STREAMS OF SEEKING IN FAITH

In the historical overview that forms the core of Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience, Douglas Gwyn casts his net wider than the circles in northern England of the mid-1600s who formed what we’ve come to know as the Seekers. What he traces is a broad undercurrent of radical faith from the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, an alternative Christianity in which an Indwelling Christ or Inward Light is to some degree acknowledged and which, in turn, leads to rejection of many or all outward sacraments or ritual in worship. It turns out to be far more widespread before the Quaker movement emerged and gave it distinctive voice than I’d previously seen.

Frankly, as he focuses on seminal figures who advanced this thinking, I’m amazed that his brain didn’t simply explode. Remember, he’s following not just one person but many, all with flashes of nuance and insight that begin to overlap and also to diverge. Nothing is static.

Of course, we face similar problems looking at the counterculture movements of our own time. Just who, for starters, would we look to as voices of hippie thought and lifestyle?

When Gwyn remarks that “many of the Seekers-turning-Quakers … started out as hyper-Puritans whose idealistic moral absolutism made them unbearable to themselves and to those around them,” I feel an echo in my own hippie passage. Many of us seemed to be doing something similar. My, could we be intense! (That, along with the emphasis on “mellow.” Go figure.)

It also has me wondering about the spiritual starting point for many of the teens and young adults in our wider society today. Just where would deep conversation and inner growth begin? What are the driving forces in their lives?

Historically, the focus on events in England also leaves me sensing a gap in awareness of the radical advances in New England from the 1630s, exemplified in Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and Samuel Gorton, as they prefigured those in England in the 1640s. I’m not faulting Gwyn here, since his thesis is on the forerunners and emergence of the Quaker movement, but it is a topic ripe for exploration. Let me suggest John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (Penguin, 2012) as a starting point. The New Englanders, quite simply, seem to be ahead of their Old World compatriots. Maybe the British court records present a fuller picture, but until the end of censorship in 1642, we seem to have little else to go on.

It’s all a potent mix. When the first Quakers came to New England, they found fertile ground.

What Quakers added, according to Gwyn, was a means of putting that seeking into action within daily lives. It was a matter he views as apocalypse. Somehow, our hippie adventures never got that far, which leads to a whole new set of considerations.

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down. You’re welcome to take a look.

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10 thoughts on “STREAMS OF SEEKING IN FAITH

  1. I loved reading this book as part of my research for A CERTAIN MEASURE OF PERFECTION.
    His division into ‘Seeker A’ and ‘Seeker B’ types with the distinction focusing upon whether God would wish to take believers back to the original Church which had been so easily corrupted or not was really interesting. But i think there were also marked geographical variations.
    It’s a brilliant source for the likes of Erbury or Boyes.

    • Fascinating material in your link. Thanks!
      The New England connections are especially interesting to me, especially when developments here seem to be running ahead of those in England or at least independently. Here in New Hampshire, the first organized church has a skirmish in 1634 over the selection of the new pastor — one side hewing to the preordination tenet, the other antinomian, which lost that round but likely rallied around the Quakers 25 years later.

      • Indeed. And some of the interlinkages are striking

        Mary Dyer, having emigrated to the New World, came back to England on a trip in 1652 during which time she heard George Fox and became a Quaker convert. She would later be famously hanged for her beliefs in New England on 1 June 1660. She was traditionally assumed to have been the daughter of Lady Arabella Stuart and Sir William Seymour but that this seems to be complete fallacy with no grounding in reality. The 1652 date suggests that she could only have heard Fox in the North. However, she might genuinely have heard Peter Shaw in London at an early stage due to her physical proximity to the locations in which he was preaching.

        Thomas Shepard claimed to have been drawn to the ‘Grindletonian variant’ of Antinomianism at one point in his life – see Bozeman. Nevertheless, he was a man who still managed to see Cartwright as “the burning and shining light” and was to become a significant enemy of Antinomianism in the New World.

        Martha Collins: a prospective member of Shepard’s New England congregation acknowledged in 1640 that she had had former contact with Peter Shaw.

        William Dyer (1609 – sometime before 1677 and who married Mary Barrett ‘Dyer’ above in 1633): one of the most radical members of the First Church of 1636-1638, had been apprenticed at St. Michael’s Crooked Lane whilst Shaw preached from its pulpit. For more on this, see M. P. Whinship – ‘Making heretics; militant Protestantism and free grace in Massachusetts, 1636 – 1641’ (2002).

        In my opinion, Whinship makes rather a lot of this and his work is full of factual errors. Dyer was originally from Lincolnshire and was apprenticed in 1625 to Walter Blackborne, fishmonger. During his time in New England, he was taxed back in England as a member of the Company of Fishmongers, in spite of nominally having worked as milliner. He was very involved in the Portsmouth Compact to establish a non-sectarian government. His oldest surviving son married Anne Hutchinson’s grandchild, also called Anne Hutchinson. Indeed, the two families may have had connections back in Lincolnshire prior to initial emigration.

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