For much of its existence, the Society of Friends has embodied a peaceful, respectable, even restrained way of life. Not so the earliest decades, when the economy, political structure, religion, communities, and families throughout Britain were all in chaotic upheaval. As Quakers emerged in the tumult, they coalesced many of the more radical elements as movement after movement broke up under the pressures and changing conditions.
As many observers have noted, the early Quaker message was that this was a time of apocalypse – the ultimate victory of good over evil was at hand, making way for the Second Coming of Christ. In battles of such magnitude, which Douglas Gwyn repeatedly views as a Quaker pentecost of the 1650s, there was no place for reserve – boldness came to the fore. And then, when the openings of revolution closed up again, resulting in the Restoration of the monarchy, Friends were forced to bank their fires.
In several of his books, Gwyn picks up on that apocalyptic vision, as he does again in Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience. Moreover, through it he addresses one of the thornier sides of Quaker theology: just where do atonement, crucifixion, and resurrection fit in? Friends’ emphasis on the Light or the Presence among us can be an especially difficult issue for more conventional, history-ensconced Christian thinking that insists on the “necessity” of the events at Calvary in ancient times. As Gwyn, however, articulates the experience of early Friends,
the Quaker apocalypse was also an atonement. The light’s desolating power brought each vain idol, each private sin, before the judgment seat of God. Sin was not simply to be cloaked by Christ’s righteousness (as taught by the leading Protestant reformers); nor was it redefined as mere neurosis (as the Ranters suggested and the liberal Enlightenment would later codify.) The individual followed Christ to and through the cross, to be crucified to these things. Only there could the transforming power be revealed. Only through that painful passage could the wellsprings of love begin to flow, overspreading selfish designs with self-giving compassion for others.
Atonement began between God and the individual, as the latter stood in the unrelenting gaze of the light. It also mediated the gender-gap between men and women, as the interaction between masculine and feminine spiritual energies brought individuals to a closer encounter with God and with one another. It reconciled the culture-gap between North and South … [and] mediated other polarities in economic status, political power, and religious standing …
This is powerful encounter. One by one, individual lives were transformed and radicalized. Nothing could remain as it was, especially as these individuals embraced one another in their new knowledge.
We saw suffering as the new mode of seeking among these new Friends, a path of inward transformation and outward resistance. Atonement was enacted as one took on the daily cross in codes of dress, speech, and social carriage, immediately stigmatizing the individual in his or her family, neighborhood, and workplace.
Many of us who came of age in the hippie outburst remember the “stigmatizing” aspect of adapting hippie clothing and hair styles, though I doubt we truly suffered as a consequence. And the closest we came to atonement was in the gathering of kindred souls, especially around music, dance, or a communal substance. A few perchance found it in yoga or Zen, admittedly, but there was none of the element of a daily cross. Our experience, then, fell far short of Gwyn’s alternative:
As a drama of unfolding cosmic transformation beginning from within, apocalypse constitutes the context or frame of reference of early Quaker faith. Meanwhile, as the drama of men and women coming out of alienation from themselves, from God, and from one another, atonement remains the abiding center or point of reference.
I’ve previously quoted Elizabeth Bathurst on this ongoing crucifixion and resurrection daily within each believer. It was a present-day experience. Still, as Gwyn observes, George
Fox refused to let the power of the present experience of atonement negate its historic reference in the death of Jesus.
Here, then, the past and present fuse as one. The Biblical narratives expressed and confirmed what Friends encountered personally. Still, life and the conditions impinging on it continue to move and evolve, grow or decay. Remaining in a state of ecstasy is impossible, and resistance to revolution is inevitable. (Again, I could invoke the hippie parallel from our own time.) For radicals in mid-1600s Britain, this included the giddy rise of unprecedented social rebellion followed by the crushing defeat imposed by the Restoration. Among early Friends
a specific stance toward “truth” emerged within the several visionary horizons that had been explored by individuals and groups during the previous decade. The prophetic power and resilience that made the Quaker movement the one great survivor of all these experiments consisted in its powerful integration of religious ideas, practices, and organization, mediated by George Fox and others. Over time, the “stand-still” enabling that integration struck some Seekers-turned-Quakers as stagnation and rigidity.
Again, from the hippie era I hear echoes of the accusation of “selling out” leveled at individuals who failed unwritten codes in their workings with the mainstream. I believe many of us do continue the pursuit of our visionary horizons in fragmented ways in the present, advancing strands of peace and social justice, environmental sustainability and awareness, alternative education, racial and sexual equality, counterculture arts, and so on.
Some of us, Quaker or yogi or Zen or the like, may even turn to that “stand-still” as basis of our silent worship. For Friends, that means waiting on the Holy Spirit, the renewal of the Presence, in our ongoing lives.
More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.