by Françoise Tomlin
translated by Sara MacVane
Quakers are best known for their pacifism and tolerance, but what do we know about their beginnings, their values and their faith?
The Quaker movement began in England, in the 17th century, when the country was undergoing civil war and religious unrest. George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends (as Quakers call themselves), was born in 1624. His father was a weaver and a pious Anglican. When he was in his teens, Fox was apprenticed to a cobbler, who also raised livestock. While the boy kept watch over the animals in the field, he read and memorized the Bible. He was discouraged in his spiritual journey by his adolescent friends and went off on foot to the north of England. In his search for spiritual direction, he visited a number of clergymen, but he could not find what he was looking for. Then one day he heard a voice which told him: Jesus Christ is the person who can speak to your condition. Later Fox said: When I heard those words, my heart leapt for joy. He came to understand that God can reveal himself very directly to those who seek him.
Fox shared his enthusiasm for this discovery with everyone he met. He preached his good news: faith comes to us as the direct and personal experience of God within us. We have no need of clergy in order to find faith. He had many followers, because his message spoke to their own search for God. Fox also insisted that all transactions must be honest and just. Very early on, Friends became known as “Quakers”, since they were said to tremble when the Spirit moved them.
Quakers, including Fox, soon faced persecution and prison, and some were even stoned. It was easy to condemn them, and since they refused to swear an oath, with Matthew 5.37 as their authority (Let your word be yes, yes or no, no.), and they were sometimes jailed without term. At that time, when the law required allegiance to the political system, the refusal to swear an oath could be taken as treason. Quakers paid a heavy price, as indeed Anabaptists also had a century earlier.
Nonetheless, the number of Friends continued to grow. By the end of the 17th century, it is estimated that there were about 50,000 Friends in England, where the population was 5 million. Persecutions continued for about 40 years and then tapered off, though Friends continued to be harried nonetheless, not only because they refused to fight and to swear an oath, but also because they didn’t want to pay their church tax in support of clergy. Despite their troubles, the Friends quickly established their Society both locally and nationally, held monthly meetings, cared for the poor, and so forth. Indeed, Fox was a good administrator, as was his wife, Margaret Fell, a very intelligent and practical woman. The Society included several intellectuals, like Robert Barclay, who wrote An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, and Benjamin Furly, who had close connections to Pierre Bayle and John Locke.
William Penn and Pennsylvania
Soon, members of The Society of Friends were preaching their message where ever they went, in Europe and America, even in Constantinople. Of these, William Penn, who founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1681, is certainly the best known. Penn was twenty years younger than Fox and came from a more well-to-do family. He studied at the Huguenot academy in Saumur, which at that time was considered a center of liberal theology. He became a Quaker when he was a young adult. King Charles II gave Penn a large tract of land in American as repayment for a debt the king owed Penn’s father, and this land grant became the colony of Pennsylvania.
Penn was both owner and governor. He designed a very democratic constitution, which was unusual for that time and became a pattern for the constitution of the United States later on. Penn curried good relations with the Indians and went to meet them unarmed. He paid them for their lands and granted them rights in his colony.
Pennsylvania had no army and the death penalty was used sparingly. Prison conditions were better than those in England. But although the democratic principles declared in the colony’s constitution should have been incompatible with slavery, William Penn himself owned slaves as did many other Quakers. In 1776, at the yearly meeting of the Society of Friends, an anti-slavery proposition finally passed, more than fifty years after Penn’s death. At that time all the Quakers in Pennsylvania freed their slaves, encouraged to do so by John Woolman and Antoine Bénézet, who came from Congénies, in the French province of Gard.
Quakers in France in the 18th century
Quaker beliefs developed in the south of France through local Christian pacifists who belonged to a mystical branch of the Huguenots. Their services had long periods of silent reflection and no pastors. In the early years of the 18th century, they criticized the Camisards, a group of French Protestants who wanted to take up arms against the government in order to guarantee religious freedom. The pacifist group failed at that endeavor, and so distanced themselves from the Protestants. Around 1750, three or four of these families in Congénies were accused of receiving the Lord’s Supper according to the Protestant service, which was illegal, and they had to pay a fine, despite their affirmation that they did not attend Protestant services.
From that time on, the group separated themselves from the Protestants and became known as “couflaires”, which means “filled”, “inflated” or “sighing” in Occitan, the dialect of that part of France. This name connects up with the English term “quaker”, because during services, some people felt filled with the Holy Spirit and moved, agitated, or sighed. Among present-day Quakers, this practice has completely disappeared.
One of this group, a certain Paul Codognan, who spoke only Occitan, travelled to Holland on foot in order to publish a small book about the customs and beliefs of his community. He then went on to England so that he could meet English Quakers. The account of a certain Christine Majolier-Allsop refers to Codognan in her Memoirs, and she is not very complimentary either. She describes him as: a poor and illiterate man who only speaks his local dialect, which renders his visit useless. Nonetheless he took back to France the first books about the Society of Friends in French given to him by English Quakers.
An English Quaker suggested in the Gazette de France that Friends were very similar to the Couflaires. After the French and Indian War in which England fought against France, a Quaker named Joseph Fox explained that Quakers were pacifists and offered to reimburse the owners of the ships which had been pillaged by the crews of his ships, without his knowledge. Three weeks later the Gazette de France announced that they had indeed been reimbursed. When the Couflaires read this, they wrote that they had no claims, but shared the Quakers’ pacifism. Jean de Marsillac was sent to London in 1785 to meet Quaker leaders. He was a young military captain at the time, but was soon reconciled to Quaker beliefs. He read Barclay’s Apology, resigned his commission and went to Montpellier to study medicine, where he joined the Couflaires.
The Couflaires become Quakers
In 1788, shortly before the start of the Revolution, a group of English, Irish, and American Quakers went to Congénies and visited several neighboring villages. The local Couflaires asked to be accepted as members of the Religious Society of Friends in London, and thus became the first Quakers in France.
The Quakers in London were generally well educated and well off, and they were surprised by the very different situation of these new French Quakers. At first they were rather paternalistic. For example, Mary Dudly, an Irish woman wrote: Their appearance and their manners are not at all like those of our Society, but they bespeak a simple honesty and are clearly conscious of their own faults. Their spiritual sensitivity confirms our hope for a better situation in the future. Many people attend their meetings, 80 or 90, and some of them become very agitated.
English Friends also noted that the meetings of the French were set up differently to their own, and they were not always pleased about this. In particular they criticized the French custom of having meetings behind closed doors, but this was rather naïve on their part. The social situation was very different to that in England, for although the Edict of Tolerance of 1787 allowed Protestants to hold religious services, it did not extend the toleration to public assemblies. There had been numerous persecutions, and the couflaires had learned to be discrete, as local Protestants had as well. Three years later a free Quaker school for boys and girls was founded in Congénies. Many Protestant families sent their children to the school, which existed until the middle of the 19th century.
A year before the Revolution, de Marsillac had received an Edict of Tolerance from the king. This recognized the citizenship of those who were not Roman Catholic, so Quakers and Jews were included as well as Protestants. Then in 1791, de Marsillac petitioned the National Assembly for Quakers to be excused from military service. Mirabeau politely refused the petition.
There were an estimated 200 Quaker families in Gard in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Quaker Meeting House in Congénies was built in 1822 with a gift from Philadelphia. By the end of the 19th century, there were many fewer Quakers. Some young men had gone off to American or England in order to avoid military service, which was obligatory in France during the Third Republic. Many Quakers became Methodists. In 1928 the last Quaker in Gard died, and the Quaker tradition disappeared from the South of France until 1995.
We should mention Christine Majolier (1805-1879) among notable Quakers of the 19th century. She was the first woman pastor and worked with the poor as she did with kings and queens in the courts of France, England, and Prussia.
Quakers in the North of France at the beginning of the 20th century
Towards the end of her life, Majolier encouraged a young woman named Justine Dalencourt to become a Quaker. Dalencourt did important social work in and around Paris. She worked to bring unmarried couples into marriage in order to protect the women and children; she set up schools to train young women as nurses. She helped establish Quaker Meetings in Paris at the end of the 19th century, and these spread and developed. During World War I, American and French Quakers helped the families of soldiers at the front. Volunteers worked behind the lines and on the battle fields of the Marne where many of the villages had been destroyed. They constructed wooden houses and offered medical help. They also opened two hospitals with the American Quakers. They continued to offer help right up until 1924.
In 1940 there were an estimated 157,000 Quakers in the world, and by 2000 there were 338,000. This increase is largely due to growing numbers of Quakers in Central America, South America, and Africa. Today over 50% of Quakers live in the southern hemisphere. These Quakers are largely evangelical, as are Quakers in North America.
In Europe, on the other hand, most Quakers tend to be of the liberal tradition. They respect Jesus’ teachings and try to follow them, but do not necessarily believe in his divinity or that his death procured the remission of sins. Some Quakers affirm that they are not Christians, that they are agnostics, or even atheists. A small minority define themselves as Hindu or Buddhist.
A Quaker professor at the University of Lancaster, called Pink Dandelion, published some statistics about Quakers. According to her, in 2003, among Quakers in Britain, when asked if Jesus was important in their spiritual life: 71% said yes, to a greater or lesser degree. Another survey in Britain in 2013 indicate that 57% of Quakers declare that they believe in God, while others are more tentative in their response. According to the same survey, 30% define themselves as traditional Christians, 50% as liberal, 20% as atheists (though of these 12% say they are not sure).
As we have just seen, Quakers hold different beliefs among themselves. We do not ask what you believe, but how you treat your neighbor. Let your life speak. Travel around the world and recognize the divine in every person. Christ said tis and the prophets said that, but what can you say from your own experience? These expressions of faith from European Quakers show us that they have always refused to enclose their faith in a creed. They have no articles of religion. Every individual must interpret his or her spiritual experience according to conscience, through self-searching and encounters with other Quakers and with other people in general. They should read, inform themselves, and attend Meetings. The beliefs among Quakers vary substantially and they consider this diversity a source of wealth.
Points of reference
For many Quakers, the Bible is very important and they often refer to it. Early Quakers knew the Bible very well and read it every day. Some Quakers even claimed that if the Bible had disappeared, George Fox would have been able to re-create it word for word. Although the Authorised Version of the Bible published in 1611 was very well known among Quakers, this was not their only reference point. They have always considered personal and collective discernment, based on experience and a willingness to listen to others, a very important source of faith. At a Quaker Meeting of 1656 where George Fox himself was on hand, Friends affirmed that no rules of behavior would be imposed, but that a pure and holy light would guide them all, for the Spirit gives life, but the letter of the law destroys.
The divine spark
Quakers believe that everyone contains an element beyond their understanding, which illuminates them. They call this the inner light or the divine spark. Rex Ambler claims that what characterizes Quakers is the priority they accord to experience and their desire to be guided by a profound force within which is divine. (Rex Ambler, The Ends of Words: Issues on contemporary Quaker Theology, Quaker Books, 2004, p 9-10).
In England, Woodbrooke Quaker College runs courses and workshops, sometimes through the University of Birmingham or the University of Lancaster. There are also several Quaker universities in the USA.
There are many brochures and books which help us to understand Quakers. The most important reference book is Quaker Faith and Practice which has been revised many times; the latest edition is 1994. The French version of this book is under revision now.
Quaker values are based on personal and collective experiences over 360 years. Quakers also listen to the religious beliefs and philosophies of others who are not Quakers. For Quakers, their values are the basis of their daily lives. They give witness to their faith in and by the positions they take, which might all be summed up as: respect for the divine in each person. Although the focus of these witnesses may change from one generation to another, a continuing witness is for peace.
The witness for peace and for the environment
Quakers work for peace with anyone who seeks it, without regard for religion or nationality. They work for a world free from war and from the preparation for war. They are nearly all pacifists and conscientious objectors. When there is a war, they do not consider anyone their enemy. For example, Gilbert Lesage received the recognition Just among the nations because he saved many Jews in occupied France. People were surprised that he expressed no hatred towards the occupying forces. This lack of hatred made it easier for him to help many Jews to escape into Switzerland. Quakers have a historical commitment to peace and they help spread information about conscientious objection. Two Quaker charities were awarded the Noble Prize for Peace for the help they gave to civilians during the two world wars. They can be quite original in their methods. There are a number of Quakers in the British organization Conscience. They want to influence members of Parliament to pass a new law for the right to conscientious objection on taxes. For many Quakers, the use of their taxes for war is simply not acceptable. The bill came before Parliament in March of this year.
Many workshops and encounters take place all the time to resolve conflicts non-violently and for mediation and reconciliation in places like Sudan, South Africa, Palestine and Israel. Quakers founded a high school for Israeli and Palestinian girls and boys and another like it in Lebanon. In France Quakers are active opponents of the commercial promotion of fire arms.
They also work with international organizations like the UN to promote peace. The Friends World Committee for Consultation has offices in New York and Geneva and also works with UNESCO in Paris. They organize meetings at which diplomates can come together outside of official structures.
Quakers also have an office in Brussels to work with the European Union and the Council of Europe. They carry out studies about such things as child soldiers and preventive incarceration and these studies often have a concrete influence on the countries in question.
Other witnesses concern simplicity, equality, integrity, respect for the planet. Indeed, individually or in groups, Quakers have been working since the middle of the last century to encourage respect for the biosphere, the Earth and all its components.
Quaker Meeting and what it means to be a Quaker
I would like to finish with a personal note. My life as a Quaker means that I walk the way of personal reflection and that my spiritual journey includes doubt as a valuable position. We gather as a group without any doctrinal constraints. In our meetings we try to go beyond words and thoughts, in order to become conscious of our deepest intuitions, so that we can enter into communion with the divine source. The words I have been using here (spark, light, depth, source) are important. They show us that we must communicate with words as we try to express the inexpressible, but they also show us how imperfect our communication is.
Quaker Meetings are at the center of our lives. We seek to become fully conscious of the deep connections we share with other members of the group and with all humanity. We recognize the divine presence rooted in others and so we are as one and our Meeting is an expression of this union. To stay attentive in living silence for an hour is a discipline of collective communion, agreed on and fruitful in our spiritual quest.
Often the whole Meeting takes place in silence and those present experience deep unity. More often, two or three people will stand and say what has inspired them during the silence. One may speak of an experience, another may read a passage from the Bible or another text. Some Meetings are more profound than others, and that depends on our capacity simply to let go. We are encouraged to come with our hearts and spirits made ready.
You may wonder how Quakers manage to remain together despite their differences and their refusal to define themselves in terms of doctrine. I believe that our shared values unite us beyond our differences. These include our conviction that a divine spark or an inner light shows us that the kingdom of God is first of all within us. Then our belief in the equality of every person shows us that no one’s truth is superior to anyone else’s. As I have already mentioned, our Meetings with their long periods of silence are very important for us. Our witness is also important, of course, as are the values to which they give voice. But what is most important of all for us is that our faith is defined by how we live, rather than by a particular doctrine.
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