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What Canst Thou Say? A 17th Century Quaker Cry For Modern Deconstructionists

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What Canst Thou Say? A 17th Century Quaker Cry For Modern Deconstructionists

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But I also heard a key difference between the workshop participants of last summer and 17th century Quakers, which was the loneliness that today’s seekers felt.

Today’s searchers had felt a part of a community in their early faith construction, were ostracized when they started asking questions, and continued to feel lonely in the reconstruction process. And they hadn’t gotten very far in that process, some saying that they had only gotten to the idea that God is love.

They felt alone because they had no physical community where they could engage with others and wrestle with their questions together. Their only community was not in the flesh: the podcasts they listened to, the online groups they joined and the books they read.

Some continued attending their church to keep their friendships intact by pretending the questions weren’t important, holding their noses and crossing their fingers. Others had drifted off by themselves and felt a fleeting sense of belonging when they attended an in-person workshop.

Like current questioners, early Quakers were also cast out of their established religion when they doubted what was being said. But because they had no electronic resources, they sought to create a physical community. 

George Fox, one of the founders of Quakerism, wandered all over England, looking for the answers to his questions and finding them in the company of other seekers. Together, they developed an experiential worship style, rejecting symbolism, creeds and rites, and created a theology that dealt with the questions of the day like predestination, hypocrisy and what happens to babies when they die.

Today’s Quakers have built on that basic faith. Because a key tenet of Quakerism is continuing revelation, Quakerism has become a safe place to explore spiritual journeys and learn what your own Inner Light is saying to you.

In the New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania area, some Quaker “meetings” (as they are called) have stayed close to the Bible, others welcome seekers of all kinds and are more open to nontheist ideas. Regardless, all are very involved in applying their faith to their life because of the emphasis on integrity — living your values.

Throughout their history, Quakers have been at the forefront of many social justice movements: abolition of slavery, the Underground Railroad, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for their work with children in World War II, advising Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolent protest, and convincing a bank to stop funding coal mines because of the impact of burning coal on for climate change. Quaker meetings are a great place for social activists to ground their activism in spirituality.

But Quakers’ long history and current low profile can make them seem archaic. When I tell people I am a Quaker, I get asked how we are different from the Amish and the Shakers. And people mistake active Quaker worship spaces for museums because of the historic buildings.

Like other spiritual communities, Quakers have been adversely affected by the pandemic, some worship groups adapted by providing hybrid online and in-person worship; others waited until the pandemic eased to resume worship. The hybrid meetings have had the positive effect of connecting friends who are unable to attend worship in-person with their community. Participation in the worship service is open to anyone, but the experience may vary by location.

It was the echo I saw between the early Quakers and the current seekers and the need I saw for an in-flesh community that led me to advocate for a workshop to explore those ideas. I wanted to see if early Quaker answers could assist current seekers in their spiritual journeys and through this process build a seeker community.

To provide opportunities for connection in real life, the Plainfield meeting in New Jersey has started a series of workshops based on the theme “Wresting with Faith: A Forum for Spiritual Seekers.” The first session kicked off on April 23, with Tim Whitaker of the “New Evangelicals” podcast and online community. Future sessions will focus on a single issue such as “Heaven and Hell: What do we Believe?” “Inerrancy of the Bible” and “The Nature of Evil and Sin.” For the latest details on dates, see the Plainfield Quaker website at www.plainfieldquakers.org. And feel free to join us for silent worship at 10:30 a.m.

What canst thou say? Let’s discover it together, not alone.



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