A Reason for Persecution

Mary Dyer & other Quaker martyrs

The following is a transcription, modified somewhat for clarity, of vocal ministry I offered yesterday at Homewood Friends Meeting.

It’s sometimes said that what brought persecution on the first Quakers was their doctrine that everyone can have immediate experience of God. But I don’t think that could have been threatening enough to incite the beating, dispossession, imprisonment, torture, and murder of Friends. Even the Roman church, that much-maligned bastion of mediated religion, had taught that individuals have direct access to God: Christians could and should pray and contemplate, and they could receive consolations, revelations, and even mystical union. Mysticism may have begun as a Catholic phenomenon (and, despite some readings of history, mystical writers were not more subject to the Inquisition than others; even Meister Eckhart, the Neoplatonic Dominican friar sometimes used as an example of persecution, wrote, taught, and preached openly for decades*), but Protestant mystics were active in 17th-century England. And Protestants in general believed in direct individual access to God. The idea would seem to have been a commonplace.

There must have been more urgent reasons for the persecution. While the situation was complex, I think that a major catalyst was the Quakers’ central doctrine that each of us has a measure of that spiritual power which was present and active “above measure” in Jesus. That power is dangerous: it leads us to live justice, peace and mercy right here and right now. There may not be any idea more threatening to the powers that be than that real justice, peace, and mercy are attainable in this world. I can see that proclamation bringing down the wrath of church and state. After all, a primary function of both is to preserve the status quo of injustice, violence, and, rhetoric notwithstanding, hardheartedness.

I think that the powers that be would much prefer to have us sit passively on our benches or cushions, enjoying our individual experiences of God, looking inward instead of at what is going on all around us. But I hope that before we turn inward we take a good look outward, allowing ourselves to really see the injustice, violence, and hardheartedness — and then look within to find and open ourselves to that in us which speaks, and moves us to respond, to our world’s condition.

NOTES for “A Reason for Persecution”

* My statement about Eckhart raised an eyebrow or two, so perhaps a note is in order. Meister (i.e., Master: he was a professor and leader in the Dominican Order) Eckhart taught and preached openly until the last year of his life, at which time his work was questioned by the Franciscan Archbishop of Cologne. As the Eckhart Society notes, “at this time the feud between the Franciscans and the Dominicans was at its height.” Eckhart’s Dominican Order defended him consistently. It was not until after his death that some of Eckhart’s ideas were censured — by a pope who would later be condemned for heresy himself, and with recognition that the material had been received without context. As far as I know, Eckhart was never incarcerated. He was never harmed, nor was he condemned personally — which is why a recent request from the Dominicans that he be “rehabilitated” could not be granted by the Vatican, which affirmed his orthodoxy. It should also be noted that some of the great canonized saints and “Doctors” of the Catholic Church, people like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, are among the most influential mystical writers in Christian history. Mystical religion has not simply been an “outlaw” movement: those who want to have a “spirituality” that has no connection with organized religious tradition cannot honestly appropriate the likes of Eckhart, Teresa, and John. That is not to ignore the horrors of the Inquisition and the sufferings of such figures as Eckhart’s contemporary Marguerite Porete (whose writings he probably knew: for one thing, he lived with her Dominican inquisitor, William Humbert, in Paris), who was burned at the stake, in part for her “Free Spirit” doctrines (and writing in the vernacular), some of which seem remarkably similar to doctrines preached much later by George Fox. But the Inquisition attempted to suppress theology that seemed to threaten the established power structure, not mysticism per se.

† (See Jn. 3:34 — “for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto [the Son].”) Many early Quaker texts could be quoted in illustration of the belief that each person receives a measure of Christ’s spiritual power. As an example, the following is from Proposition 7, “Concerning Justification,” of Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity:

We consider then our redemption in a two-fold respect or state, both which in their own nature are perfect though in their application to us the one is not, nor cannot be, without respect to the other.

The first is the redemption performed and accomplished by Christ for us in his crucified body without [i.e., outside of] us. The other is the redemption wrought by Christ in us, which no less properly is called and accounted a redemption than the former. The first then is that whereby man, as he stands in the fall, is put into a capacity of salvation, and hath conveyed unto him a measure of that power, virtue, spirit, life, and grace that was in Christ Jesus: which, as the free gift of God, is able to counterbalance, overcome, and root out the evil seed wherewith we are naturally as in the fall, leavened.

The second is that whereby we witness and know this pure and perfect redemption in ourselves, purifying, cleansing, and redeeming us from the power of corruption, and bringing us into unity, favour, and friendship with God.

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