Weighty Friends and Quaker Pharisees

Author(s): 
Department: 

Wouldst thou be a prophet, or perhaps a saint?
Alas, he who thinks he is, most likely aint.
                William Bacon Evans (1875-1964), Quaker writer and weighty Friend.

Few Friends would claim to be saints or prophets. Yet many long-time Quakers like to be viewed as “weighty Friends”—if only in the limited sense that we have strong feelings about good Quaker order, and we hope that our words are given weight by others.  Valuing our opinions, we may be quick to criticize what we regard as other Friends’ missteps and failures.  Slipping into self-importance, we become Quaker pharisees, critical of those who do not measure up.

In the Christian Gospels, we encounter the Pharisees through the polemical perspective of a relatively new Jesus movement that was distancing itself from other strands of Jewish tradition.  These negative depictions have become laden with anti-Semitic undertones, which I repudiate here.  I use the term “pharisee” in a contemporary, generic sense to denote anyone who claims an insider’s superior knowledge of tradition from which to judge others.

Persons who are comfortable with themselves are less prone to this self-importance than are those who (like myself) harbor nagging doubts about our worth and others’ acceptance of us.  Believing that we are “weighty Friends” is a hedge against insecurity, a way of shoring up our self-worth.  The more fragile our sense of self and the less satisfaction we feel in the rest of our lives, the more prone we are to judge.

The most common guise of a Quaker pharisee is to speak earnestly and judgmentally on behalf of what we regard as inviolable Quaker values.  Passionate about good order as we understand it, we can be hard on each other, relying upon intellectual principles rather than the deeper, compassionate heart-knowing that Friends call testimonies.  I have seen relatively new Friends chastise even newer Friends for not being “Quakerly.”  I have seen a presiding clerk coldly criticized for committing a “sin” because he did not follow established precedent.  And when I have felt anger rising in myself about how a Meeting for Business is proceeding, I have heard words of frustrated judgment coming out of my own mouth.

Speaking as Quaker pharisees, we may be right in a certain legalistic sense.  We may indeed be well informed about usual procedures, or relevant pages in Faith and Practice, or what Quaker history suggests for the issue before us.  What makes us pharisees is not that we are mistaken in our point; rather, it lies in our self-righteous pose.  Ignoring core Christian and Quaker values of love and humility, we sacrifice kindness on the altar of correctness.

Truly weighty Friends do not throw their weight around.  In traditional Quaker terms, their weight comes from “staying low”—the opposite of self-righteousness.  Staying low means recognizing that we may not see the whole picture.  Spiritual insight comes not simply from our ideas or the words on a page, but from listening with all our being to a deeper, vaster Source of Truth, sensing the motion of the Spirit within ourselves and among the blessed community, which early Friends called the Body of Christ. True openness to the Spirit is always humbling.  We empty of pettiness and self-importance, drawing strength from the enveloping Presence.

When allergens trigger reactions in our bodies, those allergic reactions usually harm us more than the allergens themselves do.  Our bodies can become our own worst enemies.  Likewise, our responses to lapses of good order among Friends can be more hurtful to our spiritual communities than the lapses themselves.

Beneath the impulse to correct and control is often an inflated sense of responsibility—as if everything depends upon us.  This self-importance is a burden, and we can find spiritual relief by abandoning it and becoming more vulnerable.  Spiritual wisdom has less to do with control than with getting out of the way and letting guidance emerge—from above, below, within.

Yet how shall we function in a settled, ongoing Quaker community without established rules and procedures?  How shall we honor the accumulated wisdom of our hallowed Quaker tradition if we are not reminded of its testimonies and practices?  I have heard of a Quaker musical band that met and performed only once each year, during Annual Session, and called itself “The All Faith and No Practice Band.”  We do not expect musical excellence from such an ensemble.  If we are not to “reinvent the wheel” of Quakerism each time we gather, we need to draw upon the knowledge accumulated by experienced Friends, who can remind us of what is important to us and how we do things.  Furthermore, we do need on occasion to be gently but firmly admonished to adhere to established practices. The question is not whether we need the knowledge that Quaker pharisees possess—but whether we can grow beyond critical self-righteousness.

Reprinted in most contemporary books of Quaker discipline are excerpts from “The Epistle from the Elders at Balby, 1656,” which William Braithwaite, the venerable Quaker historian, called “the oldest church advice on Christian practice issued by any general body of Friends,” thus making it the very first in a long series of books of “Quaker Faith and Practice.”  Most commonly reprinted are the final lines, “Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”  (2 Corinthians 3:6) These words capture well the forgiving and flexible spirit that I advocate here. 

We may not realize, however, that the passage comes at the end of nearly 1,700 words of advice, gathered in twenty itemized points.  The entire document rewards careful reading.  Some directives strike us as quaint.  For example, readers are enjoined that “servants [should] be obedient to them that are their masters in the flesh” (#10), and “That care be taken that none who are servants depart from their masters, but as they both do see in the light.” (#11)  Yet most directives have weathered well the passage of 350 years, including:  That exhortations towards those who diverge from good Quaker practice should be spoken in “a tender, meek spirit.” (#3) “That no one speak evil of another, neither judge one against another.” (#16) “That none be busy bodies in others’ matters, but each one to bear another’s burdens.” (#17)

Recognizing that rigid application of any guideline is a limitation upon the Spirit, the Elders close with the widely-quoted caveat above, “Dearly beloved Friends,” etc.

What are we to make of this juxtaposition of sensible rules with an invocation of spiritual freedom?  We need both guidelines and free insight.  The health of the blessed community requires that Friends hold both in gentle, creative balance.  If Quaker pharisees have lost sight of a deeper Source of spiritual wisdom, those who ignore established practices of an orderly society are wandering without a map.

In striking this creative balance, we do well to take ourselves lightly.  William Bacon Evans, the author of the playful couplet that opens this essay and himself truly a “weighty Friend,” once rose in Haverford Meeting to deliver ministry that included an anecdote about two skeletons in a closet:  one said to the other, “If we had any guts, we’d get out of here.”  A “plain Friend” who dressed in black, during Quaker gatherings Evans would place himself on a seat outside of the Meeting House, wearing a black broad-brimmed Quaker hat in which he had mounted a large arrow protruding from either side, apparently going through his skull.  Soon intrigued children would surround him, and he would banter with them playfully. (One can view Evans, arrow and all, by typing his name into an internet search engine such as Google, and clicking on the entry for him labeled “Quaker Dictionary.”) 

My mother revered William Bacon Evans; among living Friends that she knew, he was the closest to being “saintly.”  One summer when I was seven, he visited our Iowa farm home. An amateur botanist and ornithologist, Evans was exploring a garden in our yard filled with blooming hollyhocks and flitting hummingbirds.  Hoping that I might imbibe some of his spirit, my mother asked me to join him.  I remember Evan’s kindly smile, the settled quietness of his presence and the grace with which he included me.  In my boyish eyes, this weighty Friend seemed weightless, a spirit floating among the hollyhocks, his face filled with light and joy.  ♦

Steve Smith is the current Presiding Clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting and a member of Claremont Friends Meeting.