We’re now a multitude of approaching 3000 doing FutureLearn’s online course about the early Quakers. If all the students took a lunch break together Professor Dandelion would be needing a miracle from some loaves and fishes.
The course gets more and more interesting and engaging. The accounts from the time are vibrant and engaging, and the expert conversations filmed in the beautiful and evocative setting of 1652 country.
Course tutors filmed in the “1652 country” setting where the events in question took place.
The message of Fox and the early Quakers message was clearly compelling; bypassing all the complexity, hubris, clutter of the established church, cutting out the middleman, showing people can have a direct relationship with the divine. This spoke to the condition of the enquiring, independent-minded, somewhat derided people of the north.
The passage by Howgill evokes the sheer excitement of the time.
The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: ‘What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men?
At the same time we learned and discussed how unpopular the Quakers were. Middlemen don’t take kindly to being bypassed. The course has yet to go into just how bad this got, but it’s clear that prison and persecution are coming. Society doesn’t like being upturned. An educated clergy with a secure established position, benefitting from tithes, is hardly going to enjoy being dismissed as “hirelings” and their beautiful churches derided as “steeplehouses” or “hireling-shepherds’ tents”.
The various discussion threads I got involved were all pertinent and interesting. We looked at the role of the Bible for the early Friends. Were they reliant on Scripture? Clearly Friends’ writings were rich in Biblical metaphor and language. And there was evidently more to it than that, but just how much more? I was interested to learn that early Quakers saw themselves as fulfilling the prophetic words of Jeremiah (31: 31 – 34):
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbour,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
There was discussion about people being “converted”. It’s clear that people were not “converted to Fox”, as the course suggested at one point, and even being “converted to Quakerism” sounds not quite right to me. “Convinced” is a very Quakerly word, and if Quaker practice is a matter between the individual and the divine it seems more meaningful to talk about being transformed by Fox’s ideas, and adopting the practice than “converting” as if to an established creed.
It might seem that the students’ discussions quickly abandoned the c17th history course topic, and drifted instead to people’s preoccupations today. In one sense Fox’s story is not that earth-shattering: bloke walks up a hill at a febrile time, decides the established church is useless and you can have a direct relationship with God, tells others who like the idea.
But two points. First: we all accept in the discussion that his perception is highly significant. By asserting the equality of all he undermines the entire social and religious establishment, and does so on a solid foundation not just of a plausible theology but a personal experience of the divine, which others clearly also experienced for themselves. And second: switching straight to discussing our own perceptions and experiences (in a deep and respectful way, I should add) isn’t missing the point of the course about early Quakers. It’s precisely what Fox’s breakthrough allows us to do. His perception affects us all, and empowers us to address these matters together directly, without the intermediation of sacred texts and an established priesthood.
The course lecturers facilitate this process capably and with a light touch. Clearly they know the facts better than the students who have come to learn, but the depth, quality and the equality of the debate serve to prove Fox’s point.