Book Review: A Light that is Shining, An introduction to the Quakers, 3rd edition by Harvey Gillman

Jeanne Viljoen of the Pretoria Worship Group

Jeanne Viljoen of the Pretoria Worship Group

A Light that is Shining: An introduction to the Quakers, 3rd edition (2003) by Harvey Gillman 

Quaker Books, London

Book Review by Jeanne Viljoen, Pretoria Worship Group

Gillman wrote the book as Outreach Secretary for Quakers in Britain and he intended it as an introduction to Quakers for people who know little about them but would like to know more. This description fitted me and I was pleased to find a lot of information in the little book.

There are about 18 000 members and 9 000 attenders in Britain. Worldwide there are 340 000 Quakers, concentrated mainly in the USA, Latin America and East Africa. Originally Quakers were called Friends of the Truth and today the organisation is officially called the Religious Society of Friends. Members often refer to other members as Friends. The name ‘Quakers’ dates from an occasion in 1650 when George Fox (1624—1691) appeared in court on charges of blasphemy. He advised the judge to ‘tremble at the word of the Lord’. At this the judge called Fox and his followers ‘Quakers’ (tremblers).

A phrase used by Fox and central to Quakerism is the need to ‘answer that of God’ in everyone. Gillman states the foundation of the Friends to be that ‘there is a creative, loving power in all people and in the world around. Many call it God, though it is beyond all names. Everyone can become aware of it directly by listening to its prompting in their hearts and in the hearts of others.’ With this awareness, religion cannot be limited to a particular activity or to a part of oneself. It is an openness to and engagement with the whole world by the whole self. Because all human beings are on a journey, each journey is important and people should listen to each other, despite the difficulty of describing that which matters most to us.

Quakers do not have a creed because there is a conviction that words divide or can lead to an outward conformity of belief. Faith is something to be lived, not put into words. William Penn(1644—1718) wrote that what makes a true believer ‘is a conformity of mind and practice to the will of God, in all holiness of conversation, according to the dictates of this divine principle of light and life in the soul’.

John Woolman (1720—1772)  recognised the interconnectedness of all life created by God and saw a contradiction in the professed love of God and acts of cruelty towards his creatures (human or otherwise). This led him to campaign for the abolition of slavery and to a concern for animals. It is an illustration of the Quaker conviction that there is no separation between sacred and secular, or between religious, political or social aspects of life because the divine power touches and transforms each part of human existence.

Quakers seek the promptings of the divine, the still small voice, in their own hearts in the silence of their meetings. Because there is ‘that of God’ in everyone, all (men and women) have a role to play and there is no specially ordained minister. According to Gillman, ‘if people are open to the power of love and light in their lives then they will themselves become prophetic and priestly, and will not need to follow an external authority of church leaders’. Robert Barclay (1648—1690) described the church as a body of people ‘obedient of the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts’ which could include heathens, people of other religions and different kinds of Christians.

Are Quakers Christians? Gillman asks, and then replies that Quakers in Britain and Ireland have been admitted as members of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland under a special clause. Even without a creed, Quakers are therefore considered Christian by other Christians. But there are Quakers who seem themselves as Quakers and not Christians. For most Quakers, the life and teachings of Jesus are ‘central to the picture they have of God’.

In his discussion of prayer, Gillman lists actions that could be said to take the place of the set prayers in some churches: preparation for meeting, opening oneself up to the world of creation and bringing to mind the needs of people and of the world. This can lead to ‘a state of awareness where words may not be necessary’. Prayer can also be a state of mindfulness ‘of (one’s) basic convictions, (one’s) place in the world, and how the world might be made more holy by (one’s) actions and (one’s) love’.

The meeting for worship usually takes place at a set time on a Sunday and in a set place but there is no specific calendar and there are not days that are more holy than others. Everybody sits in silence in a circle for an hour. Afterwards the two elders signal that the meeting is over by shaking hands. This is often followed by everybody present shaking hands with each other. When someone speaks during the meeting, this is not seen to break the silence but to be a ministry to everyone present. It may take the form of a reading or a prayer or the person may speak from own experience. Accepting someone’s ministry does not necessarily mean that one agrees on an intellectual level. ‘It is a focussing of concern about the world at a deeper level, an affirmation of relationship and community, and a reaching out towards that which is both beyond and within.’

Gillman describes the origins of Quakerism in seventeenth century Britain as ‘primitive Christianity revived’. In a time of religious, political and social change, some people were seeking a personal relationship with God that was not to be found in the Anglican and Catholic churches of the time. George Fox was the most important figure of this time and, together with Margaret Fell, he managed to unite various groups that had sprung up. These groups met in silence, without a priest or sacrament, seeking the teachings of Christ for themselves. Resistance to the Quaker movement grew and a large number of Friends were imprisoned, transported or killed. There was a ‘revolutionary desire to publish the truth that God was immediately accessible to all human beings’ and this led to the Quaker tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ (even the Sultan in Constantinople and the Pope in Rome). Quaker groups were founded throughout Europe, North America and the Caribbean.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Quakers turned inwards, away from the world, and distinguished themselves by their clothing and their peculiar expressions. In this time some Quakers feared that reading the Bible during meetings for worship would interfere with the ‘still, small voice’. In the nineteenth century and under the influence of John Gurney (1788—1847) Quakers again turned to the Bible. They also cooperated with people in other churches to improve society. William Allen’s work with the poor and with the Anti-Slavery Society and John Lancaster’s involvement with popular education are cited as examples. Elizabeth Fry (1780—1845) was involved in visiting prisons and reforming conditions in prisons. In North America fear that involvement in the world and evangelical theology would dilute Quakerism led to a split into different factions. These differences remain, although there is greater cooperation at present.

Later in the nineteenth century three distinct trends emerged. There were the traditionalists who quietly waited for the Light within, the evangelicals who drew authority from the Bible and the modernists, influenced by scientific thinking, who questioned both the old ways and the infallibility of the Bible. Apparently these trends still coexist.

Although the book is written from a British perspective, it mainly deals with general matters that apply to Quakers everywhere in the world. I found it extremely informative. I also learnt to appreciate the style, which is quite unlike a textbook, although I sometimes struggled to find a particular passage again, because some topics are addressed in more than one chapter. (If I had been reading electronically I could have done an electronic search but this gave me the opportunity to reread some parts.)

I found it an accessible way of learning more about Quakers and would recommend it to anyone who would like an introduction to Quakers that is general and yet substantive.

— Jeanne Viljoen

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