QUAKER “TRUTH,” AND QUAKER “MINISTRY”
SO certain were the “Friends” that theirs was the true faith set forth in the Bible and preached by the Apostles, that in speaking of it they always in my day called it the “Truth,” with a capital “T,” and spoke of the religious work of the society as the “service of Truth.” And I remember that my father’s horses and carriages were called “Truth’s horses and carriages,” because they were so continually in requisition to convey preachers from one meeting to another, or to do errands for the Elders or Overseers. With the unquestioning faith of childhood I fully believed all this, and grew up with a distinct idea that we “Friends” had practically a monopoly of “The Truth,” with a strong emphasis on the definite article, which differentiated it entirely from the holding of one truth among many. Ours was the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and could not be improved upon. Such was my idea in the days of my youth.
That “Friends” did, however, hold a great deal of truth (without any definite article) cannot be denied. Nearly every view of divine things that I have since discovered, and every reform I have since advocated, had, I now realize, their germs in the views of the Society; and over and over again, when some new discovery or conviction has dawned upon me, I have caught myself saying, “Why, that was what the early Friends meant, although I never understood it before.”
Many of their great moral and religious principles have been gradually adopted and taught by other Christians—namely the spiritual interpretation of the Bible instead of the literal, the use of the Sabbath for man, and not man for the Sabbath, the subordination of the symbol to the spiritual belief symbolized, the comparative unimportance of creeds and dogmas, or of rites and ceremonies, the abhorrence of slavery, the vital importance of temperance, the direct access of the soul to God without human intermediary. But in the day when the Quakers first declared these things, they seemed like hard sayings which only a few could bear. And even those of us who were brought up with them from our very cradles, needed many years of spiritual growth and enlightenment before we could fully comprehend them.
One of the truths they had got hold of far ahead of their time was in regard to the equality in the sight of God between men and women. They gave to their “women Friends” an equal place with “men Friends” in the work of the ministry, and in the government of the Society. There were women Preachers, and women Elders, and women Overseers, who sat in equal state with the men Preachers, and Elders, and Overseers, on the raised benches in solemn rows, facing the body of the meeting, the men on one side of the middle aisle, and the women on the other. The preachers, (or Ministers, as we called them), sat at the head of these solemn rows, the oldest and weightiest nearest the top, and gradually tapering down to the younger neophytes, whose gifts had only lately been “acknowledged.”
The system of the ministry among Friends was very different from that of any other church. They believed profoundly that only God could make a Minister, and that no preaching was right except such preaching as was directly and immediately inspired by Him. They accepted, as the only true equipment for the work of the ministry, the declaration contained in Matthew 10:18-20, and they believed its promises would be literally fulfilled to every faithful soul, whether man or woman, young or old, learned or unlearned. “And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for My sake for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up take no thought how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak, for it is not ye that speak but the spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.” This promise contained for them the Quaker “Call” and the Quaker “Ordination”; and to “study for the ministry” in colleges or out of books, or to be ordained by the laying on of human hands, seemed to them the rejection of the only Divine call and ordination, and to result in what they termed a “man-made ministry.” In their view Ministers could be made only by God, and the power to preach was a direct “gift” bestowed by Him alone. All that could be done was for the Elders and Overseers of the meeting to watch the development of this gift; and, when it seemed to them that the speaking bore unmistakable signs of a Divine “unction,” they would meet together and decide whether or no to record on their meeting-books that they “acknowledged” so and so to be a Minister. This act of “recording” or “acknowledging” did not make the speakers Ministers; it was only the recognition and acknowledgment of the fact that God had already made them such. When this had been done, they were called “acknowledged Ministers,” and were felt by us young people to have been admitted into the hierarchy of heaven itself.
Moreover, since God had made them Ministers, their payment or remuneration must come from Him alone. No stipends or salaries were ever given them, but their ministry, freely bestowed from above, was freely handed forth to their fellow-members, without money and without price. Consequently all Quaker Ministers continued in their usual occupations while “exercising their gifts,” living on their own incomes, or carrying on their usual trades or businesses. It often left them but little time for study or preparation; but, as no study or preparation was permitted, this was no drawback.
For not only was there to be no especial training for the ministry, but it was not thought right to make preparation for any particular service or meeting. “Friends” were supposed to go to their meetings with their minds a blank, ready to receive any message that the Holy Spirit might see fit to impart. None of them could tell beforehand whether the inspiration would or would not come to them; and the promise was clear that, should it come, it would be given them in that same hour what they should speak. All preparation for preaching therefore was felt to be a disloyalty to the Holy Spirit, and was called “creaturely activity,” meaning that it was the creature in the individual, and not the Spirit of God, that had taken control. And no such preaching was ever felt to have that “unction of the Spirit” which was the Quaker test of all ministry. I have found in an old book of selections from Isaac Penington’s writings the following concerning ministers, which clearly expressed the Quaker view.“It is not preaching things that are true which makes a true minister, but the receiving of his ministry from the Lord. The gospel is the Lord’s which is to be preached, and it is to be preached in His power; and the ministers who preach it are to be endued with His power, and to be sent by Him. ... He that will be a true Minister must receive both his gift, his ministry, and the exercise of both, from the Lord, and must be sure in his ministering to keep in the power. ... He must wait in his several exercises, to be endued with matter and power from on high, before he opens his mouth in a testimony for the Lord.”
With this view of preaching it can easily be understood that to “appear in the ministry,” as it was quaintly expressed, would be felt by all to be, not only a very solemn step, but also a truly awful one. In my young days it was always referred to as “taking up the cross,” and was looked upon as the supreme sacrifice a soul could make. It has always been hard for me to understand this feeling, as in my own personal experience preaching has been far more of a pleasure than a sacrifice. But probably this may have been because I have let in more or less of what the early Friends would call the “creature” into my ministry, and have not attributed quite such a high origin to my utterances. An old letter of my mother’s concerning the “appearance in the ministry” of her brother, my Uncle John Tatum, will illustrate the state of feeling I have described. She is writing to her father and mother about a visit to this uncle, and says:“Have you heard of the sacrifice that dear brother John has lately made in yielding to what I believe has been a long-felt impression of duty, by giving up to appear in public testimony and supplication in their meetings. It is since we were there; but we were both particularly struck with the marks of exercise and humble devotedness that appeared in his daily walk and conversation. I hope we shall all be willing to yield him the strength of our tenderest sympathy, and to pray that he may be led, and guided, and kept in the right way. He does, I believe, feel often much alone. He said to me, ‘Ah, my dear sister, it has been an awful time with me lately, in which I have had to seek the fields and woods alone, and pray mightily for strength and preservation.’”
I cannot but think that it was a false view of Christian service that led the Friends to go through such conflicts over what nowadays is embraced as a glorious privilege. But all Quakerism in my day was more or less tinged with this ascetic spirit of sacrifice, and it was so entirely the customary way of regarding the matter that each new recruit to the ministry unconsciously fell into it. That some of them had now and then a glimpse into the privilege of service, is shown by an incident that occurred with this very Uncle John some years later. He was speaking with my brother about a “religious visit” he had lately paid to some neighbouring Meetings, and, as they separated, he said in a very solemn and mournful tone, “So thou wilt see, dear James, what a heavy cross has been laid upon me.” My brother expressed his sympathy, and they parted, going different ways. But in a moment or two my uncle walked hastily back, and touching my brother on the arm said, “I am afraid, dear James, that I conveyed a false impression in what I said about my ministry being a cross. Truth compels me to confess to thee that it is not a cross at all, but a very blessed and delightful privilege. I am afraid we preachers talk as we do about the cross in preaching, more from habit than from any reality.”
Everything conspired however to make Quaker ministry a most mysterious and solemn affair to us young people. There was something indescribably enticing in the idea of the direct and immediate inspiration of our preachers. We seemed to be living, as it were, on the very verge of the spiritual world, where at any moment the veil might be lifted, and we might have some mystical revelation from the other side; and the eager longing yet solemn awe with which we watched and waited for these revelations could not, I feel sure, be comprehended by the present generation of young people, even though they should themselves be Quakers. An awe and mystery surrounded for us every “ministering Friend” whether man or woman, rich or poor, wise or simple; and this wholly apart from the personality of the Minister. It was due only and entirely to the fact that we believed Ministers to be the divinely chosen oracles to declare the mind of God, and that every word they might say was directly inspired, and was almost as infallible as the Bible itself. Consequently what any one of them might be “led” to say to oneself was a matter of the most vital importance, and the most profound belief. One of the greatest excitements of my young life therefore was the possibility of being at any moment personally preached to or prophesied about by some “ministering Friend.”
Table of Contents Chapter 6 Home The Writings of Hannah Whitall Smith