Priest and Prophet
Early Christian documents indicate the waning power of the prophet and the growing ascendancy of the priest. In the Didaché or Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, and in The Shepherd of Hermas, both dating from the early half of the second century, the true prophet is highly honored but carefully distinguished from the false prophet. The true prophet is “meek, peaceable and humble” and “contents himself with fewer wants than other men.” “When a man wishes the Spirit to speak it does not speak but only when God wishes it to speak.” The false prophet on the other hand “exalts himself,” “takes the first seat,” is “talkative,” “lives in luxury” and “takes reward for his prophecy.” In the Epistles of Ignatius, probably written about the same time, the priest is placed in the ascendancy for two reasons, the necessity of maintaining sound doctrine and the importance of administering sacraments. “Ye are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ,” writes Ignatius, perhaps not more than sixty years after Paul had written “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.”
A visible head in full charge of the 2nd century church was needed to control prophets whose rhapsodic utterances were unpredictable and sometimes upsetting. The Montanist movement, a renewal of prophecy in the second half of the second century, was harshly suppressed. Prophetic ministry as an accepted tendency and a living power in the Christian Church had lasted hardly more than a hundred years. By the end of the 2nd century the prophetic office as such had ceased to exist. Old prophecies took precedence over new prophecies. One of the chief responsibilities of churchmen was to interpret what the old prophecies meant, these utterances being by this time enshrined in what had become a sacred book.
The two causes of the decline of prophecy in early Christianity, sacramentalism and a fixed doctrine expressed in a creed, were both absent in Quakerism. The Quakers dispensed with visible sacraments and so removed the main cause of the growth of the priestly function. They held to the primacy of inspired utterance over Scripture and so removed the main cause of the growth of authoritarianism in the church. But the Society of Friends never ceased to insist that inspiration, though independent of Scripture, must be consistent with it, having its source in the same Spirit through which the Scripture was written. This provided a broader basis of unity than a written creed. Another reason for the persistence of Quaker prophecy was the form of Quaker church government which prevented any individual or party from exercising control. Decisions are made in the Society of Friends by the meeting as a whole on the basis of unanimity. Since there is but one Light of Truth the nearer the meeting approaches this Light through prayer and worship the more complete will be the unity and the more nearly can the membership come to a decision. Theoretically the rule of the Spirit in the congregation would make unnecessary any form of church government. A few Quakers actually took this position. When a form of government was set up which ranked group inspiration above individual inspiration they withdrew from the Society of Friends. But some form of control was inescapable for the same reason that control was necessary in early Christianity. There were eccentric and ill-balanced prophets who claimed to be genuine. These were disassociated or brought under restraint even before there was any definite membership in the Society of Friends.
The growth of the Quaker discipline does not explicitly concern us here. It developed throughout the 18th century and had to do largely with moral behavior, but it is important to point out that the Quakers took seriously Paul’s injunction to make the prophets subject to the prophets. Friends who were more accustomed than others to speak in meeting were called ministers. These ministers often met together for mutual encouragement and criticism. In 1668 there was constituted in London a Yearly Meeting of all ministers. Permission to attend such meetings, first granted by the meeting of ministers itself and later by the congregation from which the minister came was the Quaker form of recognition. A minister so approved could travel in his ministry with an appropriate letter of introduction and, if need be, with the help of financial support. Meetings of ministers frequently issued written advices, frank counsel about consistency of life with preaching, but with little or no stress on doctrine. Of the twenty “Cautions and Counsels to Ministers” issued by the Yearly Meeting of Ministers in 1702, half are concerned with the manner and character of speaking and half with the private life of the minister. None are doctrinal tests. Instead, the minister is warned against laying stress on the authority of his message which was expected to contain its own evidence of authority.
Before long, however, this “higher school of the Holy Spirit” suffered an intrusion. The earliest reference to this circumstance in American records occurs in the following minutes of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of 1714:
This meeting agrees that…each Monthly Meeting…choose two or more Friends out of each Monthly Meeting (where meetings of ministers are or shall be held) to sit with the ministers in their meetings, taking care that the Friends chosen for that service be prudent, solid Friends.
Such Friends appointed to advise the ministers came to be called elders. The history of the Society of Friends in the 18th century is largely characterized by the growing influence of these elders, who developed a priestly type of mind as did the elders, or presbyters, in the early Christian Church. These Quaker elders were priestly, not in the sense of being qualified to administer sacraments, but in a broader sense. They tended to cultivate a definite, clearly defined, cultural pattern.
Toward the end of the century a Quaker was distinguishable by the way he talked, dressed, and behaved. This uniformity was brought about by elders who magnified outward appearances as evidences of inward grace. At the same time, every effort was made to encourage the spirit of prophecy. Eldership was itself looked upon as a divine gift. There is no doubt that the elders of the 18th century were frequently men and women of acute spiritual discernment whose advice was of benefit to those who spoke in meeting and especially to the young who sometimes lacked courage to break the solemn silence. “Begin with, keep with, and quit with the Life” was the substance of their counsel.
But on the whole, our records show that more repression was exerted by the elders than encouragement. Entrance into the ministry became a more difficult and exceptional undertaking than it had been before. Religious journals or autobiographies of hundreds of 18th and 19th-century ministers are extant. In nearly every case the inner call to the ministry was resisted by the one who was called, sometimes for many years. This resulted in acute mental distress, occasionally physical illness. Finally, the journalist manages to utter a few words in a meeting, perhaps only a single verse of scripture. This was a very important event. What had been stirring in his breast was now known to his family and friends, sometimes to their surprise. Further progress was often slow and intermittent until finally recognition occurred, uncertainty vanished and the speaker became an approved minister. As such he was privileged to attend the meetings of ministers and elders.
During this phase of the development of Quaker ministry which gradually came to an end in the latter part of the 19th century, there was an intense effort to guard the spring of inspired utterance from human contamination. Famous ministers sometimes sat “in suffering silence” when visiting meetings which might be crowded with persons who had come expressly to hear them. No external pressure could prevent them from waiting for the turning of “the key of David” which, according to the book of Revelation, “shutteth and no man openeth and openeth and no man shutteth.” Yet they did not hesitate to prepare themselves for their service. They pondered the Bible and were faithful in preserving daily periods of retirement. When growing business interfered with religious duties it was the business that was curtailed. Much time was devoted to visiting families and holding small religious meetings with them. Here the prophetic voice was often heard. Sometimes it was directed to the peculiar state of an individual person.