THE strongest impression made upon my young heart was the paramount privilege we as Quakers enjoyed in our knowledge of the “perceptible guidance” of the Holy Spirit, and the vital necessity of obedience to this guidance. It was fully believed by us young Friends that our “Society” was the sole depository of this knowledge; and although it was for the most part a great mystery to us, yet still we could not help feeling a certain pride in such a distinctive possession. That it was regarded by the Friends as a very real thing, was proved by the fact that anything which professed to be the result of this guidance was treated with the most profound respect and consideration. If even a child could say it felt a Divine “leading” in any direction, that leading was treated with loving consideration by the older Friends, and, unless it was manifestly improper, way was tenderly made for it to be carried out. For Friends believed their children were every one included among the lambs of the flock, and had the same privileges of hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd that their parents possessed.
A very striking illustration of this reverence for anything that was felt to be from Divine guidance occurred two hundred years ago in our own family history. An aunt of one of our great-grandfathers was a certain Elizabeth Haddon, who was the daughter of a wealthy Friend named John Haddon, living in Rotherhithe, now a suburb of London. John Haddon had purchased some land in New Jersey, intending to remove there with his family, and had even sent out mechanics who had built a suitable house and outbuildings. But meantime circumstances had made it necessary for him to remain in England. His young daughter Elizabeth, just eighteen, who believed she had felt a call to work in New Jersey, was greatly disappointed, but, as she prayed about it, she seemed to hear an inward voice telling her that she must take up the family burden and go over herself to the New World and develop the property there. She called her family together and told them of her impressions of duty. She was very young, and the country was unsettled, and her parents were frightened. But they were staunch Quakers, and they had always taught their children an implicit obedience to what the voice of the Lord might require, and they did not dare to oppose what their young daughter felt so strongly to be her duty, and, although in much fear and trembling, they made arrangements for her emigration.
This was in 1701. She found the country in a very rough state, but lived there long enough to see the whole neighbourhood, largely through her own instrumentality, revolutionized into a most prosperous community, to which she was for many years an untold blessing. The town that sprang up near her home was called Haddonfield after her, and for many years our father had a country house not far off, where we entered into the fruits of our great-aunt’s labours.
An American historian in relating her story says:—“Among the many singular manifestations of strong faith and religious zeal, connected with the settlement of this country, few are more remarkable than the voluntary separation of this girl of eighteen from a wealthy home and all the associations of childhood, to go to a distant and unsettled country to fulfill what she considered a religious duty; and the humble self-sacrificing faith of the parents in giving up their beloved child with such reverent tenderness for the promptings of her own conscience, has in it something sublimely beautiful, if we look at it in its own pure light.”
This absolute independence in all matters of felt duty has always seemed to me to be one of our greatest Quaker privileges. It left every individual free to serve God in the way that seemed right, without the often kindly meant but hindering interference of those around them. To say simply, “I feel it right to do so and so,” invariably silenced all objections.
Nor was this only the case in spiritual matters, but in earthly matters as well, and it gave to each individual that position of independence which has always to my mind seemed one of the most vital of human needs. And I look upon the sense of personal ownership engendered by all this, as one of the most priceless of all the gifts that my Quaker inheritance has brought me.
I remember when I first waked up to the injustices of the position of women in the outside world, I was able to congratulate myself continually that it was so much better among “Friends”; and that not the most tyrannical “man Friend,” even if he wanted to, would ever dare to curtail the liberty of his womenkind, if only they could say they “felt a concern” for any course of action.
To interfere between any soul and its Divine Guide, except under a Divine constraint, was considered by the Friends to be one of the gravest wrongs that one person could inflict upon another; and in all my experience of Quakerism in my young days I have no recollection of its ever having been done, except by the Elders and Overseers. A Quaker “concern” was to my mind clothed with even more authority than the Bible, for the Bible was God’s voice of long ago, while the “concern” was His voice at the present moment, and, as such, was of far greater present importance. I do not suppose any one ever taught me definitely that this was the case, but the whole atmosphere around me, and the preaching I heard, was certainly calculated to exalt the “inward voice” and its communications above all other voices, and to make us feel that, since God spoke to us directly, we need not search into what He might say to any one outside of our sacred fold.
It might naturally be thought that this liberty in individual guidance would have led into extravagances, and in the early days of the society this sometimes happened. But in my time the Friends safeguarded their members from this danger by requiring all “concerns” or “leadings” that were at all out of the ordinary, to be brought before the Elders and Overseers, and judged by them in a solemn season of waiting upon God for His teaching. And, so convinced were all Friends that the collective voice of the Holy Spirit in a meeting was of more authority than a private voice to an individual, that decisions arrived at under such circumstances were always accepted as final, and the conscience of the individual, whose “leading” was set aside, felt itself freed from the burden. It was an admirable safeguard, and during all my years of close association with the society I never knew of any instance of serious extravagance.
Apart from this teaching of the perceptible guidance of the Holy Spirit, nothing very definite or tangible was taught us. As far as I can remember we were never told we had to be “converted” or “born again,” and my own impression was that these were things, which might be necessary for the “world’s people,” but were entirely unnecessary for us, who were birthright members of the Society of Friends, and were already born into the kingdom of God, and only needed to be exhorted to live up to our high calling. I believe this was because of one of the fundamental principles of Quakerism, which was a belief in the universal fatherhood of God, and a recognition of the fact that Christ had linked Himself on to humanity, and had embraced the whole world in His divine brotherhood, so that every soul that was born belonged to Him, and could claim sonship with the same Father. “My Father and your Father,” He says, and the early Friends accepted this as true, and would have thought it misleading therefore to urge us to become what we already were. We were always preached to as “lambs of the flock,” and as only needing to be obedient to the voice of the Good Shepherd, to whom we already belonged. The Friends did not shut their children out, but instead, with loving tenderness, shut them inside the heavenly fold; and all their teaching was to this effect.
For a little time, in my Plymouth brethren days, I looked upon this as a dreadful heresy; but later on I learned the blessed fact, stated by Paul to the heathen idolaters at Athens, that we are all, the heathen even included, “God’s offspring;” and I realized that, since He is our creator, He is of course our Father, and we equally of course are His children. And I learned to thank and bless the grand old Quakers who had made this discovery, since their teaching made it easy for me to throw aside the limiting, narrowing ideas I had at first adopted, and helped me to comprehend the glorious fact that in God we all “live and move and have our being,” and that therefore no one can shut another out.
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