To become part of the Religious Society of Friends is to step into the moving current of a continuing narrative stream. The newcomer affects the future arc of that narrative, but the newcomer is also shaped by the narrative and how it has developed over many generations. It is a bit like being a character who comes on stage for the first time in the second or third act of a play: one has a role and responsibility to advance the plot toward its denouement, but one can do that effectively only in the context of what has gone on before. We call this becoming historically grateful.
Simply put, Quakerism did not begin the first day any of us walked into meeting for worship. What we see and hear and feel in worship or business or other Quaker activities is not merely what we make it out to be. Sixteen generations of Quakers, and sixteen centuries of Christians before that, guarded and shaped and nurtured the flame so that there was something for us to encounter when we walked into meeting that first day. We are each one of us the recipient of a great gift due to their faithfulness. To be properly thankful, we need to understand what they’ve done and a bit of how they understood what they were doing.
Especially because we are a religious movement without the helps to identity that a creed, catechism, or dogma would provide, Friends need to understand their own history. As Wilmer Cooper once put it, it is important that we continue to tell our stories to one another so that we remember who we are as a particular people of faith, and why we’ve developed as we have. We need to relate our place as contemporary Quakers to the history of Quakers and Christians over many generations.
It is not always easy to do this authentically. Lewis Benson reminds us:
There are two wrong ways to relate Quakerism to its history. One of these is to take some point in Quaker history and make it the norm for all Quakers at all times. Another is to read back into Quaker history the image of contemporary Quakerism.
As Friends, we are grafted into a living faith. Quakerism is not a static set of beliefs or practices; it is constantly changing to meet the needs and life situations of those who claim its story as their own. It is a faith tradition placing great importance on tradition, but it is not a faith of traditionalism, in the terms used by Jaroslav Pelikan:
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.
To become historically grateful, then, is to engage in meaningful conversation with the Quaker and Christian narratives that are our own (authentically appropriated) past, while remembering that the lessons of those narratives must be freshly adapted and applied to our present circumstances. To do that we will familiarize ourselves with the arc of Quaker history from a detached perspective, honoring each of the branches of Quakerism as they have developed: we will seek to understand the Quaker tree “sideways.” We will work to distinguish our own personal faith commitments from those of the Society of Friends at large, and from the particular branch of that society to which we belong.
Deeper Roots participants will be learning about key figures in Quaker history by reading their own words, seeking both to understand how Friends came to be so diverse and to understand the early roots of familiar Quaker witness and testimony. We hope that participants will take the opportunity to study the history of the monthly meeting to which they belong, learning what led the meeting’s founders to establish a new meeting, what their faith commitments were, and how their meeting came to occupy its current place on the diverse Quaker “crazy quilt.”
We feel this work is important because the understanding and nurture that comes from historical gratefulness are essential to a vibrant, strong spiritual life in the present day. As Lewis Benson concluded:
We cannot recover the spiritual center that belongs to Quakerism unless we are rightly related to our own history. When we know who we are and what our place is in God’s purpose for history we can begin to enter into that life, the life of hearing and obeying, that the prophets and apostles were in.
(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the apprentice authors, and not official statements of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) or Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) of the Religious Society of Friends.)