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?
* * * * * 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!
c) 2013 Marcelle Martin