Within the turbulent middle seventeenth century in England, a new religious movement emerged. They called themselves Children of the Light, but their detractors called them Quakers, because of the way they trembled and quaked with enthusiasm as they prayed.
The movement’s founder, George Fox, had been a restless seeker, given to solitary, thoughtful contemplation of scripture and serious conversation with religious leaders. Dissatisfied with the Church of England’s insistence that clergy who studied at Oxford and Cambridge were therefore necessarily prepared for their duties, Fox wandered the country trying to find, among the radical preachers who had separated from the Church of England, one who could address his spiritual need.
Being educated didn’t guarantee spiritual authenticity. Being enthusiastic or critical of the established religious order didn’t make one holy, either. As he writes in his Journal, Fox was ready to give up on finding anyone, any priest or preacher, who could speak to his condition:
“And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.’ And when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”
The direct experience of the Living Christ was not only possible, but it trumped all other ways of experiencing the presence of God. No priest or ceremony or sacrament or prayer book or scripture could adequately convey God’s presence compared to this direct encounter. George Fox proclaimed, “Christ has come to teach His people himself.” Christ was present as an inward reality, incarnate within every person. The Living Christ was a light within and among people who sought him out. Jesus says of himself in the gospel of John:
“Yet a little while is the light with you. While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light.” (John 12:35-36)
The fundamental authority and organizing principle of these Children of the Light, or Friends of the Light, was the direct inward encounter with God’s living presence. Revelation was ongoing and immanent. The still small voice of God could be heard by anyone with ears to hear. The Voice, the Word of God, is found in the silence.
These Quakers created formless or unprogrammed worship that cultivated this listening, inward attention. Worship was the unmediated encounter with God. Another radical dissenting religious group in England familiar to George Fox was known as the Seekers. They would gather together in silence until the Spirit gave the preacher words to convey to the congregation.
Among Quakers, worshippers remained in silence until the Spirit gave anybody present, not just the minister, something to say. There was no program of scripture reading or hymn singing or congregational prayer or pastoral preaching, simply the expectant silence of the gathered faithful waiting and listening for the voice of God.
In addition to worship, the direct encounter with the Inward Light, shaped the way the Quakers conducted themselves as a group and in the world. Church business was based on the principle of corporate direct guidance. Meetings for business were like meetings for worship in which participants waited for the promptings and leadings of the Spirit.
George Fox advised his followers “to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” There was something “of God” in every person. Quakers pointed out that in John’s gospel Jesus is described as the true Light that “lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (John 1:9) Every person had access to this light. People bore this light within themselves. And if this was true, and if God’s revelation could be directly given to anybody, then everybody was equal. Every person was to be cherished as a potential vehicle for the will of God, every person was to be valued as a possible instrument for the voice of God.
War, the division of people into lesser and higher races, inequalities because of class or gender, were all rejected in light of this view that every person held within them something of God, a divine Inner Light. This affirmation led to Quaker testimonies for peacemaking and abolition of slavery and women’s equality.
In many of these endeavors, American Quakers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were joined by Universalists and Unitarians. These were the primary religious groups in North America that promoted the theological and spiritual idea that people were vessels of the divine, that people bore a resemblance to God, that human individuals were essentially good.
The mythic narratives of Inward Light and divine image informed a worldview that held the human person in high esteem, as distinct from majority religious groups that had a much more pessimistic view of humanity. In the majority culture, people were sinful and defective, views that were informed by narratives of an angry, punishing deity who stood in judgment of the world.
What sacred story do we tell today that guides and reinforces our principled living?