Saturday, April 07, 2007

I swear, I'm really loving this book.

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun. (Eccl. 1:9)

This proverb has been resounding in my head for the past couple of weeks as I continue to read William Braithwaite’s The Beginnings of Quakerism and (now) The Second Period of Quakerism. I had the same feeling last year when I read the Acts of the Apostles. These histories of the early days of the church cover practically all of the topics we’ve been talking about in our Quaker blogs and meetings. Questions of religious identity; the relationship of tradition and the present; the tension between prophetic witness to and peaceful coexistence with the world; how newcomers are integrated into the existing community.

This past week, I have read and reread chapter VII and what Braithwaite calls “the tedious tale of the Affirmation.” The tale is of how Quakers dealt with oaths in the years immediately following the Glorious Revolution that sent the popish James Stuart II to France and brought in Protestant William of Orange and Mary from Holland to be King and Queen.

The issue arose in 1689 after nearly 30 years of unrelenting and unspeakably cruel persecution of Friends after the restoration of Charles Stuart II to the throne in 1660. Charles, like Cromwell, was well-disposed towards Friends; but his political base, the Cavailers – losers in the English Civil War of the 1640s – had returned to England with a determination to force England into domestic religious and political peace by forcing the dissenting sects that had sprouted and gained strength during the Commonwealth time into explicit loyalty to the King and strict conformity to the Church of England. They enacted and enforced a series of laws that were repugnant to all the Dissenters, but especially the Quakers.

Among these were laws requiring oaths of allegiance to the King and of fidelity to the Church of England. If a person was asked to take one of these oaths, and the proffer was declined, the person face the penalty of praemunire, which was to be placed out of the King’s protection (i.e., an outlaw), have one’s estate forfeited to the King, and indefinite imprisonment. Thousands of Quakers were imprisoned, deported, and impoverished by the application of these (and other) laws. The Friends’ steady, persistent though nonviolent resistance to even the slightest intrusion onto their consciences is one of the most remarkable and admirable examples of prophetic witness we have ever seen.

By 1689 – 29 years after the Restoration and the ouster of the last of the Stuart kings – William and Mary and their Parliament realized that England could achieve domestic tranquility (and political unity needed to fight the French) by moving the fences out a bit and enacted the Act of Toleration to put an end to the worst of the divisive suppression of the Quakers and other Dissenters. It wasn’t perfect – it didn’t protect Catholics or Unitarians; tithes and punishment for not paying them were retained, and Dissenters were still barred from public office – but by and large most of the most onerous and oppressive measures were either repealed or made inactive.

But the problems of oaths remained thorny to both sides. Oaths of allegiance to William and Mary and belief in the Trinity and against Transubstantiation (i.e., that one was not a Unitarian or Catholic) were required for political and what we would call “national security” purposes to prevent the very real threat of a Jacobean Catholic coup, as were the ordinary truth-telling oaths required to sue or defend and give testimony in court, or to have a will probated, or property transactions registered.

Recognizing that to require Quakers to take the political and religious oaths would not bring the domestic peace that they were seeking, William and Mary and Parliament, made an exception for Friends (and others who had scruples against oaths) by permitting them to make the following Declarations:
I, A.B. do sincerely promise and solemnly declare before God and the world that I will be true and faithful to King William and Queen Mary. And I do solemnly profess and declare that I do from my heart abhor . . . that damnable doctrine and position, that Princes excommunicated or deprived by the Pope . . . may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or any other whatsoever. And I do declare that no Foreign Prince, Person, Prelate, State or Potentate, has or ought to have any Power, . . . ecclesiastical or spiritual, within the realm.
I, A.B., profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ, His eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God blessed for evermore: and do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine Inspiration.
(The final form of these Declarations was agreed to by Parliament that had made several concessions to the Quakers, for example, by replacing “the revealed Will and Word of God” with “given by Divine Inspiration”).

Despite the government’s intent, it appears that most Friends would not say the Declarations because they appeared to be in the form of an oath, invoking the Deity as a “magical” witness to guarantee truthful testimony. It wasn’t because they didn’t believe in the substance of what was being declared – they were obedient and non-resistant to the civil authorities, anti-Catholic as a matter of religious principal, believed in God and the divine origins of scripture (though a few doubted the latter, even at that early date.)

Efforts were then made to find some way that Friends could affirm the truth of what they were saying that satisfied the public’s need for recognition of the solemnity of certain speech and the Quaker’s desire to let their Aye be Aye and their Nay Nay, as Jesus has instructed.

As early as 1662, Quakers had differentiated between an “affirmation” that they were telling the truth – which was acceptable – and an “oath,” which was not. The difference was a subtle one that makes up much of the “tedious tale” Braithwaite tells.

To get its full flavor, you have to read the book. But the short of it is that the Affirmation Act permitted Friends to replace an oath with the affirmation: “I do declare in the presence of Almighty God, the Witness of the truth of what I say.” One party of Friends – known as the “Satisfieds” -- was willing to accept what the Affirmation on the basis that God was indeed omnipresent and omniscient and that declaring the obvious did not constitute an oath (which typically requires some explicit or implicit tempting of punishment if it is broken, such as “may God strike me dead” or “cross my heart and hope to die”). Another party – the “Dissatisfieds” -- believed that Christians were called to a single standard of truth at all times and that use of any “extrinsic medium” to evoke truth-telling was sinful and superstitious.

The controversy took place in many forms and fora we would recognize today. Before the Act was enacted, London Yearly Meeting “debated” (Braithwaite’s word) for “several days” and finally agreed – though not without dissent – that phrases such as “before God”, “in the sight of God”, “in the presence of God, or “in the fear of God” were acceptable. There was then controversy whether Friends who were punished for refusing the Affirmation should be recorded in the official book of Sufferings when, as a body, the Yearly Meeting had given them liberty to use it.

Braithwaite quotes Thomas Gwin’s account of the Yearly Meeting in 1712 when the question of whether to support the extension of the Affirmation Act was discussed. Have you ever attended a business meeting like this?

[T]here were so many Friends and such different apprehensions in respect of the Affirmation that it appeared in public preaching; so I was silent that day. The week following we were daily at Yearly Meeting, where we wanted not contests. The first dispute was in relation to entering the sufferings of such as refused to affirm on their entries of leather which was refused by some, but, after a day’s and a half’s contention, was agreed to be entered. . . . After many days’ debate, in which we came to no end, it [the question of the Affirmation] was committed to eight Friends, four of each party . . . who agreed on the following Minute: That the dissatisfied should proceed to solicit [lobby Parliament to make the affirmation more acceptable] next session, and, in case they obtained not, no endeavours should be used to destroy the present Affirmation, and the satisfieds to concur in such solicitations. This took, they being wearied with disputes; and so it was quieted for the present.

During all this controversy, I was as a fool or a child; I said almost nothing of either side, being altogether unwilling to promote faction . . . though those quarrels struck deep on my spirit, and I went in a bowed-down sense from day to day . . . . Other matters were soon finished; but this dispute made it hold eleven days, that might otherwise end in less than half the time. The parting meeting was not attended with usual freshness; and at least they seemed to strive who should have the last word. . . . [At the meetings for worship] the dissatisfied seemed to be the most living ministers, yet I still wanted what I found formerly in those meetings, that I mourned in secret and was ready to wish myself at home.
The Second Period of Quakerism pp 192-93.

In addition to long and contentious and indecisive Yearly Meeting sessions, the two sides of the Affirmation controversy used the Internet of its day – pamphleteering – to vigorously press their cases. The lawyer in me was impressed by the ingenious and persuasive arguments made by each side and their citation of the Bible, tradition, and pragmatism as supports. And it wasn’t as if either side was trying to “win”; each thought it was right and wanted the others to understand why.

It was also interesting to read how the divisions somewhat followed economic class (the better off urban Friends were satisfied with the Affirmation while the rural and Irish Friends with less to lose were more adamant in resisting it) and political lines (Tory-leaning Friends [who had generally seen the King as a better protector of religious liberty than Parliament] tended to be among the Dissatisfieds while the Satisfied Friends favored the limited-government Whigs and were loathe to undermine them politically by making a fuss that might bring Torys back to power).

Eventually, by 1722, the question was settled when Parliament amended the Affirmation to read, “I do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm . . . .” Whether by principle or exhaustion, both factions of Friends approved this form and continue to to this day.

Braithwaite concludes with this balanced assessment:
Beneath the placid exterior of Georgian Quakerism there were divergences of temperament and conviction no less difficult of reconciliation than those which have threatened the unity of the Church in later days. Political principles, then as now, played their part in the formation of a man’s conscientious convictions, not always without an admixture of prejudice, which confused the moral issue, and caused a biased judgment upon the action of others. The world, with its benumbing prosperity, was leading many to forsake the way of the cross. The tradition of the fathers and the strength of the Society’s central organization were at times used to overbear the scruples of tender consciences. In the other party [i.e., the Satisfieds] there had been much bitterness of judgment and over-refinement of argument, and on both sides the beginnings of a dividing spirit. We see forces at work which bear a close resemblance to those that perplex the solution of our modern problems.

But we see also much to admire, especially the long patience which allowed the question to remain open through the years of heated feeling until it could be settled with a cool and united judgment in a way easy to all. The dissatisfied could have denounced as swearers and apostates those who secured and used the old form of affirmation, and the satisfied have reviled as atheists the Friends who scrupled all reference to the Name of God. But there was very little of this willful misreading of motives. This is the more remarkable, as the restraint of speech which is common to-day is one of the consequences of the self-controlled freedom that we enjoy, and was not the character of Englishmen two hundred years ago.
Id. at 204-05.

Like I said at the beginning, reading this episode of our history is a lot like looking in a mirror. Knowing some of what follows, it is even more valuable as a way of understanding who we are, and how we got that way.

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BJ said...
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