John Greenleaf Whittier

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Having received several letters from dear friends in various sections suggested by a recent communication in thy paper, and not having time or health to answer them in detail, will thou permit me in this way to acknowledge them, and to say to the writers that I am deeply sensible of the Christian love and personal good-will to myself, which, whether in commendation or dissent, they manifest? I think I may say in truth that my letter was written in no sectarian or party spirit, but simply to express a solicitude, which, whether groundless or not, was nevertheless real. I am, from principle, disinclined to doctrinal disputations and so-called religious controversies, which only tend to separate and disunite. We have had too many divisions already. I intended no censure of dear brethren whose zeal and devotions command my sympathy, notwithstanding I may not be able to see with them in all respects. The domain of individual conscience is to me very sacred; and it seem the part of Christian charity to make large allowance for varying experiences, mental characteristics, and temperaments, as well as for that youthful enthusiasm which, if sometimes misdirected, has often been instrumental in infusing a fresher life into the body of religious profession. It is too much to expect than we can maintain an entire uniformity in the expression of truths in which we substantially agree; and we should be careful that a rightful concern for "the form of sound words" does not become what William Penn calls "verbal orthodoxy." We must consider that the accepted truth looks somewhat differently from different points of vision. Knowing our own weaknesses and limitations, we must bear in mind that human creeds, speculations, expositions, and interpretations of the Divine plan are but the faint and feeble glimpses of finite creatures into the infinite mysteries of God.

"They are but broken lights of Thee,

And Thou, O Lord, art more than they."

Differing, as we do, more or less as to the means and methods, if we indeed have the "mind of Christ," we shall rejoice in whatever of good is really accomplished, although by somewhat different instrumentalities than those which we feel ourselves free to make use of, remembering that our Lord rebuked the narrowness and partisanship of His disciples by assuring them that they that were not against Him were for Him.

It would, nevertheless, give me great satisfaction to know, as thy kindly expressed editorial comments seem to intimate, that I have somewhat overestimated the tendencies of things in our Society. I have no pride of opinion which would prevent me from confessing with thankfulness my error of judgment. In any even, it can, I think, do no harm to repeat my deep conviction that we mall all labor, in the ability given us, for our own moral and spiritual well-being, and that of our fellow-creatures, without laying aside the principles and practice of our religious Society. I believe so much of liberty is our right as well as our privilege, and that we need not really overstep our bounds for the performance of any duty which may be required of us. When truly called to contemplate broader fields of labor, we shall find the walls about us, like the horizon seen from higher levels, expanding indeed, but nowhere broken.

I believe that the world needs the Society of Friends as a testimony and a standard. I know that this is the opinion of some of the best and most thoughtful members of other Christian sects. I know than any serious departure from the original foundation of our Society would give pain to may who, outside of our communion, deeply realize the importance of our testimonies. They fail to read clearly the signs of the times who do not see that the hour is coming when, under the searching eye of philosophy and the terrible analysis of science, the letter and the outward evidence will not altogether avail us; when the surest dependence must be upon the Light of Christ within, disclosing the law and the prophets in our own souls, and confirming the truth of outward Scripture by inward experience; when smooth stones from the brook of present revelation shall prove mightier than the weapons of Saul; when the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, as proclaimed by George Fox and lived by John Woolman, shall be recognized as the only efficient solvent of doubts raise by an age of restless inquiry. I am sorry it did not fall to the lot of a more fitting hand; and can only hope that no consideration of lack of qualification on the part of its writer may lessen the value of whatever testimony to truth shall be found in it.

Amesbury, 3d mo., 1870

P.S. I may mention that I have been somewhat encouraged by a perusal of the Proceedings of the late First-day School Conference in Philadelphia, where, with some things I am compelled to pause over, and regret, I find much with which I cordially unite, and which seems to indicate a providential opening for good. I confess to a lively and tender sympathy with my younger brethren and sisters who, in the name of Him who "went about doing good," go forth into the highways and byways to gather up the lost, feed the hungry, instruct the ignorant, and point the sin-sick and suffering to the hopes and consolations of Christian faith, even if, at times, their zeal goes beyond "reasonable service," and although the importance of a particular instrumentality may be exaggerated, and love lose sight of its needful companion humility, and he that putteth on his armour boast like him who layeth it off. Any movement, however irregular, which indicates life, is better than the quiet of death. In the overruling providence of God, the troubling may prepare the way for healing. Some of us may have erred on one hand and some on the other, and this shaking of the balance may adjust it.