John Greenleaf Whittier
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To the Editor of the Review.
If I have been hitherto a silent, I have not been an indifferent, spectator of the movements now
going on in our religious Society. Perhaps from lack of faith, I have been quite too solicitous
concerning them, and too much afraid that in grasping after new things we may let go of old
things too precious to be lost. Hence I have been pleased to see from time to time in thy paper
very timely and fitting articles upon a Hired Ministry and Silent Worship.
The present age is one of sensation and excitement, of extreme measures and opinions, of
impatience of all slow results. The world about us moves with accelerated impulse, and we move
with it: the rest we have enjoyed, whether true or false, is broken; the title-deeds of our opinions,
the reason of our practices, are demanded. Our very right to exist as a distinct society is
question. Our old literature - the precious journals and biographies of early and later Friends - is
comparatively neglected for sensational and dogmatic publications. We hear complaints of a
want of educated ministers; the utility of silent meetings is denied, and praying and preaching
regarded as matters of will and option. There is a growing desire for experimenting upon the
dogmas and expedients and practices of other sects. I speak only of admitted facts, and not for
the purpose of censure or complaint. No one has less right than myself to indulge in
heresy-hunting or impatience of minor differences of opinion. If my dear friends can bear with
me, I shall not find it a hard task to bear with them.
But for myself I prefer the old ways. With the broadest possible tolerance for all honest seekers
after truth, I love the Society of Friends. My life has been nearly spent in labouring with those of
other sects in behalf of the suffering and enslaved; and I have never felt like quarrelling with
Orthodox or Unitarians, who were willing to pull with me, side by side, at the rope of Reform. A
very large proportion of my dearest friends are outside of our communion; and I have learned
with John Woolman to find "no narrowness respecting sects and opinions." But after a kindly and
candid survey of them all, I turn to my own Society, thankful to the Divine Providence which
placed me where I am; and with an unshaken faith in the one distinctive doctrine of Quakerism -
the Light within - the immanence of the Divine Spirit in Christianity. I cheerfully recognize and
bear testimony to the good works and lives of those who widely differ in faith and practice; but I
have seen no truer types of Christianity, no better men and women, than I have known and still
know among those who not blindly, but intelligently, hold the doctrines and maintain the
testimonies of our early Friends. I an not blind to the shortcomings of Friends. I know how much
we have lost by narrowness and coldness and inactivity, the overestimate of external observances,
the neglect of our own work while acting as conscience-keepers for others. We have not, as a
Society, been active enough in those simple duties which we owe to our suffering
fellow-creatures, in the abundant labor of love and self-denial which is never out of place.
Perhaps our divisions and dissensions might have spared us if we had been less "at ease in Zion."
It is in the decline of practical righteousness that men are most likely to contend with each other
for dogma and ritual, for shadow and letter, instead of substance and spirit. Hence I rejoice in
every sign of increased activity in doing good among us, in the precious opportunities afforded of
working with the Divine Providence of for the Freedmen and Indians; since the more we do, in
the true spirit of the gospel, for others, the more we shall really do for ourselves. There is no
danger of lack of work for those who, with an eye single to the guidance of Truth, look for a
place in god's vineyard; the great work which the founders of our Society began is not yet done;
the mission of Friends is not accomplished, and will not be until this world of ours, now full of
sin and suffering, shall take up, in jubilant thanksgiving, the song of the Advent: "Glory to God in
the highest! Peace on earth and good-will to men!"
It is charged that our Society lacks freedom and adaptation to the age in which we live, that there
is a repression of individuality and manliness among us. I am not prepared to deny it in certain
respects. But, if we look at the matter closely, we shall see that the cause is not in the central
truth of Quakerism, but in a failure to rightly comprehend it; in an attempt to fetter with forms
and hedge about with dogmas that great law of Christian liberty, which I believe affords ample
scope for the highest spiritual aspirations and the broadest philanthropy. If we did but realize it,
we are "set in a large place."
"We may do all we will save wickedness."
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." Quakerism, in the light of its great original
truth, is "exceeding broad." As interpreted by Penn and Barclay it is the most liberal and catholic
of faiths. If we are not free, generous, tolerant, if we are not up to or above the level of the age in
good works, in culture and love of beauty, order and fitness, if we are not the ready recipients of
the truths of science and philosophy, - in a word, if we are not full-grown men and Christians, the
fault in not in Quakerism but in ourselves. We shall gain nothing by aping the customs and trying
to adjust ourselves to the creeds of other sects. By so doing we make at the best a very awkward
combination, and just as far as it is successful, it is at the expense of much that it vital to our
faith. If, for instance, I could bring myself to believe a hired ministry and a written creed essential
to my moral and spiritual well-being, I think I should prefer to sit down an once under such
teachers as Bushnell and Beecher, the like of whim in Biblical knowledge, ecclesiastical learning,
and intellectual power, we are not likely to manufacture by half a century of theological
manipulation in a Quaker "school of the prophets." If I must go into the market and buy my
preaching, I should naturally seek the best article on sale, without regard to the label attached to
I am not insensible of the need of spiritual renovation in our Society. I feel and confess my own
deficiencies as an individual member. And I bear a willing testimony to the zeal and devotion of
some dear friends, who, lamenting the low condition and worldliness too apparent among us,
seek to awaken a stronger religious life by the partial adoption of the practices, forms, and
creeds of more demonstrative sects. The great apparent activity of these sects seems to them to
contrast very strongly with our quietness and reticence; and they do not always pause to inquire
whether the result of this activity is a true type of practical Christianity than is found in our select
gatherings. I think I understand these brethren; to some extent I have sympathized with them.
But it seem clear to me, that a remedy for the alleged evil lies not in going back to the "beggerly
elements" from which our worthy ancestors called the people of their generation; not it
will-worship; not in setting the letter above the spirit; not in substituting type and symbol, and
oriental figure and hyperbole for the simple truths they were intended to represent; not in
schools of theology; not in much speaking and noise and vehemence, nor in vain attempts to
make the "plain language" of Quakerism utter the Shibboleth of man-made creeds: but in heeding
more closely the Inward Guide and Teacher; in faith in Christ not merely in His historical
manifestation of of the Divine Love to humanity, but in His living presence i the hearts open to
receive Him; in love for Him manifested in denial of self, in charity and love to our neighbor; and
in a deeper realization of the truth of the apostle's declaration: "Pure religion and undefiled
before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep
himself unspotted from the world."
In conclusion, let me say that I have given this expression of my opinions with some degree of
hesitancy, being very sensible that I have neither the right nor the qualification to speak for a
society whose doctrines and testimonies commend themselves to my heart and head, whose
history is rich with the precious legacy of holy lives,and of whose usefulness as a moral and
spiritual Force in the world I am fully assured.