FRIENDS in my days had a way of having what were called “Opportunities.” What this word really meant, I suppose now, was that they had an opportunity to “relieve their minds” of some “message” that was burdening it. But in those days no such ordinary explanation of the word ever occurred to me, but an “Opportunity” seemed a most mysterious divinely appointed function, that was akin to a council in the courts of Heaven itself; and the one longing yet fear of my young life was for some preacher to have an “Opportunity” with me. On such occasions the preacher was supposed to be divinely enabled to see into your most secret thoughts, and to uncover with an unsparing hand the secret sins which you had fondly hoped were known to yourself alone. They were also supposed to be endowed with the power of reading the future, and might be expected to foretell any great blessings or dire misfortunes that were in store for you. The excitement, therefore, when a “travelling Friend” came to the house and asked for an “Opportunity” was intense. Whether fear or hope as to the revelations that might be made, predominated, it would be hard to say; but, no matter what our feelings might be, no member of the family, not even the smallest servant, might dare to be absent. In fact, when now and then circumstances appeared to make it desirable that some one should stay away, the preacher often seemed to have a sense of it, and would ask solemnly if there was no one else, and would decline to go on with the “Opportunity” until the absent one was summoned.
In these “Opportunities” the preacher was expected to “speak to the condition” of especial ones present, and the great excitement was as to whether one’s own condition would be spoken to. With what eager hope and fear I always waited to see if the preacher would speak to my condition, no words can describe; but never once in my recollection was this supreme favour conferred upon me. No preacher ever vouchsafed to notice me in any especial manner, nor seemed aware of the presence of an eager hungry soul reaching blindly out after the Light, to whom a few words “direct from God” would have come as an unspeakable boon. To tell the truth I was always expecting some wonderful prophecy to be made concerning me—that I was to be a great preacher, and was to do some great work for God; and though I dreaded the revelations of my unrighteous condition that might be made, I felt that the glory of the hoped-for prophecies would more than make up for them. I remember well how I used to hang about any “travelling Friends” who might come to the house, in the hope that at some unexpected moment the Divine afflatus would come upon them, and the “message” I longed for might be delivered to me.
For it must be understood that these “Opportunities” were never by any manner of means arranged for. They were always ushered in by a solemn hush falling suddenly upon the company, and this hush might come at any moment, even the most inconvenient; but, wherever it was or whatever was going on, everything had to give way for it. I have known “Opportunities” to come in the middle of a social evening, or even in the midst of a meal, or when the preacher was bidding farewell to the household, or when taking a walk with some one, or when going to bed in the same room with a friend. They often came most inconveniently; but nothing was allowed to hinder. I remember once assisting at one when I was waiting on a preaching aunt on a visit to a Friend’s house in Burlington, New Jersey. We had packed our trunks, and they were piled on the carriage at the door ready to take us to the train, when suddenly, as we were standing up bidding our hosts farewell, a silence fell, and an “Opportunity” came upon my aunt, and, while I stood, holding her shawl, in a fever of impatience to be gone, she had to stop and deliver her message, regardless of all considerations of time and trains. I was a woman by this time, and had lost a little of my faith in the divine origin of these “Opportunities,” and I remember that I could not help upbraiding her a little, when at last we got off to our train, for the inopportune moment she had chosen. But her reply silenced me when she said with the most guileless faith, “But, my dear, I could not disobey my Guide, and thee sees He has brought us to the train in time after all.”
No one but those who had experienced them could possibly understand the profound impression these “Opportunities” made upon the Quaker life of my childhood. And even to this day when, as sometimes happens, a silence for a moment suddenly falls upon a company, my first instinctive terror is lest it should be an “opportunity,” and somebody should have to preach.
The awe-inspiring effect of these “opportunities,” and the absolute confidence that was placed in the messages so delivered, cannot be better illustrated than by what happened during a visit of some “English Friends” to our meetings in Philadelphia, when I was about seventeen. I should say here that it was the custom among the “Friends” for preachers in different places to have what they called “religious concerns” to visit other Meetings and neighbourhoods, in, as they quaintly expressed it, “the service of Truth.” These visits were always occasions of great interest to us young people, even though the preacher might not have come from any great distance; but when they came from England, which was to us an unknown land of grandeur and of mystery, our awe and reverence knew no bounds. “English Friends” seemed to us almost like visitants from an angelic sphere; and to be noticed or spoken to by one of them made the fortunate recipients feel as though Heaven itself had come down to them.
The English Friends I speak of were entertained, during their stay in Philadelphia, by Marmaduke and Sarah Cope, who lived in Filbert Street opposite to our house. Their daughter Madgie, was an intimate friend of mine, and one morning she came to me in a great state of excitement over a remarkable “Opportunity,” which she said one of the “English Friends” had had the evening before with a young man we both knew. She said some Friends had dropped in to see the English Friends, and during the course of the evening, an “Opportunity” had come upon them, and one of the travelling Friends had begun to preach. After a short exhortation, he had singled out this young man, and had addressed him in a most remarkable manner, telling him that he had received a direct call from God to enter into the ministry, and prophesying that he was to become a great preacher, and was to visit far distant lands in the “service of Truth.”
I can remember vividly to this day the profound impression made upon me by this occurrence. The preacher who had delivered the message to this young man was one upon whom I had placed all my hopes for a direct message, and had been disappointed; and now he had prophesied about a young man, who in my opinion was no more deserving than myself, the very things that I was always wanting some preacher to prophesy about me. I confess I felt deep pangs of jealousy that the “Divine favour” should have overlooked me, and been bestowed upon one who really seemed to me no more worthy. However, it was all a part of the great romance of our lives, and there was always the possibility that it might still, at some blessed “Opportunity,” be bestowed upon me, and I went about for days full of the subject.
A day or two after it occurred I was out driving with a very especial friend, the one who, as will appear in another part of my story, had been the means of my awakening at sixteen. I was at this time nearly seventeen, and my friend was perhaps nine or ten years older. I had for her a very adoring friendship, and always poured out into her sympathizing ears everything that interested me. Being this day full of the subject, I of course detailed the whole story to her, investing it with all the importance it had assumed in my own eyes. My friend seemed deeply interested, and asked a great many questions as to the details of the “message” and how it had affected the young man. Not many weeks afterwards she told me she was engaged to be married to this very young man, and confessed that she had been largely influenced in her decision by what I had told her, as she was sure the prophecy made in that “Opportunity” would be fulfilled, and she felt it would be a great privilege to be united to one whose future was to be so full of work in the “service of Truth.”
I have always watched the career of that young man with the deepest interest, because I could not help feeling at the time that he had received a message which by rights ought to have come to me; and I must confess that the prophecies which made me so jealous have never been fulfilled in his case; and, now that we are both old people, I cannot but see that my life has come far nearer their fulfillment than his. He has been a most upright, conscientious man, and truly religious in a quiet way, but he has never become a preacher, nor done any public Christian work. While I, without any “message” or any “call,” such as I was always longing for, and supposed to be necessary, did become a preacher and have tried to proclaim in many countries the “good news of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
In this case, therefore, the “message” seemed to fail to find entrance. But on so many occasions similar messages were so marvellously fulfilled, and the accounts of these cases were so constantly retailed to us as strengtheners to our faith, that it is no wonder we grew up with a profound belief in their infallibility. I have many times known a Quaker preacher in a “Meeting” or an “Opportunity” make a revelation to an individual present of something known only to that individual, or prophesy something for the future of an individual or of a community, of which there was no present indication, but which came true just as it had been declared it would.
I knew one woman Friend, who seemed to have this gift in a remarkable degree. I remember her once stopping in the middle of a sermon she was preaching at a week-day meeting to a congregation of entire strangers, and saying, “A young man has entered this room who has in his pocket some papers by means of which he is about to commit a great sin. If he will come to see me this afternoon at ——— (mentioning the house at which she was staying), I have a message from the Lord to give him that will show him a way out of his trouble.” She then resumed her sermon where she had left off, and said nothing further of the incident. I was very much interested to follow this up, and I found a strange young man did in fact call on the preacher that afternoon and confess that he had a forged cheque in his pocket, which he was on his way to cash, when some influence, he could not tell what, had induced him to turn into the Meeting-house as he was passing. His name was not asked for nor given, but the message from the Lord was delivered, and the young man tore up the forged cheque in the preacher’s presence, and promised to lead a new life. And some years afterwards the preacher met him and found that this promise had been fulfilled.
On another occasion, when this same preacher was staying in the country at the house of a cousin of mine, she came down to breakfast one morning and said that the Lord had revealed to her in the night that she was to take a message to a man living some miles off. No name had been given her, nor any indication as to the whereabouts of the man she was to see, but she told my cousin, that, if he would take her in his carriage, she was sure the Lord would show them in which direction to go. They set out therefore, and the preacher pointed out one road after another which they were to take, and, finally, when about six miles from home, and in a part of the country about which neither the preacher nor my cousin knew anything, she pointed to a house they saw in the distance, and said, “that is the house, and when we get there I shall find the man in the garden, and thou may wait for me at the gate.” They accordingly stopped at this house, and, while my cousin waited, the preacher went straight through the grounds into the garden, and delivered her message to the man she found there. She told him he was contemplating a very wrong action which would bring great trouble upon himself and his family, but the Lord was willing to deliver him, and had sent her to open his eyes to the sin and the danger of what he had decided to do. The man was deeply impressed, and, after a little hesitation, confessed that all she had said was true, and that that very day had been the time when his plan was to have been carried out, but that now he dared not go on with it. He then and there gave it up, and said, after such a manifest token of God’s interest in him, he would put the whole matter into His care, and would trust Him to manage it. And after events proved that this had been really done, and that all had turned out far better than he could have expected.
Were there space I could relate hundreds of similar incidents, but these will suffice. It will easily be understood, however, that, in the face of facts such as these, it is not to be wondered at that we were full of faith. Until I was married, a Minister was to me a person altogether removed from the ordinary ranks of men and women, a being almost from another sphere, with none of the common weaknesses of humanity, set apart for a Divine work, and endowed with almost Divine attributes. When I was a child I used to sit and watch them in “meeting” as they sat in long rows on the high benches facing the audience, the men on one side and the women on the other, expecting every minute to see revealed the halo which I was sure must be encircling their heads, although invisible to me. And sometimes, when I got tired of waiting, I would screw up my eyes until I created a sort of shining circle around every object I looked at, and then tried to persuade myself that this was the invisible halo I was so longing to see.
As I grew older these fancies of course left me; but for many years a delightful mystery and awe still encircled the “gallery Friends:” and the coming of a “travelling Minister” continued to fill me with eager and delicious expectations. Especially was this the case after my awakening at sixteen. In my diary I wrote in reference to the very Minister who had given that wonderful message to the young man, as follows:—“Eleventh month, 29th, 1848. I heard to-day the most delightful news I have heard for a long time. The English Friends, dear Benjamin Seebohm and Robert Lindsay, are expected in town by next First Day. Oh! won’t it be joyful! joyful! They will be at our First Day evening meeting. Hurrah! Oh! I am so glad I can hardly contain myself. I am very different from what I was when they were here last.
Deeper than the gilded surface
Hath my wakeful vision seen,
Further than the narrow present
Have my journeyings been.
I have, midst life’s empty visions,
Heard the solemn step of time,
And the low mysterious voices
Of another clime.
All the mystery of Being
Has upon my Spirit pressed;
Thoughts which, like the Deluge wanderer
Find no place of rest.”
I fully expected these inspired Friends to know by inward revelation all I had been going through, and of course hoped they would have a Divine message for me, direct from God. The longed for First Day came and I went to meeting with my brother, full of fearsome yet delicious anticipations. But alas! as was always the case with me, I was doomed to disappointment. Still it might come another time, and I lived in hope.
It was this constant expectation of a direct word from God that made the romance of my young life, and that was I feel sure, one of the secrets of the great hold Quakerism had on the young people of my day.
But, except for this inspirational preaching, we received from our society very little definite religious teaching of any kind. We had, as I have said, no Sunday-schools, and no Bible classes, and doctrines and dogmas were, to me at least, an absolutely unknown quantity. We had no Catechism and were not even taught the Ten Commandments, as they were felt to belong to the old Jewish dispensation which had passed away in Christ. I do not suppose that I was ever told so, but I had a distinct feeling as a child that the Ten Commandments, like the Lord’s Prayer, were for “gay” and “worldly” uses. I felt somehow that they belonged only to the outside world, (i.e., all who were not Friends,) who probably needed outward commandments to keep them good, while we Friends were to be good from deeper motives. For it was not that the moral training of the “Ten Commandments” had ceased to be binding, but that the Friends believed it was far more fully taught in the new commandments of the dispensation of Christ, which were to be written, not on tables of stone, nor even on the pages of a book, but upon the spiritual tablets of our hearts.
They believed that, because we were in Christ, we were to be controlled by a law from within and not by a law from without; and to them it was literally true that for people who were led of the Spirit, there “was no law.” They taught that the fruit of the indwelling Spirit would necessarily be the fulfilling of the law, and that therefore no outward law would be needed; that, just as a man who is honest at heart needs no law to keep him from dishonesty, so, if a man is truly a Christian, he will need no law to make him act as a Christian ought to act. He will do it by the impulse of his inward life. The early Friends fully believed that if God has possession of the heart He will work in us both to will and to do of His own good pleasure, and that an outward law, therefore, would be a superfluity. We were consequently directed to yield ourselves to this inward Divine working, and to listen for the Voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts; and we were taught that, when this Voice was heard, it must be implicitly and faithfully obeyed.
We were to expect to hear this “inward voice” at any or all times, and about all things; but were encouraged to look for it especially in our “meetings for worship” when the whole congregation were sitting in silence “before the Lord.” Quaker meetings were always held on this basis of silent waiting, in order that in the silence, the Holy Spirit might have an opportunity of speaking directly to each individual soul. The Friends recognized the unseen but living presence of Christ in their meetings, and no individual was set apart to “conduct their service,” or to be a mediator between their souls and their invisible Teacher. The silence might not be broken by any one, not even by an “acknowledged Minister,” except under a sense of the direct and immediate guidance of the Spirit; but, under that guidance, any one, even the poorest washerwoman or the smallest child, might deliver the “message.” This gave a mysterious and even romantic interest to our meetings, as we never knew what might happen, or who, even perhaps ourselves, might be “led” to take part.
I cannot say, however, that anything especial ever came to me in any meeting. Now and then a sermon would be preached that seemed perhaps to apply to my case, but never strikingly enough to really impress me; and now and then it would happen that by some mysterious influence my heart would be “tendered,” as it was termed, and I would feel for a little while as though God did after all care for me and would help me. But as a general thing my “meetings” were mostly passed in building air castles, an occupation that I felt to be very wrong, but which had an irresistible fascination for me. Curiously enough, these day dreams never took the form of love stories, as youthful air castles so generally do, I suppose because I had never been allowed to read novels, and never heard anything about falling in love. But I always made myself out to be something very wonderful and grand, and the admired of all beholders. Sometimes I was to be a preacher whose eloquence was to surpass the eloquence of all preachers since the world began; sometimes I was to be an inventor of more wonderful machines than ever had been invented before; but more often I was to be the most marvellous singer the world had ever known; and the “meetings” that stand out in my memory more distinctly than any other, were those of one especial winter in my fourteenth year, when I endowed myself with an undreamed of gift for singing, that electrified everybody, and brought the world to my feet. Why I pitched on singing for my day dreams I cannot imagine, as it was a forbidden worldliness among the Quakers, and was something I scarcely ever heard, either in public or private; and I was myself so utterly devoid of any musical talent that during my whole life I have not been able to sing a note, or even to distinguish one tune from another. But so it was; and there I used to sit on the bench beside my mother, through many a long meeting, outwardly a demure little Quaker, but inwardly a great prima donna, (not that I called myself that) with my whole foolish little heart swelling and bursting with the glory of my triumphs on the stage, which however was a place I had never even so much as seen!
Sometimes, however, my conscience would not permit me to indulge in my day dreams, and then my “meetings” would be filled with futile struggles against wandering thoughts, or with vain efforts to resist an uncontrollable desire to sleep, for to “sleep in meeting” was felt by all of us to be almost a crowning disgrace.
Whether on the whole those long, solemn meetings, with their great stretches of silence, and with sermons, when there were any, that made very little direct appeal to me, were or were not a valuable part of my religious training, I do not feel prepared to say. But one thing is certain, that, whether from the preaching in our meetings, or from the conversation of our elders, or from the atmosphere around us, there were certain strong impressions made upon me which stand out vividly in my memory.
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