Leadings of the Spirit

As many as are led by the Spirit of God, are the sons of God. Romans 8:14

During my college years, I received some inward direction about decisions that had important  consequences.  These inward promptings related to a sense of a mysterious destiny or purpose for my life.  I would not, at the time, have called them “leadings of the Spirit,” but that’s what they were.  Only several years later did I begin to understand that I–along with others–had been born to participate in God’s healing purposes for humanity and the earth.

Some of the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey I’ve described in this blog are infrequently discussed today.  Leadings, however, are commonly identified.  Friends in our time have created the clearness committee process to help one another discern when an inward prompting comes from God and when it comes from another source.  Many of us have discerned leadings from the Spirit of God and have followed them with the desire to be as faithful as possible.  In this we share a common understanding with early Friends.

I do not remember seeing the word leading in the writing of seventeenth-century Quakers.  More often they spoke of feeling a “drawing” or of receiving an “opening” to do something, or of having a “weighty exercise” placed upon them.  Many wrote of being “moved of the Lord” or “commanded of the Lord” to do a particular act.  Romans 8:14 was quoted by many of them, and on at least one occasion in court, William Dewsbury quoted this piece of scripture using inclusive language:  As many as are led by the Spirit of God, are the Sons and Daughters of God.

As a person grows in sensitivity to God’s loving desires for life on earth, particular human ways that are contrary to divine Love and Truth become more evident and more painful to endure.  People who desire to be faithful may experience a special burden being placed on them in relation to some particular need or wrong or injustice in the world.  This is often described as being “exercised” about something, or having a “concern” placed upon one.  Since the beginning of Quakerism, some Friends have felt a concern to address the spiritual alienation and oppression that lie at the root of all addictive and harmful behaviors and unjust social systems. 

Individuals or groups on whom a concern has been placed or who are called to undertake a particular kind of ministry may then experience God leading them to take some particular action.  Early Friends usually experienced promptings, first of all, to faithfulness in the particulars of daily life.  Barbara Blaugdone felt God asking her to give up the fancy clothing and flattering speech that marked a higher social status, and then to simplify her diet: “As the Evil was made manifest, I departed from it, and willingly took up the Cross, and yielded Obedience unto it, in plainness of Speech and in my Habit [clothing]….  And then the Lord caused me to abstain from all Flesh, Wine and Beer whatsoever, and I drank only Water for the space of a whole Year; and in that time the Lord caused me to grow and to prosper in the Truth.” (qtd. in Garman et. al., 275-276.)

Ordinary  people–farmers, artisans, tradesmen, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters–were led by God to civil disobedience in the form of refusing to pay mandatory tithes to the state church. They also gathered publicly in meetings for worship, which were forbidden.  Many were put in prison for such things, and other members of the community felt led to offer support to the prisoners and their families.

Concerns, calls, and leadings are not general precepts learned from reading scripture and listening to sermons.  Although early Friends believed that any genuine prompting from God was consonant with scripture and a holy life, calls and leadings are guided from within by the still small voice of God or by an unmistakable inward movement of the Holy Spirit.  Seventeenth-century Quakers read the scripture stories of prophets, saints and holy people with the understanding that God wanted to work in their lives in the same way.  As they surrendered to divine promptings and responded faithfully to the calls and leadings they received, they learned to let God–through Christ–be the initiator of their actions, and also the power that made everything happen.  In this way, they gradually allowed God to incarnate more fully in the world.

William Caton, a young man who had been brought up in the household of Margaret and Thomas Fell, became a Quaker traveling minister at a young age and was led to bring the Quaker message to Holland.  He wrote a letter describing a leading he felt to marry a young Dutch woman named Annekin Diericx: “I felt a] mighty clear opening of my proffering of my self to take [Annekin’s] part in marriage….  This thing settled in me, and grew clearer and clearer, neither could I expel it as heretofore I could have done [a] flashing thought which have come as lightenings in some cases,…  for the longer it continued the more assurance I came to have in my self, of the thing being of the Lord….  And in the mean time it came to be shown unto me, how I should proceed in the thing:  As first of all…I was to propound it to some dear friends to hear and receive their advice…and so much subjection I found then in my spirit that if they…had no unity with the thing that then I could (I believe) have let the thing have fallen and have rested satisfied in myself about it…. (qtd. in Mack, 159.)  This is one of the earliest written descriptions of a Quaker seeking “clearness” about a leading to marriage.

Margaret Fell felt a concern about the growth and spiritual health of her newfound Quaker community, and she received a call to nurture the community with all the skills and resources at her command.  She responded  by holding a regular meeting for worship in her home, by providing hospitality to traveling Friends, by maintaining a network of communication and care, by collecting and distributing funds, by writing epistles and tracts to communicate the Quaker message, by traveling in the ministry, and by working for the release of Quaker prisoners.  Within the scope of her wide call to ministry in these forms, she received many leadings to particular actions. 

Many early Quakers felt called to leave home and travel in the ministry, speaking, writing, and teaching about a more true and loving way for human beings to live.  In seventeenth-century England and the colonies, they were often imprisoned for doing so.  Elizabeth Hooton, the second Quaker traveling minister, responded boldly to the leading she received and quickly landed in prison, along with George Fox.  William Dewsbury heard the call years before it was time to leave his family and home.  James Nayler and Marmaduke Stephens heard God speak to them directly, while plowing their fields.  Francis Howgill received his call after an intense experience of surrendering to God and experiencing a new birth.  Each time these courageous Friends were released from prison, they listened for the next leading, sometimes struggled, and then obeyed. 

Leadings of the Spirit: How have you or someone you know been led by the Spirit to undertake a particular action, big or small?  How did you know you were experiencing a leading from God and not being motivated by something else?  Did you resist the leading?  If you followed your leading, what were the fruits?  What helps us respond faithfully to a leading?

narrow gate

 * * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The  next post will describe Friends’ experiences of Leadings in our time.  Please respond and share your own experience!

 A Whole Heart has pages on Bibliography  and Upcoming Workshops.

 c) 2013 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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7 Responses to Leadings of the Spirit

  1. Stephen says:

    How do you know when it’s God leadng you? Are there common themes and signs? Maybe you can elaborate on the next post? Thanks. 🙂

  2. Phillip Swank says:

    After the Sandy Hook massacre in December, I despaired emotionally and spiritually. As a United Methodist, I had no awareness of this sense of leadings in the sense of Friends. But, I responded to the despair as a prompting of the Holy Spirit and witnessed to my concern about gun violence in America. In the weeks following Sandy Hook, I stood and stated the concern in worship (a thing I never did before), I wrote to my pastor, and denominational leadership. All of my inquiries were ignored or rebuffed with a concern that any federal policy actions might interfere with 2nd amendments rights. I was appalled by this response within Methodism and mainline Christianity. I pulled out an old, tucked-away copy of Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion and had a re-opening of the my spirit that gave me the yearning to live the Quaker Testimonies. As I explored the power of the Divine and the Testimonies, I was given strength to leave my comfortable rural community methodist church and seek fellowship with Friends. God now has me on a better path of Truth as I live with renewed sense of integrity, peace, simplicity, care for the earth, concern for equality and the fruits of community.
    Thank you for your special ministry Friend Marcelle!
    Phil Swank

  3. Bill Samuel says:

    I had one experience of a very specific leading a few decades ago. I received a call on a Wednesday evening about a called meeting to be held that Sunday a number of hours away, and was invited to be present. As I pondered this after the call, I felt what seemed to be a leading to go there, but wondered if this was truly from God or something from within my own will.

    On Thursday evening, I went to Mid-Week Meeting with this matter in mind, hoping that in this worship I would become clear. During worship, I did come to feel it was a leading. I also felt called to have a traveling companion, and a specific name was given to me. This person did not have a permanent address and I didn’t really know how to reach him, but I left a note on a bulletin board of a restaurant near the meeting I knew he often went to. I felt this sort of improbable hope of reaching the indicated traveling companion was an opportunity to let the Spirit lead and a test of the validity of my sense of leading.

    My friend called me on Friday and I explained the leading and that it included a sense that he was to be my traveling companion. He felt clear to so serve, and we arranged to meet on Saturday to drive to the destination. So I felt confirmed in the leading, but was not at all clear as to why God was calling me to this travel.

    When we reached the destination, where we had arranged to meet with Friends at the Meetinghouse that Saturday evening, we were invited to stay with those Friends. However, I had a sense that we needed to stay in the Meetinghouse as spiritual preparation for the following day, and the Friends agreed that we could do that.

    I became quite troubled during the course of time between our arrival at the Meetinghouse and meeting for worship the next day. I didn’t know why I was called here, and even considered not attending. My spiritual companion was of immense help to me in calming me down and preparing me to enter the morning’s worships (there was actually the regular worship, followed by the called worship).

    During the called worship, I was led to offer vocal ministry. By the end of the meeting, I felt I understood why God called me to it. From my experiences, I had a perspective on the matter underlying the called meeting (a Friend imprisoned for conscience) that no one local had and that the Friends gathered much needed. I was able to share with them (and the TV crew filming this for a Bill Moyers’ special, which wound up never being aired) a sense of God’s victory in the situation which they had not had.

    Even though in some respects this did not fit the traditional pattern, there not being any opportunity for a meeting to consider my call, it did confirm some traditional understandings. One is that you may not understand why you are called to something, but that does not relieve you of the need to follow the leading. In fact, that produces greater reliance on Divine guidance as you can not accomplish the purpose through your own will, because you do not know the purpose. Secondly, it confirmed the wisdom that generally someone traveling in the ministry should have a traveling companion as an aid to their faithfulness. I certainly felt the value of this quite strongly in this instance.

  4. elizaga says:

    In love the image of the fence gate in this post!

    On Fri, May 31, 2013 at 2:22 PM, A Whole Heart

  5. In 1990, Buffalo Meeting in New York Yearlly Meeting asked the fledgling Friends in Unity with Nature task group to send a program for Earth Day Sunday, the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day. A F/friend and I went and while praying over what I had prepared on Talva Chapin’s hide-a-bed, I had an “opening” that would not go away. I gave the new message the next morning, instead of what I had prepared, which was not received very well.

    But it stuck with me. And it started to grow. And in a few weeks, the opening had become a leading: to write a book about earth stewardship based on a radical reading of the Bible.

    Now I had spent the last several years persecuting Christians in my meeting and actively opposing teaching the Bible in First Day School. I hated the Bible. But once, I had loved the Bible. And I knew it really well. I had read the whole thing almost twice and memorized large sections.

    This leading was what Friends used to call a “cross to the will,” meaning that my own will would have to be crucified in order to be faithful. So I asked my meeting for an oversight committee, knowing that I was likely to get into real trouble with this project.

    For a number of reasons, the oversight committee did not materialize, so I was on my own. The leading led me back to the Bible. I have been studying it lovingly ever since (1991).

    The way I knew it was a leading from God was that it grew so organically, it was a cross to the will, and it bore such abundant fruit—and I could not not follow it.

  6. treegestalt says:

    After I threw a friend of mine out of the storage room in my used book store, he was picked up by the police for trying to hitchhike out of town. Released, Larry was in a food line at Father Joe’s where some people were starting to fight. He told them they should be organizing to improve the City’s policies towards homeless people — something he’d been concerned about since the time we’d met him ten years before, when he’d seen police actively harassing homeless people around the gas station where he’d work nights.

    Larry, Anne and I had attended many open poetry readings in the area back then, had heard quite a bit about what the police were doing to drive the homeless population away. Later, having moved our bookstore downtown, Anne & I ourselves could see enough of what was happening to know that Larry’s project was a worthy effort, worthy enough to warrant the inconvenience of his presence. And our participation.

    It was truly a lost cause. And we were truly called to it. We didn’t need no stinkin committee to know that. Results? Mixed. We’re sure the situation would have been worse without our efforts over the next ten years. And our efforts did turn out helpful to at least some of the people we came to know.

    This also led us to attend the local Friends Meeting. I was telling Larry we should approach them for help. Why? Because, I told him, if there was anyone trying to practice Christianity the way God intended, it was the Quakers. When I said this I found myself crying. & knew I was hooked.

    The Quaker response was not overwhelming — but led to some remarkable events over the years. We couldn’t seem to get the Meeting to see the urgency. But one old lady, the last time she came before entering hospice, slipped me a small donation. “You’re doing this for us, you know.”

    So many times we saw God’s hand in what happened & how, so much of the plot of our lives depended on it… including our decision, when he’d had to sell our house, to put in a year at Pendle Hill. Having realized that the problem was spiritual, that the political obstacles were built into the system beyond any hope of handling them by political means, I was hoping we’d learn some way to address the problem from that perspective.

    Instead, I returned to find that others had taken over our old street newspaper. & didn’t want our help; we were too “radical”! Ah, blessed relief!

    The extent of homelessness has only grown, since. But the City is grudgingly starting to do many of the things we’d proposed. A new place for formerly-homeless veterans has recently gone up down the street from our present digs. We’ve met a few of the inmates, at the bus stop — nice people.

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