The Quaker Method of Worship

Edward Grubb, 1917, Healdley Bros., London, pp. 50-53.

It was no slavish imitation of the practices of the Corinthian Church that led George Fox and his friends to adopt a new method of public worship. There is no evidence, I think, that the Corinthians practiced silent waiting; possibly it would have been better for them if they had. Before Fox's time, however, it had been used by Henry Nicholas, the founder of the "Family of Love;" and in his own day it was being practiced by some of the "Seekers" who found in him the prophet they were looking for. William Penn writes:

"They sometimes met together, not formally to pray or preach, at appointed times and places, in their own will, as in times past they were accustomed to do; but waited together in silence, and as anything rose in any one of their minds that they thought savoured of a Divine spring, so they sometimes spoke."

George Fox had special reasons of his own for adopting a similar course. He records how, in his early struggles after light and truth, it was "opened" to him "that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ;" and he saw that this "struck at the priest's ministry." He had not been happy in his intercourse with the "priests" to whom he had gone for advice and help in his distress. One told him to take tobacco and sing psalms. Another, whom he went seven miles to call on, he found "like an empty hollow cask." Another flew into a rage, "as if his house had been on fire," when the young man in his nervousness accidentally trod on his flower bed. And so when at last he, a simple layman, found the Light for himself, he concluded not only that priestly mediation was an error, but that any Christian might be called to minister to others of that which God had given him. The real ministry, he was sure, must be that which was directly inspired by the Spirit, not sermons which a man concocted out of his own head, or prayers which he read from a book.

Moreover, the "children of the Light," as they met together, were abundantly conscious of the presence of Another among them, to whom they freely surrendered the control and guidance of their gatherings. They felt that One alone was their Master, and that they were all brethren; they could not therefore look to any human leader to conduct their worship and tell them what to do. From the first, after he came out as a preacher of the Light, Fox refused to speak until he was sure of his message; and then he found that it went home with power. Among the moors, near Pickering in Yorkshire, he tells us (1651): "I sat on a haystack, and spoke nothing for some hours; for I was to famish them from words." The people waited restlessly, wondering when he would begin. "At last I was moved of the Lord to speak; and they were all reached by the Lord's power and word of life, and there was a general convincement among them." In a company of Seekers, numbering several hundreds, at Preston Patrick Chapel in Westmoreland (1652), Fox sat in silence for half-an-hour, while the usual preacher, Francis Howgill, tried several times to speak, but in vain. At last Fox stood up "in the mighty power of God," and "most of the auditory were convinced of the truth that very day." This was one of the meetings in the "crowded fortnight that formed the creative moment in the history of Quakerism." It was as the "publishers of truth" waited for the power to come, and the right message to be given, that great things were wrought through their ministry.

Further, they felt that "walking in the Light" meant reality in all things, and most of all in the approach to God in public worship. "God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." Such worship, they were convinced, could not be a performance devised by man and gone through in man's own will and way. Since Christ Himself was their leader, they must wait in silence that He might have opportunity to direct them. An arranged order of service, they thought, denied liberty to the Spirit of God. Prayer from a book, however dignified and beautiful the words, might easily become unreal if it did not truly express the experience and the actual desires of those who used it. "I love to feel where words come from:" this was an expression once used to John Woolman by an Indian, who only partially understood his language. Words that would really help the worship of God must be quickened words, drawn forth by the Spirit out of the deep wells of a living experience.

Silence, in the Quaker ideal of worship, is therefore not an end in itself but a means to an end. The real end of Christian worship is that a company of people should offer themselves to God in such true self-surrender that He can use them as He will; and silence is believed to facilitate the offering and to remove the barriers that restrict the Divine liberty. It is not negative but positive; not a denial that true worship may be known in other ways, but an affirmation that it is known pre-eminently in this way. It affirms our assurance that the presence of Christ among His people is real: so real that they can trust Him to direct and control their gatherings. It is a direct outcome of the conviction and experience of the Inward Light.

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