Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XXI - Among the Quakers

[... back to menu for this book]    




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. [-165-] 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.