Sunday, October 7, 2012
Early Friends in context
This was written in response to the first week's assignment in an online course from Beacon House Friends in their Quaker Studies Program. The course is titled "Early Friends and Ministry" and is led by Marty Grundy.
The early Friends lived in a time that was very revolutionary on several levels. In my understanding of the mid to late 1600s not only was there a revolution in power and authority at the governmental level, there was also a true revolution in the world view. Descartes and Galileo were not English but there ideas were available and probably known to some of the early Friends. Francis Bacon’s “methods” also would have been known and Isaac Newton was a contemporary in time and space with the early Friends. For me the ideas that the earth was not the center of the universe and was revolving were in some way influential in the Cromwellian revolution and In the religious turmoil of that time. The church’s claim to be the center and holder of the “keys” to the universe were shaken and almost any authority in religion and politics was under question.
This is reflected in three expressions; two are quotes from George Fox. “Christ has come to teach his people himself,” and “This I knew experimentally.” The third is that Christ has come in all his offices. (Note that I use the male pronoun as they did, but I believe that the early Friends went beyond gender and would welcome a non-gender concept of “Christ”) I believe that Fox used “experimentally” knowing the term as different from “experientially.” I also think that Fox was aware of the mystic view and was aware of some of the European mystics and their writings but chose his words intentionally. Thus the Light/Christ is not so much for an individual to experience and independently determine what or who has authority and what their responsibility is, but is a teacher whose lessons are to be tested and validated by others who are listening as well. This did not negate the powerful experiences that early Friends had but rather gave even more strength to individual efforts. The paradox of having individual experience from a teacher as the authority and sharing this with others to test and try for themselves was evident in early Friends. The “silent waiting” in Meeting to listen to the authority was balanced with the responsibility to question the authority imposed on others.
This was further developed by the insistence that Christ was Prophet, Priest, King, etc. not just in historical or future terms but in the here and now. As Priest there was no need for intermediaries such as individuals, rituals, or forms, or even a book. As King there was no need to look for a future kingdom nor for any earthly authority to supersede that of Christ.