I read a lot about Quakerism. I'm always interested in what other people have had to say about it, because hearing from a variety of interpreters helps me understand what it is that I hear myself. I'm especially interested to read someone's observations made hundreds of years ago, and to be able to say, "Yes! That is the experience that I also have had!" I learn more about the way God works with me by reading how he worked with others. The founders of the Religious Society of Friends pioneered a re-discovery of the living, risen Christ, walking among them, teaching them, immanent.
But there is a danger in this studying of others. Not because they don't have something of value to offer, but because sometimes we forget that their discovery was that we all have to make our own discovery.
I call this, The Curse of the "Early Friends."
Too often these days, when I read of a particular practice or belief, very early in the discussion the Curse appears. Someone or other will describe an opinion, and someone else will comment, "The Early Friends believed in this or that..." Or perhaps, in describing what Quakerism is, someone will say, "These were the practices recognized as normative by the Early Friends..." Or in describing worship, I will hear, "The Early Friends did/did not worship in this way..."
Now conversationally, this is useful information. But the problem with the Curse of the Early Friends is that very soon it seems to become a metric, a canon, an instant tool for assessing the validity of an assertion. As if the Early Friends experienced and expressed the totality of the Christian Revelation, and if they didn't experience it, then it can't be valid.
Folks, not one of the Early Friends ever experienced a flush toilet, either.
Now before I take a rock tossed at my head, let me point out that the Early Friends did indeed experience a noisier, more vibrant, and more contagious experience of corporate Quakerism than I see in most of my Yearly Meeting, and most everybody else's too. In about 30 years Quakers in Britain went from nothing to about two percent of the entire population. That's a startling growth, and more so because it happened in the face of continuing legal and social persecution. That growth is something I'd like to see again, here, today.
So I can understand and sympathize with those who have an interest in the Early Friends. They had something that we'd like to have ourselves, a fire, a message so true and so obvious that entire towns could be converted almost overnight, like the Biblical accounts of the Samaritans discovering the Messiah, or the Jerusalem church growing by hundreds and thousands.
But there is an old Eastern proverb, that says in these words or some similar: "Don't seek to follow in the footsteps of the masters. Instead, seek the same goal that they did, and make your own footsteps." My own goal in the practice of my religion isn't to study the Early Friends so that I can mimic their technique, it's to reach the same discoveries myself. Which, in fact, is what their own discovery was in the first place.
So the next time you're reading about what Quakerism is, or what it isn't, and you come across a sentence that contains the words "...the Early Friends," watch out! The chances are good that someone is trying to create his own autobiography, but using someone else's life.