“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.” (Acts 2:1)
In seventeen years of online discussions with other Quakers, I have found that Friends who hold belief in the personal God of Western tradition may have a difficult time understanding even the possibility of worship for a nontheist. Their assumption seems to be that Quaker worship is, like other forms of worship, an act of reverence toward an object of worship, and that therefore a person who does not believe in God has no divine object and cannot worship. If the assumption were correct, then the conclusion — that nontheist Quakers do not actually engage in Quaker worship — might follow. But the assumption is erroneous. It does not reflect the unique Quaker understanding of worship as taught, for example, by George Fox.
We can read about George Fox’s understanding of worship in various places in his collected Works. But grasping it is difficult, because we tend to approach Fox’s words with unrecognized preconceptions about his meaning. It’s easy to forget the fact that Fox and other Friends, convinced that everything that had come between the apostles and them had been cunning distortions of the Antichrist, completely re-defined Christianity. Those distortions, which continue to shape almost all of Christian thought, color our interpretation of both Fox and scripture in ways that we fail to see. And so we are quite confident that we read Fox and the scriptures aright (as he might say), and we don’t realize that our confidence is blind.
But even to justify that assertion, much less to explicate Quaker worship from the writings of Fox and other primitive Friends, would require quite a bit of space (and time). So I’ll just wade in now and define Quaker worship as succinctly as I can, assisted by a couple of passages from an epistle by George Fox. If anyone feels that I am in error, we can examine the primitive texts together. I can say, however, that I have studied those texts sufficiently to be confident of the fidelity of my definition. I do my best to apply the testimony of integrity to my explications of historic Quakerism. And I am a realist who avoids anachronism; I don’t pretend, for example, that primitive Quakerism was somehow not theistic.
I said above that it is erroneous to assume that Quaker worship is, like other forms of worship, an act of reverence toward an object of worship. But if it is not that, then what is it? Simply put, Quaker worship, modeled on, among other passages, the biblical story of Pentecost, is “silent waiting upon God.” That’s a very different thing.
Before letting George Fox speak to us about silent waiting, I want to help nontheists as well as theists to hear him — and to hear each other. Because, as 1 John 4 asserts, God is love and love is God, and because, as Paul asserts, Christ is “the image [in whom we are made; see Gen. 1:27] of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), we can define worship in a way that speaks to theists and nontheists by simply substituting the word “love” for “God” and “Christ” in the source texts. That substitution has been made (except when the meaning would not be clear, or when mythological agency is attributed) in the following passages from Fox.*
And this is to all that would learn silent waiting upon [love] and silent meeting; for none shall ever come to [love] … but as they do come to that of [love] in them, the light which [love] hath enlightened them withal; and that is it which must guide everyone’s mind up to [love], and to wait upon [love] to receive the spirit from [love], and the spirit leads to wait upon [love] in silence, and to receive from [love].
Other than waiting patiently and trustingly for the working of love in our hearts, then, we perform no action in Quaker worship. Our worship is essentially passive. Therefore there is no object toward which our worship is directed, toward which we proffer reverence. We’re simply waiting to feel the motions of love directing our lives. Thus do we avoid the error of attempting to objectify, to reify, God. And thus do we, if we are theists, avoid the error of secretly thinking that we are pleasing God by the work of worship.
Such worship is proper for Friends because Quakerism is about leaving behind all “types and figures” — i.e., words and mental images (which “are spoken to the carnal part of man”**) — and entering the “substance,” which Fox said is Christ — i.e., love. So there is no need for one to be a theist in order to join in Quaker worship, because silent waiting upon love’s working in the heart is the whole of it.
Keep to that of [love] in you, when you are still from your own thoughts and imaginations, and desires and counsels of your own hearts, and motions, and will; when you stand single from all these, waiting upon [love], your strength is renewed; he that waits upon [love], feels his shepherd, and he shall not want: and that which is of [love] in every one, is that which brings them together to wait upon [love], which brings them to unity, which joins their hearts together up to [love]. … [F]or the light is the door, the light is the power, that doth enlighten every man that cometh into the world, that all through the light might believe, and he that believeth is entered into his rest [i.e., sabbath], hath ceased from his own works as God did from his [after creating the world], and he hath the witness in himself. And he that is born of [love] overcometh the world, he does not make haste: he knows a silent meeting and waiting upon [love]; and knows that … Christ ([love’s] covenant of peace, of light with [love] and man) they must come into; then all flesh must be silent before [love]; so the life of [love] comes to guide.
We talk about being “convergent Friends,” yet even in our converging we continue to push each other away, breaking the body of love with words, dividing the “substance” by “types and figures.” George Fox has something to say about that, too, in the same epistle:
And you that think yourselves above the world … giving names one to another, throwing dirt one to another, where the enmity is … and they that do so, mock one another; and here is the generation of mockers, out of the life, and out of the light, and every one striving for mastery and lordship and authority one over another: but it shall not be so with you who are children of light, disciples of [love], not of this world, whose kingdom is not of this world, and who come out of strife, come into peace.
The shared, traditional understanding of Quaker worship as silent waiting upon and submission to the working of love in the heart can and should be the point of real convergence for all Friends.
This time, dear reader, I leave the word substitutions to you:
[A]nd all people, know the mind of Christ (which none can but who come to the light he hath enlightened them withal), that you may come to be of one mind, heart and soul; and all people wait to receive the spirit of Christ Jesus, which if you have not, you are none of his; and all people come to live in the power of godliness … and you will come to live in the gospel [which, as Fox often reminded us, is the power of God-who-is-love].
* Except as indicated below, all passages from George Fox are adapted, as described in the text, from “An Epistle to All People on the Earth,” which begins on page 119 of Vol. 4 of the 1831 edition of Works. For a classic primitive Quaker statement on love as the nature of God, see Isaac Penington’s Concerning Love.
** Fox, Works Vol. 4, p. 34