and was greatly loved by his fellow worshippers. He spent long periods in prison and, like George Fox, suffered depression. However, he wrote in great depth despite feeling, at times, that God had forsaken him. The ‘dark night of the soul’ is considered by many as a common stage for a seeker on the spiritual journey. Isaac’s father, also Isaac, died in the Tower of London as one who had supported the beheading of Charles I. This may have contributed to Isaac’s feeling that a cloud of doom lay over him. Isaac wrote letters of ‘wise counsel’ throughout his life, advocating that his fellows cease to be ‘too worldly’. I feel that he portrayed all the aspects of a mystic. He was firm in his union with God and wished to detach himself from being seduced by the world of mammon. All these early Quakers were presented as inspirational, mystics or otherwise! What is your understanding?

The series of workshops was organised by The Kindlers.

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