Discussion Guide for Session 1 on Brinton’s Friends for 350 Years

Friends for 300 Years

Howard H. Brinton, 1952 (republished in 2002 as Friends for 350 Years, available from Quakerbooks.org)

We are having a multi-part discussion series on Quaker History, using Brinton’s Friends for 300 Years as the starting point for discussion.  For the schedule for future sessions, see our calendar.  Reading the book is not necessary, but you may enjoy it.  Below is the content of the handout for the first session on 4/29/2012, led by Jim.  It provides notable excerpts along with queries for discussion.

Session 1:
Discussion of the Introduction and Chapter I

These chapters record the history and attempt to assess the value of Quaker principles and practices as they have evolved through three centuries. An effort is made to describe the essential nature of the religion of the Society of Friends through the successive stages of its development. A secondary aim is to consider the past, present and future significance of the type of religion to which Quakerism belongs. [p vii]

In interpreting early Quakerism the present writer has depended mainly on George Fox’s pastoral Epistles and Robert Barclay’s Apology or defense of the Quaker position. The first portrays Quakerism as felt, the second affords the most complete interpretation that we have of Quakerism as thought about. [p viii]

What is your experience the Quaker movement: as something that is felt, something that stands to reason, or both?

The Society of Friends has attracted attention by its continuous and widespread efforts to remove the causes and effects of war through education, mediation and relief. But this activity, important though it is as the world becomes increasingly warlike, is a limited aspect of Quakerism. Quaker peace principles and philanthropic ideals which have resulted in social pioneering can best be understood in terms of doctrines and methods more fundamental than their results in terms of activity. It may, therefore, be worthwhile for these doctrines and methods to be better understood, especially by Quakers themselves, who are frequently unaware of the roots, and fix their attention mainly on the plant above ground. [p ix]

Brinton writes that Quakerism is more than our testimonies; that these convictions are grounded more deeply in the roots of our faith. How do you see the roots of Quakerism? What lies behind your own interest in social justice and equality?

But, though one ancestor of Quakerism is the English Protestant Reformation, especially in its early stages, another ancestor can be traced in the mystical trend which has always been present in the Christian Church, producing saints and martyrs. Mysticism is a religion based on the spiritual search for an inward, immediate experience of the divine. Whenever and wherever religion becomes too formal and institutional, too dependent on external expression, the mystic rises up in protest and points the way to a religion which is internal, independent of outward forms or organization and centered in the direct apprehension of God. This experience requires no intermediary of church, priest or book. The history of all religion is a chronicle of the tension between the mystic or prophet, whose religion is inwardly grounded in experience, and the priest or theologian, whose religion is expressed through doctrine and symbol. [p xi-xii]

Both Rufus Jones and Howard Brinton emphasize the mystical nature of Quakerism. Is this framing of our faith helpful to you? What in your experience points to the inward nature of Quakerism? How would you describe the mystical experience?

But if Quakerism were only mysticism, it could not be classified as the third form of Christianity. Mysticism exists in all religions; every great world religion has its mystical sect or groups. What the Quakers, as mystics, are to Christianity, the Zen (or Chan) sect is to Buddhism, the Yogis are to Hinduism, the Sufis to Mohammedanism and the Taoists to the religion of China. But Oriental mysticism, like Oriental religion in general, is individualistic. Congregational worship can hardly be said to exist, unless it be in Mohammedanism, which is strongly influenced by its Jewish and Christian origins. Quakerism is peculiar in being a group mysticism, grounded in Christian concepts. If it had been what might be called pure mysticism, it would not belong to any particular religion, nor could it exist as a movement or sect. Pure mysticism is too subjective to provide a bond of union. [p xiii]

Quakerism represents a form of group mysticism which has persisted longer than any other instance in literate times. In the course of three centuries it has shown both the strength and the weakness of a religion of this type. The central fact of such a religion is the uniting power of the divine Spirit integrating the group as an organic whole. This is the main theme of this book. Examples drawn from the records of a single religious movement serve to show how religion as such possesses an important social function in creating social organisms. It is also evident that the divine Spirit performs the function of producing unity within the individual as well as within the group. If not resisted, the same Spirit is able to overcome all disunity everywhere among and within men, and between man and God. [p xiv]

Quakerism is said to differ from the Eastern meditative practices in that it is a form of group mysticism. Could you worship as well by yourself? Does it help to worship with a group of people? How is that different?

The saying in Matthew, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (18:20), might never have become part of the Gospel canon had it not described a central fact of early Christian experience. When Christian worship lost its spontaneity and became organized and mechanized, with human leadership more apparent than divine leadership, this living presence in the midst was no longer felt so strongly. [p3]

Have you had experience in of worship in other established religions? Do you feel that Quaker worship is more spontaneous? In what way?

The Christian Church again tended to become dry and formal. Its leaders were more interested in politics than in religion. The time was ripe for rediscovery of the divine Presence in the midst of the worshiping group and the advent of a religion which satisfied man’s longing to go beyond words about God, to God Himself. [p4]

According to Brinton, Quakerism grew out of a personal need to experience the divine in an intimate way. Is this still true today? Do Quakers speak too little about their understanding of God?

The small group which met in silence to “wait upon the Lord” was the dynamo which generated light and power in the Quaker movement. Like a dynamo, this generator drew on Power beyond itself. When these meetings became large and more dependent on preaching and human leadership, the generator degenerated, the light was dimmed and the power weakened. [p6]

What role does human leadership play in Quaker ministry? Do people get in the way of your relationship with the inner Light?

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