BEFORE entering upon the subject of the influence of Quakerism on my young life, I want it to be thoroughly understood that I am not trying in any sense to give a true transcript of Quakerism, as my elders understood it and lived it, but only as it influenced an undeveloped eager girl, who had a decidedly religious side to her nature, but who was too full of life and spirits to be very seriously interested in any abstract questions outside of her every-day duties and fun.
I cannot trace back my notions to any definite teaching, and at the time I did not formulate them, but the impressions I retain of those days seem to me now to have had their rise in the general atmosphere that surrounded me. It is very likely that my adult relatives and friends had no idea of creating such an atmosphere, and, if they were alive now, would be very much surprised at some of my interpretations. But the fact remains that the Quakerism of my young life has left the strong impressions I record, and I want to give them as truthfully as I can, as part of my own personal history, and not at all as an authoritative exposition of Quaker views.
In tracing back the line of our ancestors, we find that they came over from England during the seventeenth century, in company with a great body of Quakers who, unable to find in their own land that spirit of religious liberty which was a fundamental article of their faith, sought an asylum in the new Western world, hoping there to found a state where their children might enjoy that freedom to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, which had been denied to themselves in the old world. These Quakers had settled largely in the colonies founded by William Penn in and around Philadelphia, on both sides of the Delaware River, and had become, by the time I was born, a most influential and respected body.
A good deal of their early freshness and fervour had however passed away, and it was a very sober, quiet sort of religion that remained, which allowed of but little expression, and was far more entirely interior than seems to me now to have been wise. There had been left from earlier days a firm belief in what was always spoken of as the “perceptible guidance of the Holy Spirit,” meaning the distinct and conscious voice of God in the heart; and a loyal devotion to what were called “Friends’ testimonies,” which testimonies were the outward expression of the convictions of truth that had, they believed, been directly revealed by the “inward light” to George Fox, the founder of the society, and to his early followers.
Many of these convictions were opposed to the usual ideas of people around us, and their observance therefore made the Quakers of my day very peculiar. But we were taught that it was a great honour to be God’s “peculiar people,” and I for one fully believed that we Quakers were meant where it says in Deuteronomy, “The Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto Himself above all the nations that are upon the earth.” In the face of such an honour, the things in which we were “peculiar,” which often, I acknowledge, caused us considerable embarrassment and even trial, seemed to be a sort of “hall-mark” of especial Divine favour; and, instead of being mortified over their peculiarities, the Quakers of my day were secretly proud of them, and of the singularity they caused. We Quaker children imbibed somewhat of this feeling, and when we walked along the streets in our quaint Quaker garb, and the street gamins called after us, as they often did “Quaker, Quaker, mash potatoe” we felt a sustaining sense of superiority, that took some of the sting out of the intended insult, and enabled us to call back with a fine scorn, as having far the best of the matter, “Dutchy, Dutchy, Mash-pay-touchy!” If we were Quakers, they were perhaps the descendants of the early German, or, as they were called, “Dutch Redemptioners” who were the servants of the first colonists; and at any rate we were determined they should know we thought they were. I remember that after my sisters and I had discovered this effective retort, we were able to silence most of our persecutors.
But it was sometimes very hard for us Quaker children to be obliged to take our share of persecution for “conscience sake,” since it was the consciences of our elders and not our own; and, combined with our pride in being God’s peculiar people, we also often had a sense of ostracism that I feel on looking back, we ought not to have been asked to endure. Still I have no doubt it imparted to our characters a sort of sturdy independence that was of real value to us in our after life, and I for one have always been thankful for the deliverance from the fear of man, and the indifference to criticism, that was, I am convinced, engendered in my spirit by these early persecutions for “conscience sake.”
There was, as I have said, very little direct religious teaching to the young Quakers in my time. We were sometimes preached to in our meetings, when a Friend in the gallery would exhort the “dear young people” to be faithful to their Divine Guide; but no doctrines or dogmas were ever taught us; and, unless one was especially awakened in some way, none of the questions that exercise the minds of young people in the present day were even so much as dreamed of by the young people of my circle, at least so far as I knew; and a creature more utterly ignorant of all so-called religious truth than I was up to the age of sixteen, when my awakening came, could hardly be conceived of in these modern times. The whole religious question for me was simply as to whether I was good enough to go to heaven, or so naughty as to deserve hell. As to there being a “plan of salvation,” or any such thing as “justification by faith,” it was never heard of among us. The one vital point in our ideas of religion was as to whether or not we looked for and obeyed that “perceptible guidance” of the Holy Spirit, to which we were constantly directed; and the only definite teaching we received as to our religious life was comprised in “Friends’ testimonies,” and in the “queries” read and answered every month in the “monthly meetings for business” which were regularly held by every congregation of Quakers.
We had no Sunday-schools nor Bible classes; in fact, as I have said, these were considered to be a form of “creaturely activity” only to be excused in the “world’s people” (by which we meant everybody who was not a Quaker), because they were in ignorance, as we believed, of the far higher teachings of the Holy Spirit which were our special inheritance. Neither did our Society teach us any regular prayers, for Friends believed they could only pray acceptably when moved by the Spirit to pray. As little children our parents had taught us a childish prayer, which we repeated every night after we were tucked up in bed before the last farewell kisses were given. But as we grew older, and our parents recognized more and more our individual independence, these nightly childish prayers were omitted, and the Quaker atmosphere as regards prayer gradually gained the ascendency; and in time I, at least, came to feel as if, because of my light-hearted carelessness and indifference, it was almost wrong for me to try to pray.
What this Quaker teaching about prayer was may be gathered from the following extract from the writings of Isaac Pennington. He says, “Prayer is a gift. A man cannot pray when he will; but he is to watch and to wait, when the Father will kindle in him living breathings towards Himself.” In consequence we knew no formal prayers, and were not even taught the Lord’s prayer, and until I was a woman I actually did not know it by heart, and even to this day I am often puzzled for a moment when I try to repeat it. The real truth is that as a child I got the impression somehow that the Lord’s prayer was “gay,” and that only “gay” people were expected to use it. By “gay” we meant anything that was not Quakerly. Quakers were “plain” and all the rest of the world, and even of the Church were “gay.”
It even seemed to me that it was distinctly “gay” to kneel in prayer. We Friends always stood when prayer was offered in our meetings, and if we ever prayed on retiring at night, it was done after we got into bed. And when, as sometimes happened, one of our little circle ventured to kneel beside her bed for her evening devotions, we always felt that it was a lamentable yielding to a worldly spirit, and was to be mourned over as a backsliding from the true faith.
As a fact all Church or Chapel services seemed to us very gay and worldly, and to join in them seemed almost to amount to sinning; and until I was married I had actually never entered any place of worship other than Friends’ Meeting houses. I should have felt it a distinct “falling from grace” to have done so.
I cannot remember that we were distinctly taught any of these things, or that any one ever said to me in so many words that Quakers were the “peculiar people” spoken of in the Bible as being especially dear to God; but the sort of preaching to which we listened, and only of course half understood, in regard to the privileges and the blessings of our peculiarities, made the impression upon my young ignorance that in some way, because of our “peculiarities,” we were the objects of especial Divine favour; and I can remember very well having the distinct feeling that we were the true Israelites of whom the Bible spoke, and that all who were not Quakers belonged to the “outside Gentiles.” To tell the whole truth I had as a child a confused idea in my mind that we Quakers had a different and a far higher God than others, and that the God other Christians worshipped was one of the “Gods of the Gentiles” whom the Bible condemned.
That I was not singular in these feelings will be shown in the following extracts from the lately published reminiscences of an American Friend, who is an able educationalist of the present day. He says:“I am quite sure no Israelite in the days of Israel’s prosperity ever had a more certain conviction that he belonged to a peculiar people whom the Lord had chosen for His own, than I did. There was for me an absolute break between ‘us’ and anybody else. This phariseeism was never taught me, nor encouraged directly by anybody, but I none the less had it. If I had anything in the world to glory over it was that I was a Quaker. Others about me had a good deal more that was tangible than I had. Their life was easier, and they did not have as hard a struggle to get the things they wanted as we did. But they were not ‘chosen,’ and we were! As far back as I can travel in my memory I find this sense of superiority—a sort of birthright into Divine grace and favour. I think it came partly from impressions I got from ‘travelling Friends,’ whose visits had an indescribable influence upon me. It will of course seem to have been a very narrow view, and so it was, but its influence was decidedly important upon me. It gave somewhat of a dignity to my little life to feel that I belonged to God’s own people; that, out of all the world, we had been selected to be His, and that His wonders had been worked for us, and we were objects of His special love and care.
“Everybody at home, as well as many of our visitors, believed implicitly in immediate divine guidance. Those who went out from our meeting to do extended religious service, and there were many such visits undertaken, always seemed as directly selected for these momentous missions, as were the prophets of old. As far back as I can remember I can see Friends sitting talking with my grandmother of some ‘concern’ which was ‘heavy upon them,’ and the whole matter seemed as important as though they had been called by an earthly king to carry on the affairs of an empire. It was partly these cases of divine selection, and the constant impression that God was using these persons, whom I knew, to be His messengers, that made me so sure of the fact that we were His chosen people. At any rate I grew up with this idea firmly fixed.”
(Note: “A Boy’s Religion,” by Rufus M. Jones.)
I believe every young “Friend,” in the circle to which I belonged, would have owned to the same feelings. We were God’s “chosen people,” and, as such, belonged to a religious aristocracy as real as any earthly aristocracy could be; and I do not believe any earl or duke was ever prouder of his earthly aristocratic position than we were of our heavenly one.
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