Concerns Should Be Tested
Concerns are leadings that grow in intensity to the point that they become inward imperatives. Concerns do need to be tested if we are to avoid the errors that can result from rampant individualism and narcissism. We should keep in mind that early Friends’ leaders spent about as much time writing against the anarchy of the Ranters as they did levelling broadsides against the established Church which seemed to have truth settled once-and-for-all and under lock and key. (Basically, Ranters were a group where each one did his or her own thing under the supposed leading of the Spirit, and it led to some bizarre aberrations.) Friends have several ways to test leadings within our traditions.
The first thing that one can do in regard to a leading is to pray about it Offer it to God and ask for clearness. Be willing to act on it or to drop it. If the desire to pursue it or to carry it out grows steadily stronger, then it should be taken seriously.
Second, a leading or growing concern should be checked against Scripture. Friends believe that the ultimate source of authority is the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures rather than the written word of God. They are convinced that they complement and answer one another and never contradict each other. At one point the great Quaker theologian Robert Barclay wrote ” … whatsoever any do, pretending to the Spirit, which is contrary to the scriptures, [should] be accounted and reckoned a delusion.” [ Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Philadelphia: Friends Bookstore, 1908, p. 89]
It is an understatement to say that George Fox knew the Bible well. A Dutch historian once remarked that if somehow all of the Bibles in the world had come to be destroyed, the Scriptures could have been reproduced out of the mouth of George Fox. As much as two-thirds of some of Fox’s recorded sermons are simply Scripture texts strung together. Occasionally I hear a Friend longingly say something like, “How I wish that we could recover the vitality that Quakers had during the time of George Fox.” If Fox was so thoroughly rooted and grounded in the Scriptures, can we hope to recover vitality in our day without their being a significant part of our spiritual journey?
So, follow the practice of checking concerns against the message of the Scriptures. If they are in harmony, one can go forward with assurance.
I am indebted to Michael J. Sheeran and his insightful book, Beyond Majority Rule, for calling attention to the third checkpoint for leadings and concerns. He observes that for Friends, “The earliest major test of one’s leading seems to have been whether one finds the Cross in what he is drawn to.” [ Michael J. Sheeran, Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1983, p. 24] In 1652, Richard Farnsworth, a travelling companion of George Fox and a powerful minister in his own right, wrote that “you will be brought into a discerning to savour truth from error, both in yourselves, and in one another, if you will follow the cross which will ‘cross and crucify that which would consult with human wisdom … .’ ” [ quoted by Sheeran, Ibid ]
Shortly afterward Farnsworth urged Margaret Fell, freshly come into the Quaker flock, to “keep in the cross, and purity will grow;-the safest way is the cross: take up the cross daily; mind to be guided by that which crosseth your own wills, and it will bring every idle word, thought and deed to judgment in you; and so the old … will be crucified.” [ Sheeran, Ibid., pp. 24-25] When we recall the libertine behavior of the Ranters, it is easy to see why Friends insisted on this test. Friends were quick to point out that the Ranters “fled the cross.” [ Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1985, pp. 110-120]
Sheeran also notes that in a right leading or concern amongst Friends one sees evidence of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. [ Sheeran, Ibid, p. 27]
Fifth, concerns should be checked with one’s community of faith. There are no such things as Lone Ranger Christians or Friends. God has given us the gift of the beloved community, of being a part of a company of pilgrims on a shared journey. The Quaker theologian Robert Barclay spoke of the power of God at work in the fellowship of a Friends Meeting in a very moving way. He said:
The seeing of the faces one of another, when both are inwardly gathered unto the life, giveth occasion for the life secretly to rise, and pass from vessel to vessel. And as many candles lighted, and put in one place, do greatly augment the light, and make it more to shine forth, so when many are gathered together into the same life, there is more of the glory of God, and his power appears, to the refreshment of each individual, for that he partakes not only of the light and life raised in himself, but in all the rest. [ Robert Barclay, Apology, pp. 364–365]
The individual led by Christ has a significant amount of light The committed group, dwelling together in Christ, has even greater light.
So, when leadings for concerns come to us, they should be shared with the larger body of the Meeting, with Ministry and Counsel, with a Clearness Committee. In prayer and waiting upon the Lord the larger group can either confirm the leading or urge one to seek further, or perhaps even suggest that one may be mistaken in his or her discernment.
Friends are certain that the Spirit is consistent. Hugh Barbour of Earlham College observes that the Light will not “contradict itself, either in history or among the members of the Spirit-led group.” [ Hugh Barbour, Quakers in Puritan England, p.120 ] The Spirit leads into unity, and when all the members of the worshipping group concur that a particular course of action or undertaking is the will of God, one would be mistaken to continue to question or to hesitate for long.
Such has been the way of Friends. John Woolman’s social conscience seems to have been sharper than those of his neighboring Friends, but he never failed to clear a contemplated journey in ministry with them. The process can be seen vividly in the migration of Friends from the Carolinas to the “New West” states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan. When an individual or family felt a leading to leave the environment of slavery and settle in the new land, the concern was taken to the Monthly Meeting. If and when permission to migrate was granted, not just one family, but twelve or twenty, or sometimes the entire Meeting, would make the trek through the wilderness. Once they arrived in the new land they would carve out of the forest a community like the one they had left behind in the Carolinas with a Meetinghouse at its center. Often they would give the new community the same name as their former home. At their best, Friends have always highly valued and implicitly trusted the Spirit-led community. The community with which the concern is tested can be a support base for carrying out the concern.
A sixth test has come as Friends have sought to pursue leadings or concerns “as way opens.” Perhaps no one has written of it more precisely than the fiery minister from Philadelphia, Hannah Whitall Smith. She states:
If a ‘leading’ is of God, the way will always open for it Our Lord assures us of this when He says in John 10:4, “And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him; for they know his voice.” Notice here the expressions “goeth before” and “follow.” He goes before to open a way, and we are to follow in the way thus opened. It is never a sign of a Divine leading when the Christian insists on opening his own way, and riding roughshod over all opposing things. [ Hannah Whitall Smith, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1970, pp. 98-99 ]
So it was when the eleven Quaker missionaries in London felt the concern to take the Friends message across the Atlantic and the master mariner, Robert Fowler, built the good ship Woodhouse. So it was also when Penn set forth some of his theories of government in the Charter of Jersey and then received payment of the debt that King Charles II owed his father in the form of land between the southern boundaries of New York and the northern border of Maryland.
We run ahead of our Guide and risk a calamitous outcome when we endeavor to force action on a concern by bowling over everything that stands in the way. Friends proceed “as way opens.”