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AMONG THE QUAKERS.
THERE is no more engaging or solemn subject of contemplation
than the decay of a religious belief. Right
or wrong, by that faith men have lived and died,
perhaps for centuries ; and one cannot see it pass out
from the consciousness of humanity without something
more than a cursory thought as to the reasons
of its decadence. Being led by exceptional causes to
take a more than common interest in those forms of
belief which lie beyond the pale of the Church of
England, I was attracted by a notice in the public
journals that on the following morning the Society of
Friends would assemble from all parts of England
and open a Conference to inquire into the causes
which had brought about the impending decay of
their body. So, then, the fact of such decay stood
confessed. In most cases the very last persons to
realize the unwelcome truth are those who hold the
doctrines that are becoming effete. Quakerism must,
I felt, be in a very bad condition indeed when its own
disciples called together a conference to account for
its passing away. Neither men nor communities, as
a rule, act crowner's 'quest on their own decease.
That faith, it was clear, must be almost past praying
for which, disbelieving, as our modern Quietism does,
the efficacy of assemblies, and trusting all to the
inward illumination of individuals, should yet summon
a sort of Quaker OEcumenical Council. I thought
I should like to probe this personal light myself, and
by inquiring of one or two of the members of the
body, learn what they thought of the matter. I was
half inclined to array myself in drab, and tutoyer the
first of the body I chanced to encounter in my walks
abroad. But then it occurred to me how very seldom
one did meet a Quaker nowadays except in the
"month of Maying." I actually had to cast about
for some time before I could select from a tolerably
wide and heterogeneous circle of acquaintance two
names of individuals belonging to the Society of
Friends; though I could readily remember half a
dozen of every other culte, from Ultramontanes down
to Jumpers. These two, at all events, I would
"interview," and so forestall the Conference with a
little select synod of my own.
It was possible, of course, to find a ludicrous side to the question; but, as I said, I approached it seriously. Sydney Smith, with his incorrigible habit of joking, questioned the existence of Quaker babies - a position which, if proven, would, of course, at once account for the diminution of adult members of the sect. It was true I had never seen a Quaker infant; but I did not therefore question their existence, any [-166-] more than I believed postboys and certain humble quadrupeds to be immortal because I had never seen a dead specimen of either. The question I acknowledged at once to be a social and religious, not a physiological one. Why is Quakerism, which has lived over two hundred years, from the days of George Fox, and stood as much persecution as any system of similar age, beginning to succumb to the influences of peace and prosperity? Is it the old story of Capua and Cana;e over again? Perhaps it is not quite correct to say that it is now beginning to decline ; nor, as a fact, is this Conference the first inquiry which the body itself has made into its own incipient decay. It is even said that symptoms of such an issue showed themselves as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century; and prize essays have been from time to time written as to the causes, before the Society so far fell in with the customs of the times as to call a council for the present very difficult and delicate inquiry. The first prize essay by William Rountree attributes the falling off to the fact that the early Friends, having magnified a previously slighted truth - that of the Indwelling Word - fell into the natural error of giving it an undue place, so depriving their representations of Christian doctrine of the symmetry they would otherwise have possessed, and influencing their own practices in such a way as to contract the basis on which Christian fellowship rests. A second prize essay, called "The Peculium," takes [-167-] a still more practical view, and points out in the most unflattering way that the Friends, by eliminating from their system all attention to the arts, music, poetry, the drama, &c., left nothing for the exercise of their faculties save eating, drinking, and making money. "The growth of Quakerism," says Mr. T. Hancock, the author of this outspoken essay, "lies in its enthusiastic tendency. The submission of Quakers to the commercial tendency is signing away the life of their own schism. Pure enthusiasm and the pursuit of money (which is an enthusiasm) can never coexist, never co-operate; but," he adds, "the greatest loss of power reserved for Quakerism is the reassumption by the Catholic Church of those Catholic truths which Quakerism was separated to witness and to vindicate."
I confess myself, however, so far Quaker too that I care little for the written testimony of friends or foes. I have, in all my religious wanderings and inquiries, adopted the method of oral examination; so I found myself on a recent November morning speeding off by rail to the outskirts of London to visit an ancient Quaker lady whom I knew very slenderly, but who I had heard was sometimes moved by the spirit to enlighten a little suburban congregation, and was, therefore, I felt the very person to enlighten me too, should she be thereunto moved. She was a venerable, silver-haired old lady, clad in the traditional dress of her sect, and looking very much like a living [-168-] representation of Elizabeth Fry. She received me very cordially; though I felt as if I were a fussy innovation of the nineteenth century breaking in upon the sacred, old-fashioned quiet of her neat parlour. She " thee'd and thou'd" me to my heart's content : and - to summarize the conversation I held with her - it was to the disuse of the old phraseology and the discarding of the peculiar dress that she attributed most of the falling off which she was much too shrewd a woman of the world to shut her eyes to. These were, of course, only the outward and visible signs of a corresponding change within; but this was why the Friends fell off, and gravitated, as she confessed they were doing, to steeple-houses, water-dipping, and bread-and-wine-worship. She seemed to me like a quiet old Prophetess Anna chanting a " Nunc Dimittis" of her own on the passing away of her faith. She would be glad to depart before the glory had quite died out. She said she did not hope much from the Conference, and, to my amazement, rather gloried in the old irreverent title given by the Independents to her forefathers from their " quaking and trembling" when they heard the Word of God, though she preferred still more the older title of "Children of the Light." She was, in fact, a rigid old Conservative follower of George Fox, from the top of her close-bordered cap to the skirts of her grey silk gown. I am afraid my countenance expressed incredulity as to her rationale of the decay; for, as I rose to go, she [-169-] said, "Thou dost not agree, friend, with what I have said to thee - nay, never shake thy head ; it would be wonderful if thou didst, when our own people don't. Stay; I'll give thee a note to my son in London, though he will gainsay much of what I have told thee." She gave me the letter, which was just what I wanted, for I felt I had gained little beyond a pleasant experience of old-world life from my morning's jaunt. I partook of her kindly hospitality, was shown over her particularly cosy house, gardens, and hothouses, and meditated, on my return journey, upon many particulars I learnt for the first time as to the early history of Fox; realizing what a consensus there was between the experiences of all illuminati. I smiled once and again over the quaint title of one of Fox's books which my venerable friend had quoted to me-viz., " A Battle-door for Teachers and Professors to learn Plural and Singular. You to Many, and Thou to One; Singular, One, Thou ; Plural, Many, You." While so meditating, my cab deposited me at the door of a decidedly "downy" house, at the West End, where my prospective friend was practising in I will not mention which of the learned professions. Both the suburban cottage of the mother and the London ménage of the son assured me that they had thriven on Quakerism ; and it was only then I recollected that a poor Quaker was as rare a personage as an infantile member of the Society.
The young man - who neither in dress, discourse, [-170-] nor manner differed from an ordinary English gentleman - smiled as he read his mother's lines, and, with a decorous apology for disturbing the impressions which her discourse might have left upon me, took precisely the view which had been latent in my own mind as to the cause of the Society's decay. Thoroughly at one with them still on the doctrine of the illuminating power of the Spirit in the individual conscience, he treated the archaic dress, the obsolete phraseology, the obstinate opposition to many innocent customs of the age, simply as anachronisms. He pointed with pride to the fact that our greatest living orator was a member of the Society; and claimed for the underlying principle of Quakerism - namely, the superiority of a conscience void of offence over written scripture or formal ceremony - the character of being in essence the broadest creed of Christendom. Injudicious retention of customs which had grown meaningless had, he felt sure, brought down upon the body that most fatal of all influences - contempt. " You see it in your own Church," he said. " There is a school which, by reviving obsolete doctrines and practices, will end in getting the Church of England disestablished as it is already disintegrated. You see it even in the oldest religion of all - Judaism. You see, I mean, a school growing into prominence and power which discard all the accumulations of ages, and by going back to real antiquity, at once brings the system more into unison with the century, and [-171-] prevents that contempt attaching to it which will accrue wherever a system sets its face violently against the tone of current society." He thought the Conference quite unnecessary. "There needs no ghost come from the dead to tell us that, Horatio," he said, cheerily. " They will find out that Quakerism is not a proselytizing religion," he added; " which, of course, we knew before. They will point to the fashionable attire, the gold rings, and lofty chignons of our younger sisters as direct defiance of primitive custom. I am unorthodox enough" - and he smiled as he used that word - "to think that the attire is more becoming to my younger sisters, just as the Society's dress is to my dear mother." That young man, and the youthful sisters he told me of, stood as embodied answers to the question I had proposed to myself. They were outward and visible evidences of the doctrine of Quaker "development." The idea is not dead. The spirit is living still. It is the spirit that underlies all real religion - namely, the personal relation of the human soul to God as the source of illumination. That young man was as good a Quaker at heart as George Fox or William Penn themselves ; and the "apology" he offered for his transformed faith was a better one than Barclay's own. I am wondering whether the Conference will come to anything like so sensible a conclusion as to why Quakerism is declining.