Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Way of a Ship in the Sea

The Quaker movement grew out of the chaos and confusion of the English civil war. During the 1640s, a rigidly ordered and tightly controlled society broke down under the pressure of war. The strict system of censorship and religious conformity collapsed and society splintered into a multitude of competing sects and opinions on political and religious questions.

Some of these dissidents from the established Church broke away to form groups of ‘Seekers’ who met in each others’ homes in expectant, silent gatherings, waiting for a new revelation of God’s purposes for them and their society. These were people living in a ‘world turned upside down’ by war, social and religious confusion, and political revolution. All stable and unquestioned beliefs and assumptions, from the authority of the King and Church to the roles of women and common people, had been thrown up in the air, and were landing in every possible direction.

Early Quaker leaders such as George Fox had been deeply shaken by this experience of moral and spiritual chaos. What they discovered, and what transformed the scattered groups of Seekers into the first Quaker communities, was that there was no set of beliefs, adopted on the basis of external authority, that could provide authentic meaning, purpose and direction. They discovered for themselves a source of inward guidance that they identified as the same inner Spirit of Truth that had been in Christ and the Biblical prophets. These original Quakers found that their Teacher was within, and could be encountered directly through the practice of gathered, attentive stillness that became the basis of Quaker worship.

While the western religious tradition for over a thousand years had focused on correct belief as the path to right relationship with God, these early Quaker communities discovered that beliefs were not the answer - not even a belief in the ‘Inward Teacher’. Instead, it was only the direct experience of this Inward Guide that could help them, and the way to this experience of divine encounter was not by new beliefs or opinions but a new practice, a way of worship they called ‘waiting in the Light’.

In our own times, many people are responding to the disorientating experience of radical insecurity and the absence of shared cultural stories by looking to external sources of authority. The renewed appeal of authoritarian political leaders, fundamentalist religion and dogmatic ideology grows out of legitimate unmet needs for belonging, meaning and purpose.

The Quaker way offers an alternative path of collective practices for encountering an inward source of guidance and meaning. This way of Quaker practice does not provide ‘answers’ to life’s problems and dilemmas in the form of statements of belief or reliance on authority. Sustained participation in Quaker practices of worship, discernment and testimony gradually shapes our experience so that we become able to perceive aspects of ourselves and the world that were formerly hidden from us. Instead of spurious formulas for evading the human condition of insecurity and uncertainty, the Quaker way offers a gradual process of letting go of masks, a growing recognition of of the reality of oneself and others.

Some Friends, through the maturity of long experience, have been able to let go of any need to defend an illusory identity, to pretend, to please or impress anyone. Through their years of practice, they have become familiar with their own darkness and with the seeds of life and human sympathy within themselves, and deeply perceptive of the presence and activity of those seeds in others.

This is not a learned conformity to a pattern of predictable ‘Quakerliness’. It is the cultivation of habits, choices and capacities that enables each of us to grow into an inner maturity, and to realise our own path in life, as a unique personality that does not need to model itself according to any outward convention.

From the earliest days of the Quaker movement, Friends aimed to avoid setting up outward standards of conformity. They wanted to encourage the freedom of future generations to discover the reality of the Inward Guide for themselves, through their own experience of Quaker practice. They wrote of their intention “that no footsteps may be left for those that shall come after, or to walk by example, but that all may be directed and left to the truth, in it to live and walk, and by it to be guided… that our path may be as the way of a ship in the sea, which no deceit can follow or imitate.” (Friends met together at Durham, 1659)

Have you experienced the presence of the 'Inward Guide' in your life? What practices help you to become more perceptive and response to the inward 'promptings of love and truth'?


  1. In reading through Fox's Journal, I have never had a sense that his early troubles arose from the chaos of civil war and the breakdown of the ecclesiastical structure of the Church of England. I am wondering what additional information you have access to that links those early struggles to the outward chaos at that time?

    I also see this sentence, "They discovered for themselves a source of inward guidance that they identified as the same inner Spirit of Truth that had been in Christ and the Biblical prophets." If you read Fox's Journal, you can't help but notice that Fox states over and again that Christ himself is the inward teacher, not "the same inner Spirit of Truth that had been in Christ." See page 74 of Vol. 1 of the Works, the passage containing the celebrated line, "then, Oh! then I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.'" But do not stop with that phrase, but keep reading and you will see the centrality of Christ's presence. See Fox's account of his commission beginning on the bottom of page 89, and see Fox's sermon at Firbank fell beginning on the bottom of page 142 for example.

    It may be that people find these non-specific terms such as "the Spirit", "the Light, the Inward Teacher, or the Inward Guide to be less objectionable than refering to Jesus Christ. But for Fox and the early Quakers, these terms were inseperable from Christ himself. When you write about these concepts, as though they had a life of their own, how can you call this the "Quaker way." The "Quaker way" never divorced these terms from the immediate and intimate association with Jesus Christ himself. Read Edward Burrough's introduction to Vol. 3 of the Works of Fox. I find that people prefer these disembodied terms because they are more comfortable, yet the Quaker experience began in the fire of inward, direct encounter with Christ, who alone is the sure guide in the trackless sea. Stephen Crisp stood up to leave meeting because it was hopeless to control his wandering mind. The voice of the Lord thundered within him, "That which grows weary of waiting must die." Margaret Fell was so struck by the convicting power of Jesus Christ that she cried in her spirit, "We are thieves, we are thieves..." These are not comfortable beginnings. But they did not obtain life by way of comfortable beginnings. And neither have I.

    1. The use of 'Christ' by the early Friends was sometimes confusing. Sometimes they meant Jesus and other times the Christ within Jesus, as this Inward Light (Seed, Kingdom of God) was in 'all people on the Earth'. Always we need to acknowledge that the central core of the early Quakers, as with Jesus, was the Kingdom. They gave the Kingdom quite a number of names such as the Inward Light. Modern Friends, along with Quaker historians continue to make the mistake of disassociating the early Friends' understanding of the Kingdom from their understanding of the Inward Light of the Christ.

    2. Hello Gerard. I just now noticed your response. If I am not too late to ask, I am wondering if you can point me to instances where Fox would have made a distinction between Jesus and the Christ within Jesus? I know you referred to "early Friends", but most of what I have available is Fox. I can't say I have run across such a distinction in either Fox, Crisp, George Fox the younger, Barclay's Apology (modern English version), or the bits of Penington I have. If it is something I have available, I would like to see where you are getting this sense of separation.

      Thanks, Ellis Hein

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  2. Friend Craig, Thanks so much for this. I have shared portions of it on Facebook.

    Mike Shell

  3. Friend Craig, thank you. You describe perfectly the turmoil taking place in church and state (one and the same at that time in GB). I would encourage Woodturnedart to consider that the newly translated Bible was commonly the only book in a household (5% of the population could read). Thus the Bible’s contents provided common terminology. Fox quite boldly moved the external to the internal.
    Lyn Cope


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)