One of the most beautiful descriptions of the collective experience of those who became the first Quakers was written by Francis Howgill in 1663: The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue, nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: “What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? … And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire which the Life kindled in us to serve the Lord while we had a being…. And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God… And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.
A few weeks after his convincement, early Quaker leader Richard Hubberthorne described the bond he now felt with others in the Quaker community: “And to you all the dear family of love, my love is run into you all. You are my relation, father, mother, sisters and brothers, which I must now own and dwell with in amity and love eternally.” (qtd. in Barbour and Roberts, 157.)
Being in community with others desiring to be faithful to God’s inward promptings is a great and usually necessary aid on the spiritual journey. Individuals receive much assistance, both outward and inward, from the group, and at the same time, much is asked from each person, as well. Sharing in the life of the community often functions as the Refiner’s Fire. One is purified and stretched spiritually in the process of learning to listen, communicate, love, support, and forgive the other members of the group.
As a group collectively learns to surrender to God, a powerful spiritual bond develops among fellow souls committed to the same path. Early Friends found this was especially so when they helped one another to persevere in spite of persecution. In his journal, John Banks wrote: “Oh! the days and nights of comfort and divine consolation we were made partakers of in those days together (and the faithful and true of heart still are). And in the same inward sense, and feeling of the Lord’s power and presence, we enjoyed one another, and were near and dear unto another. But it was through various trials and deep exercises, with fear and trembling, that on this wise we were made partakers.” (qtd. in Barbour and Roberts, 186.)
For Quakers, church was not a building but a people gathered by God. God endows the community, through its members, with all the necessary functions and spiritual gifts. Among seventeenth century Friends, a way of being church together emerged that the early Quakers called Gospel Order. The Quakers had no paid clergy, and all the members of the meeting bore a share of responsibility for ministry to and maintenance of the community. The Spirit requires each person to give time and resources to meet needs identified by the corporate body, for the sake of furthering God’s work both within the beloved community and in the wider world. In an epistle raising funds for the support of traveling ministers and imprisoned Quakers and their families, Margaret Fell described how all parts of the Quaker body were responsible for the care of those among them in need:
So let love constrain you to love one another, and be serviceable to one another, and that every one may be made willing to suffer for the Body’s sake, and that there may be no Rent in the Body, but that the Members have the same Care one over another; and where one member suffers, all the Members may suffer with it: and here is the Unity of the Spirit and the Bond of Peace. (qtd. in Garman et. al., 460.)
Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers, two early Quaker traveling ministers, were imprisoned for three years by the Inquisition. They came near death during that time, but felt upheld by the presence of God and by the prayers of their community: “[A]s owls in deserts, and as people forsaken in solitary places; then did we enjoy the presence of the Lord,…and we did see you our dear friends,…and did behold your order, and steadfastness of your faith and love to all saints, and were refreshed in all the faithful hearted, and felt the issues of love and life which did stream from the hearts of those that were wholly joined to the fountain, and were made sensible of the benefit of your prayers.” (qtd. in Mack, 209.)
Being Gathered into Community: Has being part of a community been an essential element of your spiritual journey? How did this happen for you? How do you experience God at work among the members of the community?