When the Quaker movement swept through the English-speaking world and a bit more in the mid-1600s, it saw itself as primitive Christianity restored from before the time apostasy set upon the church – that is, sometime before the Nicene Council of 325 CE.
In theory, nothing could have been simpler or more welcoming than what they presented, an alternative Christianity for all, though in practice what emerged was often more difficult than many could follow, even before the disciplined rules of conduct set in.
I could lay out many of the obstacles to continuing the faith over the generations, even admitting that I wouldn’t have survived the lifestyle restrictions during much of that time, but more recently I’ve been seeing the most insidious impact was in the curtailment of emotion.
Yes, Friends were often seen as gentle and kind, but it came at a price. The Quaker culture that evolved, quite simply, suppressed any expression of anger – which was usually seen as leading to violence, which Friends abhorred – but only in recent decades has there been an acknowledgment that emotions don’t go away, and suppressing the expression of one curtails an open experience of the others. Burying anger, in fact, festers as depression, which can be glimpsed in the memorial minutes of many of the “weighty Quakes” of the past.
While moderation in daily life and meekness were encouraged, they could be performed thoughtfully or habitually without being deeply felt.
I’ve heard instances of old Friends’ reluctance to show emotion.
Greeting a son returned from wartime service with a handshake rather than a hug, for instance. My own family, several generations removed from its Quaker and Dunker (Brethren) roots, was similarly restrained. And, as has been said, the Hodsons didn’t know how to have fun. (When students at one Quaker school asked to have a fun activity, the elders had to withdraw to ponder the peculiar request and then came back with a proposal to paint a widow’s barn. An old Brethren, asked what he did for fun as a child, was perplexed by the very notion and finally replied he guessed it was bringing the cows in each evening.)
Then there’s the sly comment that passed among young Friends in the 1970s, asking if we knew why the old Quakers were so opposed to handholding. The answer? It might lead to premarital intercourse, not meaning sex but rather conversation.
There are also stories, usually told within families, of the individual who would never, ever, express anger only to have an offense fester, leading to deeply hurtful reactions in convolutions much later. You can guess, the baffling ex-mother-in-law, after the divorce, that sort of thing.
Not all birthright Friends, I should add, are so conflicted. Many I’ve known have been among the most loving individuals in my acquaintance.
But in looking at the decline of the faith over its history, I feel an awareness of the psychological undertow needs to be acknowledged, especially as we face the future.
Religion, as I see it, always has work to do to bring each person to a fuller experience of life.