Part Three in a series about The Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey.
A deep longing to know God’s ways and the desire to overcome sin moved those who became the first Quakers. Like many of us today, they also felt disheartened by the condition of the world and longed for truth and justice to prevail. In mid seventeenth-century England, many different ways of worship and spiritual practice were offered as alternatives to the status quo. The theological diversity was not nearly as great as what is available today, but the ideas and new practices seemed radical, and there were fierce debates about which were orthodox and which were heretical.
When spiritual longing grows strong, it compels people to seek for a way to live that meets the inner need. Most early Friends began seeking by attending the sermons and lectures of priests and ministers who had a reputation for spiritual wisdom. Some, like George Fox, traveled long distances to seek out those with the highest reputations.
“Non-conformist” clergy were preaching new religious ideas. Only a few decades earlier, the Bible had finally become available in English in an edition inexpensive enough for ordinary people to afford. Often it was the only book a family owned, and each day households gathered together at regular times for the reading of prayers and Bible passages. Puritans were those who wanted to purify the church of practices and rituals not mentioned in the scriptures. Numerous religious groups had sprung up, each with a slightly different idea about what constituted a true, pure church. They were variously called Independents, Separatists, Dissenters, and Anabaptists; all of them were referred to as Puritans.
Those dissatisfied with the Anglican Church joined one of the new religious sects, seeking the true way that God wanted to be worshipped. They participated in morning and afternoon Sabbath services, read recommended books, attended mid-week lectures, and engaged in spiritual practices such as fasting and abstaining from sports and card-playing on the Sabbath. All the Puritan groups put emphasis on finding clear instructions in Scripture about what God wanted. Within and among the various sects, however, seminary-educated ministers debated fiercely about whose Scripture interpretations were correct.
Yorkshire teenager William Dewsbury begged his family to apprentice him to someone in Leeds, because he heard there were strict Puritans in that town. At Sunday services, he sang psalms, took communion, and wrote down the sermons in shorthand. During the week he fasted and participated in all the other recommended practices. When he had free time from his apprenticeship, he visited the ministers at home and asked them to explain various points they had made while preaching. Even the most educated ministers, however, responded solely from their book learning. They did not speak of direct knowledge of God or God’s ways. None were able to describe to Dewsbury any personal experience of God enabling them to overcome sin: “I met with none who could tell me what God had done for their souls, in redeeming them from the body of sin, which I groaned under, and which separated me from the presence of God; although I walked strictly with them in their outward observances and in running to hear one man after another, called ministers, yet I found no rest nor peace to my weary soul.” (qtd. in Smith, 25)
Elizabeth Hooton, a farmer’s wife, found Anglican services inadequate for her spiritual needs and sought for a more zealous congregation; she joined a group of general Baptists. The Baptists–also called Anabaptists–were among the most radical in the spectrum of Puritan sects at that time. They believed that baptism was only for mature believers, not infants. At their services, the Baptists allowed the ministry of lay preachers, sometimes including women.
Members of all the new religious groups in England were hopeful that when the Civil War was won by the Puritan army, a government would be established more in keeping with God’s righteousness, one in which they would receive religious freedom. The new Commonwealth established after the war proved disillusioning, however, and some of the Baptists Elizabeth Hooton joined lost the heart to continue their religious observances. They decided to play football on the Sabbath instead. Elizabeth Hooton judged that these drop-outs “were not upright hearted to ye Lord but did his work negligently.”( qtd. in Manners 4) Gathering the remnants of the shattered group, she began to hold meetings in her house in the village of Skegby. Her husband was not happy about this. The marriage nearly broke up, but the Hooton children attended the meetings.
In the rural north of England, Francis Howgill had been seeking for decades: “I fasted and prayed and walked mournfully in sorrow, and thought none was like me, tempted on every hand. So I ran to this man and the other, and they made promises to me, but it was only words….” (Early Quaker Writing, 171-172) He joined the Independents and then the Anabaptists, for a time feeling at home among tender-hearted seekers like himself, eagerly joining in all their services and practices and spending his spare income on the books they recommended. Ultimately, however, he was disappointed. The groups he joined were focused on interpreting the words of scripture and talked only about what God and Christ had done in the past. They did not know the living God or the risen Christ by direct experience. Among them, he wrote, “no peace nor no guide did I find.” He became a preacher among those called Seekers, people who were waiting for God to send someone with apostolic power to teach how God wanted them to worship.
In sophisticated London, Martha Simmonds, from a family of printers, searched for a minister who spoke truth, attending a variety of churches, as well gatherings held in public places or in people’s homes: “For seven years together I wandered up and down the streets enquiring of those that had the image of honesty in their countenances, where I might find an honest Minister, …and wandering from one idol’s temple to another, and from one private meeting to another, I heard a sound of words among them but no substance could I find….”(qtd. in Moore, 37)
Reading accounts of the seeking of early Friends reminded me of my own experience of seeking, which began with questions to my Sunday School teachers when I was a child. In my late teens, I left the church of my childhood, unsure that God existed. Like many readers who responded to my recent blog posts about the Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey and Longing, I did not know at first that the pain I felt inside was a spiritual longing. In my early twenties, my seeking was directed toward relationships, travel, and intellectual and creative pursuits. Later I began to seek by reading books about spiritual matters, attending different churches, and trying a wide range of spiritual practices. Like Francis Howgill, however, I eventually found that none of my outward seeking led to finding peace or a guide. That did not happen until, like those who became the first Quakers, I looked inward.
The next post will describe the experience of Turning Within.
A bibliography page has been added. To see it, go to awholeheart.com
Seeking: In what ways have you been a seeker? Did your seeking bear fruit?
(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin