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A Burning Fire

In the first generation of the Quaker movement, news of the gospel spread across Britain from house to house, city to city. Quickly, the message was taken abroad to the continent of Europe and to the British colonies in the Americas. These early years of Quakerism were characterized by an untamed passion for sharing the good news, inviting others into spiritual communion with Christ and with each other.

This good news spread largely outside of official channels. While Margaret Fell provided practical aid and a communications hub at Swarthmoor Hall, there were not initially formal structures for organizing the wave of evangelism that proceeded from the north of England. The Religious Society of Friends began as an organic movement of the apostolic faith. The Lord called women and men to ministry, and they responded with obedience. Christ used these 17th-century apostles to preach the word and gather his people Friends Meetinghouse and Graveyardtogether. Everywhere the traveling evangelists went, the Holy Spirit raised up local leaders and established new communities.

Within decades, this burst of pentecostal fervor had established an organic network of Meetings across Britain and the American colonies. Yet, just as this movement reached the peak of its intensity in the early 1660s, severe persecution came. Friends organized themselves in increasingly centralized bodies – Yearly Meetings – as a way to coordinate their response to nationwide persecution, especially in England.

The persecution eventually passed, but Friends’ new emphasis on centralized structures remained. Over time, passionate, evangelical faith diminished and institutional centralization increased, accompanied by an increasing reliance on procedure as a source of authority. Eventually, many Friends would come to believe that it was procedure that defined them. Orthopraxy and institutional authority increasingly usurped the unpredictable guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Today, Friends are steeped in the institutional apparatus of former generations. We appoint members to committees and boards. We govern non-profit organizations. We manage historical sites. WeQuaker Graveyard are generally nice, respectable, civic-minded people. But where is the spiritual power?

What happened to the fire that drove early Friends to cross oceans? What became of the radical faith that led women and men to face death, torture and imprisonment? How often are we imprisoned for the gospel today? How many of our Meetings actively support the spread of the good news that Jesus Christ is here to teach us himself? We are often so busy maintaining the institutional legacy of our ancestors that we spend more time keeping up buildings than we do sharing the good news of Jesus with our neighbors.

But that does not have to be the end of the story. Just like the early Friends, we have an opportunity to challenge the status quo and live into the fantastic life and love that Jesus reveals in our hearts and in our life as a community. It is important to remember that those early Quakers we admire so much got into a lot of trouble. They upset people and caused division in their communities. They were not popular among respectable people.

Are we today ready to take the same kinds of risks for Truth that our spiritual ancestors did? How can we support one another in breaking out of business as usual and re-discover the mission that Jesus has for us? What does radical discipleship look like in 21st-century America?

  • thanks for this Friend, its a important issue you are raising, and you speak to my condition. These and other questions are important not only for America but slso for places and countries like my own – Denmark

    In friendship Brian

  • Early Quakers were often seekers – they had left the established church for other faith groups, and no wonder – the established church was mired in legalism and crippling hierarchy, after its fervour of the 1500s. It is abitter fact, though, that when humans gather, they must establish order, and order can become legalism. But the only way to receive the Holy Spirit is to pray for the Spirit; the only way to cultivate the work of the Spirit is to prepare one’s heart as a fertile garden. I am, perhaps futilely, trying to take that prophetic message to my own discipline – the Anglican Church. Anglicans still need this revival of the Spirit, but what church doesn’t?

  • ms

    radicalism demands a deep and passionate commitment to the spirit. it is so easy to ignore the spirit these days (although i’m sure distractions have always presented themselves in every age)–perhaps quaker communities can help us to commit more fully by providing a space where listening to the spirit is not only accepted but encouraged. but committing to the spirit is difficult, and requires one to separate from others in order to understand the self and its ultimate nothingness. it can be painful and wrought with conflict. perhaps radicalism demands that we separate from our quaker roots. participating in quaker community may be one part of the spiritual journey, but perhaps not all of it, and perhaps not at certain periods on that path. how can quaker communities accept members who may be finding spiritual strength in other places? is the community still responsible for that individual?

    as a birthright friend, sometimes i wonder whether i need to break from quakerism in order to understand my spirituality more deeply. troubling, but also quite exciting…

  • Micah, Thank thee so much for writing what’s been on my heart for some time.

    Recently I’ve been shedding institutional “stuff” to unfetter myself so that grace can flow more freely. Much of our institutional life has little bearing on faith or witness, whatever else we might claim for the institutions that bind us.

  • I appreciate your post. But I think part of the excitement and evangelical fervor of early Friends had to do with a kind of Reformation obsession with the idea that they – unlike all the Christians who had gone before them – “had finally gotten it [Christ’s message] right”. This was combined with a feeling that a good many groups felt at the time, that the end of the world was at hand because they had finally gotten it right. I think that Fox and early Friends had amazing insights into a mystical understanding of Christ’s spirit and life in us, but I think they erred in abandoning some of the outward forms that permit the essentials to be brought forward from one generation to another so that the core narrative of the faith is not lost.

  • Micah,

    You speak my mind. The Spirit is always calling, but how do we respond. Too often Friends seem distracted by the ways of this world. We seek comfort, and if there is one thing I’ve learned about Truth it is that Truth Discomforts.

    In order to receive and live the Truth, we need to accept the fact that we will be made Uncomfortable. Only when we can live with that can we be ready for the fire within to burst forth and ignite us!

    Are the photos on your Blog perhaps of a certain Meeting House very near and dear to my heart?

    In the Light,


  • Micah,

    I am glad to read of this, as these things have been on my mind too as of late (did you see this ?). My hope that we find our way forward in integrity and acting from love.


  • Amen!

  • Amen!

  • Adria


    Thanks for your post. I’ve thought about this issue a lot, and I think that part of the problem is that in many of our Meetings, there is no consensus on what the “good news of Quakerism” is. Is it that Christ has come to teach his people himself? In many Meetings, only a minority of people take this phrase literally. Is it that there is that of God in everyone? Perhaps, but is that enough for anyone to get excited about, standing alone? I think our spiritual forebears had a strong sense of identity as Friends, and a lot more unity about what that meant. It would be difficult to get a Meeting to support people to evangelize when evangelism is a dirty word and when we don’t agree on so many things in the first place. The things we DO agree on (SPICE, listening, potlucks, etc.) probably don’t make much of a Gospel. But that’s just my take on things.

  • I really think we need the structure, without it we cannot work together, but instead will be a bunch of individual ranters.

    That being said, structure without vision, without a common faith in God, and without some clarity of purpose is not going to be very successful.

    For now, I’m holding out that many of the structures can transform and preach how Jesus speaks to the condition of our time. For those arguing about whether or not they want Jesus — I’m about done arguing with them… eventually they will be disappointed with politics, and they are already irrelevant to my life and purpose.

  • I think Catholic-Quaker touches on an important point. How is what is essential to the faith passed on?

    The outward forms can take the place of true faith, which is what early Friends reacted against, but they can also serve the purpose of reminding us of the spirit which was at least originally behind the forms.

    Some aspects of the organizational structure Friends set up probably did serve to pass the faith on. I am thinking particularly of elders and of traveling ministers. But like the traditional forms early Friends threw out, they can also stifle the Spirit. The indications are that this happened to no small degree with elders.

    I think part of the problem with Quakers was the cultish aspect – they (or at least some of the early leaders at some times) rejected all the rest of organized Christianity as apostate & essentially acted as if only they (Quakers) had the Truth. This easily leads to self-righteousness and a focus on how we are different from those Christians, a problem that can be readily seem among contemporary Quakers despite the abandonment of some of the aspects of early Quakerism.

    Shouldn’t we be trying to focus on being faithful to Christ, not preserving a tradition?

    ms, I would recommend that you spend some time (enough time to really get the sense of them, not just a Sunday or 2) with other Christian traditions to get a fresh look at spirituality. I would particularly recommend liturgical and charismatic/pentecostal traditions. Both have a lot of spiritually dead congregations as well as vital ones. You will need to find relatively vital ones to really be challenged to grow in your spirituality.

  • @Brian I am so glad that you found this post useful beyond the bounds of North America!

    I’d love to hear about how Friends are doing in Denmark. Feel free to send me an email at micahbales [at] gmail [dot] com.

    @Magdalena I’m glad for your ministry to the Anglican communion of the Church. I hope we can all keep learning from one another as we grow in Christ.

    @ms I find it interesting that you are feeling an impulse to leave the Religious Society of Friends after a lifetime within it. This may be healthy. I left Christianity entirely for many years in high school and college, eventually coming back with renewed and deepened meaning to my faith.

    What Quaker group are you a part of?

    @Christine I’m glad that this essay spoke to thy condition.

    Institutions are necessary, of course, but they should reflect our spiritual commitments and needs, rather than being simply unexamined holdovers from bygone generations.

    @Catholic-Quaker I think you’re sort of right, but I would put it a different way. I think the early Friends believed that they had “gotten it right” precisely because the world (as they knew it) was coming to an end.

    I actually do agree with you that the early Friends probably stripped away too much of our story-telling traditions in pursuit of a purer, more Christ-centered faith. Nevertheless, I think that they got many things right. So many of the traditions that are still carried by the Eastern, Roman and Protestant churches are, in my estimation, human teachings rather than divine mandates.

    @Tony Hi, Tony! I’m glad you noticed which meetinghouse was in the photos! I hope that things are going well with Friends where you are. It would be lovely to reconnect with you sometime.

    @Callid I had seen that, via your Twitter feed. I thought the way you made the background appear white was cool. Thanks for sharing!

  • @Pat 🙂

    @Adria I agree with you that modern-day Quakerism is often confused and off of its Foundation. I suppose that my response to this is to attempt to live a more faithful form of Christianity in the Quaker tradition.

    I’m doing what I can to join with others who seek to live in that same life and power of Jesus Christ, and I hope that you and I will be able to work together to make Christ’s Kingdom manifest in our cities and our world.

    @Michael Agreed.

    @Bill I agree with you, yet I don’t think I go quite as far as you might. I think that our tradition as Friends is important, precisely insofar as it helps show us the way to the living presence of Jesus in our midst and in our hearts.

    I think your advice to MS is sound. I would also suggest that he or she investigate other Quaker groups!

  • Good conversation. I think we must just be satisfied in sharing what God has opened to us and in us. We may not transform the world, but faithful living sends forth ripples that can transform lives – maybe just a few, but I think our model should be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

    On the problem of “outward” forms, I do think Friends, while they’ve recognized that outward creeds and rituals are not the true signs of faithful living, have too often made the testimonies their creed, and Quaker “process” their sacrament- these things seem to me to have risen to the same stature among Friends as the Baltimore catechism once had among Catholics.

  • It’s an easy answer. That’s why it’s ignored:
    You have to heal the sick by feeding the poor.
    One by one. On the ground. Where you find one. Where one finds you.
    If wish to revive the Quakers, drop the tag. And regenerate, as an Individualist.
    And then the Quakers will grow – EXPONTENTIALLY.
    Is that what you want?