MY QUAKER CHILDHOOD
NEXT to the influence of my parents upon my young life, was the influence of the religious Society of which I was a birthright member. I do not think it would be possible for me to express in words how strong and all pervading this influence was. Every word and thought and action of our lives was steeped in Quakerism. Never for a single moment did we escape from it. Not that we wanted to, for we knew nothing different; but, as my narrative will show, every atom of our consciousness was infused and possessed with it. Daily I thank God that it was such a righteous and ennobling influence.
But, though so all powerful in our lives, the Quakerism of my day did not achieve its influence by much outward teaching. One of its most profound beliefs was in regard to the direct inward teaching of the Holy Spirit to each individual soul; and this discouraged much teaching by human lips. The Quakers accepted as literally true the declarations of the Apostle John that there is a “true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world”; and their fundamental teaching was that this “Light,” if faithfully looked for and obeyed, would lead every man into all truth. They felt therefore that it would be an interference between the soul and its Divine Guide and Teacher to intrude with any mere teaching of man. They taught us to listen for and obey the voice of God in our souls, and they believed if we did this up to our best knowledge, our Divine Guide would teach us all it was necessary for us to know of doctrines or dogmas.
There was something grand in this recognition of human individuality. It left each soul in an absolute independence before its Creator, ready to be taught directly by Him, without the interference of any human being, except as that human being might be inspired by Himself. And although in my youthful days I did not consciously formulate this, yet the atmosphere it created, and the individual dignity with which it endowed every human soul, whether wise or simple, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, old or young, made each of us feel from our earliest days a royal interior independence that nobody, not even our parents, could touch.
When the Bible was read to us, which was frequently done, especially on “First Day” afternoons, very little explanation was ever attempted, but instead a few moments of profound silence were always observed at the close of the reading, in order that the “Inward Light” might, if it should be the Divine Will, reveal to us the meaning of what had been read. I am afraid however that personally I was still too unawakened for much ever to be revealed to me. But so strong was this feeling among the Quakers in my day, that direct religious teaching from the lips of human beings, except in inspired preaching, always seemed to me to be of the world, worldly, and I felt it was good only for the “world’s people,” who, because of their ignorance regarding the inward light, were necessarily obliged to look outward for their teaching. In fact all Bible expositions, except such as might be directly inspired, were felt to be worldly; and Bible classes and Sunday-schools were considered to be places of worldly amusement, which no true Quaker ought to attend. Our teaching was to come to us, not from the lips of human teachers, but from the inward voice of the Divine Teacher Himself.
In this the early Friends only believed what Saint Augustine taught when he said: “It is the inward Master that teacheth, it is the inspiration that teacheth; where the inspiration and unction are wanting, it is vain that words from without are beaten in.”
Their preaching therefore was mostly composed of exhortations to listen for this “inward voice,” and to obey it, when heard; and never once, during all my young days, do I remember hearing any other sort of preaching.
Not that there might not have been, however, doctrinal preaching as well, had I had the ears to hear it; but as a fact no religious questions of any sort, except the one overpowering conviction that somehow or other I must manage to be good, occupied my mind up to the age of sixteen. I lived only in that strange mysterious world of childhood, so far removed from the “grown-up world” around it, where everything outside seemed only a mere passing show. In my world all was plain and simple, with no need for any questionings. The grown-up people around me seemed to have their ridiculous interests and their foolish bothers, but these were nothing to me in my enchanted sphere. Sometimes, when one of these silly grown-ups would suggest that a time would come when I also would be grown up, a pang would come over me at the dreadful thought, and I would resolve to put off the evil day as long as possible, by refusing to have my hair done up in a knot behind, or to have my dresses come below my knees. I had an idea that grown up people wanted to live children’s lives, and play children’s plays, and have children’s fun, just as much as we children did, but that there was a law which forbade it. And when people talked in my presence about the necessity of “taking up the cross” as you grew older, I thought they meant that you would have to stop climbing trees or rolling hoops, or running races, or walking on the tops of fences, although all the while you would want to do these things as much as ever; and my childish heart was often filled with a profound pity for the poor unfortunate grown-ups around me.
I was a wild harum-scarum sort of being, and up to the age of sixteen was nothing but a light-hearted, irresponsible child, determined to get all the fun I could out of life, and with none of the morbid self-consciousness that is so often such a torment to young people.
The fact was, as far as I can recollect, I scarcely ever thought of myself, as myself, at all. My old friends tell me now that I was considered a very pretty girl, but I never knew it. The question as to my looks never occurred to me. The only question that really interested me was as to my fun; and how I looked, or what people thought of me were things that did not seem in the least to concern me.
I remember distinctly the first time such questions intruded themselves, and the indignant way in which I rejected them. I think I must have been about eleven years old. My mother had sent for me to go into the drawing-room to see some of her friends who had asked for me. Without a fear I left my lessons, and went towards the drawing-room; when suddenly, just as I was about to enter, I was utterly surprised and taken aback by an attack of shyness. I had never had the feeling before, and I found it most disagreeable. And as I turned the door-knob I said to myself, “This is ridiculous. Why should I be afraid of those people in there? I am sure they won’t shoot me, and I do not believe they will think anything about me; and, even if they do, it can’t hurt, and I simply will not be frightened.” And as I said this, I deliberately threw my shyness behind my back, and walked fearlessly into the room, leaving it all outside the door. I had made the discovery, although I did not know enough then to formulate it, that shyness was simply thinking about oneself, and that to forget oneself was a certain cure; and I do not remember ever really suffering from shyness again. If it ever came, I just threw it behind me as I had done the first time, and literally refused to pay any attention to it.
As far as I can remember therefore my life, up to the age of sixteen, when my religious awakening came, was an absolutely thoughtless child’s life. Self-introversion and self-examination were things of which I knew nothing, and religious questions were not so much as dreamed of by me. I look back with wonder that so thoughtless a being could have been so preserved from out-breaking sins as I was, but I recognize that for this I must thank the grand all-enveloping Quaker atmosphere of goodness and righteousness, in which I lived, and which made any such outbreaks almost an impossibility.
I have spoken of the Church into which I was born as a religious society. It was always called in my young days, “The religious Society of Friends,” and was never by any chance spoken of, as it often is now, as “The Quaker Church.” The early Quakers had a strong testimony against calling themselves a Church, for they did not consider themselves a Church in any exclusive or inclusive sense of that word. The Church, according to their view, was the invisible body of all believers, belonging to every creed and every nation, and they as “Friends” were only a “Society” within this great universal invisible Church. They took their name from our Lord’s words in John 15:14, 15: “Ye are My friends if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of My Father I have made known unto you.” Their one aim in life was to do whatsoever the Lord commanded, and they believed therefore that they had been admitted into this sacred circle of the Divine friendship. They had at first no idea of forming a separate sect, but their association was to their minds only a society of friends (with neither a capital S nor a capital F), who met together to share as friends, one with another, the Divine revelations that were made to each, and to encourage one another to strive after the righteousness that the Divine friendship demanded. That this “society of friends” gradually assumed a definite article and capital letters to itself, and became “The Religious Society of Friends,” and developed into a separate sect, was, I suppose, the necessary outcome of all such movements, but it has always seemed to me a falling away from the simplicity and universality of the original idea.
The name of Quaker had been bestowed upon them in their early days from the fact that, when preaching in their Meetings, they were seen to quake or tremble under what they believed to be the power of the Holy Ghost. I myself, even in the quieter times when I was a child, would often see the preachers in our meetings trembling and quaking from head to foot, and I confess I always felt that messages delivered under this condition had a special inspiration and unction of their own, far beyond all others. In fact, unless a preacher had at least enough of this “quaking” to make their hearts palpitate and their legs tremble, they were not considered by many to have the real “call” to the ministry at all; and one cannot therefore be surprised that the name “Quaker” had fastened itself on the society.
But the name chosen by themselves was a far happier one, and far more descriptive of what they really were. The “quaking” was after all only an incident in their religion, but friendliness was its very essence. Because they believed themselves to be the friends of God, they realized that they must be in the truest sense the friends of all the creatures He had created. They believed it was literally true that He had made all the nations of men of one blood, and that all were therefore their brethren. One could not fail to realize this sense of universal friendship through all the worship and the work of the society; and personally, so deeply was it impressed upon my young life, that to this day to be a member of the Society of Friends means to me to be everybody’s friend; and whenever there is any oppression or suffering anywhere in the world, I instinctively feel sure that among the first to hasten to the rescue will be a committee of the Society of Friends. They have in fact a standing Committee which meets regularly to consider cases of wrong and of need, and it is called significantly “The Meeting for Sufferings.” The society is and always has been the friend of all who are oppressed.
Therefore, while the outside world generally calls them “Quakers,” I am glad that they themselves have held steadfastly to the endearing name of “Friends.”
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