Cat-Religion Glennda Susan Marsh-Letts and Barbara Lumley, New South Wales Regional MeetingWorshipping Group at study


In 2010 the Upper Blue Mountains Worshiping Group began a study program concentrating on ‘The Essential Elements of Quaker Holiness’. The study program was inspired by Carole Dale Spencer’s book Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism; An Historical Analysis of the Theology of Holiness in the Quaker Tradition (2007). Now, why study the ‘Essential Elements’ of Quakerism? Well, all of the participants in our worshiping group were either ‘converts’, attenders, or friends, i.e. none had been brought up as Quakers (birth-right members of the Religious Society of Friends). Some had joined Quakers thinking that they were a unified religion, only to discover the wide diversity that exists in the loosely allied network of Quaker Meetings world–wide. It therefore seemed appropriate to address the question of identity (i.e. ‘What is a Quaker?’) by going back to first principles, instead of looking at the present diversity of outward structures and causes. Hence, the creation of this study program with an emphasis on the ‘defining’ elements of Quakerism.

In her book, Spencer identified the defining ‘elements’ of early Quaker holiness as:

  1. Scripture,
  2. Eschatology,
  3. Conversion,
  4. Charisma,
  5. Evangelism,
  6. Mysticism,
  7. Suffering, and
  8. Perfection.

We devoted one study session a month to each ‘element’. Our plan was to study and discuss what each ‘essential element’ may have meant to early Friends, and then to relate that experience to our own spiritual experience. This process quickly separated what was non-essential in Quaker religious practice from what was essential, and it also revealed that what was essential for Friends was also probably universal, i.e. found in all religious practice.

1. Scripture

In looking at the role of scripture in Christian worship we shared our different experience of scripture. Some had little emphasis on scripture in their Christian education; others had seen scripture used as a divisive tool to separate the right -thinking from the wrong -thinking. An important insight gained through the sharing of some of our members’ experiences with scripture was the realization that God could speak through scripture into our own experience in a personal way.

2. Eschatology

Our study of the early Quakers’ understanding of eschatology (the study of final events or humanity’s future) took us back to a time when religious ideas were hotly debated in England, and when there were deep divisions in Christian understanding of the ‘end times’ or the ‘second coming’. Quakers initially awaited a literal second coming, but then changed their interpretation of the Gospels to say that Christ had come spiritually, within each person, like a seed of love within. Several of our group brought forth in our discussion the visual image of Jesus knocking on a door that must be opened from the inside, i.e. from the centre of our being.

3. Conversion (Convincement) and Perfection

Although Spencer used the more modern term ‘conversion’, we liked the older Quaker term ‘convincement’. Convincement was an essential experience for the early Quakers. You became a Quaker not through your infant baptism into the state religion (the established church, the Church of England), but through your own adult religious conversion/convincement. We also explored the meaning of other old terms, such as Fox’s use of ‘experimental’, which then had a meaning closer to ‘transformative’. Convincement we found was not only a radical, transformative, change of the heart for the early Quakers but also for many of our group. Indeed, everyone in the group told of a personal encounter with the Divine. One said that in ‘one moment’ she ‘knew she was committed’. Another said that ‘some agreement came into his life between himself and God’ while another ‘called out in anguish’ and the call was answered when the person was ‘enveloped’ with the Spirit of God. Some in the group had a less dramatic conversion, calling it ‘continuous conversion’, but saying that it was a process which moved them towards ‘one moment of peace, unity and oneness’. Another member of the group described this more measured conversion by saying ‘When the seed was right the soul began growing and ever since became central to who I am’.

From our discussions on conversion flowed some discussion of the early Quaker’s ideas on perfection, ideas that few Quakers seem to discuss these days, but which actually distinguished early Friends from other protestant groups. Convincement (used in the sense of Salvation) was conceived as a return to the original unity of creation. Therefore perfection was possible, once you were ‘convinced’, i.e. saved. This may be the reason that one occasionally hears Friends say that Quakers do not believe in the concept of original sin.

4. Charisma and Evangelism

Early Quakers found that inward conviction often led the newly convinced/converted Friend to evangelistic fervour. It may be surprising to many modern Friends to learn that early Quakers believed in converting others, both from nonbelievers and from other churches. Furthermore, this was a fervent evangelism where religion and politics (equality and social justice) were not separated. It was their contemporaries the Puritans and the Presbyterians who were not evangelizers, since they believed in predestination and the salvation of the elect. Furthermore, these early Quakers not only were so filled with the Spirit that they did indeed quake in their worship, but they believed that what we would call a Pentecostal experience should be/is the norm for all true Christians.

6. Suffering

When discussing the topic of suffering we looked at early Quaker testimonies, early Quaker martyrs, and also how early persecution may have helped to forge an identity for the Society. Our own meditations on suffering showed how suffering can be changed to joy and peace. If we ourselves, or others, are suffering, then bringing them or ourselves to the Light (i.e. showing empathy with suffering and holding the suffering person ‘in the Light’) allows the healing force of love to let the suffering be borne, and it can even change suffering to joy and peace.

7. Mysticism

Two sessions were devoted to Mysticism, as we found the definition of mysticism a challenge, and as we had so much to say of our own mystic experiences. Mysticism as a term was contemporary with early Quakers, but in the 17th century it was used to describe the communal prayer of monks (from the French, ‘la mystique’) not individual spiritual experience, so although we do not have evidence of the early Friends using it to describe their own worship, they would have agreed with the contemporary meaning of mysticism as communal spiritual worship. [1]

Several definitions of mysticism were put forward by Spencer. We were more inclined to go with the definition of Mysticism put forward by McGinn, who defined it as ‘a consciousness of the direct presence of God’, and also by Rufus Jones, who defined it as an ‘immediate direct experience of God’.[2] We had some reservation with Louth’s and Katz’s arguments that there are no pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences’[3]. Rather than mysticism characterized as a ‘search for … immediacy with God’, some of us have experienced this encounter with the Sacred as being initiated by God, a ‘Surprised by Joy’, encounter. We also had our doubts that all mystical events were processed or mediated through ‘extremely complex epistemological ways. Rather, the mystical experience was unmediated and then interpreted according to one’s cultural and religious tradition, which may, unfortunately, lead to a diminution of the encounter itself. Nor does this idea of all mystical events being processed through these, ‘extremely complex …ways’, sit very well with the mystical experiences of young children before they have had a chance to be conditioned by all the, ‘historical, linguistic, social and theological contexts’, mentioned by Katz.[4]


As our study progressed we were drawn together as we explored both our own religious heritage and shared our experience of the Divine. However, instead of our intellectual and spiritual thirst being satisfied by our discussions, our curiosity increased as we moved along this path of study together. Mysticism, in particular, we felt should receive further study, meditation, and contemplation, as it appeared to be at the heart of Quaker worship. Therefore we have now embarked on a new study that we are calling ‘Exploring Mystical Traditions’, wherein each member will present their research on a tradition they have special knowledge of, or interest in, perhaps looking and finding in our studies the essential unity of the Divine amidst the variety of human experience.

[1] Spencer, C.D. (2007). Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism. MiltonKeynes:Paternoster, p.29

[2] McGinn, B.C. (1991). Foundations of Mysticism; Origins to the Fifth Century. New York: Crossroad, pp. xv-xvii, as cited in Spencer, Ibid, p. 29.

[3] Katz, S. (1983). Mysticism and Religious Tradition. New York: Oxford, p. 4; Louth, A. (1981). The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition from Plato to Denys. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. xv, both as cited in Spencer, Ibid, pp. 29-30.

[4] Ibid.

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