Book Review: The Concurrence and Unanimity of the People Called Quakers . . .The Concurrence and Unanimity of The People Called Quakers As Evidenced By Some of Their Sermons is a collection of transcriptions of the preaching done by fourteen weighty Friends between 1688 and 1694. Originally published in London in 1694, under the name Andrew Sowle by his daughter Tace, it is being re-printed in its entirety for the first time in this 2010 edition from Foundation Publications, though some individual sermons have been re-printed separately. It includes such ancient worthies as Robert Barclay, Francis Stamper, William Penn, William Dewsbury and Francis Camfield, among a field of fourteen speakers offering fifteen sermons (William Penn gets to go twice).
If the book were only a flat re-printing of the original fifteen sermons, its value would be enormous, but the editors have included a helpful and informative introduction to the entire work, as well as introductions to each of the sermons. These introductions are informative and edifying, including not only biographical information about the Friend giving the sermon, but also extended discussion of the place of the sermon in the development of the Religious Society of Friends. I appreciated the editors' insights greatly and found their highlighting of key components of the sermons helpful. However, those who prefer to make up their own minds first can easily go directly to the sermons, or the prayers after the sermons which are also given.
From the editors' Introduction:
"Our first goal in publishing the present volume is, thus, to provide an important work for those who are seeking to know and live that original Quaker faith. These pages hold much wisdom, exhortation, and admonition concerning coming into Christ's presence and power, and living according to His will and direction. Our hope is that many readers will be nurtured and strengthened by the Truth they find here. Our second object in publishing this volume is to provide an important insight into sea changes taking place in the Religious Society of Friends in the 1690s, changes that would, over time, lead away from a clear understanding and experience of the original Quaker revelation."
The editors' first goal is well met by these sermons. For Friends like me who fall, more or less, into the Isolated Friend category, where one must lean more on the faith and less the practice of Friends, books like this are manna from Heaven. Similarly, other Friends who, for whatever reason, are not experiencing enough of the spiritual side of Quaker practice will find these sermons a tonic to the soul, arising as they so clearly do from the Truth that is shown when we worship under Christ and wait for his guidance. For me, hearing Friends from long ago so eloquently describing the very same spiritual experiences I have had is both validating and comforting... that despite the many cultural and technological differences, the Spirit continues working in us today as it did in them centuries ago.
Some Friends don't believe that people can have the same spiritual or religious experiences that the early Friends had. For them, what was said and done in 1688 is essentially irrelevant to modern Quakers. They simply don't believe that early Friends' spiritual and religious experiences were what they claimed, that it was the re-discovery of Primitive Christianity, the Everlasting Gospel, the Way to be found in Jesus Christ. Instead, in this view, what early Friends describe is considered a seed upon which future generations have improved. It would therefore follow that anyone looking back to the founding Friends would be retrograde, having missed out on all that improving. My own experience allows me to assert unequivocally that what early Friends are describing is entirely and utterly True, miraculously universal, a Truth and a Way that is essential and powerful and completely available to us today. I don't have to consciously align myself with early Friends. I simply and naturally enjoy the companionship of people who have obviously experienced the same spiritual reality that I am experiencing, and I particularly enjoy the company of those who are so much more eloquent than I ever could be as they proclaim the Everlasting Gospel. They speak from the Source, therefore their words have power and Spirit-led eloquence. This Spirit-led eloquence about the Truth is hard to find in the writing of modern Friends, whatever their branch.
As for the editors' second goal of illuminating the original Quaker revelation and the shifts in perspective that have transpired since, the book succeeds here as well. Many major historical Quaker controversies are discussed, with the editors freely weighing in and giving their viewpoints. The editors rely on the sermons as starting points for discussing the transformation of Quakerism from a loose affiliation of people steeped in evangelical fervor and persecution to a more stable, insular organization with a foothold in "respectable" society, free of persecution if not discrimination. Theology, faith, practice, basic tenets and historical habits of Friends are all fair game in their deliberations.
Since different sermons will be powerful for different readers at different times, I won't focus too much on any particular sermon, but the one given by Francis Camfield, which opens up the original Quaker understanding of perfection or "entire sanctification," was one that stood out for me. I was disappointed that no sermons by any women were included, but that clearly cannot be helped at this late date.
Also of interest to me, the editors express serious concern over the development of remnant theology among Friends, which is illustrated most strikingly in the included George Whitehead sermon. The editors are disappointed in, even disapproving of, the Society's turn inward under George Whitehead. As the editors point out, this collection of sermons capture the moment as Friends turned from the outward evangelism of its earlier days to the "preservation and salvation of a faithful remnant" along the lines of what Old Testament theologians espoused for Israel. I can't quite bring myself to the editors' level of concern, for one critical reason -- that we can't say this change was not the Lord's will.
Certainly remnant theology is neither powerful nor energizing, and seems to serve no useful purpose today. I am neither a participant in nor an advocate of such a theology. Yet a great deal of good was wrought by Friends living within the confines of that theology. This period of Friends produced powerful workers for the Truth who brought their relatively confident and prosperous place in society to bear in science, business, industry, education, philanthropy and the ever-important home. The editors assert that it was this theology that eventually, over the centuries, resulted in the "diminution" (the editors' word) of the Society, seeming to suggest that the Society would have spread over the world if not for this theology.
But can't it be equally argued that a continuation of Quakerism as it was could have led to its end? That Quakers could have gone the way of the Cathars? How do we know things didn't turn out exactly as they needed to turn out? How can anyone suggest that the following generations of Friends were, on balance and fundamentally, unfaithful to the Truth? I can't. And if they were being faithful to the Truth, then things turned out as they needed to turn out. I appreciate the return to the foundation of Friends that books like this one represent. I am, myself, a "throwback" in my spiritual experiences and their expression, but I can't regret the centuries of Friends between then and now.
I commend the editors for including notations of sources within their introductions, so that readers can go to the original material. A great evil spreading among books is the avoidance of notations and footnotes, even when the material warrants it, and instead simply offering a bibliography at the end. The author can then assert something without offering any proof or any opportunity for the reader to go to the original source and determine for themselves the veracity of the claim. I will just mention in passing the world wide web as a great place to go for unsubstantiated claims and unsupported opinions.
On a technical note, I found the layout of the book eminently readable. The font chosen (Sabon, designed by Jan Tschiold in the 1960's) is easy on the eyes but manages to have an old feel to it, and so is entirely appropriate to the material.
I recommend this book to all Friends who hunger for the Truth. It would be particularly helpful to those isolated Friends who are far from the sustenance and challenge of a monthly meeting and its ministers and elders. It is one of the miracles of the Truth that his ministers and elders can minister and elder across the centuries.
Friends interested in purchasing this book should contact Terry Wallace by e-mail at thswallace(at)aol.com. He will dispatch copies and bill the buyers--they don't have to send the money up-front. The volume is $15 plus $2 postage and handling.
I am not Amish or Mennonite, but some people who come to my website are interested in knowing more about these groups. I can recommend these books as authoritative and relatively inexpensive sources of further information.