Paul Buckley's Overview of Early Quakerism
Thursday, April 19, 2007 at 07:00AM
Marshall Massey in Iowa (Conservative)

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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