By walking the path of faithfulness, early Friends learned to abide in God’s great love and allow it to flow through them toward others. Their hearts become enlarged with spiritual love not only for members of their own community, but for people everywhere. Often at great sacrifice, many felt drawn to bring God’s love to particular people who were suffering or in spiritual need.
It was during the silence of deeply gathered meetings that many were first tangibly immersed in divine love. Francis Howgill described groups being caught up, as by a net, in the Kingdom of Heaven, “And from that day forward,” he wrote, “our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God….” John Banks also described being bonded by the experience of God’s powerful presence, “And 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 one unto another.”
After wealthy Isaac and Mary Penington made the sacrifices involved in becoming Quakers, they were free to invite others to meet for worship in their home. For Mary, this was a joyful entrance into a life surrendered, in love, to God:
Oh! the joy that filled my soul in the first meeting ever held in our house at Chalfont. To this day, I have a fresh remembrance of it. It was then the Lord enabled me to worship him in that which was undoubtedly his own, and give up my whole strength, yea to swim in the life which overcame me that day. Oh! Long had I desired to worship him with acceptation, and lift up my hands without doubting, which I witnessed that day in that assembly. I acknowledged his great mercy and wonderful kindness, for I could say, “This is it which I have longed and waited for, and feared I never should have experienced.
Mary Penington’s journal recounts how God sustained her in the tasks of making a new home for her family and raising her children.
Most early Quaker journals and other documents were written by those who traveled in the ministry. These Friends spoke boldly in public places and also in court, and they experienced persecution and punishment. When they were suffering as a result of carrying out God’s leadings, many had a deeply consoling experience of heavenly love, accompanied by an awareness of God’s overriding, ultimate power. After William Dewsbury become convinced that the Quaker movement was inspired by God and held within God’s control, he was filled with a spiritual power that enabled him to endure conditions of great physical misery with a calm and happy heart, including many long imprisonments:
I never since played the coward; but joyfully entered prisons as palaces, telling mine enemies to hold me there as long as they could. And in the prison-house, I sang praises to my God, and esteemed the bolts and locks put upon me as jewels; and in the name of the eternal God I always got the victory. For they could keep me no longer than the determined time of my God.
Marmaduke Stevenson, William Robinson, and Mary Dyer walked to the gallows hand in hand. Condemned to be hung, the three of them were surrounded by armed men beating drums. Nonetheless, they were calm, filled with a peaceful assurance of God’s love. One official asked Mary Dyer, a graying middle aged mother of many children, if she wasn’t ashamed to be holding the hands of two young men. For several days Mary had been experiencing Paradise, and she responded that was immersed in the flow of divine love: “[T]his is to me an hour of the greatest joy I ever had in this World. No ear can hear, no tongue can utter, no heart can understand the sweet incomes or influence, and the refreshings of the Spirit of the Lord which now I feel.”
Communities and networks of Friends found themselves bound together in tender love for one another. Those who had served as spiritual mentors by preaching, teaching, and modeling the Quaker message were like spiritual mothers and fathers. Often a spiritual love infused relationships of those who traveled and suffered in the ministry together. Their letters sometimes expressed a tenderness rivaling even the bond between spouses and family members. They were carried through difficult trials not only by a strong feeling of being enfolded by God’s love for them, but also by an awareness of being bonded in love to one another. During a period when he was at liberty, Marmaduke Stevenson wrote a loving letter to his imprisoned companion in ministry, Christopher Holder. They were both traveling in the ministry in the harsh territory of New England. Not long after writing this letter, Marmaduke Stevenson was also back in the Boston jail, condemned to death. Here, however, he is consoling his imprisoned companion:
O my dearly beloved of my father, my soul and life salutes thee, for thou are dear to me in the love which changeth not, but doth endure forever; am I one with thee in the life and power of truth, where we are joined together as members of his Body who is our Head, and our preserver night and day, where we are kept safe under the shadow of his wings, where we feed together in the green pastures by the pleasant springs, where thou may feel me, my beloved one, at the living fountain which doth refresh the whole city of our God, where we are daily refreshed together in the banqueting house, where we do receive strength and nourishment from him who is our life and fills us with his living virtue day by day…. For it hath ravished our hearts whereby we are constrained to leave all to follow it, who gathers our hearts in one, where I am joined and sealed with thee in the covenant of life….
Divinely inspired love helped Friends risk and endure terrible punishments for the sake of helping others to know God and live in the Light. Those called to travel in the ministry were motivated by God’s love for the divine “seed,” Christ, in those to whom they were sent. In a tract detailing the repeated life-threatening punishments she endured in the course of her ministry in Puritan Massachusetts, Elizabeth Hooton wrote, “All this and much more I have gone through and suffered, and much more could I for the Seed’s sake which is Buried and Oppressed… Yes, the Love that I bear to the Souls of all Men, making me willing to undergo whatsoever can be inflicted.”
After a year’s journey to bring a message to the Sultan of Turkey, a journey that required traveling alone through a land inhabited by people that Europeans considered to be the enemies of Christendom, Mary Fisher wrote of the powerful love God had engendered in her heart for the people of Turkey: “They are more near truth than many Nations. There is a love begot in me towards them which is endless, but this is my hope concerning them, that he who hath raised me to love them more than many others will also raise his seed in them unto which my love is.”
Abiding in God’s Love and Power: Have you ever been moved to action by a love greater than yourself? Have you served people because of a sense of God’s love for them, or sacrificed for another? Have you felt God’s love bonding you to others or bringing your community into unity? In what ways have you or your community experienced God’s power?
* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The next post will describe Friends’ experiences of Divine Love and Power Today.
A Whole Heart has pages on Bibliography and Upcoming Workshops.
(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin
Thanks Marcelle. What struck me about this is how freely Marmaduke Stevenson could express his love for his companion. Your blog makes it sound like that was common (at least among Quakers) at the time, rather than being personal to him. It is very difficult to express that kind of love so freely now, I’d say. I wonder if this is linked to the much more open expression of sexual love and sexual desire?
Anyway, to answer your question, as you know I lived in an intentional community providing support and home to destitute asylum seekers, and I did that because of a love that felt greater than myself. And I developed a very deep love for the person with whom I ran that community. I was going to say that’s because of the particular experience of living in community, sharing everything: meals, prayer, work with marginalised people. But actually I didn’t develop that love for anyone else I’ve lived with in other communities (some of whom I didn’t like that much – but still loved in a way, wanting the best for them and sitting down to eat/pray together despite all the difficulties).
Rachel, Thanks so much for commenting on the post! I am awed by how openly, poetically and intimately the early Quakers could express love to each other. Marmaduke’s letter is one of the most moving, but just one of many. Thanks for your experience of a powerful love that began in community.
I tried to be the first one to “like this”, but could not log in!!?? As always I enjoy your writing and especially the Old Quakers thoughts’ about all this stuff. thanks– Terry
Recently, while sitting in worship in a pod of Cincinnati’s Justice Center, the county jail, I felt a profound sense of unity among those present. There were four of us white women from the Friends meeting sitting in gathered silence among twenty-five or more black men, and a couple white and hispanic men, who were all charged with committing a crime, some of whom were awaiting sentencing for their upcoming prison term. One learns deeply in that type of situation that our culture’s conception of the Sacred, who is pure and who is not, who has access to and receives blessings from God, is totally out of line.
Thank you so much for these postings, Marcelle. I have developed a little ‘sending’ ministry myself by passing them along to others in my sphere. The words you send always seem to meet my heart and speak to my condition. It is a good ministry. Many who are not Quakers have been drawn in.
Keep them coming!
On Tue, Aug 27, 2013 at 9:29 AM, A Whole Heart
Wonderful segment of your series, Marcelle! The joy expressed by the early Friends you quote reminds me of the deathbed statements by early Friends quoted in Lucy Screechfield-McIver’s PH pamphlet “A Song of Death”. How have I experienced this in my life? First of all, in “covered” worship – many times over my life (thankfully). Also, I have recurring dreams of long ago experiences in community (like the Young Adult Friends community “New Swarthmoor” I was part of for several years in my twenties). Intentional community at its best gives us a taste of the Kingdom. Also why QuakerSpring means so much to me…. Thank you. (also appreciated Rachel’s comment above about how pervasive sexual stuff in our culture makes it harder to show our love for each other in our faith communities.)
The language of the heart carries it’s own fragrance, and a certain exuberance. That language speaks deeply to me.
There is certainly a lot to know about this subject.
I like all of the points you’ve made.