Longing: the First Element in the Spiritual Journey of Early Friends

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:1-3)

Part Two in a series about The Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey,
as experienced by early Friends and by us in our time.
A bibliography page has been added to awholeheart.com

Mid-seventeenth century England was a time of religious, social, and political turmoil. After searching through the Bible, many concluded that various rituals of the church were man-made rather than God-given. New religious groups developed modified forms of worship.  Some sensed a new spiritual dispensation was about to be given, and there was a widespread expectation that the second coming of Christ would be soon. Conflict developed into a civil war. That ended with the decapitation of the king and the establishment of a new form of government. Things didn’t change as much as hoped, however, and high hopes for the establishement of God’s kingdom on earth were followed by despair and disillusionment. In this time of questioning and upheaval, an intense spiritual longing was felt by most of those who became the first Quakers.

Many of them had felt spiritual stirrings in childhood. As boys, both William Dewsbury and George Fox worked as shepherds; they brought their Bibles with them into the fields and prayed during long hours watching the sheep. Young Mary Proude (later Penington) wrote her own prayers to say upon awakening and before going to sleep: she chose to kneel on the cold floor rather than pray in her bed like a baby.

Human sinfulness was the subject of a great deal of preaching. Sinfulness was believed to be a sign that one was predestined to eternal damnation. Many children were burdened by a sense that their behavior was displeasing to God. Stephen Crisp wrote about his boyhood struggles and fervent desire: “I wanted power to answer the requirings of that in me, which witnesseth against evil in me, and this I lamented day and night. And when I was about nine or ten years old, I sought the power of God with great diligence and earnestness, with strong cries and tears; and if I had had the whole world I would have given it, to have known how to obtain power over my corruptions.” (Early Quaker Writings, 199)

Not only children, but people of all ages despaired when they were unable to stop committing acts which their conscience witnessed to be wrong. Like Stephen Crisp, they were eager for the inward power to overcome sinful behaviors. They wanted to know they were acceptable to God. According to the prevailing theology, however, God was far away, in a distant heaven beyond the earth. Christ, too, was way out there in his resurrected physical body. People longed for a closer connection, and they yearned to know how God really wanted them to live and to worship.

Wealthy Lady Mary Penington’s longing increased after she became a widowed mother. In her spiritual autobiography she wrote: “Oh! the groans and cries in secret that were raised in me, that I might be visited of the Lord, and come to the knowledge of his way; and that my feet might be turned into that way, before I went hence…. I would cry out: “I care not for [an inheritance] in this life: give it to those who care for it. I am miserable with it: it is acceptance with thee I desire and that alone can satisfy me. … I was like the parched heath,…so great was my thirst after that which I did not believe was near me.” (Hidden in Plain Sight, 218)

In some, the longing to know God was not coupled with a sense of personal sinfulness so much as with a growing disgust about the hypocrisy, suffering, and injustice in the world. George Fox was appalled that so many who “professed” to be Christians acted in shameful ways, from the cousin who wanted him to participate in a beer-drinking contest to the judge who acted unjustly. He called these people “professors”–they professed to be Christians, but did not act like it. He longed to meet those who had come into true inward “possession” of the faith they professed, people who could guide him into the same.

For many, then and now, this longing is felt as an increasingly urgent need for meaning and purpose, or as a yearning to live in a world in which truth, love, and justice prevail. When meaning and purpose seem absent, when the world seems unjust or unloving, longing can turn into cynicism and despair.

The innate human desire for intimacy with God is akin to gravity: the small, separated body is attracted to the larger one and drawn toward contact. Whether or not one believes in God, feeling separate from the larger, divine Being can be intensely painful.

At a certain point in my childhood, I began to ask questions of my Sunday School teachers and pondered their responses. In sixth grade I attended my friend’s week-long Bible camp. At the first night’s outdoor service, I went right up to the altar when they asked who wanted to invite Jesus into their hearts. They later told me I was “born again” that night. In the weeks after Bible camp, however, I came to the quiet conviction that Jesus had been in my heart long before that date.

In my twenties there came a time when my spiritual interests turned into a deep longing. My grandfather died in a sudden accident, and someone else I loved had a possibly fatal illness. I was in graduate school and my academic studies no longer seemed important. The published novelists who were my writing professors did not seem to have found the kind of meaning in their lives that I hoped for. In many ways I felt blessed. I had little money, but all the material things I needed, and my family was supportive. I had done lots of traveling, and I’d had some wonderful boyfriends. But now I longed for something more.

At the age of twenty-six, finally nothing was more important to me than understanding what life was really about. My heart ached. I took walks alone at night, under the stars. I yearned for something, but I didn’t know what. I longed to know if God existed and if my consciousness would survive death. I took out the Bible I’d been given long ago. An index card fell on the floor. Written in my sixth-grade handwriting was a quote I’d copied when I was in Bible camp, words from the prophet Jeremiah: Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. When you search for me you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:12-13) In that time of deep longing, it was electrifying to read this promise that God will be found when one seeks with all one’s heart.

As I have discovered since–and as early Friends testify in the accounts of their spiritual journey– the longing causes one to seek, and those who seek wholeheartedly, find. The next post will describe seeking–as experienced by the first Quakers, and by Friends in our day.

Longing: In what form have you experienced longing? What blocked your sense of longing, and what encouraged it? Was there a time when your longing motivated you to seek?

moonrise crop 1

(c) 2012 Marcelle Martin

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
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9 Responses to Longing: the First Element in the Spiritual Journey of Early Friends

  1. Mary Noland says:


    This is lovely. Thank you.

    Mary Noland

  2. Rhonda says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It helped me to better understand the longing aspect and I found a couple of instances from your experience that resonated with mine. Like you, I had a Bible verse that I had saved fall out of a Bible!

  3. paula says:

    Very helpful, Marcelle. Thank thee.

  4. Rachel in Wales says:

    Thank you Macelle. I empathise with Stephen Crisp! I think the corollary of longing is learning to accept that one’s yearnings may never be satisfied as one would like. Which isn’t to say that there is no other satisfaction.

  5. Thank you, Marcelle. You reminded me of my deepest longing, which had gotten covered over by the busyness of the holiday season.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Your writing, as always, resonates at a deep place within me, moving me to a deeper sense of knowing, and helping me connect with my longing and seeking.

  7. Pat Thomas says:

    Thank you Marcelle. This year I intentionally observed Advent, a time of waiting and watching. I realized that while Mary and others were waiting and watching for the first coming of Jesus, I am sensing a longing for the second coming as promised. The holidays have been difficult due to alot of hard times suffered by alot of people because we live in difficult times. There is great joy and peace in my walk with God, but there is also a deep longing for all things to be as they should be, and are promised to be. These are the things I hide in my heart while I keep faithful to the vision of a world reconciled to God.

  8. Lola says:

    Marcelle, Thank you very much for this series. I have not necessarily had a longing. It was more like a ‘dark night of the soul’ when despair, tragedy, and trauma had dropped me to my knees. Thinking that there must be something more than the pain and suffering I was feeling, I turn to God with a “what could it hurt?” attitude. So for me it was not so much of a longing, but more of ‘looking for an alternative’. I did not necessarily see at the time that I was longing to seek a spiritual relationship with the Divine, rather I was looking to alleviate the pain I felt inside.

    Thanks again for a great blog and I look forward to future entries!

  9. Christopher says:

    Dear Marcelle, although my longing was not as intense as yours, I love your writing style and this “Set of Essays” in particular speaks to my condition (in that it also challenges me). Blessing from a Friend in earthly land known as Germany.

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