THE individual “scruples” resulting from the various “testimonies” of which I have spoken were practically endless, for each individual would of course interpret and apply them according to their own convictions of duty; and morbidly conscientious souls would be continually inventing new scruples, until life to some of them often became almost a torment. One of my friends, who had inherited a particularly morbid conscience, told me, after we were middle-aged women, that no words could express what she went through on this account when she was younger. She said that often it seemed impossible for her to get dressed and down-stairs in the morning because of the “scruples” that beset her about every article of her clothing, and that the only way she could sometimes manage it at all was by stuffing her ears with cotton, and repeating over, as fast as she could, extracts of poetry, so as to keep herself from hearing the inward voice that was continually urging her to fresh sacrifices.
In a diary kept by an old great-grandmother of our family in the years 1760 to 1762 there is a very quaint and vivid picture of the “scruples” which the Quakerism of her day had engendered in an earnest but narrow-minded soul. In one place she writes as follows:—“Solomon said of laughter, ‘It is madness,’ and of mirth, ‘What doeth it?’ for even in laughter the heart is sorrowful and the end of that mirth is heaviness. I often think if I could be so fixed as never to laugh nor to smile, I should be one step better. It fills me with sorrow when I see people so full of laugh.”
Again she writes bemoaning the lax condition of things among the Quakers of her day:—“Oh! will there ever be a Nehemiah raised at our meeting? Oh! the fashions and running into them; the young men wearing of their hats set up behind; next it must be a ribbon to tie their hair behind. The girls in Pennsylvania have got their necks set off with a black ribbon—a sorrowful sight indeed. But what did that dear friend, Nicholas Davis, tell them—the old people had not done their duty, and that was the reason the young were no better. Six of those girls from Darby were here from John Hunt’s. I thought they did not belong to Friends till I was informed they did. But I many times think what signifies my being concerned about fashions. Where is one Friend’s child or children but some doddery fashion or another is on their backs or their heads? Here is this day Josiah Albason’s son, all the son he has, with his hat close up behind.”
Again under date of third month, 18, 1762, she writes:—“Oh! lamentable is our case I think. I am so filled with sorrow many times about the wicked. Oh, I think could my eyes run down with tears always at the abominations of the times—so much excess of tobacco, and tea is as bad, so much of it, and they will pretend they can’t do without it. And there is the calico. Oh! the calico! We pretend to a plain dress and plain speech, but where is our plainness? Ain’t we like all the rest, be they who they will? What fashion have not the Quakers got? As William Hunt said, ‘Oh! that we had many such as he, or enough such; there would be no calico among the Quakers, no, nor so many fashion-mongers. I think tobacco, and tea, and calico may all be set down with the negroes, all one as bad as another.’”
Those extracts from my great-grandmother’s diary show plainly that the scruples of one generation were not always the scruples of another; but in every case the spirit of self-denial was the same.
Another grandmother, nearer to me in time, whom I can well remember, felt a scruple against false teeth. They were just beginning to be used, and as she was toothless from old age, and had great difficulty in eating, my father had persuaded her to have a set made. But when they came home she told us that she “felt a stop” in her mind about wearing them, as they seemed to her to be of the vain fashions of the world. They were consequently put away in a drawer with her best silk shawl, and never saw the light again. I remember well how saintly we young people felt the dear old lady to be, as we watched her difficulty in eating, and her necessary refusal of so much that we thought good.
A dear friend who lived near us when I was a child, and who was a preacher in our Meeting, bought herself a new parlour carpet and had it laid down, and then became so afraid lest she had allowed pride to enter, that she felt “led” to have several wheelbarrow loads of rough stones dumped out upon it in order to take off its freshness. We children heard the story of it all with an awe not to be described, and from that time the preaching of this dear saint seemed to us like the voice of an angel from Heaven.
I cannot help contrasting here an experience of my own over a new carpet many years afterwards, when I had learned something of the life of faith, and knew the power of Christ to deliver. We had just bought a new Brussels carpet for our drawing-room, with delicate sprigs of flowers all over it, and I was very proud and pleased. Shortly after it was put down, my husband arranged to have a number of rough working-men come every Sunday morning to this very drawing-room for a Bible class. It was a great trial to me to have my carpet used in that way, and I was inclined to resent it, but I knew as a Christian I ought not to feel so, and yet I did not exactly see how to overcome the feeling. Some one happened to say to me about that time that there was always some passage in Scripture which would help you out of every difficulty. This impressed me, and once when I was praying about my carpet difficulty I said to myself, “Well, I am certain that there is no Scripture anywhere that says anything about drawing-room carpets;” when at that very moment there flashed into my mind the passage, “Take joyfully the spoiling of your goods.” I immediately seized hold of that word of God as the Sword of the Spirit with which to conquer my enemy, and from that moment rather enjoyed seeing those rough men tramp over my new carpet. And I may say in conclusion that that carpet seemed as if it never would wear out. It lasted for years, until I was quite tired of the sight of it. I cannot help thinking mine was a better way than the rough stones of the dear old Friend!
After I had discovered this way of faith one of my friends who had suffered much from the Quaker “Scruples,” gave me a striking analysis of the different methods of living the Christian life. She said, “I have noticed that there are three ways of getting to the other side of a spiritual mountain. Some people tunnel through by the sweat of their brows, and that is the Quaker way, and was for a long time my way. Some meander around the base of the mountain, going this way and that, but, because they always keep their faces turned towards the goal, they gradually, in spite of their meanderings, draw nearer and nearer to the other side; and this,” she said, “was the way I adopted when I was worn out with my tunnelling. But now,” she added, “here you are telling me that there is a third way, which is far better than either of the others, and that is the way of faith. You say that there are Christians who have found out that they can just flap the wings of faith and fly right over the mountain, and you declare that this is the way you adopt. I must confess that the people who adopt your way seem to get to the other side far more quickly and more easily than those who tunnel or those who meander, and I have decided to give up all tunnelling and all meandering, and to flap my wings too and go over.”
But the dear old saints, among whom my childhood and girlhood were passed, did not seem to know how to flap their wings; and for the most part they spent their lives in steadfast though weary tunnelling. But their faithfulness and self-sacrifice, even though I may feel it was in mistaken ways, seemed then and seems now to have been worthy of all honour. And the one strong overmastering impression that it all made upon my young heart was simply this—that, by hook or by crook, I had got to be good. No matter what lack of religious teaching there may have been in other directions among the Philadelphia Quakers, there was no lack here. The supreme and paramount necessity of being good—thoroughly and honestly and genuinely good—was in the very air we breathed, and almost in the very food we ate.
I confess that I sometimes chafed at this. The adventurous nature in me now and then pined for a chance to be naughty—to do something I ought not to do, or to leave undone something that was expected of me—but the limitations of my life made only very innocent naughtiness possible. And in looking back upon it now I am forced to admire the wonderful atmosphere of goodness that surrounded me with such a sure defence against the evil that would otherwise I feel certain, have been so enticing to a wild free nature like mine. For if any human being was ever born free I was. The one cry of my soul has always been for freedom. “Bonds that enslave and tyrannies that fetter” have always been my abhorrence, whether they were bonds of actual rules, or merely bonds of conventional custom. Had my parents made many rules, I should have been driven to disobey them, but the all enveloping atmosphere of goodness, in which they and their circle lived and moved, controlled and constrained my wayward spirit with such unconscious power, that I hardly knew I was being controlled, and had a blissful feeling that somehow I nearly always had my own way.
No one, who did not live in it, could I feel sure, conceive of the narrow range of life with which I was acquainted up to the age of eighteen. I never met anybody who lived in what was called “the gay world.” My associates were only the staid, sober “Friends” of our little circle, and their carefully guarded children. I never, as I have said, was allowed to read any novels; and I had absolutely no opportunity of learning what life meant outside of our narrow Quaker fold. As to the sin of the world I had not the slightest inkling. Nobody ever told me anything, not even the girls at school; or, if they did, I was too utterly ignorant and innocent to understand them; I venture to say that it would be perfectly impossible in the present day for a girl of eighteen to live in such an unreal world of ignorance as the one in which I lived, or to enter upon the responsibilities of life more absolutely unprepared to meet them.
My interior life up to the age of sixteen was of the simplest. I believed what I was told, which however I have shown was very little, and troubled myself not one whit about the problems of the universe. My only conscious religious thoughts were an underlying fear of hell-fire, which now and then sprang into active life when any epidemic was abroad or any danger seemed to threaten. How I came to have this fear I cannot now remember, for the Quakers rarely touched on the future life in any way, either as regarded heaven or hell. Their one concern was as to the life of God in the soul of man now and here, and they believed that where this was realized and lived, the future could be safely left in the Divine care. But now and then I would get a sudden fright in regard to my future and would make tremendous resolutions about “being good” and would for a few hours really try to correct my faults. But such occasions were not very lasting, and I would soon relapse into the old unthinking ways.
As I have said, however, the atmosphere in which I lived was so impregnated with goodness that it was not easy even to think of anything naughty, much less to come to the point of actually doing it, and I believe I may fairly say that on the whole I was as good as a creature full of energy and high spirits, and with bouncing health, could be expected to be. But up to the age of sixteen I was simply a good animal. My spiritual nature was unawakened, and I had never consciously been made aware of the existence of my soul.
But a change was at hand, although I little knew it. My soul was awaking from its torpor, and, like the butterfly in the cocoon, was struggling to escape from the bonds that had hitherto held it in leash. My long search after God was about to begin.
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