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Paul Buckley's Overview of Early Quakerism

Posted on Thursday, April 19, 2007 at 07:00AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in | Comments7 Comments

ew cameo.jpgIt was nine in the morning, Sunday, when Paul Buckley began the final part of his presentation. Alas, I’d overslept — I was more exhausted than I thought! — and didn’t arrive until half an hour later. So, much to my regret, I missed the first third of his presentation.

While I was actually there to hear him, Paul did not explicitly address the topic of the previous day. (I had been forewarned of this, as I mentioned in a previous posting to this journal.) Instead, he spoke of early Quakerism — one of my own favorite topics!

As I tiptoed in, Paul was describing the seventeenth-century Puritan understanding of salvation — which emphasized the doctrines of total depravity, predestination, and substitutionary atonement — and contrasting it with the dominant Protestant understanding of salvation today, which puts more emphasis on the doctrine of salvation by faith alone (“sola fide”), with God then “agreeing to look the other way and not notice our sins”.

Paul repeated the standard Quaker criticism of the first position, and extended it to the second as well: both positions get used as ways of excusing our own continued sinning. And he contrasted both these positions with the early Quaker understanding of salvation, which involves a confidence that people can leave sin totally behind, through a three-step process of “conviction, convincement and conversion”.

Paul then discussed the early Quaker doctrine of perfection. He noted that, for the early Friends, “perfection” did not mean never making a mistake; it meant abstaining altogether from sinning. And he suggested that the New Testament word for “perfection” can be rendered in English as “acting your age”: “if you’re a two-year-old, be a perfect two-year-old (you don’t have to be a perfect adult); if you’re a thirty-year-old, be a perfect thirty-year-old (you don’t have to be a perfect two-year-old)”.

Now, I’m not sure I can agree with every bit of this. As I understand it, the dominant Protestant understanding today involves God forgiving our sins, not God agreeing not to notice them. And the words “conviction” and “convincement” were synonyms all through the seventeenth century, both of them meaning what Paul meant by “conviction”.

But these are tangents. I think Paul got the essentials of early Quakerism just fine. And the fine thing was that he was saying those essentials. He spoke of how the early Friends saw that perfection — in their special sense — is attainable, and of how they saw that we can and must strive to attain it. In this he was teaching a message that I feel is greatly needed by our Society nowadays.

Then Paul turned to the political aspects of early Quakerism: how it involved a challenge to the powers of the priests and the military. He asserted that the “Declaration of 1660” declared revolutionary goals, particularly in its statement that, “…as for the kingdoms of this world, we cannot covet them, much less can we fight for them, but we do earnestly desire … that by the Word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men, the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord….

That is not how I myself understand those words, I’m afraid; I think the evidence is fairly clear that Friends were talking not about the overthrow of the kingdoms of the world, but about the kingdoms being drawn into obedience to Christ, as per the apostle’s words to the Colossians. (Colossians 1:20, in the context of the preceding five verses.) — But perhaps this too is a tangent?

Anyway, at the end of his talk, Paul said something quite interesting about the familiar twentieth-century list of testimonies (Simplicity, Integrity, Peace, etc.): he said that for Friends, these are not virtues but instincts, not lists of conscious goals but natural ways of being. I myself have often said something similar, but Paul’s way of putting it delighted me; I felt it was quite the best I’ve heard so far. I do wonder how the other Friends in that room felt about it.

Even though I didn’t hear Paul explicitly relating all these ideas to the issues of fear that we’d discussed the previous day, I do see a clear relationship. The Quaker approach to salvation, through convincement, conversion and perfection, drives out many of the personal fears that dog non-Friends, although there are other fears it cannot remedy. (The Quaker approach to community, which Paul did not talk about, addresses many of the remaining personal fears. But that is a topic for another day.)

And the Quaker challenge to the secular Powers is a very healthy reply to the collective fears that those Powers cultivate in us in order to keep us subjugated — fears of terrorists, fears of being unfashionable, etc.

You know, friends — it’s always a pleasure to me to hear the insights of early Friends being re-articulated in our meetings. I believe these ideas were sources of strength and inspiration for the early Quaker movement, sources given to the movement by the Guide, and I believe that they have a continuing promise today.

And it weighs on my heart and mind that the modern Quaker environmental movement has made so little use of these insights. I think there is much there that we ought to be exploring. The Quaker doctrine of perfection, for example: what was exciting about it, for early Friends, was that they heard it, not so much as a criticism of their present condition, but far more as an invitation, an opening door to a wonderful possibility. What happens when we look at the present-day environmental crisis in the light of the doctrine of perfection, and consider the open door before us there?

I find myself asking such questions again and again —

Well, we concluded our morning with meeting for worship, and then broke for lunch, where I had a very good conversation with Friend Marion Love. It turns out she’s been thinking a lot about “Convergent Friends”, the present state of our Society, and its prospects for the future. And she’s working hard on being part of the solution. It was a wonderfully upbeat end to the meeting, and I carried it like a song on my way homeward.

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Reader Comments (7)

It was the doctrine of perfectibility that drew me to Friends back in 1982 through reading a book of Early Quaker excerpts called "The Quaker Reader" (Jessmyn West -- I think). After I had hung out with Friends for a few months I realized that wasn't a part of the Quakerism I had found in 20th century Toronto. But by then I was pretty much hooked. I'm glad there's folks still keeping the flame alive even if they aren't close enough geographically to hang out with semi-regularly.

Apr 26, 2007 at 04:37PM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

Marshall, it sounds like it was an excellent talk overall, but it does seem like he made a real misstatement in calling the 1660 Declaration a declaration of "revolutionary goals." There is an element of spiritually revolutionary goals, which you point out, but this is in direct contrast with the main object of the declaration, which was to assure the government that Friends would *not* be politically revolutionary -- the exact opposite of what it sounds like Paul said.

Apr 26, 2007 at 05:29PM | Unregistered CommenterZach A

david, I believe the doctrine of perfection remains important to many Friends, at least in the unprogrammed world. (I haven't tested it on pastoral Friends.) At least, I've noticed that when I've spoken in the ministry about perfection, it has drawn positive comments afterwards.

I think it's important to understand that, among Friends, this is a doctrine one applies first and foremost, strenuously, to oneself, and only afterwards, gently and compassionately, to anyone else.

Zach, I'm glad to learn that you see the "Declaration" the same way I do.

My thanks to both of you for your comments here.

Apr 29, 2007 at 07:51AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Marshall, I love reading your 'words of wisdom' - I'm a very new, raw blogger (despite having worked in computers way back in the 60s!) - I've tried to post comments before but I seemed to get my password wrong or something - let's see if this one works.

Apr 29, 2007 at 01:17PM | Unregistered CommenterAlifrance

Hello, Alifrance!

You don't need a password to post a comment here. And as you can see, your comment appeared on this page without difficulty.

If you encounter further problems, please feel free to write me personally and ask for help. Use the "e-mail me" button on the control panel at the left side of this web site.

May 1, 2007 at 06:46AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Sorry to join this a little late, but I want to comment that I think you, Marshall, and Zach are missing the point about the revolutionary character of the Declaration. (I don't know for sure that this was Paul Buckley's point, but it is the one I see):

The Declaration is indeed a revolutionary statement not because it proposed the overthrow of the kingdoms of the world (it clearly does not propose that), but because it disclaimed any interest in the kingdoms of the world at all, thus undermining the kingdoms' foundation and provoking their deepest fear. The Declaration therefore didn't so much challenge the legitimacy of the world's kingdoms as it did their sovereignty.

For the kingdoms of the world -- the principalities and powers -- mere obedience is not enough; they demand worship. Nebuchadnezzar didn't throw Daniel and the others in the lion's den or the fiery furnace because they drove on the wrong side of the street or didn't pay their taxes or shoplifted, it was because they would not acknowledge him as sovereign -- even symbolically -- by bowing to him.

So when the Friends declared that they didn't "covet" the kingdoms of the world, that there was a King greater than Charles to whom they owed allegiance, they made a statement that profoundly subverted the political paradigm.

Of course, the immediate purpose of the Declaration was not necessarily so obvious, to either the Friends or Charles -- the Quakers simply wanted to be left alone and not be punished for political crimes they did not commit.

But the persecutions that followed exposed that the Friends' testimony was not as harmless to the state as they might have thought. The Quakers' insistance on meeting for worship in public meetings (and in groups of more than five), for example, wasn't because they were planning to overthrow the King, and the king and his men knew it. What Charles (and all earthly princes who preceded and have followed him) couldn't tolerate was a People in the midst whose ultimate loyalty was to another King, and who, in loyalty to this other king, did things that the earthly king told them not to do, even when the forbidden act was innocuous. It was the principle of the thing, really.

The Friends' inability to be deterred into civil obedience by horrific physical and runious economic punishment undermined the ultimate authority of the king, the fear of death, and exposed him to the judgment of the Heavenly King, the one thing no earthly authority can stand.

The kind of world that the Quakers envisioned, where the government operated only within its divinely ordained realm (essentially, to maintain civil order, protecting the righteous and the weak and restraining the wicked and the powerful) and did not make claims outside of that realm was therefore a profound challenge to the state's demand of total allegiance, a challenge the state may have realized more fully than the Quakers did at the time.

May 16, 2007 at 10:55AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Oops, That should have been signed Paul L.

May 16, 2007 at 10:56AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul L

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