Humbled by Chickens; Some Thoughts on Eary Friends

The garden has been planted, finally, with cool weather vegetables: carrots, peas, lettuce, kale, spinach. I was quite proud of the neat rows, the lack of clods ( a miracle of manure and compost in our heavy clay) and the netting for the peas. The next morning, inevitably, the chickens discovered all that lovely tilth, and decided it was fine for scratching and catching earthworms and tiny bugs; or alternatively, for dust-baths. I've spent the last fews days chasing them off, all the while watching my nice orderly rows disappear under under chicken footprints.

I am certain there is a message in this.

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Some thoughts on early Friends. There are a few things that stand out. First of all, how profoundly threatening was Quakerism was to the prevailing religious and societal mores of the 17th century England. In this we have to keep in mind that Fox preached in a pre-Enlightenment society, deeply hierachical and religious --- it is hardly possible to overstate this --- fuelled with the fires of Cromwell's Puritan revolution and the reaction after the Restoration: all the elements of liberal democracy as we understand it could hardly be conceived.

Fox and the others preached a radical doctrine: no bowing or scraping, no hat honour, universal peace, equality of women, refusing to swear oaths, plain speech, the Inner Light of continuing revelation: the core of Quaker testimonies. If you believed, as received opinion in the 17th century went, that God had appointed order in society from the King downwards, every person in their place, it was easy to see how subversive Quaker doctrine was: refusing to swear oaths in the royal courts, for example, was open defiance of the King's justice, and by extension, of the King himself; refusing to bare head or use the second person plural before those deemed superior attacked the natural order of the world. If you were a Puritan (or Anglican divine), the concept of the Inner Light smacked of blasphemy, being a wicked violation of the doctrine of sola scriptura on one hand or else received tradition and Act of Parliament in the form of the 39 Articles on the other.

Three things to consider:

1. Early Friends, in general, were not persecuted for holding heterodox beliefs about what we might consider "core" Christian doctrine; as has been tirelessly pointed out, most early Friends had rather conventional beliefs about the doctrine of trinity, vicarious atonement of sin and so on, even if they regarded any theorizing on these topics as being notional. But they were persecuted for directly attacking the basis of the 17th century church and state, and on matters that might be thought of as "peripheral" to core Christian doctrine, an indication, to my mind, of their importance. Even to us.

1. All of the conventions of 17th century religious and political thought --- a hierarchical, stratified society, the radical inequality of human beings, the subordinate place of women, war as a just means of enforcing state policy, slavery, the edifice and ritual of state religion, Puritan radicalism --- were justified by Scripture. Early Friends challenged those assumptions at great cost, ground between the upper and nether stones of Anglicanism and Puritanism, by radically reintrepreting Scripture in unconventional ways, to be consistent with a message of love, or guided by the Inner Light, tossing out bits of Scripture altogether as being inconsistent with their experience of God. Paul's injunction against women preaching went almost immediately, for example.

3. Quakers were not passive in being persecuted, and were willing to use the machinery and language of state to defend their beliefs: Consider trial of William Penn, which established the legal principle of jury nullification. When I read the account of Penn's trial I am often moved. His argument, to be sure was, religiously motivated: the ability to openly preach the message of Fox speaks to a deep understanding of the Inner Light; yet the language he speaks in the Old Bailey is one of law and jurisprudence, not religion: he appeals to the common law and the Great Charter, he demands his rights be respected. He draws a direct line from his religious experience to to the validation of his conscience by political right. It is the explication of the divine Voice in the public sphere.

All of which have little to do with the essentials of Christianity, transcendent. What does the doctrine of the Trinity care for the trifles of the common law? But has it everything to do with the essentials of Quakerism, God immanent or even Christ immanent?

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